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15th February 2017 | Ink issue #3

Ink issue #3: Love Tenuously

Happy not-Valentine’s Day any more!

Like many people, I’m a bit cynical about this “holiday”. From surface level to several miles below it really does seem like a completely nothing celebration designed to mess with people’s expectations for cold hard cash.

But never turn down an easy newsletter theme, that’s my motto. Plus, a bitter view of the world brings up some comics-related discussion points that I think you might like.

Why is romance for girls? “Chick lit” is still a thing in book marketing but Rick and Morty artist Marc Ellerby thinks its appeal lies in universal wish fulfilment like any other genre. 10 years after starting his moving diary comic Ellerbisms, Ellerby reflects on the process of recording his relationship and intimate parts of his life. You can read his full conversation with our own Josh Franks below.

Why do sensible, progressive people lose their heads over “the game”? The unconventional romance satire New Romancer has robbed all the answers from Shakespeare, spliced it with slightly nonsensical resurrection technology and attempted to solve the problem of loneliness once and for all. You should definitely read it. Or at least my review.

Finally, what could inspire more love than 10 years of SelfMadeHero? We’re saying happy birthday to the publisher by writing about their latest book Haddon Hall, a graphic biography of the late David Bowie by French creator Néjib.

For those of you who came to chat at Nottingham Does Comics this week, I’m sorry I couldn’t be there this time. I promise I will be back and lurgy-free for the next meeting on 25th April, where I’ll be talking about potential and the comics revolution.

I hope you like what we’ve got for you this issue. I would have given you chocolates instead, but I ate them all.

Lots of love,

Steff

Editor-in-Chief

In this issue...

  
Marc Ellerby on Ellerbisms
Interview
New Romancer
Review
Haddon Hall
Review
 

Marc Ellerby on Ellerbisms

Marc Ellerby reflects on Ellerbisms, his diary comic that ran from 2007-2012, chronicling his burgeoning career as a comics creator and his relationship with his girlfriend, Anna. 

Josh Franks: Why did you decide to create a diary comic?

Marc Ellerby: I was working on a book for Oni Press called Love The Way You Love at the time and was having a bit of a frustrating time with it. I really felt like my work was stinking and so I needed something else to work on alongside it to take my mind off it. So I started up a diary comic as I was really into that early Top Shelf/autobiocore wave of creators like Jeffrey Brown, Liz Prince and Craig Thompson who were all in some way experimenting with diary comics or autobiography and it was a nice, relaxing, dare I say fun way to kill an hour at the end of the working day. I didn't give it much, if any, thought at the start rather than "here's something funny that happened today", which soon went away once I realised I wanted to share more personal short stories.

JF: You were 23 when you began working on Ellerbisms in 2007. Looking back, is there anything you would change about the work? Any missed entries?

ME: Bloody hell. I was 23, wasn't I? It doesn't feel like 10 years ago at all.

When it came to collect the strips for the book I went back and tried to fill in any holes to make it more cohesive, to give it some sense of a narrative structure, which I feel I maybe half-succeeded at, but whatever. I cut a lot of strips out just because they were junk and didn't add anything to the "plot" or overall theme of the book. I think I may have redrawn a couple to stick the landing a bit better. I think if I were to do it over I'd try and make more narratively straightforward rather than a collection of random events, but I also wasn't in the right place to do that at the time; I'm a better writer now than I was ten years ago and I think it would probably have just been a Blankets rip-off, because God knows all of us of a certain age have a Blankets rip-off inside of us (and it's probably best it stays there).

JF: At what point did you realise the collected work was going to be more about your relationship with Anna?

ME: Oh, right from when I started putting the book together. That was the through-line from the strips and - spoilers, I guess - we had just ended the relationship, so I thought that would be a good structure; a relationship told in pictures, y'know, from beginning to end. Also, with the relationship having ended I thought it could help me work through some, um, stuff.

JF: With the relationship being the main undercurrent of the wider narrative Ellerbisms, would you consider the book to be a romance?

ME: Yeah, kind of. It's focus is of a relationship, but it's one that ends, so no it's not a romance in the strict sense of having a happy ending, but romance doesn't always mean a happy ending, right? Sometimes these things go the full distance and sometimes they just stop, but they both start at the same place.

JF: How do you feel about romance as a genre? Why do you think it is marketed as feminine when most stories have relationships at their core?

ME: I like romantic stories, but I wouldn't say I'm an avid romance reader. In terms of the marketing it's wish-fulfilment, isn't it? I don't see it as any different to any other genre. With romance, the reader wants to be in the shoes of the protagonist; they want to be swept off their feet, have the joy the main character is having. With sci-fi or fantasy or action, it's the same thing; the reader wants to fly the spaceship, they want to fight a pack of orcs, get to the bomb just in time. Why's it female-orientated? I'm sure that's just down to publishers playing it safe through years of the outdated idea that women want escapism and that they need a man to do that. Sadly, I'm not sure we're at the stage where LGBTQ relationships are found on the mass market tables in bookshops, but hopefully change is coming.

JF: Could you see yourself creating another diary-comic like Ellerbisms now? What would an average day look like in Ellerbisms 2: Ellerbic Boogaloo?

ME: Well, the thing about Ellerbisms, or at least what made it interesting is that it wasn't planned. I just happened to be doing diary comics and then I started a long-term relationship and that's what gave the project its the focus. It was all an accident. My friends really, really, really want me to start drawing my diary comics again but I'm certain the only reason is because they want to be in them; they want me to draw how funny they all are. If Ellerbisms was running now, it would just be me drawing Rick and Morty comics with some of my "hilarious friends" thrown in for good measure. It sounds absolutely dreadful, haha. I've always said if something was happening in my life where I feel I have something to actually say or I want to document it I'd maybe start doing them again, but diary comics are so restrictive; I want to draw a scene over four pages, not four panels.

Have you read any Michel Rabagliati books from Drawn and Quarterly? They're great; they're semi-autobiographical all funneled through Michel's protagonist called Paul. But they're all stories and events plucked from his life, so I'd like to do something like that. I think we're a good decade or two off from that ever being an idea that I'd consider doing. Diary comics always feel like a young person's game.

JF: Finally, congratulations on your continued work on the Rick and Morty comics. It's easy to see how your style lends itself to their artwork. How did you get involved, and please, do you know anything - ANYTHING at all - about season three of the TV series?

ME: Thanks! So, like I said, I did a book for Oni years ago and when they were putting the pitch to Adult Swim about doing Rick and Morty comics, they put my name and artwork forward to the network because, like you say, my style fits that world quite easily. Eventually I got the go-ahead and two years later here I am, still working on the book. I love it; it's been the best job I've ever had, I can draw comics for a living and it's turned my life around at a time where I was about to throw the drawing career in the bin. I can't thank Ari and James at Oni enough. I feel like I owe them everything.

I know absolutely nothing about season three, sorry. I'm as excited as everyone else to see what they've come up with.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Josh Franks

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New Romancer

After a shaky start, this limited series about resurrecting Romantic poets manages to unpack the hypocrisy of rom-com idealism through Shakespearean satire.

Creators: Peter Milligan, Brett Parson
Publisher: Vertigo

A sad condition of comedy is that, more often than not, it relies on a greater suspension of disbelief than tragedy. William Shakespeare, with his farcical, magical, and conveniently resolved comic plays, undoubtedly noticed this distinction, and used it to mine his characters for social truths before rewarding them with their happy ending.

New Romancer, a six-issue limited series published by Vertigo, updates Shakespeare’s techniques to critique modern love and romantic comedy, while ultimately resolving the fractured psyches of a bunch of lonely tech nerds.

The punny title refers to the accidental resurrection of some of the creative stars of the Romantic period by genius programmer Lexy.

With her mad-scientist father in prison, her mother dead, and an excessive historical crush fuelled by her bottomless memory of Romantic literature, Lexy throws herself into coding an algorithm for a new dating site. Somehow the project gets mixed up with an evil AI initiative down the road and Lord Byron, Giacomo Casanova and a few other classic chauvinists are dragged into the bodies of modern-day American hunks.

If the plot doesn’t seem to make sense, never fear: it’s probably not supposed to. Throughout the entire story the creative team manage to imbibe its pages with a haphazard feel that almost solidifies their message.

Lexy is a progressive and educated person. She knows that Byron’s nostalgia for women’s dainty compliance doesn’t fit with her world of voting and stopping evil conglomerations. Her comedy - in the Shakespearean sense - comes from the disparity between the fantasy she is living and the reality she observes as a scientist. Her comedy in general terms is ever-present in her quick-witted observations of society and culture. She is ultimately brilliant in all the ways.

The other characters are less memorable, although writer Peter Milligan has ensured that they all have their own mini arcs. Byron is fairly ridiculous but, with the plot requirement of disillusioning Lexy, there is no other role for him to play.

The feel-good social commentary of the piece is enhanced by Brett Parson’s expressive art style. The cast of New Romancer have all the sass and personality of his work on Tank Girl and he demonstrates a particular talent for comedy anthropomorphism.

Tragedy may be more believable than comedy but, with some effort on the reader’s part, the satire inherent to New Romancer propels it from humble beginnings to an intelligent resolution.

In the continued tradition of Shakespearean structure, many plot resolutions are hurried over off-stage with conveniently little explanation. While this may, in part, be due to a lack of answers for problems caused by completely impossible technology, the whole thing works because of the underlying darkness of the story’s remaining mysteries. While the theory goes that, in comedy, all’s well that ends well, the reality it deconstructs is still waiting when it’s over.

Steff Humm

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Haddon Hall: When David Invented Bowie

A fitting book to mark SelfMadeHero's 10th birthday, Néjib's biography of David Bowie shows a creativity that reveres its iconic subject.

Creator: Néjib
Publisher: SelfMadeHero

For an artist like David Bowie, whose iconic and ever-evolving image often overshadowed even his own stupendous talent, a language woven from words and pictures is surely the only way to capture the essence of his creativity.

Finding his voice within the musicality of elaborate costume pieces and in bending the atmosphere of the physical space around him, Bowie was almost born to be a comic book character that we would recognise in any longstanding mainstream lineup.

In Haddon Hall: When David Invented Bowie, Franco-Tunisian cartoonist, Néjib, separates the character of David Bowie from the tonal elements of look and place that sent the glam rock star stratospheric. Utilising the commonalities between Bowie’s conveyor belt of brands and the possibilities of graphic storytelling, he presents us this book as a formative history of the man just before the icon.

Covering just two years between the semi-success of the single "Space Oddity" when it featured in the opening credits of the televised moon landing in 1969, and the revolutionary invention of Ziggy Stardust in 1972, the book is an odd ramble through some of Bowie’s first attempts to become a star. Combining narrator and setting, we experience this slice of life from the point of view of Haddon Hall, the dilapidated villa in south London that housed Bowie, his wife Angie and a commune of rowdy musicians trying to make it big with songs from the heart.

Often taxing for the reader and demanding a lot of foreknowledge to its messy narrative, Haddon Hall doesn’t sing out as the epitome of graphic biography. Although the house is set up as the central narrator, there are some odd jumps in point of view, and sometimes it’s not even clear which characters are which, suggesting that the creator lost sight of the reader’s needs somewhere during the research process.

The research itself seems pretty solid, but the book also suffers from a common frustration of memoir. Without a clear character arc in a person’s life - which of course there often isn’t - there isn’t much a biographer can do without fictionalising bits and pieces to push the subject into some kind of hero’s journey.

But while the book lacks clarity, creatively it is on top form, making inventive use of space by disregarding panels and letting tone and emotion drive the art on every page. This bleeding layout has something of Brecht Evens about it, pulling the reader’s eye through the chaos with the use of colour within limitless borders. Unlike Evens though, Néjib doesn’t use watercolour, instead showing a particular talent for atmospheric linework that blends environment with visions of sound perfect for both subject matter and its framing device.

Highlighting the desired emotion with bold statement colours of glam rock appeal, the book has no need for detailed facial expression. Néjib’s characters would get along well enough with Quentin Blake’s; they’re all about feeling, caught in the abstract.

The standout sequences are those representing music; a full page of people’s heads drowned in red noise, lightning bolts and jagged lyrics scrawled across the air; or a quiet moment between David and his brother Terry, a stream of music flowing from the record player to their heads, where it reshapes itself into the interpretation of each man. This is an obvious necessity for a music biography, but it also serves as dramatic contrast to the silent moments and colourless flashbacks of Bowie’s bland childhood.

It wasn’t Bowie’s bland childhood, however. David was a Jones until the age of 16, when, wanting something sharper, he styled himself after the double-edged blade of the Bowie knife. This draws attention to the least interesting word in Haddon Hall’s full title: “when”.

David definitely didn’t invent Bowie solely during the timeframe of this book. He was a much too complicated person for that. Claiming that he did isn’t the absolute end of the world, but it’s worth noting the mistake because the success of this narrative is a mirror of the success of the artist himself.

David Bowie was a person whose reach extended far beyond music. Each time he created a persona, he launched a cultural revolution that forever changed music, fashion, film and even daily life for many marginalised groups. His singular ability to create outside of boxes - a metaphor noted literally within this text - set a new future on course by showcasing the symbiotic relationship between look and lyrics, images and words.

Haddon Hall is a difficult comic to read, but is worth the effort to understand its contribution to the future of the medium. Without its unique quilting of text, images, colour and the absence of these things, this story would be nothing but disjointed facts and fading memories.

Steff Humm

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Images courtesy of Marc Ellerby, Peter Milligan, Brett Parson, Vertigo Comics, Néjib, SelfMadeHero.

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