From Doctor Who To Dudley D. Watkins, This Week’s Comics Round Our Way

In which the blogger makes a full and frank declaration of the comics he’s been charmed and challenged by over the past seven days. Please be aware, spoilers will very much be lying in wait;

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There are discouraging teething problems with the opening chapter of Gail Simone, Jon Davis-Hunt and Quinton Winter’s modern-day horror tale, Clean Room: Immaculate Conception. Some of it is a question of establishing shots. In the first and absolutely key scene, a truck is shown being deliberately driven at a young girl, a barbarous act that culminates in the lynching of the seemingly crazed driver by horrified and enraged onlookers. Yet we’re never given a shot in which truck, victim and soon-to-be mob are all shown in clear relationship to one another. The reader is repeatedly forced to ask where everyone is in relation to everyone else, and then, to mentally explain the action in the absence of clarity on the page. It’s a failing that makes it both hard to care and hard to want to. Similarly, the introductory issue struggles to make a coherent and compelling tale out of its fragments of back story and main plot.  The result is a first chapter that feels as if it’s lurching around without ever quite settling on the best way to drive events onward while establishing the status quo. This is not the beguiling, terrifying fragmentation of sense that horror movies such as Don’t Look Now benefit so much from. Instead, it feels like a series of equations that have been partially, and only partially, solved. Information that feels like it should have been played out before the reader is prosaically explained in less-than enthralling conversations. In short, there’s too many enigmas and too little enthralling forward momentum. It’s undeniably interesting, but not, at first, quite captivating enough.

What’s remarkable is how quickly the series finds its feet. Davis-Hunt’s art improves in its quality and allure at a ferocious rate. So too, Simone’s script swiftly finds a drivingly effective balance between the satisfaction of what’s being clearly told and the intrigue offered by what purposefully isn’t. By its end, Immaculate Conception proves itself a shiversome triumph, with a closing revelation of sorts that’s genuinely unsettling. But I do wonder whether some readers weren’t lost to the series after its muddy opening salvo. I hope not. It’s a comic that deserves to run and run.

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The problem of clarity also undermines Deommick, Rios, Bellaire and Cowles’ laudably ambitious weird western Pretty Deadly. Especially at first, it frequently isn’t possible to grasp what’s happening in its most basic terms. It’s one thing to be purposefully ambiguous. It’s another to be simply baffling. And so, to give but one example, the introduction of “The girl in the vulture cloak” is hampered by how difficult it is to identity a blur of action as containing anything of either a girl or a vulure cloak. The Art, which draws with no little imagination or skill from Manga as much as Western storytelling traditions, sadly frequently disorientates without a sufficient measure of lucidity. Hybrid pages made from widescreen panels studded with sequences of smaller frames make it hard for the eye to interpret events, while the general lack of guttering repeatedly challenges the reader to differentiate one moment from another. Given how demandingly complex and sweeping the script is, the whole project frequently feels bogged down in its own grand ambitions, with panel to panel continuity being sacrificed for inarguably grand intentions.

By the collection’s final chapter, the creative daring and skill from all involved has been worked and refined into something far clearer and impressive, and it’s there that this grim, imaginative mix of occult terror and frontier gunslinging coalesces into a tale that’s considerably more than the sum of its parts. Pretty Deadly is by no means an easy or always satisfying read, but it is a brave, smart and intriguing one all the same.

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If ever there was a collection that ought to suffer from a lack of comprehensibility and effect, it’s this Doctor Who crossover from Titan books. A creative cast of four different titles, three writers, seven artists, and any number of colourists ought to bode disaster. Add to that a tale that ambitiously sprawls across a substantial number of different locales while incorporating a huge amount of series lore and the odds would suggest a well-meaning, uber-fannish disaster. And yet, The Lost Dimension is an absolute pleasure.  I don’t believe I’ve ever seen such huge measures of continuity melded together to such joyous, painless effect, and I write as someone who really isn’t particularly knowledgable when it comes to Who on the page or the screen. The driving conceit is a rogue ‘white hole’ that’s threatening a variety of times and places, swallowing as it does a selection of past Doctors and companions. At first, it feels like an over-familiar mcguffin, but each of the contributory tales are beguilingly sturdy and more than enough in themselves to have stood quite independently of any wider cosmic shenanigans. It’s enough to make me believe that the action/adventure crossover isn’t as tired and threadbare a tradition as I often fear it’s become. Whether recounting the Ninth Doctor’s Victorian adventures on the South Seas or Eleven’s visit to Ancient Gallifrey, the stories are thoughtful, imaginative and pitch-perfect. (The volume’s credits don’t make it easy to identify specific creative teams, which is why I’m being less specific than I’d normally be.)

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And so, slightly belatedly, to the recent Royal Wedding edition of The Beano, which by coincidence was the last comic I’ve read to successfully feature an epic crossover. (That’s to be found in last years’ Summer Activity Special, a wonderful multi-chapter romp featuring any number of Beanotown residents and their Rashomon-like inability to perceive the same events in similar ways.) In Nigel Auchterlounie and Nigel Parkinson’s The Royal Beano Rumble, the centuries-old tradition of Royal weddings secretly taking place first in Beanotown is uncovered by a mixture of a loudspeaker-armed Dennis the Menace and Queen Elizabeth II’s carelessness. Chaos, of course, ensues, as it must, but it’s remarkable how much charm and witt informs the storytelling. To suggest that just about every single panel is an event sounds very much like hyperbole, but I assure you, it isn’t. As an ardent republican, I was astonished by how successful Auchterlounie and Parkinson are in making the Windsors both fun and, in the case of our newest Princess, irresistibly charming. What’s more, Dennis the Menace’s response to his father at the bottom of page 4 – I’m not going to spoil it – is perhaps the funniest thing I’ve read all year.

My only concern refers to the broader editorial policies of The Beano. That the comic’s cast should be so overwhelmingly White is, at the very best, a terrible shame. It’s 2018. A comic this famous and this good should be doing a darn sight better that a tiny number of characters of colour in minor 3-and-6 panel strips.

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Its cover is battered, but I was still glad to make the affordable acquaintance of this 1950 D. C. Thomson & Co A5 picture book adaption of Stevenson’s Treasure Island with its many Dudley D. Watkins illustrations. I hadn’t realised just how much work by Watkins was in this series until I got to hold an example in my hands and saw the 111 art-ladened pages on display. No matter what the storytelling problem – perspective, historical detail, making action both compelling & child friendly – Watkins always produced clear & captivating solutions. It’s hard to imagine how he found the time to produce not only this, but a whole host of similar volumes such as Robinson Crusoe and Kidnapped, given that he was also creating The Broons, Oor Wullie, Biffo The Bear and any number of less now-famous strips. In short, it’s a book to treasure. The elderly – but very sharp and spry! – Scotsman who sold me his old copy recalled these picture books being his gateway drug as a young boy into classic children’s literature. He wasn’t, he suggested, in any way alone in that amongst his peers.

Them Darned Superheroes will return in two days time.

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