6 months since my last update? What the heck am I doing?

Hello, hello! I hope you are well and enjoying this most festive of weeks. It has been a long time since I’ve posted anything to this blog (busy busy, you see) so here’s a whole bunch of links to the work I have done elsewhere on teh interwebz:

Video game story review things

A couple of months ago I was invited by the thoroughly decent man o’ words Emmet O’Cuana to write a couple of guest articles over on his website The Momus Report. So instead of talking about books or comics (or anything I’m experienced in or trained to do) I decided to review two PC games and – being the pretentious sod that I am – I thought the best way to do this would be in the style of prose fiction…

Going Home… To A Place called Black Mesa

Thank You For The DayZ (with audio sections read by Emmet)

Still rockin’ dem camix

Meanwhile, elsewhere on the web… Bastards! Comic Bastards!

For quite a while now I’ve been writing regular reviews alongside other members of the CB team, generally covering individual issues of monthly comics but also looking at full length graphic novels. I also pop up with occasional editorial features (like my thoughts on Marvel’s huge post-movie relaunch or my top five indie/alternative superheroes) and contributed to our end-of-year highs and lows roundup.

Here’s some of my personal highlights from the many reviews I’ve written over the last half-year since I joined CB:

Wild Children (hallucinogenic meta-fiction with gun-toting teenagers)

The Black Beetle #0 (a modern homage to classic pulp comics)

The Manhattan Projects #5 (a darkly comedic alt-history/sci-fi)

Multiple Warheads: Alphabet to Infinity #1 (eccentric, charming sci-fi/fantasy)

The Zaucer of Zilk #1 (psychedelic pop madness with a strong moral core)

Nonhumans #1 (a dark distopian post-human future)

Chew: Secret Agent Poyo (hyperactive action/comedy)

Change #1 (a surreal genre mash-up drawing upon Lovecraftian ideas)

Kuzimu (horror fantasy inspired by west-African tribal mythology)

Classic Popeye #1 (republished Popeye comics from the 1940s)

You can also click here for a full list of my CB work.

As you can probably imagine, all of this writing for Comic Bastards has led to me reading far more funny-books than I could ever hope to afford otherwise, so I’m looking forward to being spoilt for reading choices throughout 2013. If you’re at all interested in comics and graphic novels (hey there Walking Dead fans) then I urge you to check out the site – we’re all dedicated fans of the medium and we would love to point you in the direction of the best it has to offer.

Well then, I suppose that will have to do for now. Thank you for reading (you’re awesome) and I wish you the happiest of new years!

Advertisements

a right Bastard (of the Comic variety)

Hey there Mr/Miss/Mrs/Ms/gender-neutral/??/Sir/Lord/Lady/Yo/Dr/Prof/ blog-reader person, how do you do? I hope you’re having a nice day.

Okay, enough with the pleasantries – let’s get to the bottom line: I’m very pleased to announce that I’m now a regular contributor to Comic Bastards, an up and coming American website about comics and related geeky things.

I’ll generally be reviewing two single-issue comics every week in advance of their Wednesday release date, which is an interesting challenge for me because I’m used to writing long, rambling articles about full length graphic novels with no deadline to work to. It means shorter, more focused pieces with a personal twist, and hopefully it will teach me to produce a readable review in fewer drafts. If nothing else I’m delighted to get the extra exposure (and some press/review edition comics).

Here’s my Comic Bastards reviews so far (in chronological order):
Haunt #24
Chew: Special Agent Poyo #1
Enormous
Wild Children
Dark Horse Presents #14 
The Manhattan Projects #5

With more to come soon!

Be sure to check out the main Comic Bastards site, for news, reviews, editorial opinions and a highly entertaining podcast. It’s growing all the time and is staffed with people who genuinely love their hobby.

Silver Surfer: Parable – the Stan Lee manifesto

When two titans of any artistic medium collaborate on a project it is bound to attract attention; when a graphic novel produced by Stan Lee and the late Jean Giraud (aka Moebius), two colossi standing astride American comics and French bande dessinee respectively, is reprinted for the first time in fourteen years it practically reached out, slapped my sun-starved face around and ordered me to read.

Originally published in 1988 as a two part mini-series, Silver Surfer: Parable has recently been reprinted in a new ‘deluxe’ hardcover edition featuring an introduction by Stan Lee, a fascinating afterword by Moebius explaining the artistic process behind the graphic novel, and a somewhat unnecessary additional Silver Surfer story from 1990 (Silver Surfer: The Enslavers). The story of Parable is relatively simple*: Galactus, an alien being of unfathomable power who feeds upon entire planets, returns to Earth (having previously sworn an oath not to attack it) and demands that all humanity to worship him as a god (as a way of circumventing his oath) so that he can eventually consume our world; the Silver Surfer (who is himself a powerful alien being living amongst us in exile) sees through Galactus’s plot and fights a hopeless battle to save us. Yet this simplicity belies the moral and philosophical worth of Parable, which stands in stark contrast to the occasionally thoughtless (and sometimes despicable) fare served up by many contemporary superhero comics**. Stan Lee’s writing often feels unnecessarily elaborate (much more suited to an earlier era of thought-balloons and paternalistic narration than post-1980s comics), but in this book he shows enough restraint to allow Moebius’s art to speak for itself and his un-naturalistic dialogue is strangely suited to the grandiose visuals and biblical tone of Parable.

Perhaps the main weakness of Parable is that it lacks the wider appeal of other literary superhero stories (such as Watchmen or The Dark Knight Returns). It doesn’t feature a character who is popular amongst mainstream audiences, it doesn’t take place in a self-contained world, nor does it break new ground for the genre in a way that attracts the praise of literature critics. The individual styles of Lee or Moebius won’t be to everyone’s liking; Parable seems far more likely to alienate people who don’t often read comics than those aforementioned works and, though it is impossible to account for personal taste, I suspect the doubly idiosyncratic nature of this comic might have prevented it from reaching the level of popular acclaim it deserves. Being out of print since 1998 probably didn’t help either.

The fusion of French and American artistic styles in Parable helps it to stand apart from any other Marvel comic, especially other works of the same period. Moebius made a conscious effort to adapt his working methods to the American tradition – drawing action sequences from Kirby-esque perspectives with rougher, more dynamic pencil sketches than usual – which he then inked over with the grandiose landscape panels, flowing anatomy and laser-like precision that was his hallmark. Moebius and Lee used the ‘Marvel method’ of collaboration to develop the story, where the writer gives the artist the plot, the artist draws the page layouts and the writer returns to flesh out those pages with dialogue and captions, possibly also suggesting some alterations – which shows how far out of his comfort zone Moebius was prepared to work. He also chose to use the more limited palette of colours that was traditionally utilised by American comics (compared to their European counterparts). Despite the radically different approach, the artwork within Parable is immediately recognisable as having Moebius’s idiosyncratic style, even down to the lettering – which, unusually for an American comic, he did himself. Moebius’s illustrations conjure up an incredible sense of scale on the page, with careful arrangements of  empty space juxtaposed against areas of intensely detailed ink lines, and the qualities he brought to the comic made Parable aesthetically unique within the superhero genre.

The purpose of a parable is to use a narrative to suggest how we should behave or what we should believe, it should therefore be obvious from the title that this story that Lee has a moral lesson to teach us. Though Parable appears on the surface to be a story about religion, featuring masses of people proselytising before a would-be god, an evangelical charlatan and the messianic Silver Surfer, it is actually closer to being an allegory about two different ways we relate with and respond to power. On the one side is the all-powerful Galactus and his self-appointed high priest Colton, both of whom prey upon the weak to sustain or increase their power; on the other side stands the Silver Surfer and Colton’s sister Elyna, who put their principles first, despite the impossible odds they’re faced with, and seek to inspire ordinary people to draw strength from each other as well as themselves. To illustrate this, I’ve included a few quotations below:

“I am come to set you free, free from guilt! Free from worthles man-made laws! If you would be saved, do what you will! Take what you will! There is no wrong! There is no sin! Pleasure is all!”

“Consequences are for lesser beings, I am Galactus. That is sanction enough.”

– Galactus

“Truth is but an abstraction. Power is all!”

– Colton

“In truth, any man can make a difference. It is not given to us to know whether we shall succeed or not. In failure there is no disgrace. There can be but one ultimate shame… the cowardice of not having tried.”

“Flawed as man may be, he has ever aspired to nobility, despite war and crime, poverty and pestilence, the human spirit still burns bright.”

“Only the coward or sycophant worships power and might.”

– Silver Surfer

“Why did the supreme being give us minds if not to use them? Are we just sheep to blindly follow the mad dictates of a stranger?”

– Elyna

When applied to society at large, Lee’s message is clear: we must put our noblest aspirations before our cynicism and pragmatism if there is to be any hope of advancing human civilisation. Yet the dialectic between the two opposing ideologies represented above also invites us to question the superhero genre itself and our enjoyment of it: just what is it that we value most about these marvellous super-people? Is it the powers they possess or the values they represent?

Given the date of Parable‘s initial publication I find it difficult not to view it in the context of what was happening to the superhero genre at that time. The popular and critical success of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns – among others – only a few years earlier had elevated superhero fiction to a new level of sophistication and helped to make their audiences receptive to a different kind of caped caper; it’s doubtful that this could have escaped Lee’s attention and, by working with as gifted an artist as Moebius on such a contemplative story as Parable, it’s possible that he wanted to show that he could do it too. If that’s true, he did so in some style:  Parable won the prestigious Eisner award for ‘Best Finite Series’ in 1989 (equivalent to winning the Oscar for ‘Best Picture’). Today (and ever since the explosion of grim n’ gritty superheroes in the early 1990s^), it seems as though too few super-comics remember the lesson Lee preached in Parable: it takes a lot more than a brightly coloured costume to separate the heroes from the monsters they fight against.

I expected to enjoy Parable for its artwork, and in that respect Moebius certainly did not disappoint, but I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the comic as a whole. Stan Lee’s abilities as a publicist and his remarkable capacity for dreaming up fantastical characters^* have often been praised but, if it wasn’t already apparent from the message espoused by such creations as Spider-man (“with great power comes great responsibility”), Silver Surfer: Parable shows us that beneath all the flash and bombast of his public persona is a concerned and thoughtful man.

———————————————-

Details, details

Silver Surfer: Parable is published by Marvel Comics and the current hardcover edition was released on 16 May 2012. Story by Stan Lee, with artwork (including colours and lettering) by Moebius. It should be available from all worthwhile comic-book retailers and many regular bookshops, but if you’re having trouble finding a copy you can always feed the corporate uber-beast and buy it from Amazon like I did.

———————————————-

Endnotes

* I said relatively simple. The story doesn’t involve any other superheroes and, unlike a lot of Marvel’s comics, you don’t need to be literate in the company’s shared universe for anything to make sense.

** I’m not suggesting that all superhero comics should be philosophical masterpieces or anything like that, but when Spider-man and Captain America torture people it sends out some (*ahem*) mixed messages about what Marvel think a hero is supposed to be. Either Dan Slott & Marvel’s editorial staff think that torture is okay or they simply didn’t care enough to think through the implications of the scene – I can’t decide which of those alternatives is the most troubling.

^ If there was ever a better example of a sub-genre’s writers completely missing the point than the post-Alan Moore/Frank Miller boom in ‘dark’ comics then I’d love to know. More blood, more boobs and bigger guns does not always make for better comics.

^* Spider-man, the X-Men, Iron Man, The Hulk… the list goes on and on (and on and on). Rather than waste my time copying and pasting it all, it’s probably better for us both if you take a look at the extensive wikipedia page.

fingz wot aye bin in an dun

It’s been a while since I last uploaded anything to this blog so I thought I’d post a quick update on what I’ve been writing lately (because that’s like totally interesting to *so many* people) and include a few links to some websites I’d like to recommend.

I wrote a short story just before Christmas which I submitted to an upcoming indie anthology called As Above So Below and was both surprised and delighted to have it accepted! It’s extremely rare for me to even my fiction writing, so as you can probably imagine I was pretty chuffed. You can find out a little more about this collection here. Early versions of the various stories will be serialized online prior to full publication. The previous anthology from the same editor (The Red Phone Box) features a story from none other than the mighty Warren Ellis (who wrote this) and I am fortunate enough to be receiving a review copy to write about when it is ready for release.

I am now contributing to a very cool website called Tastes Like Comics, for which I just finished my first article ‘Politics & the Hero: a personal view’ (and y’all can make me very happy by giving it a read). I intend to write a lot of shorter comic reviews for them as well as my usual long, rambling pieces, so in future this blog will probably contain considerably fewer articles about comics (and that’s no bad thing, variety being the spice of life).

If you’re at all interested in comics or nerd culture then be sure to check out Tastes Like Comics. It’s a great site that’s jam-packed with quality articles written by genuine enthusiasts and covers all sorts of geekery, not just the realm of comic books.

Another website I think anyone interested in comics should check out is the Comic Bastards. I actually was the recipient of a brief shout-out on their latest podcast, which was the highlight of an otherwise dreary Monday (it also features the best outro I’ve ever heard on a podcast). In an indistinguishable ocean of websites seeking to emulate Aint It Cool News these guys are a lifeboat of refreshing frankness and strong opinion. I don’t always agree with what they have to say but I certainly enjoy hearing them say it.

Also, I have just begun working on a couple of scripts for comic books, which I will then use to make fully scripted page layouts. Because my drawing skills are extremely limited I would love to find an artist I could collaborate with. On the off-chance that someone reading this can draw and is relatively local to me (i.e. somewhere vaguely close to the cities of Winchester/Southampton, UK) then please get in touch with me through my twitter account (or using the comments below if you prefer). My current thinking is that if we were able to produce a finished product then I’d self-publish a limited print run through a local press and also sell electronic format copies online, but I’m willing to cross that bridge if and when I come to it.

Romance, regret and the function of fantasy in ‘Spider-man: Blue’

First, a confession of bias:

Some readers might wonder why my reviews tend to accentuate the positive, rather than drawing attention to what I didn’t like, or what I’d rather see; and after all isn’t an affectation of wearied cynicism the mark of a truly discerning consumer/reviewer? The reason for this is simple: I can’t be bothered. In the limited time that I have I would rather review and recommend the things I like than to spend another moment thinking and writing about the things I don’t. If someone was prepared to pay me a fee or salary for my opinion then I’d happily review crap material and call it like I see it, but nobody does, so I won’t. One day I might write a bullet point list of books, TV and videogames that you shouldn’t waste your money on. Maybe.

Also: I love Spider-man.

With that out of the way, let’s proceed…

Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s Spider-man: Blue is a special creation, a superhero graphic novel that can be enjoyed equally by new readers and hardcore fans alike. It revisits the early years of Peter Parker’s web-slinging career, when he was still a college freshman struggling to make ends meet, and tells the tale of how he fell in love with the gorgeous Gwen Stacy prior to her tragic death (a watershed moment in the history of American comics) at the hands of his arch-enemy Green Goblin/Norman Osborne. For a superhero story, it is sweet, sensitive and surprisingly profound.

It is impossible to discuss this piece without talking about the superb illustration, so let’s begin there. Tim Sale’s artwork is in Blue is a homage to the style of John Romita (who was at the forefront of Marvel’s ground-breaking artistic team during the ‘silver age‘ of comics, replacing Steve Ditko on The Amazing Spider-Man in 1966, illustrated ‘Spidey’ through some of his most iconic years) and has a distinctly retro feel that I find particularly appealing. Sale’s lines are clean and uncomplicated; while the use of colour is simplified, especially in comparison to the level of realism often found in modern Marvel comics such as Civil War. Throughout Spider-man: Blue Sale uses large swathes of colour as indicators of mood, which is appropriate for a comic that strives to be as accessible and relatable as this does. When a comic’s illustration is further away from being a symbolic representation and closer to being a photo-realistic reproduction of its subject it becomes more difficult for readers to personally relate to its characters, and it is this kind of engagement that is absolutely essential in order to allow Loeb’s narrative to function. Scott McCloud (author of the brilliant Understanding Comics and inventor of the ‘big triangle‘) calls this the “amplification through simplification” effect. This isn’t to suggest that the incredibly detailed images with perfect flesh tones and multiple differentiated light sources which typify Marvel’s contemporary creations aren’t beautiful, they are most impressive indeed, merely that that they can be far less effective for the kind of emotionally driven storytelling seen in Spider-man: Blue.

Tim Sale's reworking of Mary Jane Watson's famous first appearance.

Spider-man’s popularity is due, in part, to how his fans were able to easily identify with the character, in stark contrast to competing superheroes such as Batman (an obscenely wealthy genius) or Superman (a god-like alien). Whilst these characters have all evolved over time, it was their earlier incarnations that established the core character concepts and set the tone for what was to come. But in order to fully understand the unique appeal of Spider-man, and why Blue works so well, we must look a little deeper. When Peter Parker first became Spider-man he was a bullied high school student, shy, socially awkward (especially around girls) and possessing a deep sense of self-loathing, in short: a ‘nerd like us’ with added spider powers. The strength of the traditional superhero genre is in its capacity to offer us an escape from reality to a place where the good guy (usually) wins, justice (generally) prevails, bullies get taught a lesson in humility (even if it is by a guy in spandex) and the world can be put to rights with a well aimed punch; essentially a form of wish-fulfilment fiction and, in this regard, Spider-man is no exception. Where Spidey differs from the superheroes that preceded him is that his unmasked self is equally as important in his ongoing story as his costumed persona, to the extent that The Amazing Spider-man has been described as a ‘soap opera for boys’ and it is this trait in combination with the wish-fulfilment function which generates the character’s unique appeal. Parker’s powers enable him to be a surrogate for his fans, acting out the ‘amazing fantasy‘ that his super-heroism represents for us before returning to a more mundane and relatable existence. Furthermore, it is this relatable, childish fantasy aspect of Spider-man that makes the style used by Sale so suited to the story told in Blue; because by asking us to engage our own imagination to interpret its images Spider-man: Blue effectively invites us to place ourselves in the story, to picture Parker’s triumphs and defeats as our own.

You go Gwen.

The period of character development that is revisited in Blue is particularly significant to Spidey fans because we see Parker develop from the social outsider he was at school, a disliked “bookworm” bullied by the likes of Flash Thompson, to someone whose intelligence and kindness starts to shine in a college environment, “an okay guy” suddenly attracting attention from the fairer sex. This isn’t to say that his problems go away, far from it, but it is heartening for any nerd to witness one of their fellows growing into their own skin. Loeb demonstrates Parker’s elevated status by contrasting his fortunes to those of his rival Flash, a former high-school football star, who is unable to comprehend why the likes of Gwen Stacy or Mary Jane Watson are drawn to Parker and begins to feel that his life lacks purpose.

Parker’s superhero career having adverse (and often devastating) consequences for his friends and family is a consistent theme across the numerous publications he has appeared in and Blue is no exception. His attempts at romance and socialising are repeatedly frustrated by either his sense of duty driving him to rush off to fight a costumed villain (because “with great power comes great responsibility”) or by an enemy (literally) bursting into the room. Ultimately Peter’s dual-life would mean the death of Gwen Stacy, though Loeb has, perhaps wisely, chosen to reflect upon but not to include the event itself in this particular story. The suggestion by some fans and commentators that Gwen, not MJ, was always Peter’s ‘true love’ is heavily drawn upon by Loeb in this narrative and the retrospective romance of Blue is persistently shaded by Peter’s sense of regret.

I can't say enough good things about Sale's artwork; it has the dynamism of Marvel's late-60's classics and a contemporary eye for detail.

Key moments of Parker’s life from the ‘Gwen Stacy’ period have been incorporated into Blue, woven into a single narrative focused on the progression of Peter and Gwen’s relationship, as well as an enigmatic enemy hunting Spidey from the shadows, and are thereby given greater significance in the context of its condensed form. Amazingly, the plot of this book is entirely self-contained and can be read independently of any other Spider-man material.

Perhaps the greatest success of Blue is that it can be enjoyed by new readers as much as by the most dedicated of fans; and whilst the book requires no prior knowledge of its characters for the plot to make sense it also manages to avoid any unnecessary exposition. Rather than re-writing or replacing established continuity (like DC have, time and time again) Loeb’s story intertwines with and expands upon existing history, offering a fresh look at Spider-man for long term followers and an ideal introduction for potential new fans.

This book is not without flaws. It is arguable that a book about the relationship between Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy should feature more of Gwen Stacy, who remains an enigmatic figure, and less of Mary Jane. Loeb’s decision to use Peter Parker speaking into a tape recorder, complete with a “klik…whrrrr” sound effect, to frame the chapters is probably an unnecessary flourish and occasionally feels awkward. There are also several instances where Loeb has crammed too much dialogue into a fight scene, an unfortunate trait that has generally been eliminated from contemporary comics, and though this may have been a deliberate decision to replicate Romita and Lee’s Spider-man era, it occasionally felt forced. Some critics have chosen to criticise Sale’s artwork for lacking detail in some panels (especially in the background) but for me this is an endearing example of Blue’s retro charm and, as I stated earlier, an accurate reproduction of reality would totally alter the tone of the comic. For the most part these imperfections are born of deliberate artistic decisions by Loeb and Sale and, on the whole, they are minor complaints that hardly hinder the story itself.

If you buy just one Spider-man book in your life then I suggest you buy Spider-man: Blue. It is a remarkable achievement on the part of its authors for them to have crammed so much of what has made Spider-man/Peter Parker such an appealing character to generations of readers into one book. Most importantly: it’s a great piece of escapist fiction, in the best tradition of Marvel and the superhero genre as a whole. Jeph Loeb, Tim Sale – take a bow.

Gwen Stacy, by Tim Sale... 'nuff said.

If you’re interested in reading more self-contained graphic novels by Marvel then you might be pleased to know that there are several new works coming soon. It’s clear that Marvel are showing a desire to expand upon their previously limited, though generally well-received, efforts in the graphic novel format (such as The Sentry, X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills or Daredevil: Yellow), with the announcement of the ‘Season One‘ range. These are similar to Spider-man: Blue (or DC’s highly successful Batman: Year One and Superman: Earth One books) in so far as they are a contemporary return to the origins of Marvel’s most popular characters. I believe this represents a step in the right direction for an industry that is notorious for struggling to attract new readers, and as the demand for original graphic novels continues to grow (to the point where they can be considered relatively mainstream) it would seem sensible for the ‘big two’ to make use of their most recognisable properties to attract consumers from a demographic who won’t want to grapple with five decades worth of established continuity.

Additionally: I apologise profusely for the amount of alliteration I have tried to crowbar into this piece, it is an attempt at tendering a tenuous tribute to the technique’s proudest proponent, Spider-man’s own inimitable inventor: the sensational Stan Lee! (I really hope that last bit wasn’t as painful and cringe-inducing for you to read as it was for me to write. I promise not to do it again.)

I would have liked to have examine the “function of fantasy” in the success of Spider-man further in this piece than I have but I had to draw the line somewhere and actually finish this thing; perhaps I will be able return to the subject in the future.

The SVK Experiment

READERS BEWARE! This post contains some spoilers. 

SVK is a limited edition one-shot comic, written by Warren Ellis and illustrated by D’Israeli (aka Matt Brooker), that is experimental in terms of its form, content and distribution.  It tells the story of Thomas Woodwind, a ‘recovery agent’ specialised in the art of finding lost things, as he returns to a security obsessed near-future London in order to locate a top-secret object that recently disappeared: the enigmatic ‘SVK’.

This is the first comic to be published by BERG, a design consultancy group based in London, and their desire to innovate within the medium should be applauded.

Did the experiment work?

In purely practical terms the invisible ink and ultraviolet LED torch (or ‘SVK Device’), being the most unique of the comic’s various selling points, work well. The ink becomes clearly visible under the UV light and I found that scouring each page, torch in hand, for hidden writing served to enhance the story and brought a novel tactile quality to the reading experience. Though SVK could be read without the torch, doing so would defeat the purpose of the comic: as readers we must use the torch to reveal a hidden ‘reality’ on the page that is integral to the story.

The obvious drawback to this feature is that it simply wont work in direct sunlight (although why anyone would read a limited edition comic outside is beyond me) and the effectiveness of the SVK Device is somewhat reduced in a well-lit room.

SVK sold out its original print run of 3,500 copies within a day or so of its release, so I think it is safe to say that the experiment was commercially successful. Warren Ellis and the team behind SVK were helped in this regard by a very astute use of social media to promote their comic. Warren Ellis has cultivated an impressive online following through his blog and twitter profile, enabling him to directly address his followers and generate an instant ‘buzz’ about his latest work. Fans were notified about an upcoming project called SVK and linked to a mysterious mailing list signup form which promised to notify you when SVK was ready to order (still available here if you want your own copy). This, in combination with the limited number of copies printed and mail-order distribution, created a sense of excitement and exclusivity around the comic which made it all the more desirable on release day.

The versatility of the comic/sequential-art form is such that SVK is able to experiment still further by including imaginative full-page advertisements (my favourites are the “4D Printer” and “Panda Bear Tears!!!”) as well as several articles relating to the comic’s central themes. The advertisements are themselves enhanced (or subverted) by the invisible ink when it is revealed by ultraviolet light; perhaps I spent a little too long scanning the ‘classified’ style double-page spread with my torch but I felt as though the ads acted like an extension of the world constructed by Ellis in SVK and provided an opportunity for him to showcase his sense of humour. The articles featured in SVK make for a good read too as they either expand upon the concepts in the story or are interesting in their own right.

As mentioned in my preview, a few people have complained that the UV ink can ‘bleed’ through pages (although I’m not sure what people are expecting to happen when shining a torch onto paper) but personally I didn’t find this to be a problem. Another recurring problem for BERG with SVK‘s initial release has been faulty or broken UV torches. According to their blog approximately 9% of customers have had to return their torch for a replacement, which must surely have dampened the enthusiasm of a high number of readers. Even with these issues taken into account I would argue that the experiment has proven to be very worthwhile.

D'Israeli's lines are bold, crisp and expressive.

Key concepts

Warren Ellis’s comics are often more about the exploration of ideas and concepts than they are about events or character development, and SVK is no exception.

The relationship between personal privacy and public security is never far from the foreground in SVK. From the very beginning of the story we see these conflicting imperatives as Woodwind enters the headquarters of the villainous Heimdall corporation: on his way upstairs he is harassed by the guards and we see that his face is blanked out on the security cameras, a “neat trick” that Heimdall’s staff race to understand and counteract. Similarly the successful implementation of the ‘Strategic Vigilance Key’ technology across London, against which Woodwind and his sidekick Bulmer set themselves, would represent the ultimate victory of monetised security concerns over the population’s profitless (yet still valuable) privacy.

Woodwind and Bulmer are technologically-astute, practical hacktivists; a pseudo Batman and Robin for the digital post-9/11 age, fighting for the privacy and free-agency of individuals against the invasive corporate-controlled security and proprietary technologies permeating their environment. Bulmer’s “batcave” is suitably equipped with the tools (and junk) that they need in order to fabricate subversive goods of their own, as well as being a real-world repository for the remarkable data-sifting software which they programmed and utilised to rapidly locate ‘SVK’ in the first place.

Obviously SVK is best enjoyed in the absence of natural light.

Another important theme in SVK is the concept of ‘augmented reality’. Woodwind’s disorientation and alarm at his initial discovery of the SVK-augmented perception turns to anger and contempt when he considers its ramifications. As readers our ability to use the ‘SVK Device’, thereby augmenting our perception of the page to reveal thought bubbles, is a precise replication of Woodwind’s experience of ‘SVK’ in the context of the story and effectively demonstrates the gross advantage we are given over the Londoners therein. The notion of augmented reality giving an unfair advantage is made explicit in the essay ‘Sight Licenses’ by Jamais Cascio, included after roughly two-thirds of the comic. Cascio argues that augmented reality holds the potential to quite literally separate us in to our own individual realities, some being more advantageous than others, warning us that “AR lenses will allow real time control – and pricing – of what we see”, with potentially severe consequences. If you thought that society might already be too fragmented then Cascio’s prediction that “any hope of a shared vision of the future should be set aside” with the advent of AR technology should be alarmed by this prospect.

Final thoughts

In my experience of reading comics SVK stands out as something truly unique. Ellis accomplished the rare feat of crafting a compelling and meaningful story within the limited space of a single-issue comic, and in so doing helped to contribute to the progression of comics as an artistic medium. The closest example to SVK of innovation with the use of ink in the comic form that I have seen was the stereoscopic 3D in Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neil’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier but that, though cleverly executed and beautifully drawn, was far from being the only example of its kind. In addition Brooker’s artwork, with its clean lines and simplistic pale blue, black and white colour scheme, is ideal for the tone of the story and blends perfectly with the ultraviolet light, giving the comic a distinctive aesthetic.

At £10 + postage some readers might be put off by the price but when you consider the additional costs involved in producing this comic (such as the invisible ink, the UV torch or the high quality paper), the limited print run, the overall standard of the product and how cool you will look when showing it off to your friends it is clear that the price is worth paying.

Ellis, Brooker and the BERG team can be proud of what they have achieved with their experimental comic. Hopefully they will be able to follow it up with another project in the near future.

_________________________________________________________________

Images are from BERG’s Flickr stream.
Click here if you’d like to see what it looks like on a real desk.

Get SVK here

Opening SVK…

Warren Ellis and D’Israeli’s new, mail-order exclusive and somewhat experimental comic SVK (published by BERG) arrived on my desk this morning; so before I get round to reading and reviewing it here’s a quick look at what all the fuss is about:

The outermost layer (I'm not sure why I'm showing you this).

SVK in its glossy sleeve.

The super cool sticker I was very careful not to tear.

SVK and the sleek SVK device (a UV torch if you didn't already know).

William Gibson has provided a foreword.

The back of the SVK Device comes with a warning.

There it is: all open and stuff.

More!

The back cover.

It looks good. I like the use of a single shade of blue in with the black and white inkwork (which reminds me of Seth’s Its a good life, if you don’t weaken) and the super-special UV ink showed up well when I shone the torch over it. There were a few complaints on twitter about the UV ink bleeding through some pages but I’ve seen no evidence of that yet*. Originally I wanted to show you a picture of the UV torch in action but unfortunately I can’t get my camera to show it, so my apologies to any of you who wanted to see what it looks like.

Review to follow…

___________________________________________________________________________________

*Edit: I read through and can confirm that the invisible ink will show up faintly when an individual page is held up and the ‘SVK device’ is directed at it. This is a fairly minor issue as you probably aren’t likely to do this too often while you read and shouldn’t have a significant impact on the reading experience. To be frank: seeing ink through the page is a fairly inevitable consequence of shining a UV torch on to sheets of paper.