REVIEW: Taking Flight

I’m sure I’ve talked plenty before about how exciting the comics scene in Glasgow, Scotland is.  As the writer of The Standard, I like to claim a kind of weird dual citizenship, where on the one hand I will proudly include myself as part of the ComixTribe family, and talk about what an honor it is to have a fraternity with the quality American comics under that banner.  But at the same time, I also like to claim that The Standard is part of a diverse, exciting lineup of indy and small press comics emerging from Glasgow.  From School of the Damned to Villainous to Team Girl Comic to No More Heroes, and so much more in between, the home of such comics greats as Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely and Mark Millar has no shortage of promising talent.

And that brings us to Taking Flight, a comic book oneshot that sees a union of two such Glaswegian up-and-comers.  The writer is Stephen Sutherland, a new face at the city centre’s Glasgow League of Writers meetings who is making his debut with Taking Flight.  The artist is Garry McLaughlin, who is well known in the local scene both for his DIY Comics workshops and 24 Hour Comic Book Day events, and for drawing such comics as Old Folk’s Home and Good Cop, Bad Cop.  Knowing both talents as I do, Taking Flight is a collaboration I’ve been keenly anticipating for a while now.  Does it live up to expectations?

I think I’ll start with the contribution of Garry McLaughlin, given that he was more of a known commodity going into Taking Flight, and already earned some critical plaudits for his earlier work.  It’s interesting to see the evolution in McLaughlin’s style.  I’ve seen Frank Quitely comparisons thrown thick and fast in previous evaluations of his work, and I’m sure plenty of artists would be happy to carve out a career as a “Quitely-type”.  Not so for Garry McLaughlin.  With Taking Flight, there is a move away fom that Quitely vibe as McLaughlin works to develop his own artistic voice.  His style here is tighter, with meticulous attention to scenery and the establishing of location.  The story is set in Glasgow, and despite no indicating landmarks, somehow the setting just feels specifically like Glasgow.  His characters are heavily stylised, but McLaughlin still makes skillful use of body language to hammer home the emotional requirements of the narrative.  McLaughlin is also the letterer of the comic, and his contribution in this regard is largely flawless… save for one embarrassing slip-up in the inside back cover afterword where he spells his own name wrong!

McLaughlin’s art is ably assisted by colorist Kieren Smith.  It’s interesting, for with all the talk of Garry McLaughlin often being compared to Frank Quitely, Smith’s colors remind me of the slick work of Jamie Grant, Quitely’s collaborator on All Star Superman.  And speaking of Superman, the coloring ensures that his shadow hangs over this story, with flickers of red and blue peppered throughout.  I love it when the coloring is used to enhance the story being told in its own way, rather than just to fill in the artwork with whatever colour will do.

The other half of the equation is that of Stephen Sutherland.  As much as McLaughlin has proven himself, Sutherland is a bit of a wild card, even amongst afficionados of Glasgow’s small press comics.  But there’s no need to worry.  As it turns out, Sutherland is Taking Flight‘s secret weapon, delivering a story that’s filled with heart.  The twist on the superhero is a clever one, and oddly believable too.  This is a world where superheroes exist, but are hampered by today’s suffocating health and safety/compensation culture, too afraid of lawsuits and criminal damage claims to help the ungrateful sods who will then turn around and sue them.

But this isn’t a story of plot and ideas, of immersing us in a wider world of superheroics.  It is, at its core, a very personal, character-driven story, as we follow the trials of one man, Michael, and his struggles to find his way in life.  The story soars by tapping into his emotions, and making them our own.  We can relate to the stifling frustration he feels at being unable to cut loose with his powers.  And when he does let go, the comic soars, concisely capturing the magic of flight, how breathtaking and exhilarating that would be.  Perhaps my favourite part of the comic is Michael’s relationship with his girlfriend, Rosie.  It would be so easy for a writer to mine that relationship for conflict, to have Rosie be unaccepting of Michael’s powers and have a ready-made arc where she sees the error in her ways.  But Sutherland bravely makes her absolutely supportive and loving, and makes her Michael’s strength, the voice pushing him to better himself.  This is a real skill for Sutherland, I think, as in his scripts for an upcoming project of his, Everlast, he similarly depicts a positive father/daughter relationship.  There’s an openness and an optimism to this approach that’s really refreshing.

So, all told, I’d call Taking Flight a success.  For Stephen Sutherland, it is an incredibly promising debut, and for Garry McLaughlin, it marks a transition into more mature, substantial work.  I’m eager to see more from both.

Taking Flight is available to buy from eBay.

My First Experience Tabling as a Pro

The Queen Margaret Union at Glasgow University

Next month, I’ll be attending the New York Comic Con.  While it would be exciting  enough going as a fan – and to be honest, a big part of me is still thinking of it like a fan, wondering what creators will be there and what books I can buy – it’s all the more amazing in that I’ll be attending as a pro.  It still feels a bit surreal, to be honest, and I can’t quite get my head around it.  Rather than that mega-event being my first experience tabling as a pro, I thought it might be useful to attend a couple of local events first.  So, this coming weekend I have a table at the Glasgow Comic & Toy Fair, representing GLoW and selling copies of my comic, The Standard.  And, more short notice, I got invited to attend a special Freshers’ Week comic event at Glasgow University last Friday.  I thought I’d write up a little blog covering my experiences on the day.

I hadn’t really thought much about it leading up to the event.  A couple of days before it, I e-mailed Gary Chudleigh – co-founder of Obscure Reference Comics, writer of cool comic series Villainous, who I would be sharing a table with – about things I might need.  He gave me some helpful tips about inventory, some of which I’d already considered, others I hadn’t: Sharpies for signing books, a point of sale clearly denoting the prices while also showing some art from the book, plastic pockets for putting comics in once sold, and lots of change.  I also found out Gary would be late to the show, and I’d be on my own for the first half.

Setting up at the venue.

Get-in for the event was at 11am.  Being my usual tardy self, I arrived around 11:30.  We were in the main function hall of the Queen Margaret Union: I can recall from my student days this was a pretty desirable chunk of real estate, and its the same venue next week’s Glasgow Comic & Toy Fair will be held at.  There were no exhibitors here today, though, just fellow indy comic creators.  The cool thing about getting involved in the Glasgow small press scene over this year is that I actually knew most of the pros enough to at least say a quick hello as I entered.

I was a bit intimidated by how massive my table seemed, especially with no Gary to fill out the other half.  I only had a couple of comics – The Standard #1 and The Standard #2 – and as generously as I spread them around, my offerings still seemed pretty thin in comparison to the rich back catalogues ofered by the Khaki Shorts or Team Girl Comic crews.  But as I organised everything, I did still feel a little swelling of pride and excitement at being able to present something I’d written for sale.

My table - lookie, it's my stuff!

The doors opened for customers at 12pm.  Unfortunately, there weren’t really many.  As it turns out, the university had not marketed the event at all in thei Freshers’ promotional material, so we didn’t actually have any audience of people interested in comics.  In fact, save for people who knew the pros tabling and had come along to visit/support them, the only folks who showed up were students who stumbled in by accident while looking for free booze or club coupons.  It’s quite disheartening when the first person that comes to your table says, “I don’t recognise any of these comics.  Do you have any Spider-Man?”  With how quiet the show was, I actually spent a lot of time catching up on my comics reading.

I still managed to make a few sales over the course of the day, though, so all things considered, I’d say I did pretty well.  I got some good practice working on my pitch – the guys at the table next to me must have been sick of hearing it by the end of the day – and I got to refine it a little based on what people seemed to react to: the idea of a superhero as a “sleazy reality TV star” seemed to get everyone’s ears pricked up.  Another good idea came from Gary, about having a copy of the comic set aside for people to thumb through.  This worked very well for me, as if my pitching left people cold, then a glimpse of Jonathan Rector’s stunning artwork was often enough to reel them in.

Things picked up once Gary showed up.  He also managed to make a few sales of Villainous.  And I also have to thank Luke Halsall, who came along and sat at our table for a bit, and in that time did a bit of aggressive salesmanship that helped us both out a good deal.

Me (left) and Gary Chudleigh (right) shilling our wares.

In terms of things I’d like to take onboard for my next con, one thing I was totally unprepared for was the interest in making comics.  I had about 4 or 5 different people asking me about writing comics, and if there were any communities in Glasgow that they could be a part of.  Of course there is, I’m a member of one: the Glasgow League of Writers.  And I… have no info on them.  I don’t even have paper on me to write info down.  Cue much, “Erm… do you have a piece of paper on you?  I can….uh….write down this Twitter handle, and….uh…. yeah.”  Next time, I’m gonna try and have some leaflets/preview booklets ready to hand out to people, with samples of work from GLoW as well as contact details.

At 4pm, it was all over, and we packed up and headed home.  Overall, it was a quiet show, but I expect the upcoming Glasgow Comic & Toy Fair to be much more busy.  And I still had a good experience tabling.  Maybe a quiet show was what I needed to ease me into the groove.  Most importantly, I managed to get some experience tabling as a pro at a comic event for the first time.  I’m glad it won’t be the last.

REVIEW: The Abnormals

In an earlier review, I talked about how, once you get talking to people in your local small press comics scene, the same indie titles seem to keep popping up in discussion.  But perhaps none have been more highly praised than The Abnormals by Grant Springford.  Several people have strongly recommended this self-published comic to me, and fellow writer and reviewer Luke Halsall went as far as to say to me that he thinks this oversized oneshot special (that will presumably serve to launch a series) is the single best comic of 2011 thus far, from any publisher.  Strong words, but does it live up to the hype?

I wouldn’t quite rank it up there with the year’s best (I’ve read too much jawdropping stuff like Scalped, the output of Scott Snyder and, erm, Axe Cop: Bad Guy Earth to fairly say that), but The Abnormals is a great comic, and in terms of the multitude of independent creator-owned stuff I’ve been reading over the past several months, this stands at the head of the pack.

The whole comic is the creation of cartoonist Grant Springford, who writes, draws, colors, letters and even publishes this action-packed opening chapter.  Very quickly, we are introduced to a world brimming with invention, and a mythology laced with menace.  There is a whole society of horrific monsters and ghouls living in the subterrenean depths of the world, and the London underground inevitably serves as a handy access point between their world and ours.  And so, policing this dangerous labyrinth are The Abnormals, a ragtag team of oddballs with unusual powers and even stranger appearances that come across like a combination of Doom Patrol and what Torchwood wishes it could pull off.

Fortunately, Springford does not share the failing of many great idea men by giving in to the urge to bring the narrative to a halt while showing us how clever he is.  Our diverse range of characters are introduced in a way where they all have nuance and personality, but it’s done economically in the midst of a high-octane action scene, allowing us to see their powers in action rather than having them simply described to us.  By the end of the first issue, I felt like I already had the grasp of the ensemble and picked out my favorites (take a bow, giant, technopath, rubber robot from the future Bouncer, and The Link, an enigmatic, dapper psychic from the astral plane), but I didn’t feel like I’d been shorted on stuff happening, being treated to a complete action sequence, along with its build-up and immediate aftermath.  Some great storytelling and structure from Sringford the writer.

But it’s a relief that Springford the artist doesn’t slack off while Springford the writer does the heavy lifting.  It seems a recurring trend in a lot of my recent reviews where I praise the writing, but criticise the artwork.  Often I’ve found that some of the ideas on display in indie comics are more than a match for some of the stuff being put out in the mainstream, but the visual element of the book lets the side down by leaving it “looking indie”.  I was initially anxious that this would be the case here, with some dodgy facial compositions in the opening pages.

But I needn’t have worried.  Once we get into the meat of the narrative, that aforementioned inventiveness impressively manifests itself in the art.  Springford takes relish in bringing strange and creepy creatures like the rag ghosts and the golgohta moth (as well as The Abnormals themselves) to life, making for pages filled with trippy imagery.  The dayglo-bright disco coloring helps with the acid-trip effect.  Looking critically, a comic set primarily in an underground network of tunnels should maybe take more advantage of more gloomy, atmospheric shadows, but I can’t be too critical.  The vibrancy and energy of the bright colors serves as a reminder of what can be sorely lacking in many black-and-white titles.

The lettering is also competently done, particularly with characters like The Bouncer and demonic imp Nasty, who have their own distinct fonts.  When multiple team members are having inter-lacing conversations and arguments, having certain fonts stand out is good shorthand for ensuring people can easily follow what’s going on.

Overall, I’d say this comic is a homerun for Grant Springford.  One of the best creator-owned comics I’ve read in a while, featuring characters I already care about, and hopefully the beginning of a memorable larger story.  I can’t wait for the next chapter!

To find out more about The Abnormals, and to buy this comic, visit the official site at www.theabnormals.co.uk.

 

REVIEW: Sugar Glider #1

It’s surprising that comics can be a relatively small community, and especially on the indy/small press level, you get a real feeling that everyone knows everyone.  Not long after I had made my first tentative forays into getting The Standard published and out there, and started socialising with other indy comic creators here in Glasgow, I started hearing the same couple of books mentioned and praised over and over.  One of those books was Sugar Glider.  I had heard so many great things about writer Daniel Clifford’s storytelling, by the time I finally met him at the Glasgow Comic Con it felt a bit like meeting  a celebrity.  I happily picked up a copy of Sugar Glider #1, along with anthology book Sugar Glider Stories, and now have finally got round to reading them.  I’m pleased to say that the praise is well deserved.

While a lot of new superhero stories fall into a formula of starting with an origin story, covering familiar beats and well-worn tropes, Sugar Glider #1 hits the ground running, with our hero Susie Sullivan having already adopted Sugar Glider as her masked alter ego.  Little hints and tidbits regarding some shady characters looking for a stolen super-suit suggest we’ll be getting to Sugar Glider’s origin before too long, but beginning things in media res helps give this tale a refreshingly different pace.

This isn’t to say we’re launched into a fight scene with no room for characterisation.  In fact, there’s very little fighting of any kind in this issue, and when Sugar Glider does get round to trading blows with bad guys it doesn’t end very well for her.  You get the sense that, for Susie, it’s not a case of her wanting to fight crime, so she gets a costume that lets her glide through the air, but rather the costume is the main appeal, and the fighting crime part is something she engages in almost reluctantly.  In one memorable scene, the first time we see Susie as Sugar Glider, she just spends the night gliding and climbing through Newcastle.  It seems like this is an escape from her unfulfilling regular life.

“There’s never anything to do.  I actually miss college,” says one character at the start of the story.  And the post-graduate layabout in me connected with those feelings of restlessness and uncertainty that seem to define Susie.  Clifford does some great character work, playing the Peter Parker Everyman notes in a more subtle tone, in a way that feels relevant to this generation.  Characterisation is really a strength of Clifford’s, with even minor characters getting some interesting beats to work with.

Unfortunately, the art of Gary Bainbridge doesn’t quite live up to Daniel Clifford’s  writing.  It’s a shame, because I think Bainbridge is actually a good artist.  His storytelling is sound, and he has some inventive layouts.  You even get a sense that his actual drawing of people and particularly locations is sound.  The problem comes at the inking stage.  The inks are far too heavy, as if it’s been done with a Sharpie pen, and any detail has been nullified in the process.  I would be interested to see what the pages looked like at the pencil stage, or what the inked pages would have looked like with a finer line.  The rough, presumably hand-drawn lettering doesn’t help the visual presentation either.

I don’t want to be a total downer on Bainbridge’s contribution to the book, though.  The Sugar Glider costume is realised well, and the aforementioned night jaunt is a well-executed silent sequence that captures the thrill of Susie’s experiences.  The full-page splash that precedes it, where we see Susie shed off her everyday troubles and don the costume, is a great tableau as well, little window panels peppered around the page serving to magnify certain aspects of the scene.

It’s a little rough around the edges, but if you’re willing to look past that, there’s a whole lot to like in Sugar Glider.  Daniel Clifford and Gary Bainbridge have created a believable world not too unlike our own, populated by likeable characters, and a story I very quickly became invested  in.  I for one am keen to pick up the next chapter, and I’d recommend it to anyone who’s a fan of the superhero genre – and, indeed, to those who aren’t.