Sunday, October 14, 2012

Black Hearted Press: classic supernatural re-imagined and sociopathic Significant Others

A small confession
When, last month, I wrote thanking “John and David of Black Hearted Press for the small gesture of faith they showed in an unknown blogger” I was talking about the free review copies they’d given me of comics published by their Glasgow-based independent comics publisher, Black Hearted Press. There I was just sitting quietly in the Scotia when Jim Stewart- of The Astounding Ganjaman fame, pointed this guy in my direction, telling John (for John Farman it was) that I was someone he should talk to. The next thing I knew I had 3 free comics and an article to write. My introduction to David Braysher soon followed, and a fourth comic had been added to the pile of what was my first officially commissioned review.

The Astounding
I must confess to a certain measure of mixed feelings about this. I mean to say, free stuff is always nice, but I didn’t start blogging to get free stuff- I’ve got more stuff already than I’ve got space for and could easily devote years just to reading, playing and otherwise enjoying what I’ll be keeping when I finally purge my existing superfluity of stuff down to managable levels. No, as I explained to the White Bear when I was interviewed for her art project last year, I took to blogging to satisfy a desire to write. For both of these reasons the idea of pimping RD/KA! for free stuff has always sat uncomfortably with me. The fact that I was just coming out of the longest of bloglags was another reason why John and David’s generosity left me feeling just a tad uncomfortable: I just wasn’t sure that I’d respond well to the responsibility of having to deliver an article on demand, so to speak.

Well, it’s been two and a half months, so I can’t say I responded all that well to the responsibility, but here’s the promised review, at long last.

The School of the Damned
Cover, #1
Horror doesn’t go down big with me. Sure, I’ve seen my share of classic 70s and 80s horror movies as well as much of Hammer’s output, read some James Herbert, Clive Barker and Stephen King, as well as the mandatory H.P. Lovecraft, but the genre has never excited in me the same passion as swords and sorcery, SF, or crime, whatever the medium. In more recent times I’ve found little or no appetite for splatter films as a genre (splatter elsewhere is another matter; it’s just when splatter becomes the whole point of the exercise that I find my interest waning), and the zombie and vampire crazes mostly bore me.

So there you go dear readers: my first official review- with all that entails, and it’s a horror comic. I think that might come under the definition of irony.
Nosferatu leads the
school assembly
Cover, #2
Written by John Farman, with art by James Devlin (#1) and Jason Mathis (#s 2 and 3), The School of the Damned got off to a good start for me with the cover of #1: the sight of Nosferatu confronting WW2-vintage German soldiers immediately reminded me of the classic 2000 AD story from 1980, Fiends of the Eastern Front. Gerry Finley-Day and Carlos Ezquerra’s layering of the supernatural over the true horrors of history introduced me to the idea of modern horror and, as such, was a revelation which still holds a cherished place in my memory. So, did what lies between the covers of The School of the Damned live up to expectations set high by memories of a seminal comic strip of my youth? The short answer is yes.
The plot thickens…
The School of the Damned is a bit like The X-Men meets Hammer horror, featuring as it does the entire cast of classic supernatural/horror characters all living in an isolated school somewhere in Eastern Europe in 1936, ie. just as the world is going to hell after the establishment of the Nazi dictatorship in Germany. This is a very potent time and place in which to set pretty much any story- one of my current favourites in this historical genre is Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series (crime fiction). In The School of the Damned John Farman does something similar to what Kerr does in his Bernie Gunther novels; that is he uses Nazism’s implacable evil as a foil to humanise the inhuman, ie. the cast of classic monsters. (In Kerr’s novels, Gunther is a policeman and a Social Democrat, a job which later puts him in the SS police on the Russian Front, despite which he remains in the Nazi regime but not of it.)

Cover, #3
Using such a stark contrast to underpin readers’ sympathies for otherwise unsympathetic characters is a bit of a risky narrative strategy because it can all too easily lead to bland moral postures substituting for adequate characterisation. Farman escapes this pitfall through simple good storytelling on both sides of the story. The School of the Damned is a character-driven story with a large cast of characters- especially among the supernatural denizens of the school. These characters are immediately interesting for 2 reasons: the classic characters have been tweaked to give them identities appropriate to their novel historical situation, so that they are simultaneously familiar and new; the rest of the characters have been invented out of whole cloth. Between the familiar characters and the new characters there is a dense web of relationships at play, which can be a bit confusing at first. Farman develops his story carefully though and who’s who and what’s what becomes clear in due course. The end result is a nicely layered complexity: inhuman characters who- under the imperatives of survival in extremis, do things which even they find questionable; and a simmering stew of conflicts which you just know will boil over under the pressure of the threat the Nazis pose.
Van Helsing’s bloody crusade
The Nazis too are more than just cardboard cutouts. What is particularly pleasing here is the way that Farman captures the cliquism which characterised the heart of the Nazi regime. Spear-chuckers aside, the Nazi characters aren’t just blind servants of the Fuhrer, they are people with their own agendas to pursue. This promises interesting plot developments.

Farman’s story is ably supported by the work of his artists. I have to be honest here: I don’t think the art is as strong as the script, but it’s by no means bad comic art; it’s more a matter of the current state of the art setting the bar very high, so high that you can hardly expect an independent publisher to be able to pay for work of that quality. To reiterate though: Devlin's and Mathis' art is good. The panels flow smoothly; the linework is clean so that the action is easy to follow; and the grasp of character and mastery of expression is strong, which is very important when it comes to delivering the emotional nuances of Farman’s story.

If I have a complaint about these comics it’s the lettering: I just find it sufficiently cramped to be sometimes difficult to read. This is more an issue in the back-up strips. Each comic has a back-up strip which adds some background to the main story. I like these but 2 of them use script-style lettering which, frankly, is an absolute bugger to read. It’s a shame, because ‘The Curious Fate of Gabriel Utterson’ in #1 is a particularly interesting retake of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novella The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

Black Hearted Love
Cover, #1
Dedicated to “the people that used to read their sister’s comics and to the sisters that bought them”, Black Hearted Love is an anthology comic featuring the sort of tales of romance you wouldn’t’ve read in your sisters’ comics. What else can I say about this odd little number which features a lot of work by David Braysher as well as by others more-or-less well known from the Glasgow scene (and elsewhere?- I don’t know: some of the names are completely unknown to me)?

I can start by praising the artwork, which is uniformly good. I must make mention of David Braysher’s art because it’s his comic. David’s linework is very clean showing a good grasp of anatomy and proportion. His many strips in Black Hearted Love also show 2 distinct styles: a strictly naturalistic style- as seen, eg. on the cover; and a more cartoony style, exemplified by, eg. ‘The new adventures of Bunny McBoiler’. Stylistic variation aside, David’s work also shows a certain knack for the surly look and the petted lip, which is a definite strength in the present anthology.
A 1-page strip from
Black Hearted Love
Selective as I must be since I can’t here just list all the other artists, I will also give a shout out to Roy Boyd’s cartooning. This is really bold and clean work and a fine example of what you can achieve with minimal linework and a bit of shading. I like it, and the jokes. Nice work from Roy.

It’s easy to praise the art in Black Hearted Love; it’s a bit harder to sum up the comic as a whole. This is less a matter of there being anything unclear about the anthology’s overall theme, and more a question of pinning that theme down to convey it in a few words: beyond bittersweet; scratching the surface of true romance to reveal the misanthropic reality beneath; and the psychotic self-delusion of the sadly besotted; these are phrases which spring to mind. All this and more can be found in the pages of this comic.

If I have one concern about Black Hearted Love it’s that I wonder what its potential audience might be because I think that it combines a form- anthology comics, and a theme- twisted anti-romance, both of which seem to me of relatively limited appeal in today’s comic market. This isn’t a complaint as such. Rather it’s me wondering out loud about what the future of this comic might be. Howsoever that might work out, it’s certainly the case that Black Hearted Love has left me wondering what might result if David Braysher was to bring this particular sensibility to a longer story.

I’ve already written about how the Glasgow indie comics scene is thriving, and how the mere existence of Black Hearted Press as an independent comics publisher is part of the proof of that. The School of the Damned and Black Hearted Love show that- exactly as with Team Girl Comic, this is expressed in a richness of themes as well as a profileration of titles. The former brings nuanced characterisation and unexpected poignancy to familiar monsters cast in a new setting; the latter goes in the opposite direction with its gleefully vicious twist on classic comicbook romance. It is a testament to the success of this still young company that The School of the Damned has already been optioned for a movie.

And there’s more!
John Farman hasn’t been content to rest on his laurels. A sequel to The School of the Damned is already in the works and the first issue is nearing completion. The new comic is to be called The Children of the Damned. If it’s anything as good as the original comic then it will be very good indeed. One way or another I’m hoping I won’t have to wait long to find out: Plan B Books are to host a Black Hearted Press Halloween Launch Night (that’s October 31st, from 7 till 10pm). I don’t know for sure if the new comic will be available by then (John’s still showing off artwork which will be part of #1 and I can’t help but feel that a mere 2 weeks is cutting it too fine to get an issue to the printers and back), but I’m sure there’ll be more interesting goodies from Black Hearted Press for me to get my mitts on.

And yes, I’ll be taking my trusty digicam this time. And yes, I hope and pray that it won’t take me nearly 3 months to get the damn thing written up here at RD/KA!. ;)

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