Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Rockers, Thieves and Ghosts - THE INDIES ARE COMING

Finder: Sin Eater, Carla Speed McNeil

So I love superheroes as much as the next person, assuming that the next person also has a Batman tattoo on his arm and drinks his morning coffee from a Watchmen mug, but did you know that there are comics out there which do not feature people who dress up like lunatics and have an inappropriately close relationships with a bodysuit wearing minor? Some of them - and brace yourself for this - don't even feature heroes, villains and an eternal struggle between the two. Incredible, I know. It's almost as though comics are an entire medium, capable of telling any sort of story the writer might desire, that somehow got completely monopolised by a single sub-sub-sub genre due to a few fast talking hucksters who were around at just the right moment.

Joking aside, I want to take a moment to talk about a few indie comics that I love, creator owned joints that tell slightly more personal, intimate tales that the violent soap operas which usually grab my attention. I went through an extended phase of only reading this sort of comic - you may picture me with a beret and turtleneck, smoking an exotic clove cigarette, if that would please you - and it's only in the last few years that I've been drawn back into the colourful histrionics of the superhero world. I still retain a lot of love for the indie scene, though, and I want to take a bit of time to talk about them today. I'm going to run through a series of creators - not necessarily my favourites so much as the ones that I feel need more attention, and whom you would benefit from hearing about. To that end, I'm going to assume that you're already familar with the Chris Wares, Chester Browns, Luna Brothers and the Kate Beatons of the world - though if you're not, get on that - and move on to folk who are a little more obscure. I'll also be looking at them in the context of a single work, the piece that either defines them as an artist or the one that you would be best served by grabbing before diving into the rest of their output. I am, as ever, devoted to your service, o reader.

First cab off the rank is Faith Erin Hicks, someone who work I've just recently been getting into, who is nominated for not one but two Eisner awards this year. Those are both for her latest, The Adventures of Superhero Girl, a book that I haven't actually read as yet. What I have read is Friends With Boys, and it's great. It's a semi-autobiographical comic about a homeschooled girl who finds herself going to high school for the first time, facing off against all the usual pressures and dramas that come along with that, while also being haunted by a very unusual ghost.

All of the characters in Friends With Boys are enormously engaging, and the central relationship between protagonist Maggie and the ghost is compelling and real in a unique sort of way. Secondary characters like her father are immediately vivid and likable, and even though the story meanders from time to time, it's the readers engagement with the characters who make up this strange little world that keeps things interesting. Hicks has a great art style, scratchly and slightly cartoony but with an enormous range of emotion and expressiveness. There's obviously more than a little anime influence on her proportions and style, though her linework and blocking is much more western. The locations and characters in Friends With Boys are all extremely detailed, with a really engaging warmth.

Friends With Boys was originally published as a webcomic, which has since been taken down and replaced with a physical, book-like object which you can hold in your hands and give to friends and enemies alike. You can read the first 20 pages and order a copy from her website.

Kat Leyh's series Supercakes has been coming out in bits and pieces on her Tumblr since the beginning of the year, and I predict that she will be doing big things in the comics world before long. It's set in a world with superheroes - I know, I know, but just hear me out - however the comics themselves have virtually no fighting or explosions, and nothing that looks even remotely like any of the standard tropes of the genre. Instead, we spend our time with a superpower endowed couple, May and Molly, a pair of polar opposites who just happen to also fight crime from time to time. The best place to start is with the first story, Pancakes; it feels as though it was intended as a one off, but the characters are so immediately engaging and the style so delightful that readers clamoured for more, and Leyh has been providing. The most recent story deals with an awkward, chaotic, wonderful gathering in which Molly is finally introduced to May's sprawling family, all of whom have powers of one form or another. It's perfectly observed, delightfully illustrated and just plain lovely.

All of the Supercakes material, as well as a lot of other work from Leyh, is available at the above link.

Subatomic Party Girls is one of only a few series that I'll be covering here which has more than one person behind the wheel, since indie creators tend to like to throw themselves in and handle the writing and drawing themselves. It's by bloggers Chris Sims and Chad Bowers, and illustrated by Erica Henderson, and it's a crazy-fun adventure featuring an all girl power pop trio who, through the machinations of their evil manager, find themselves shot to the far side of the galaxy. It's like Farscape but with more guitar solos and feline space pirates. There are three issues out so far, and though the release schedule is somewhat haphazard the quality is improving dramatically with each issue. The art is vividly coloured, with an enormous amount of character given the economy of linework, and all three members of Berrilym Steel burst with personality. The same goes for the writing, which hurtles along at a breathless, witty pace as the girls lurch from one hilarious disaster to the next.

Subatomic Party Girls comes out through Monkeybrain Studios - they're a great little outfit that publish creator owned stuff of an enormous range and variety, eschewing traditional mediums and going straight to digital via the Comixology platform, and this isn't the only one of their books that you'll be hearing about on here. I could write a whole article about how great Comixology has been for indie books, and my gut-sucking terror at its upcoming acquisition by Amazon, but that too is a story for another day. Besides, my therapist tells me that I'm not supposed to fly into wild panics about things which are only happening in my head.

MOVING RIGHT ALONG, one of the most successful independent creators of recent years is Becky Cloonan, who has climbed to the dizzying heights of being the first woman to illustrate an issue of Batman.* She's put out an enormous body of work in recent years, but the one that I want to talk about is the series of self contained one-shot comics she's been self publishing under the Ink and Thunder imprint. Wolves, The Mire and now Demeter were originally available only at conventions, but can now be found on Comixology as well. They're very dark, poignant little fairy tales, as grimy and bloody and straight-up frightening as the original stories of Grimm and earlier. To my knowledge, none of them are direct adaptations of particular stories, but rather exist in that world and play with those tropes, in a way that is both loving and self aware, without ever being pretentious or deconstructionist in the least. Every one of these stories has a twist in the tail that renders them at once fascinating and unbearably tragic. To be honest, I want to talk a lot more about how beautfully and elegantly constructed the three stories are, but they're all short sharp shocks that I don't want to risk spoiling for you. Trust me on this. You trust me, right?

The amazing thing about Cloonan's art is how versatile it is. When drawing her issue of Batman it's only slightly sketchier than the usual artist on the book, while Demterer is deep and moody, saturated in shadow and fur and darkness. The Mire, a more horror-focussed story, is different once again, rendered in much more precise detail, the better to make out every gaping socket and writhing maggot. She is especially gifted when to comes to drawing faces and facial expressions - while these tales are narrated by the characters, all the better to give them an oral history, fairy tale feel, more often than not the reader needs only to look at the illustration to tell what's going on in the character's heart.

Paul Tobin and Colleen Coover both have quite a few professional credits to their name - he's written for several Marvel Adventures books as well as Age of the Sentry, and she's contributed art to X-Men: First Class and the Adventure Time comic - but here they're teamed for the bright, indie adventure Bandette, another series coming out through Monkeybrain Studios. Like all of their books, it's available exclusively through Comixology.

Now, I'm someone who takes his vocabulary pretty seriously, so I really do feel like there needs to be a word for something more 'charming' than 'charming', since this book has FAR too much charm to be encompassed by those two tiny syllables. ULTRACHARM 3000, perhaps. Anyhow, the premise of this ULTRACHARM 3000 story is great: taking inspiration from Tintin and the Scarlet Pimpernel alike, it's about Bandette, the most clever, dashing and talented thief in all of Paris. She leads a scrappy band of urchins and miscreants, fighting crime when called upon by the perpetually embattled Inspector Belgique, using her roguish wiles to break up a hostage situation or steal back and return a set of missing Rembrants. Well...return MOST of them. Bandette is a character who bursts with colour and personality, an irresistible prankster who loves life and never lets even the most dire situation get her down. When the title character is having this much fun, the reader can't help but do the same. In the age of maudlin, angst ridden superheroes perpetually rending their capes and long underwear with guilt and misery, it's a real delight to read about a character who uses her skills not because they're a terrible burden but because being the greatest thief of all time is awesome. The art is peppy and fun, and complements the story perfectly. Bandette looks slightly ridiculous in her costume, but that's sort of the point - she's a ridiculous person, and that's why we love her. The characters all pop with style and personality, Coover's art does a great job of contrasting the bold, simple action with lovingly painted backdrops that give the whole thing that Parisian je ne sais quoi.

Finally, we have someone who has been around for a while but definitely deserves a mention: Carla Speed McNeil. Not only does she have the coolest name of any person working in comics, at least until Jake Hammerslam finally finishes his twelve part epic about nurses in the the Spanish Civil War, but she also writes Finder, one of my favourite indie comics of all time. Finder is set in the distant future, a sprawing epic that weaves a dense, multilayered story set in the enormous, decaying city of Anvard and the surrounding desert. This is a collapsed city, the relic of a lost technological age, inhabited by dozens of different tribes who do their best to coexist and make this strange, fractured place their own.  It tells the story of Jaegar, a wanderer and troublemaker, and the various lives that he touches, for better or for worse. Along the way we're introduced to a vast array of troubled, broken characters all trying to do their best in this improvised, haphazardly constructed world.

It's dizzying stuff, dense and fast and smart in a way that most writers only dream of being, with aspects of mythology and cyberpunk and anthropology woven elegantly together. The sheer rate of ideas per minute is incredible, and the granular detail in the worldbuilding is spectacular - for example, the lighting dome that covers the city is breaking down, and nobody knows how to repair it, but there are festivals that kick off as soon as it goes dark. Hell, there are even godlike figures who embody that time of year. Questions of identity and gender play powerful roles as well - there are some clans in which all the members dress as women, some with strictly hierarchical gender roles, and some that bear virtually no resemblance to any human culture you can think of. Under all of these background details, the human story that rests at the heart of Finder is deeply powerful, with the first book detailing Jaegar's return to Anvard for the first time in years, whereupon he must deal with the complex social and moral requirements thrown up by a close friend and former commanding officer who has become violently unstable, and increasingly dangerous to his family.

This is one of the few books here that isn't online, so if  you're interested in getting your hands on some, I recommend the massive Finder Library editions. They're dauntingly doorstop-sized, but utterly gorgeous, and heavily annotated by McNeil - something which can be invaluable in some of the stranger, more ethereal sections of the tale.

Whew. That's a lot of comics! We've barely scratched the surface, though. Honourable mentions go to Jason Lutes, whose epic Berlin tells the story of the great city between the wars in rich and meticulously researched fashion, Brandon Graham, whose King City is one of the strangest and most original sci-fi metropolises out there and Jess Fink, whose Chester 5000 series is smarter and sexier than an erotic webcomic about a Victorian robot has any right to be.

Which indie comics do you love? Have I missed any of your favourites? Do you make one yourself, and want to let the world know? Direct your eyes downwards to the comments section, my friend, or hit me up at @CrimeAlleyNotes on your modern Twitter Social Media Device.

*Some might say that the fact that that didn't happen until 2013 indicates that there's, I don't know, some sort of gross, institutionalised cancer lurking at the heart of the industry we love, but who can tell. Maybe it's just that no women asked until now.

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