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Gaiman and McKean make for a stellar team. One a master of dark, yet whimsical fantasy writing, the other an artist who introduced a post-modern, industrial aesthetic to the comic industry. During Gaiman’s seminal Sandman for DC’s mature reader’s Vertigo imprint McKean provided much of the amazing cover art and continued to do so for various spin-off titles that emerged afterward. He also interpreted the esoteric script for Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth as a Jungian nightmare that elevated DC’s Batman mythos far above its pulp origins.

The dynamic duo have moved on from comics to greener pastures, with McKean providing the credit sequence for Gaiman’s television series Neverwhere (as well as the cover for the tie-in novel). Later McKean took on directing, with his assured debut Mirrormask, scripted by Gaiman (of course) a hallucinatory vision of a rust-brown dream world, with winged gorillas, stone titans and dark queens waiting within.

With this book the pair took their inspiration from Gaiman’s daughter’s complaint about his ‘crazy hair’. The story’s narrator explains to young Bonnie just how crazy his hair really is. Featuring pirates, a polar bear, exotic birds, butterflies and even stalking tigers, it is very crazy hair indeed.

Hunters send in

Expeditions

Radio back

Their positions

Still, we’ve lost

A dozen there

Lost inside

My crazy hair.

Eventually Bonnie attempts to groom the narrator, only to disturb a mysterious voice inside the hirsute jungle. She is suddenly seized and pulled into the world of hair and has many amazing adventures.

Gaiman’s rhymes accompany McKean fantastic visuals throughout. Giant, cracked follicle seas; tentacle-like strands stretching out from the narrator to Bonnie; a comb thieving blue polar bear; and curiously lifelike merry-go-round creatures. Although one line describes – Butterflies and Cockatoos/ Reds and Yellows/Greens and Blues –  McKean’s attempt at my favourite Australian birds look more like parrots. I guess that’s the problem with living on the other side of the world.

In keeping with classic fairytales, while the story of a man with a head full of wonderful creatures seems a fanciful notion, McKean’s angular art-style and crowding shadows introduce a perfectly sinister note to the proceedings. Much like Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are, this is a fairy tale that flirts with scaring the children reading it, while also letting them know it’s ok to be afraid. I attended a signing for this book some months ago in Dublin and McKean spoke about the importance of not censoring dark material in children’s books. He believes it is just as important to frighten your audience as it is to make them laugh, or cry, much like readers of any other age-group. I am eagerly awaiting McKean’s next project, a children’s book on explanations of the meaning of life, written by Richard Dawkins. From the following article

“We take thirteen questions about the world and answer them initially in the ways we have in the past – myth, religion, folk stories – and then present our best scientific answer, which hopefully proves to be even more astonishing and magical than the others.”

What I admire most about Gaiman & McKean’s approach to children’s literature is their refusal to condescend to young readers. It’s something that can so easily scuttle a story, as if kids are unable to tell when they are being lied to, or being force-fed an insipid tale of good triumphing over evil. These two creators do not pretend that there are not reasons to be afraid of the dark, but instead remind their readers that often it is more important to not spend one’s whole life running from shadows.

In short, this is a magical fable that should be enjoyed by everyone. Pick it up.

Now I read the first issue of Brian Wood and Riccardo Burchielli two years ago (cheers Chesney), but only just got the chance to read the trade. What was I waiting for?

Wood imagines a near-future scenario where the United States is torn apart by civil war after years of overseas conflict. The secessionist Middle American states have pushed their way towards the coast, with the island of Manhattan becoming a fortified ‘demilitarized zone’.

Matty Roth is a young photojournalist, who through some string-pulling by his father, has landed the internship of a life-time. Working with award winning journalist Viktor Ferguson, Roth expects it to be a safe cubicle assignment. Instead he is loaded onto a helicopter and flown to Manhattan Island “highlighting what it’s really like for people living in the ‘D.M.Z.”

Turns out the civilians living behind barricades on the island don’t appreciate choppers landing in their neighbourhood. Ferguson and his crew are slaughtered, with Roth barely escaping with his life. Stranded in the D.M.Z. he discovers what he’s been told about the war and life behind the battlelines is mostly lies. Former medical student Zee becomes his reluctant guide and encourages him to write about what is really happening for folks on the mainland. Roth’s status as a journalist opens more doors than he expects, allowing him access to parts of the island only rumoured to exist – the ghost conservationists of Central Park, snipers from the two sides of the conflict who exchange love letters through signs, and the leader of the Free Armies. Just as he starts to find his feet though, Roth’s journalist’s accreditation is stolen by someone looking to impersonate him, leading to a breakneck chase through a booby trapped Manhattan, with no protection from the locals to rely on.

Wood writes convincingly about this ‘second civil war’, where “every day is 9/11“. Research is one of his key strengths. Seeing as he followed D.M.Z. with Northlanders, a Viking comic, I’m not surprised. These first five issues fly past, with action scenes informed by an incisive intelligence. It reads like John Carpenter’s Escape from New York rewritten by Cody Doctorow. Exploitation cinema meets political subtext, guerrilla activist fiction.

One of the ironies of 9/11 was that this attack on the city of New York unified the United States against the threat of terrorism, while resentment of Manhattan excess, East Coast pinko intellectuals and permissive morality continued. Wood actualizes this continuing antagonism towards the East Coast with the civil war, the hatreds stoked by ‘heartland’ shock jocks, Fox News anchors and opportunistic politicians given full force. Matty Roth discovers a world of greys awaiting him on Manhattan, a multiethnic community scavenging for itself among the ruins.

The art by Burchielli rests somewhere on the line between Scottish penciler Jock and Paul Pope. Scratchy lines and streets drenched in shadows. It’s very kinetic, complimenting Roth’s breathless pursuit by soldiers and gangs.

I enjoyed the story a great deal and am looking forward to collecting the next few trades.

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