Gosh Recommends… Scary-Go-Round: Great Aches

Story and Art: John Allison

In recent years, the British independent comics scene has not been the picture of rude health. There are passionate and talented creators at work, but in terms of material that not only evokes the mood and culture of these islands and still translates well to other countries, we aren’t exactly leading the pack. However, since 1998, writer/artist John Allison of Manchester has been producing brilliant strips featuring the strikingly normal, and normally striking, residents of Tackleford, a fictional Yorkshire town.

If this all totally fails to ring a bell, it’s most likely because John Allison is one of a species that rarely seems to crop up in comic shops – a webcomic creator. Not only that, but his first regular series, Bobbins, was one of the first comic strips to find success in that medium, and despite a successful sideline selling print collections through conventions and mail order, Allison still publishes free daily comics online.

Great Aches collects most of 2006’s daily updates from Allison’s website (www.scarygoround.com), and the stories herein serve as perfect examples of the likeable, witty and scattershot sensibility that has made the strip so popular. Bobbins, the previous incarnation of his comics, served as a testing ground in terms of art and writing, and changed dramatically over the course of its five-year run. Starting out as a Seinfeld-inspired slice-of-life comedy drama, drawn sketchily in flat-toned pen and ink, it later shuffled its cast, took on a clean, computer-assisted art style and mutated into something altogether more eccentric. After killing off a number of cast regulars, taking the survivors to a somewhat weirder world and changing the name, Scary-Go-Round was born.

Allison’s work is still developing as he goes, shifting from computer-drawn to hand-drawn art at a moment’s notice, but always confidently maintaining the equilibrium of speed and quality. The cast still rotates, with new sets of characters being introduced and old ones being subbed in and out, killed off, resurrected and killed again. This system provides Allison with a huge back catalogue of players (in a manner pleasingly reminiscent of the Simpsons), which invokes a warm, familiar glow as old incidental personages make cameo appearances or even move to centre stage for a storyline or two.

The strip’s supernatural drive adds a great deal of focus to its plot arcs, and helps it to avoid falling into the trap of navel-gazing character meditation. Despite this, Allison finds time to explore the lives of the Young People, or ‘kids’, and demonstrate their ‘alright’ness, particularly in Great Aches, wherein a number of teenage cast members’ lives and loves are spotlighted without the comic losing sight of devil bears and Communist robots. This lack of self-involvement also means it’s one of the few comics in the world where the characters can talk about music or wear a band’s t-shirt without raising bile in the reader’s gullet and making them want to set fire to the book using a bed of shredded NMEs as kindling.

Great Aches showcases a great English storytelling talent, telling charming and undoubtedly English stories, who deserves a wider audience. Also he draws cute girls. Become part of the ever-widening fanbase and pick up a copy of Great Aches today. We’ve got copies in-store now for £10 apiece, with the new volume, Ahoy Hoy, turning up very soon indeed. If you’re still not convinced, check out the archives here and buy a print copy later – the man is deserving of your money.

Recommended by Tom

Gosh Recommends… Dennis the Menace

Story and Art: Hank Ketcham.

No, not the stripy-jumpered star of the Beano but rather his US counterpart (although I’m guessing you probably knew this already given that you’re reading this here). This Dennis started life the same year as ours (hence the lack of legal implications) from the from the dip-pen of one Hank Ketcham, and Mr Ketcham and his dip-pen are precisely the reason you ought to be picking up these books.

This version of Dennis the Menace is probably best known to UK audiences via its 1980’s animated TV series (retitled Dennis for obvious reasons), and the 1993 Home Alone cash-in movie version. This latter production starred a perfectly cast Walter Matthau and Joan Plowright as Mr and Mrs Wilson (who must’ve wondered what they’d done wrong to end up there) and, as Dennis himself, a young boy with a name that only an American child actor could have: Mason Gamble. If Master Gamble’s interpretation is your only exposure to Dennis the Menace then you really ought to do yourself a favour and seek out the source material.

In the past few years Fantagraphics have taken on the task of reprinting all of Ketcham’s Dennis the Menace strips. So far four volumes have been published in hardcover with a softcover edition of the first volume just released. Alongside these releases Fantagraphics have also released Where’s Dennis?: The Magazine Art of Hank Ketcham (Edited by Shane Glines and Alex Chun) and The Merchant Of Dennis: The Autobiography of Hank Ketcham.

In some ways it baffles me that these Dennis the Menace collections don’t sell nearly as well as the Peanuts equivalents. Like Peanuts the strips themselves are gently comic, rather than laugh out loud funny, although this often doesn’t prepare for the occasional really funny, dark or even borderline sinister gag that can take you quite by surprise. Like Peanuts it’s also steeped in that lovely 50s Americana that gives you that wonderful feeling you can only usually achieve by watching a live action Disney movie on a wet Bank Holiday Monday while enjoying some hot tea and toast.

The cartoons themselves are almost always one panel gag strips, presented squarely with a hand drawn panel border and rarely featuring any speech balloons. This makes them large enough to fully show off Ketcham’s artwork and so each strip also works as a lovely illustration.

I was completely new to Ketcham’s work. These collections really opened my eyes to what an amazing cartoonist he is. I found myself thinking I’d take a quick flick through its pages but ended up dwelling on page after page. Just take a look at the artwork. It’s astounding! Like Alex Toth’s work there’s not a line on the page that doesn’t need to be there. I suspect that the late-great Mr Toth might’ve been a bit of a fan himself.

The brilliant Jaime Hernandez of Love and Rockets fame (as if you didn’t know) is certainly a fan. On the back cover of the first volume he writes: “I’ve learnt more from a single panel of Dennis the Menace than a six month art course”. That’s not hyperbole (well it is, but its not just hyperbole) you can really see what he means. The influence is very apparent. His Little Maggie strips especially owe an obvious debt to Dennis the Menace.

So in short, if you like Peanuts or Alex Toth or Jaime Hernandez, then take a look at Hank Ketcham’s Complete Dennis the Menace volumes.

Recommended by Nat

Gosh Recommends… Criminal: Coward and Lawless

Story: Ed Brubaker
Art: Sean Phillips
Marvel Comics Icon

Let it be said: Criminal is cool. Not because it’s been optioned for a movie, or because it’s been frequently name-dropped by Wikipedia-savvy pop culture commentators. Rather, Criminal is a comic that manages to be identifiably of its day while remaining totally unique; that makes the medium feel fresh and exciting instead of ripe for franchise development; that stands as the unfiltered vision of two creators at the top of their game. And that’s cool.

Okay, I admit it, I’m gushing, but I can back it up. Even though the creators have openly drawn influence from pulp films, novels and comic books from the 30s up to the modern day, there’s something about Criminal that singles it out as being especially deserving of its 2007 ‘best new series’ Eisner award.

It could be Ed Brubaker’s writing, which so plainly displays his love for gritty crime stories and speaks of the twenty-odd years he’s spent refining his craft. From his semi-autobiographical Lowlife comics in the early nineties to pulp noir superhero works like Sleeper and Daredevil, Brubaker appears to have been picking away at the industry, looking for the right nook from which to tell his tawdry tales of murder and misery. In that sense, Criminal feels very much like a homecoming for him – the perfect corner in which to carve out his own world and fill it with scintillatingly tragic events.

The comic’s glowing personality could also be down to Sean Phillips’ art. It is worth noting at this point that Sean Phillips is an artistic genius, in the most genuine sense of the word. While in Criminal he employs a heavily-shadowed, realistic style, he’s not restricted by photo reference, which becomes evident in more action-heavy or comic moments in the book where small flourishes of bombastic dynamism or exaggerated expression really make the panels sing.

Most likely, as with most good comics, the answer lies in the synchronicity between writer and artist, and in that sense the Brubaker and Phillips team is one of the all-time greats. While Brubaker has also worked brilliantly with such artists as Michael Lark on Gotham Central and Scene of the Crime, his scene-setting and storytelling beats are captured with almost preternatural accuracy and effectiveness by Phillips here. Turns of the head, moments of silence or single-panel flashbacks are palpable, and no inch of space feels wasted or unnecessary.

All of which is to say nothing of the actual content of the books. Criminal has thus far been collected into two trade paperbacks, each collecting a five-issue story which can be read and enjoyed totally in isolation. With characters and events informing each other between volumes (if only in the background), there’s a real cumulative build to the series which serves to deepen your investment in the characters and their actions. Another knock-on effect of this is the fact that Criminal is one of those rare comics that you will actually come back to, picking up new in-jokes and references on the second or even third time through. As an example, by the time that Criminal Vol 2 #2 (not as yet collected) rolled around, the historical significance of Teeg Lawless, Vietnam veteran and deadbeat dad, had been so well established that the prospect of actually meeting him in the pages of the comic was a genuine thrill.

While the purpose of this article is to sell you on the trades, I recommend immediately going out and catching up with the even-cooler latest issues. After the ten issues collected here came out, the comic was re-launched in a new format with more pages of story per issue and, most importantly, more back-page articles. Criminal’s back-up columns have become legendary in a short space of time, and with good reason. Brubaker has assembled an impressive crew of industry noir enthusiasts including such diverse figures as Scalped creator Jason Aaron and actor, writer and comedian Patton Oswalt, to contribute reviews and retrospectives which should prove fascinating to anybody with even a passing interest in pulp fiction. To put the icing on the cake, each article is awash in Phillips’ gorgeous spot illustrations and portraiture.

While the stripped-down nature of the trades allows the quality of the material to speak for itself, you’re missing out on the beautiful design, expanded content and expert pacing of the monthly instalments which make this one of the increasingly rare titles on the shelves that reaffirm the value and the joy of periodical comics.

Pick up the Coward and Lawless paperbacks and then catch up with Criminal 2 #1 and #2 from our back issues. You won’t be disappointed.

Recommended by Tom – some images courtesy of Sean Phillips’ excellent blog.

Gosh Recommends… Tekkon Kinkreet

Story and Art: Taiyo Matsumoto
Viz Media

Picture a Batman and Robin story put through a Peter Pan filter by Takeshi Kitano and you’d only be halfway to conceiving the unique, terrible beauty that is Tekkon Kinkreet, previously published under the name Black & White. Its creator, Taiyo Matsumoto, is singular amongst manga authors in that not only does he seem to take a stab at a different genre with each comic he produces, but also in that his inspirations and driving influences aren’t entirely Japanese. Indeed, to build a more complete picture of the book you’d need to take into account the vast impact that European comic authors such as Moebius had on Matsumoto’s work from an early stage. These influences are clear here as in all of his later work, but in theme, style and setting, Tekkon Kinkreet remains eminently Japanese.

Matsumoto puts his large cast of characters through traumatic, joyful and harrowing events that deal with the key themes of duty, trust and the loss of innocence. Despite the long cast list, Matsumoto tethers this ballad to inner-city life around the central characters Black and White, two pre-teen kids living on the streets of the metropolitan Treasure Town.

This is their story, and it’s one told through expert use of magical realism and comic book tradition, as the pseudo-superheroic Black and White leap between rooftops and beat down gangsters with more-than-human strength and agility. Black is the protector in the relationship, keeping a caring eye on the younger, more vulnerable, slightly unhinged White. At its core, Tekkon Kinkreet is the story of Black’s attempts to keep White emotionally and physically safe from the dark secrets of the big city and the obstacles he encounters on his way. White’s childish innocence and enthusiasm are truly convincing and cement the book’s heartbreakingly bittersweet tone.

Tekkon Kinkreet is a genuinely memorable work of fiction. Matsumoto’s story and aesthetic straddle literary and artistic traditions to create something entirely unique, evoking a great deal with great clarity in a deceptively chaotic style. The pace of the storytelling communicates the book’s ideas and plot faultlessly and the dialogue rings true at just about every turn, but the true effect that Tekkon Kinkreet has on the reader is most certainly more than the sum of its parts. On top of all this, it’s a deeply enjoyable read – and one that will stay with you long after you’ve reached the end.

Recommended by Tom

Gosh Recommends… Eric Powell’s The Goon

Story and Art: Eric Powell
Dark Horse Comics

There exists an interesting dichotomy in the comics world. You cannot often have a continuing series that is consistently both a superb read and a feast for the eyes. Don’t get me wrong, there are fantastic comics with very good art (Invincible being a notable example) but it is rare where both the writing and the art are incredible.

For five years now, Dark Horse have had such a comic in Eric Powell’s The Goon. The story follows Goon, a street tough who runs his local town under the guise of an enforcer for Mafia don Labrazio. In reality Goon’s murdered the don and is running the show using the dead mobster’s name as mythical tool to scare people into paying up. Goon is joined on his endeavours by Franky, a pint-sized degenerate who enjoys nothing more than violence and infidelity.

Goon’s gang fights to keep his turf safe from all manner of hoodlums and monsters, with his arch nemesis being a nameless zombie priest and his horde of slack-jawed zombies.

The series is insane and hilarious; Powell is a master of comic timing. His artistic mastery accentuates his side-splitting dialogue, in an almost cinematic way. He manages to create genuinely likable characters, and you’ll undoubtedly fall in love with The Goon’s myriad of supporting cast members. My personal favourites are Spider (a small time criminal, who’s also a giant spider) and Willie Nagel (a zombie con-man.)

Early on in the series the audience is told in passing of a tragic, unspoken-of event in Goon’s past which occurred in Chinatown and four years later, Powell revealed the secret in the original graphic novel named, appropriately enough, Chinatown. A departure from the usual comedic flair, this wholly serious story is beautifully crafted, with some of the artist’s best work to date. The story itself is incredibly moving, bringing a lump to your throat as you see the Goon’s heart ripped asunder. Powell uses a slow build, allowing the reader to know there’s no happy ending in sight, but still delivers a punch to the gut in the final pages. Eric Powell demonstrates the depth of his creation by showing that this funny book can transcend its comic horror stable, and move into the more serious dramatic arena. If you’ve enjoyed the regular series, don’t be put off.

What’s brilliant about this series, and became evident in re-visiting the beginning issues, is that Powell has been crafting a long plot from the very beginning. Where issues have seemed incongruous to the overall workings, they’ve later been revealed as part of a larger whole. With the series soon to hit its quarter century, revelations are sure to abound.

The Goon is easily one of the most enjoyable reads in comics today. It is consistently entertaining, filled with thrills, chills and laughs. Having just re-read from the beginning, through the original graphic novel Chinatown, to the latest issue (#23), I remembered that comics can still be moving and astonishing. If you enjoy solid stories with a comic edge, and some of the most gorgeous and finely crafted art being produced in the medium, then make yours Goon.

Goon is currently in book form up to and including #18 of the current series, as well as the separate Chinatown OGN. There is also a collection of Powell’s first Goon work called Rough Stuff, this doesn’t play into the current series.

The complete list of currently available collections is as follows:
Vol 0 SC Rough Stuff
Vol 1 SC Nothin’ But Misery
Vol 2 SC My Murderous Childhood
Vol 3 SC Heaps of Ruination
Vol 4 SC Virtue and the Grim Consequences Thereof
Vol 5 SC Wicked Inclinations
Chinatown HC

Recommended by Matt

Gosh Recommends… Sam & Max Surfin’ The Highway

Story and Art: Steve Purcell
Telltale Press

The various stand-out entries in the genre of late-20th-century independent humour comics shared a number of similar characteristics. They were usually the product of a creator’s singular vision, they were usually deeply demented, and five-odd years after the fact, they were usually almost impossible to find. Thankfully, now, a century later (sort of), this final point has been remedied. Evan Dorkin’s Bill and Ted and Dork comics were republished by Slave Labor, Roger Langridge’s Arc D’Ecco and Fred the Clown were resurrected by Fantagraphics, and now, at long last, Steve Purcell’s Sam & Max: Surfin’ The Highway is back in print in a lush new edition from Telltale Press.

Some people may already know the dog-and-rabbity-thing combo from their other incarnations in video game or Saturday morning cartoon form, but it was the sheer strength of Purcell’s early self-published works that snagged these later expansions to the franchise. Even from the first issue (originally published in 1987), these comics are possessed of an anarchic and lightly satirical vibe all their own, a unique signifier that survives in all the duo’s adventures right up to this day.

The characters’ perennial adaptability is evident in this collection, as they hop, skip and blast their way through full-length comic books, single-page gag strips and colour splash pages in consistently guffaw-inducing style. What’s more, while the characters may have emerged fully-formed, the artwork certainly didn’t, and seeing Purcell’s artistic leaps and bounds through the years adds another dimension of enjoyment to this compilation.

Ignoring the duo’s other appearances over the last 20 years, the material in this collection (some of which is reprinted here for the very first time) stands up brilliantly just as a collection of humour comics. Every page of Surfin’ the Highway is packed full of personality, sight gags and ravishingly pretty/shockingly disgusting pictures. The only downside is that these pages are far too few. Kudos to Steve Purcell on this gorgeous new edition, and here’s to another 20 years of Sam and Max! You crack me up, little buddy.

Recommended by Tom

Some images courtesy of Telltale Games, see more beautiful Steve Purcell artwork on his blog.

Gosh Recommends… Scalped Vols 1 & 2

There are a number of clichés bandied about in the reviews you’ll see of Scalped. Comparisons with HBO series The Wire abound. “Mind blowing”, “spectacular”, “gripping”: I’m happy to say they all apply. Scalped is, quite simply, one of the most exciting new series to come along in years. With the first two volumes now available in trade paperback, it’s a perfect time to jump aboard.

Volume 1 – Indian Country – introduces us to our hero of the piece, Dashiell Bad Horse. Returning with a violent hiss and roar to the Native American reservation he grew up on, Bad Horse is quickly recruited by local casino/crime boss Chief Lincoln Red Crow into the corrupt tribal police force. Working hand in hand with Red Crow’s hired thugs, Bad Horse comes face to face with the reality of life on the rez, not to mention the complications of an old flame, his estranged mother and – it goes without saying – a dark secret.

Having walked with Dashiell Bad Horse into the Prairie Rose Reservation of South Dakota, we spend most of our time throughout Volume 2 – Casino Boogie – with members of the supporting cast. Chief Red Crow, vision-questing drunk Catcher, one-sixteenth Kickapoo badass Diesel, itchy-footed teen Dino Poor Bear and Dashiell’s activist mother, Gina all take their turn in the spotlight. We explore their motivations and history as each plays their role in a single murderous night which promises to reverberate throughout the volumes to come.

Jason Aaron is one of the major new talents of the last several years. Originally breaking in as the winner of a Marvel talent contest, Aaron garnered a great deal of attention for his work on excellent Vietnam drama “The Other Side” (a work dedicated to his cousin, Gustav Hasford, author of The Short Timers). An ear for naturalistic dialogue coupled with a confident command of narrative make Scalped a compulsive read. The characters feel real: complex, layered individuals who are each burdened by their own demons, each striving for their own dreams. The story, too, is kept interesting and lively through twists, turns and the odd bit of non-linear trickery, all the while avoiding the pitfalls which could relegate it to a by-the-numbers crime story. Impressive work, made all the more so by the artwork of Spanish-based Serbian artist RM Guéra.

Guéra is a veteran of the European comics scene, long successful in Serbia, Spain and France. As the sole artist on the first two volumes of Scalped, he creates a consistently visceral atmosphere; a living, breathing environment for his well-realised characters to live in. His use of light and shadow feels natural and unforced and his storytelling is clear and dramatic. In short, he’s perfect for the material. As is colourist Giulia Brusco, whose muted palette of earthy tones communicate the arid, dusty feeling of South Dakota.

More than simply a good read, Scalped is shaping up to be a great crime saga with all the crossover potential of Vertigo TPB mainstays Y the Last Man, 100 Bullets and Preacher. Aaron is so confident in the work that he has given readers a money-back guarantee on the first volume. I recommend you pick up the first volume and discover why no-one has yet taken him up on the offer.

– Andrew.

Gosh! Recommends… The Perry Bible Fellowship: The Trial of Colonel Sweeto and Other Stories HC

Story and Art: Nicholas Gurewitch
Dark Horse Comics

Welcome to the world of the Perry Bible Fellowship, a Pandora’s box of belly laughs wrapped in a colourful hardback shell. Written and drawn by comic genius Nicholas Gurewitch it graces the pages of papers world-wide (you may know it from the Guardian).

PBF is this decade’s Far Side, with whimsical strips that more often then not have you choking with laughter while dealing with a faint sense of guilty unease. Black comedy at its finest.

Gurewitch’s handling of the strip form is a true evolution of the genre. Though the Pilsbury Doughboy-styled characters make frequent appearances, what makes this collection different is the varied styles he works in. From Quentin Blake style watercolours through Edward Gorey-esque pen and ink, Gurewitch shows a versatility of style that you wouldn’t necessarily expect in a newspaper strip.

The Trial of Colonel Sweeto is smart, hilarious and gorgeous; a perfect birthday gift for anyone from their teens and up. It’s a book you’re bound to revisit constantly, still finding fresh laughs in comics you’ve read hundreds of times before. Reasonably priced, the collection features never before published strips. Be warned though: if you buy this as a gift, you may have to go back and get a copy for yourself.

Take a look at Gurewitch’s latest offerings at The PBF’s official website.

Recommended by Matt