Monday, 31 May 2010

[341] Everyone is Talking About the Weather

It's not enough. That needs to be said early and with emphasis, although that is not exactly a bad thing.

Julia Scheele has been grinding out an assortment of comics in a prolific and eclectic fashion for some time now, from beguiling standalone illustrations to her work with erratically-bearded writer Matthew Sheret. She has even contributed a brilliant film review for Electric Sheep, and is orchestrating the ace artists' jam How Fucking Romantic. But amid this flurry of talent, there's a sneaking suspicion that she'd make a cracking autobiographical comics creator.

Cases in point. Her two solo pieces in the Solipsistic Pop anthologies, both grounded in autobiography: the more recent ('Middle of the Storm') being an affecting study regarding the peace of romance, using chaotic page layouts to achieve a non-textual eloquence, and the other ('My Year As A Christian') being a very text-led narrative about her youth in South America. While both pieces display different stylistic qualities, they each are rooted in personal, empathic themes - love, coming of age - revealing a voice that is humble, yet charming.

Her new comic, Everyone is Talking About the Weather, fits right in with these two previous works, but has an ambition that looks far beyond any of Scheele's work so far. It is a multi-layered piece, mixing autobiographical narration, family relationships, history and politics. Like Art Spiegelman did with Maus, Scheele mixes the personal and the historical, as she takes the reader along on her journey to learn about her father's life, and his part in the 1968 student activist movements in Germany, while in the process both learning about her parents and tentatively engaging with her own political awareness.

To this end, Scheele weaves a tapestry of personal, family and cultural memory, mixing her own voice with her father's, and letting her artwork share the page with photographs. The impetus for the project, Scheele reminisces, comes from seeing unsettling photographs taken by her grandfather who was stationed on the Second World War's Eastern Front: 'they greatly disturbed me - such physical evidence, of my country's past, the past I've always felt so much guilt about...'. The worldwide youth movements of 1968 marked generational upheaval, and in Germany in particular it gathered a cathartic quality, outing the sins and trauma of the older generation and cleansing the national psyche. So it is fitting that such a crossroads of history should represent so much for Scheele, as she constructs her own identity and political stance.

Engaging with lofty politics and historical events is an ambitious task, but this is well grounded in personal tales and anecdotes that provide emotional anchors across the eras - from Scheele being perplexed by the London G20 protests in 2009, to her father's youth, which forms the backbone of this first issue. So while writers such as Heinrich Böll and Erich Maria Remarque are mentioned, the comic doesn't stumble into a pace-breaking attempt to explain their place in the discourse, with such information being footnoted in mini-biographies at the back.

Instead, we have a fascinating snapshot of Scheele's father working in a rural bank, situated near the KZ Esterwegen concentration camp, which laid claim to the SS guards' accounts twenty years after the war's end, and burned the paperwork after. Or a side-glance at her parents' developing relationship and their move to Cologne, shown in a beautiful image of her father and mother holding hands against that city's backdrop, evoking the twin spires of its Cathedral.

As she grapples with a complex mixture of topics, Scheele adapts accordingly in her artwork. It's just wonderful to see her working in this long-form setting, but the subtle tweaks are tasteful and thematically appropriate - such as a stylised, sketchy depictions of WW2, with characters and context shrouded by the depersonalising effect of history, or the stick-figure fantasy of her father as a romanticised radical.

These are augmentations to Scheele's painted approach, which simply looks stunning splashed across the comic's large newspaper-size pages, printed by the team at the Newspaper Club publishing service. It's a canvas that is used well, particularly in the front cover, which uses the fold crease to divide the comic's title and subtitle ('Everyone is Talking About the Weather: or trying to understand my own politics through my father's political history'), and further marks out Scheele's tiered themes, of linking political awareness with introspection.

But, as I said. It's not enough. Not really. At 10 interior pages, it feels short, abrupt. However, that is not strictly a negative comment on the comic itself. Sure, this is a taster, the opening issue of a much larger story, and the last page - which teases the next issue - is a terrific little strip about beards and social tension. But this is a project with large ambitions, that needs to gather its own steam (and needs supporting).

This issue is introduced by a blog post by the artist, where she first announces the project after interviewing her father. It is dated June 15th 2009. I hope we're not waiting as long for the next issue. Even though any work from Scheele is a joy to imbibe - and, boy, there's plenty of it popping up all the time - Everyone is Talking About the Weather has the potential to be something very special indeed.

After a limited run for the Toronto Comic Arts Festival, Everyone is Talking About the Weather is currently for sale at Orbital Comics. A larger print run is expected to be available both online and off - as is so often the case with small press works - once the creator can afford it. Check out more of Julia Scheele's work here.

Sunday, 30 May 2010

[340] The Losers (2010) Review

The Losers is out now, so I should probably post a link to my review. I interviewed Idris Elba about the film late last year at the MCM Expo, so it was good to finally see it. I don't expect it to do well at the box office, but it's certainly not a bad movie to have on the cinematic landscape.

Wedged as it is next to both Kick-Ass and Iron Man 2, it seems that The Losers is destined to be this year's comic book also-ran, lacking in familiarity, controversy and attractive, bankable stars. That's a shame, because when this adaptation (from the Andy Diggle/Jock book) hits its stride, the film is a pithy, adrenaline-fuelled saviour for the action genre.

We meet The Losers, a gang of specialised army badasses, in the Bolivian rainforest. They play cards, and use absurdly huge sidearms instead of chips, raising the stakes with increasingly imposing penis metaphors, and exposing their glistening biceps with Predator-reminiscent macho glee. And there probably hasn't been such a rippling parade of broadly caricatured brawn in the 20-odd years since.

Read the full article here.

Sunday, 23 May 2010

[339] Comix at John Harvard Library, Southwark.

Spurious personal observation: the London borough of Southwark has the best local libraries. What do you think? Well, Peckham Library (now ten years old) is an imposing, colourful, Tetronimo-shaped beauty, livening up the town centre and, among other things, packing a sweet stock of comics for citizens old and young to pilfer.

But it might not be the cutest of the bunch any more, after the re-vamped John Harvard library opened late last year. Named for the pastor born and raised locally, who went off to America and had a college named after him, the library is bright and welcoming, sporting a coffee shop and (gasp) self-service machines, as well as the Local History library and other conference rooms.

This is simple stuff. What smacked my gob, however, was the little bits of artwork on the walls, themed to the specific sections of the library. Such as a six-part mural placed above the Teen and Graphic Novels sections.

Neat, don't you think? Look a little closer...

Spot the references? (Click to enlarge.) Maus, Persepolis, Ghost World, Sandman, Hellboy, Joe Sacco, Epileptic, Charles Burns, Jim Woodring... splendidly, respectfully rendered and incorporated into this six-part cycle. Awesome! The mural was created by artist Mark Stafford, who should be commended for his attention to detail. You can read more about his work, and see cleaner images of the mural, at his site.

I believe I spent more time staring at the wall than looking through the actual books, stifling giggles and wishing that the old man or shifty teen sitting at the public computer terminals would reciprocate, and maybe share a high five over obscure alternative comics knowledge. No luck, though. So I had to console myself, then, with the knowledge that my council tax is going to a good cause.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

[338] Coffee + Creativity

After Sizemore's recent post on the benefit of writing everything down, I was reminded of a short creative exercise I wrote earlier this year, touching on similar points. Something from the Loose Ideas folder. I think it deserves a home. So this is me, attempting something creative. Do your worst. It will be appreciated nonetheless.

Nearly all my scripts start in a cafe. They can develop however they want from there, but the cafe is where they begin. "A man walks into a cafe, carrying a briefcase and a wilting rose." "A girl sits in a cafe, staring out at the rain pummelling the pavement outside, twirling a business card in her slender fingers." It's a blank canvas. Readers and interpreters can spin that out as they wish. It's a neutral space that stays non-specific, but invites illustration. Is it a chain cafe? Are there sofas, or chairs? Do they serve food? Are they open all night? What's the ambience? Is there a shuffled playlist of suitably mellow MP3s droning in the background? You tell me.

I may add in these bits of colouring and information as I go along, I may get rid of the scene altogether, but I always start there, in the cafe. Two men (one in coat-tails, the other donning tweed and spectacles) argue about Stravinsky's late dalliance with twelve-tone serialism. A group of exchange students proclaim generally and with great authority about their home country, comparing with great swipes and strides its foibles with that of the United Kingdom.

A cafe is a handy location: a hub of social life, a well of stories and encounters. A waitress removes a pencil from behind her ear, and squints as she doodles a sketch on a customer's receipt. Another groans as the coffee machine splutters scalding hot milk onto the sandwich preparation surface.

It is a stage for building up characters, for testing out dialogue and seeing how exchanges progress and ferment. A void where time is irrelevant, and space can be rigidly defined, or kept slack. It can be a waystation on a journey, or the last bastion of human culture. What's more, the combination of hot beverages, comfortable furniture and a welcoming atmosphere manages to support the most intimate of conversations. Some chatter may not be intimate at all. Two girls share a pain au chocolat. One pokes it with a fork, as the other mops up the pastry crumbs with a licked finger. "I could tell the film was going to be terrible," Fork says to Licked Finger.

"I just knew. In the reception area, before you go into the screening room, they had laid out this massive spread. The food of gods. You know, they actually put out fois gras? I didn't even know what the hell it was when I first saw it. I had to ask the guy serving, and he enlightened me with this slightly cheeky look on his face. A little crack in the veneer. I knew then - this can't be good. When they're expecting bad reviews, they whip out the high class dining."

Licked Finger laughs, Fork continues, stabbing the air periodically. Meanwhile, a teenager sits in a greasy spoon, leafing through a second hand copy of Gregory Corso's selected letters. His engrossed reading is only interrupted by his shovelling of soggy bacon into his mouth, his eyes barely leaving the page.

The cafe is the world in miniature, and the imagination made manifest. It contains and inspires.

By that token, I find myself in a coffee house. I am waiting for an engagement. They are late. I sit on a high chair, the kind that frustrates, due to the awkward lack of comfortable leg support. Mine dangle. My bag, stuffed with paper and unfinished projects, has been given its own chair. Over my shoulder, a middle-aged gentleman stares at a Blackberry, a neglected Macchiato cooling in front of him. The rain outside stops. Inside, it is quiet, but music plays. I finish my hot chocolate in three gulps, and cannot help but think of time. Time passes. Time beyond the agreed point that I had pencilled into my diary weeks before. Not that this meeting had much competition. Even though it is early evening, my day starts in a cafe.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

[337] Type the words, check the facts...

Still working away at Sight & Sound. Moved from filing to some heavy duty work for the next issue, such as transcribing articles, fact checking and sourcing images. It has been odd not writing as much, but I've had plenty of stuff to do. I have also written some sample work for the editors - which will find a home later on, I hope.

All this is separate from my research into the magazine's approach to new media, and its online profile - the culmination of which is a 5,000 word report. My notebook is filling up. Exciting.

(Kurosawa, highlighter pens and the BFI information database. I'm obviously doing something right...)

I am hoping to do a few capsule-sized blog posts in the coming days, in order to keep some sort of a momentum going. There have been lovely things happening this month, and there is much more to come. Bear with me.

Monday, 17 May 2010

[336] Den of Geek hit 10k

Den of Geek recently surpassed the 10,000 article mark. This is just one of a few milestones they have passed recently, including their third birthday. I felt this was a cause for celebration.

Here's to the next 10,000.

This inspired me to start thinking of geeky skating tricks. The best I could come up with? The 360 Sonic Screwdriver. Any better suggestions? You know where to go.

Monday, 3 May 2010

[335] Sight & Sound’s top five film books

As mentioned in the last post, I'm currently working hard at Sight & Sound magazine...

...posing for a lead image for the 'Top Five Film Books' feature, now on the Sight & Sound website.