Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Double acts and Greek myths

This post is partly about how Useleus, the strip Wilbur Dawbarn and I created for the Phoenix came about and what led to making the central decisions that shaped its dynamic. We'd talked about making a strip together to pitch to the Phoenix, but it wasn't a serious thought until a lot of bits and pieces fell into place around an idea I had scrawled into a sketchbook. The idea began as little more than a name: 'Useleus'.

One of the things I wanted to do was to build a strip around a double act relationship. This was a reaction against Nuke Noodle, my strip for The Dandy, which was a one-man show. With a double act you can get humour in every page if you set up the right dynamic. You don't need an antagonist or people falling over to create humour, you can find it in every exchange. And of course, when you throw an antagonist in there, you've got two characters to react against. Here's a sequence from one of the Useleus strips. I've selected it not only because it highlights what I'm talking about, but because of the beautiful first panel-Wilbur's got a knack for melding goofy characters and evocative locations wonderfully.
The Minotaur is such a wonderful creation-an iconic creature, I had to nab him for this strip. The only problem with the Minotaur is that he's a berserk killer monster who lives in a labyrinth-not much to work with. Here's how it went... I had Useleus' name and so his character had to follow from that- although I didn't have his age-and what I felt was needed as a foil was a sensible stick-in-the-mud type. Whilst researching Greek myths I stumbled upon the story of Chiron, a centaur who was Achilles' teacher and then everything fell into place. I made Useleus into Achilles' younger brother, a constant disappointment to his father but from a line of heroes and thus having hero pretentions of his own, and I made the Minotaur into his teacher. Reversing the character of the Minotaur leant him more humour, and gave him a mysterious backstory that I could play with. 

Incidentally, it wasn't until I'd seen how Wilbur worked with the characters in the first one or two episodes that I felt I saw the characters completely clearly, and could nail them in subsequent scripts. That's what happens with comic strips, they develop and mature and characters evolve. 

In Useleus I found I could have a grand scheme-what becomes of Useleus and how does the Minotaur get his fearsome reputation? To hint at that, I decided to make the introductory narration come from a much older Minotaur, retelling the tales to add to the strip the feel of a legend.

And lastly we went from the Minotaur to plain 'Minotaur'. In the mythology his name is Asterion, but Wilbur felt it sounded too much like Asterix, so we went with just Minotaur-which rather nicely simplified things as it happens.

Speaking of Asterix, here's my top 5 comic double acts. Feel free to write 'What about Calvin and Hobbes!' in the comments section. 

1. Asterix and Obelix.

Can't beat 'em; the perfect combination, physically, intellectually, everythingly. The genius of Asterix is manyfold but one of the greatest things about it is how authentic the relationship feels. Witness the way they get screaming angry at each other, sulk and then embrace in tears. In Asterix and the Banquet, only the fifth book in the series, Obelix can confidentally say:

And we believe him 100%.

2. Loady McGee and Sinus O'Gynus (adults only, kids-don't think of googling them)

The world's most disgusting loser and his nerd pal. Loady frequently betrays and often kills Sinus in the most horrible way possible. Johnny Ryan's creations are mesmerisingly hideous, but somehow also feel like a saturday morning cartoon. 

3. Thompson and Thomson.

Another genius creation and totally breaks the mould of double acts by having two identikit characters. Would it have worked if Hergé had had only one Thompson? Nah. One person falling down the stairs is not that funny, but when two people who look exactly the same do it either in unison or one after the other, it's always funny. 

4. Twain & Einstein

Micheal Kupperman's bizarre pulp story-style teaming of these two because they look vaguely alike is one of the funniest things on earth. 

5. Zubrick and Pogeybait (also adults only)

A personal favourite of mine. Check out early issues of Daniel Clowes' Eightball for these two ugly, moronic losers. 

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Poetry Corner

I wrote a silly children's poem a few years ago called 'Iʼve got an egg-shaped planet in my Grandadʼs hat.' It's a bit rough around the edges, but I present it to you now for your edification. 

Outside the school stood a Ron and a Ruth,
As an Eric revealed a terrible truth,
“I havenʼt created my project for Science!”
“I suppose I could bring a kitchen appliance.”

Ruth, who was clever and good and annoying,
Claimed, (in a way that was soul destroying),
“I have built a volcano from tissues and glue!”
“It rumbles and bubbles and spews out shampoo!”

“Itʼs so realistic, youʼll scamper away,”
“Your pants will fall down, youʼll move to Bombay!”
“Big deal,” said Ron, “I can beat that.”
“Iʼve got an egg-shaped planet in my Grandadʼs hat.”

“Itʼs got sixteen moons of different sizes.”
“It will definitely win all of the prizes.”
“When I show my project to Mr. McThing,”
“Heʼll bow down on his knees and proclaim me the King.”

“On my planet are mountains and rivers,”
“As a classroom project, it really delivers.”
“The mountains are orange and purple and green,”
“One of themʼs hairy and itʼs name is Francine.”

“The rivers have faces and hands and moustaches,”
“The clouds are so clever they have to wear glasses.”
“There are many species of animals there,”
“Thereʼs a kind of giraffe with the head of a bear.”

“There are monsters with teeth coming out of their heads,”
“And a big fat bird with upside-down legs.”
“There are people too, but theyʼre not like us,”
“Their houses can walk and they sleep on the bus.”

“Their faces are bigger than the rest of their body,”
“In the winter they hum a relaxing melody.”
“The tune makes the trees, which are yellows and reds,”
“Chop themselves down and convert into beds.”

“The rainbows are lazy and lie on the ground,”
“They snore with a high-pitched, wobbly sound.”
“I once saw a lion with six legs and no face,”
“Get caught by a hamster after a chase.”

“The hamsters are vicious on this particular land,”
“Theyʼre massive and smelly and ought to be banned.”
“Down at the bottom of one special valley,”
“Lives the King who will form my great big finale.”

“This boss of the people, whoʼs name is Dunbar,”
“Rides around with a swan on top of a car.”
“The swan (who goes by the name of Dagnabbit),”
“Thinks like a swan, but looks like a rabbit!”

“All this I have spied through my big telescope,”
“I look in the thick end and out through some soap.”
Ruth looked at Eric, Eric at Ruth,
They didnʼt believe that this was the truth.

Ron noted their unenthusiastic reaction,
And came up with a plan of positive action.
“Iʼll bring it tomorrow and then you will see.”
“If Iʼm lying use me as a comfy settee.”

“But if in fact Iʼm telling the truth,”
“Then Iʼll sit on you, Eric, and then on you, Ruth.”
The three friends agreed that this was quite fair,
And they all hoped they wouldnʼt have to act like a chair.

The very next morning, inside the school gates,
Three children arrived who were very good mates.
One with a volcano, one with a freezer,
And one with no nothing, an unhappy geezer.

Once in the classroom, Mr. McWhoʼs-He,
Said, “Out with your projects. I must have a look-see.”
“Ron,” Said the teacher, with tears in his eyes,
“You have no creation? Iʼm very surprised.”

“I did make a planet, with rivers and moons,”
“With dancing leopards and purple baboons.”
“I kept it inside my Grandfatherʼs hat,”
“I thought it was safe to leave it like that.”

“The problem you see, is a hound I call Janet,”
“Mister, that dog has eaten my planet!”
“Detention, detention!” Cried the teacher quite loud,
“I wonʼt hear this nonsense in front of a crowd.”

At lunchtime, relaxing, were Eric and Ruth,
And under them lay a miserable youth.
“I really did make that wonderful land,”
“It was egg-shaped and could fit in the palm of my hand.”

“There were forests that flew, with trees like kebabs,”
“Marble-cake lobsters and battenburg crabs.”
“But Janet ensured that the planet is over,”
“And now Iʼm condemned to act as your sofa.”

“Quiet down you! Sofas canʼt talk.”
“Weʼve had enough of your whinging, weʼll go for a walk.”
And as Ruth and Eric strolled off and left Ron,
Ruth noticed a tiny white dot by the pond.

“Wait, whatʼs that thing? Oh drat, now itʼs gone,”
“It looked like a rabbit that thinks like a swan.”

Illustration by Evgenia Barinova

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Black Ideas

I was sitting in a pub one day and got talking to a French chap about comics and how much they mean to me. The subject of Asterix came up and he hit me with an opinion that totally floored me: Uderzo was a hack who copied his style! Apparently there was another Belgian artist, André Franquin, who was the originator of that style. He wasn't someone I'd ever heard of so I did some research and found that the truth was a little different to that accusation, but I'm thankful anyway to that guy for turning me onto this amazing artist. Franquin, of whom Hergé said, 'Compared to him, I'm a poor draftsman' was an incredibly influential artist and creator of two of the most recognised characters in French comics: Marsupilami, a Marsupial/monkey thing and Gaston Lagaffe, the scruffy inventor kid.

As Franquin's style developed, more and more movement lines appeared and he imbued each frame with an incredible kind of fluidity that you can see above. One of Franquin's contemporaries was Morris (Maurice de Bevere, creator of Lucky Luke), and both were tutored by Jijé (Joseph Gillian). Along with another artist known as Will (Willy Maltaite), these four went on to dominate French comics. They are known as 'The Gang of Four' and the style they developed is called the Marcinelle School. Among these four, Franquin was most influential, which led to a large number of artists heavily influenced by his style. Of the second generation of the Marcinelle School were Peyo (Pierre Culliford, creator of the Smurfs) and a certain artist called Albert Uderzo. 

How is it possible that ALL these geniuses were Belgian? It's quite amazing. 

Franquin suffered from depression and in 1977 his work shifted towards a much bleaker series which he called 'Idees Noires'. Although still clearly humourous, these short black and white strips came from a darker place. They feature encounters with death and nightmarish creatures, the horrors of modern society; rampant capitalism and militarism for example, and the end of humanity. I find these cartoons fascinating. They are of course beautifully drawn, and unfortunately a lot of them are not particularly funny, but the place they come from is so stark and so singular a vision; it's quite unique and yet firmly in the tradition of humour strips in french comics. It's also worth noting that this stuff appeared in a kids comics! 

I've translated three strips as best I can. The first is a simple joke about suicide, highlighting Franquin's incredible draftsmanship. The second is a comment on the consequences of being one of those doing the policing in society. The third is a sci-fi story, about a criminal and his punishment. (sorry about the blurred final panel). Hope you like them as much as me.