Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Rosetta Phoning Part 3

Read part one here 

Factional: I wanted to move on to, I guess a good place to start would be how long have you guys been planning this? First I was aware was when Mary mentioned it at last year's Armageddon.

Bethany: Think I have first drawings and concept art from early 2013, and we were talking about a full on comic and story sometime in late 2013 before sitting down and planning in 2014, and trying to get a blog set up and get some people interested.

Fac: How important was the setting? Did that come first or were you both interested in the time travel part of the story and then settled on Ancient Eygpt?

Bethany started with a bunch of nameless characters.
Bethany: I can't remember what came first. I just had a bunch of characters that had no names, including some vague Egypt related thing and some silly thought I blogged about one day like "haha wouldn't it be funny to travel back in time and just predict the future with Wikipedia?" I was honestly just really into making silly jokes and far out situations out of a genre and idea that's already pretty popular and well known.

Mary was the one who really wanted to do the Ancient Egypt setting and obviously the New Zealand one was well, since the comic does, briefly, unfold in NZ. But both of us I think had a big interest in Ancient Egypt!

Mary: Fools [Bethany] already had the characters, in very primitive, non-fleshed out forms. And, we've both always been interested in history, but my favourite was always Ancient Egypt. Since I'm the writer, Fools suggested that we do that since we both have a lot of prior interest-led research about it. Having the modern teen character and the pharaoh one, time travel was an inevitable in the story - annnnnd, yeah setting it in Egypt of the past just strengthens the need for our research we've been passively doing our whole lives. So they sort of all happened at the same time? I love time travel/stories about the characters being displaced from their original setting. I've never really experienced that feeling myself, and reading/writing about that feeling is like living that by proxy. All the problems and internal conflicts that happen as a result of being taken completely out of your comfort zone - out of place or out of time. Mum once suggested I read Cross-stitch because that's basically what that series is about. It was terrible.

Fac: She meant well Mary, she really did.

The art looks real slick Bethany. Did that influence the way Mary approached the story? (When I first saw the concept art it was like looking at something produced by Disney or Pixar.)

Bethany: Haha wow thank you! What a comparison! Uh, well I don't know! I kept it all bright and colourful to suit the light hearted nature of the story!

Fac: It does seem light hearted but it has an edge to it. The real cosmic opening took me by surprise (also I think the guy in the back of the bus stop should of been a dead dude!)*

Bethany: He was totally dead no matter what Mary said. Cover up all your artistic failings by just saying the character is dead.

Fac: So, has there been in surprises in the development and execution of RP?

Bethany: Kind of? I was mostly surprised that people enjoyed and liked the sound of the idea because it's not new or even revolutionary, there's been plenty of "the liar revealed" type stories and time travel stories, but people seemed to really respond to our initial posts and planning stages. I'm surprised that so many people are invested in it when it's only just started.
Slick, researched artwork.

Mary: The only real surprise is that it was intended to be silly and humorous and I am struggling to do that as I keen thinking about it so seriously!! The Nu is a very important concept and entity to me so I find it very hard to not want it to have serious elements? However the Egyptian pantheon is filled with myths that are very silly and humorous, the gods do ridiculous things. Horus tricks Set to eat his semen on a salad. The Nu doesn't really have many silly stories to go with it though, very little compared to the main pantheon of gods, I think that The Nu wasn't really worshiped, but just sort of an ever present thing. So I'm finding this weird internal dilemma between wanting it to be serious and respectful to the cosmic egg I love, but also kinda causal. A being that is everything ever would be pretty casual to hang out with, because you are them. I don't know. I'm surprised.

Fac: Were there similar tensions in Nothing Fits? I found while it was funny, and the style Alex used leant itself to humour, there was a real angry energy to events (I really liked that about it).

Mary: Not really. I think maybe it's the research element that makes my brain think: research = serious. Nothing Fits had very very minimal research/none at all.

Fac: You guys seem to have a lot of projects on the go. Is it difficult to juggle all of those different worlds?

Mary: A little? I imagine it's harder for Fools, because she's actually actively working on her other projects.
Juggling projects can be a struggle.
Bethany: It's hard for me, I've got my own things going in and at the moment I'm working on publishing some of my stuff and having to deal with editors and the whole publishing process while also doing art for Rosetta Phone and other personal projects. It's a bit of a struggle but I'm managing it.

Fac: Anything you want to add in closing?

Bethany: Nah I don't think I have anything to add? Except probably that the creepy cat was my fault if anyone is looking for someone to blame for that idea.

Read part one 
Read part two

Follow the progress of Rosetta Phone here

*Eagle eyed readers can follow the controversial ‘Case of the Disappearing Commuter’ on pages 4 and 5 of Rosetta Phone. The smart money says he’s dead.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Rosetta Phoning Part 2

Factional: Do you guys think of that time, doing your first webcomics, as an apprenticeship? Are you applying any particular  lessons you learnt to the production of  Rosetta  Phone?

Mary: I'm not sure what you mean by apprenticeship? 

Apprenticeship seems more like a time where you are mentored, and our previous experiences with webcomics were just more... I don't know. We put our all into our past works, I don't see them as practice runs or experiments. Just us wanting to tell good/enjoyable stories. We definitely learnt things by those experiences, my number one lesson being to plan the whole story out before starting production. Which we have done! I would like to get the majority of it written before we get too far through Rosetta Phone, but we have planned it out pretty thoroughly, so we won't run into some of the problems Nothing Fits did... which was not knowing how it was going to end!

Also having experience with Kickstarter campaigns, I know that next time it is vital to have a good video. And I would probably plan out expenses more thoroughly next time, I did have a dilemma with the change in postage prices last time and having plans and back up plans in place for stuff like that is something I will definitely have next time. 

Nothing Fits
There are some things I can't cross over from Nothing Fits, and some times Bethany can't cross over from her previous works - as she hasn't worked with someone like this before and working with her is very different than working with Alex McCrone. Alex took more of a backseat, as she doesn't have much of an online presence, whereas Bethany does. I'm feeling like I'm taking more of a backseat promotion wise. I've released more control, as Rosetta Phone is more equally mine and Bethany's, while Nothing Fits was really more mine. 

Fac: I guess by apprenticeship I mean a period of learning and development but I see where you're coming from in terms of mentorship being part of that process. Though from both what you and Bethany have said perhaps your peers acted in that capacity to some extent.

Moving on, Bethany can you remember what you liked about Nothing Fits?

Bethany: I really liked both the art and the fun, quirky twisted story book nature of it, I liked it because it reminded me a lot of Roald Dahl  and Terry Pratchett. It was just really fun with these bright children's book-esque  illustrations and then a dark underbelly of murder and chaos.

Fac: That 'quirky twisted storybook' nature of Nothing Fits, I saw that too. I can also see it in Tempus by Bethany. I wondered if you were influenced by writers like Diana Wynne Jones or Margaret Mahy or Joan Aiken? You guys seems to have the same kind of energy and sense of play that I associate with them. 

Character sheet from Tempus
Bethany: God, Tempus, that's a blast from the past! I wrote and drew that while I was still at school!

Well I said it before, that Mary's storytelling reminded me a lot of the late Terry Pratchett, who is among my favourite authors and story tellers, so I was immediately drawn to it for that reason. I could see his hand and influence in a lot of her stuff, and you can see it in Tempus and my other projects as well. It later turned out Mary was also a fan of Pratchett's Discworld series, and apparently  both Mary and I always came up with similar  kinds  of  chaotic,  quirky worlds and that we also had the same sort of humour. Most of the time our planning days are really just us cracking awful jokes at each other!

I can't really think of any other influences we both share, I was influenced a lot creatively, especially in story telling by writers like Jonathon Stroud, Garth Nix and Isobelle Carmody.

Mary: Yes! Terry Pratchett is a big big influence on my writing, as well as Neil Gaiman's work. Darren Shan's  Saga of Darren Shan  and Derek Landy's  Skulduggery Pleasant  series were also big influences. A lot of dark humor and fantasy settings. 

Yu-Gi-Oh as well.  Always Yu-Gi-Oh.  Very important influence. 

Read part three here

Follow the progress of Rosetta Phone here

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Rosetta Phoning Part 1

NOTHING FITS was one of my favourite discoveries of last year. Starting life as an webcomic it made the transition to print with the help of a successful Kickstarter campaign. Combining hover cars, shirty, aggressive young woman, clones, mummies, Egyptian gods and talking rats it blew you along its slipstream, delivering with all the appeal and wit of a cheeky punk single - think Buzzcocks or The Undertones. Finishing the volume you were left wondering what would come next from it's two creators Mary Tamblyn and Alex McCrone. 

For writer Mary the answer is Rosetta Phone, a new webcomic she has developed in close association with her good friend Bethany Hughston. Drawn in a bright, attractive, fine line style it combines a humorous time travel narrative with a creepy cosmic undercurrent. Rolling out at the rate of a new page every Wednesday morning it marks a highlight in my working week, normally in the bleary early morning as I'm rolling to work in the cozy confines of Auckland public transport. 

Mary and Bethany were good enough to agree to take part in what turned out to be a lengthy interview with Factional. Here is part one of three. 


Factional: What are your respective origin stories? And what lead you both to comics?

Bethany Hughston: I don't really know how to describe it honestly, it wasn't really some cool lightbulb moment. I got into art and drawing at a young age because my mum was an artist and my older sister and brother were both creative as well, my sister as an artist and my brother as a writer and musician, and our parents were very supportive. I also went to schools that had a leaning towards the arts and stuff.

I got into comics really early! My brother was a huge comic lover, especially of Tintin, and when he outgrew his massive collection of Tintin comics, I got them. And I read them cover to cover and really got into telling stories visually, and by the time I was in school maybe at 15 or 16 I discovered webcomics and read heaps! I started drawing and doodling my own stuff, like just comics about my friends and things and then eventually into full on webcomics when I was 16-18 and I've been doing them ever since.
Rosetta Phone planning sketch

Mary Tamblyn:  I never liked art when I was younger, I was obsessed with Ancient Egypt and I wanted to be an archeologist or forensic detective. I didn't actually start drawing till about Year 4 or 5, when I met Alex Jones (AJ), who was mad into comics and making his own little comics about his characters. He'd put them on the class book shelves and everyone would read them during silent reading. I started to draw, mostly animals, which then led to making Rayman fan-comics with my cousin. We did these for a couple of years, they were... very unique. They soon stopped being about Rayman and more about our own characters we made along the way.

We had compulsory art at Intermediate and High School, and I had really good teachers for that - while I had really bad teachers for science. This made me way more invested in drawing and creating. I wanted to be an animator. I continued making short comics, with the characters that then went on to become a part of Nothing Fits. I was never that into comics, I was more into novels: staying up into the small hours reading most nights at Intermediate and High School. I'm still... regrettably, not very good at reading comics. Art School makes you hate everyone and everything and really apathetic at actually reading anything. I'm getting better at it though. So I only really got into comics because of AJ and only continued with them because of Alex McCrone's interest in them. Finding ComicFury as a webcomic host got me more into comics, and meant I met a bunch of really cool comicy people.

Fac: Webcomics seems the most natural step for young cartoonists to take now days, I presume that is where you guys met.

Bethany: Yeah both me and Mary met through webcomics and through Comicfury.com, I'd already been on there for a while and I had established a name for myself with two comics I wrote in high school which had become really popular on the site. Mary and Alex came onto the scene in 2012 I think, and I remember seeing Nothing Fits and really liking it and telling some friends of mine to go read it. We started just generally chatting on the forums and the then website exclusive chat which was just a bunch of artists and writers talking to each other about nothing, and then we got each other's Facebook. We were only talking about this the other night trying to remember how we even started talking to each other but it was something along the lines of a mutual friend of ours wanted to talk to me more but was nervous so Mary volunteered to show support. Eventually we realised we got on really well and exchanged Skype info, and since then we talk and webcam frequently, we've met up and traveled a bit. And we plan to do much more of it!

Mary:  I must admit that coming to ComicFury I did feel very threatened by Bethany, just because she was very well known and popular, and yes, I was very jealous of this. It's embarrassing to say this, but I initially hated her. However, as she said, once we got talking one on one, we became close fast. I love her intense and in depth world's she has created and her utter dedication over the years to stick with them. She is a better writer and artist than I am, comics wise, and a very good friend.

Fac: What do you think is the most important thing about entering that world?

Mary: Webcomics are the quickest and easiest way to get your work out there, and getting almost instantaneous feedback is very rewarding. Also means you aren't stuck in a void of creating without any viewer feedback for the process of creating the work - which can take years.

Bethany: I don't know, really, it's hard to say. A positive and safe community is really important when starting out, and he web provides near instant feedback for your work, which is really important for growth. ComicFury was great because it was just a bunch of normal people who happened to write or draw comics, and everyone was willing to give people a chance! There wasn't any nastiness or mean spiritedness and everyone was always willing to help and listen to others. That was really important to me starting out, because I was so scared that people would hate me or hate my stuff and I would be hounded for no reason. So having a positive environment to post on was great!

Rosetta Phone detail
Mary: Also, a  good, clean and easy to use website layout is key. It doesn't have to be fancy, but it needs to be functional. ComicFury has a number of default layouts that work well, which is a bonus for people who are new to webcomics. They also have a bunch of great people willing to help improve/fix layouts if you need help (which is actually how I met my boyfriend, ha ha, he made the Nothing Fits website for me... actually him and Bethany worked on making the Rosetta Phone one too).

Fac: Do you think it is a nurturing environment? When I wrote my review for Nothing Fits I went and looked at the ComicsFury site and was amazed by the community that seemed to grow around the comic, it seemed like a really healthy environment to produce work in.

Mary: ComicFury was really welcoming, apart from my initial stupidity and jealousy, but at times it can be toxic. Most of my toxic interactions weren't surrounding my comics themselves though, but happened on the forums, mostly during political/social issue discussions. Which are heated topics in any art community.  

The most important part about coming into these communities is knowing the difference between subjective and objective feedback. A lot of critiques thrown online don't come from people considering things objectively, rather just their personal opinions (and often come from people with hardly any more experience than you have yourself). It's also important, as it is a way of getting direct feedback from viewers - to listen if you do something wrong (unintentionally being racist or sexist for example), this platform allows you to amend and fix things, because its not printed, and its not set in stone, you can make up for your mistakes. Webcomics are a great place to experiment and evolve your art making and story telling skills, and quite often you can see a clear difference from when you started your comic, to where you are now (vast improvements usually). Really, it's just a great way to get your idea out there right now without having to stall, and redo your comic forever as your skills get better, you can just grow with the story.

Bethany: I don't know, really, it's hard to say. A positive and safe community is really important when starting out, and the web provides near instant feedback for your work, which is really important for growth. ComicFury was great because it was just a bunch of normal people who happened to write or draw comics, and everyone was willing to give people a chance! There wasn't any nastiness or mean spiritedness and everyone was always willing to help and listen to others. That was really important to me starting out, because I was so scared that people would hate me or hate my stuff and I would be hounded for no reason. So having a positive environment to post on was great!

I also think it's really important to speak with artists and writers of all different ages and backgrounds and just be around them and see how they all work, just to figure out where you stand and what you like and what you can learn from them. That's why being on the forums and hanging around and participating was so beneficial for me, I got to learn so many things and I got to share my own ideas and knowledge without worrying about being attacked or made fun of.

Read part two here

Read part three here

Follow the progress of Rosetta Phone here

Friday, 15 May 2015

Deep Beats: A Review of Jillian Tamaki's SEX COVEN in Youth in Decline's Frontier #7

Kelly Sheehan: In 2004 I attended a concert that was part of a festival devoted to experimental music and sound artists. The performance took place in an old television studio, an environment designed to ensure optimum audio clarity. There were three acts, Francisco Lopez, Charlotte90 with Tim Coster, and Rosey Parlane. Francisco Lopez was interesting, producing a sound like a cathedral collapsing on you in slow motion, as were Charlotte 90 and Tim Coster, serenading with pleasant electronic squiggles and blips. Rosey Parlane was something else altogether. Just one man illuminated by his PC, his set started with the blips and squiggles familiar from the previous act. Slowly, very slowly, new sounds were layered over the top, each addition still clear and precise. The sound, the noise, began to settle on the listener. After a while it felt like there was a great psychic weight pressing down. Your sense of self began to give way, to crumble and dissipate, and very soon there was only a small nugget of you left in the middle of a great, swelling, oceanic cacophony. Just the you that was listening and nothing else. No thoughts of drinks after, or leaving for India in the next week, or what you are going to do for a job when you returned in six months time. Just sound. It was what I imagine it is like to teeter on the brink of enlightenment or death. After a time the sound was just as gradually eased back, leaving you a little shaken, but awed and grateful.

Reading Jillian Tamaki's issue of Frontier, the monograph series published by Youth in Decline, is not like that, but it captures what it is like to be caught up in discovering something new, overwhelming and possibly dangerous, particularly when you are young and think you are ready to have the foundations of your world rocked or even completely demolished.
Coded messages from Satan.

Daniel Elkin: There's so much going on in Sex Coven, I don't even know where to start. I'm glad you began with your concert experience, though, Sheehan, because it grounds us, gives us some focus, a springboard from which to leap.

Yes, let's talk about the central conceit of the book first. Sex Coven gets its name from an untitled music file that was uploaded anonymously in the mid 1990's, which was then found by a user on a music-sharing site who renamed it Sex Coven and continued to share it. It gained traction, went viral, spawned a cult following, spawned intense public outcry, and there the story begins.

Sort of.

“How to define a wordless, six-hour atonal drone? A sound so profound that each chord shift feels like a new tear in the Universe? Sonic mindfuck gets close.”

With this, Tamaki kind of echos what you were talking about when you were describing Rosey Parlane's performance. Now imagine that experience for six hours. That's what this thing is. It spawns a new sense of possibility because it shifts you in the experience of it.

We're sense making beings, after all, right? Our brain seeks patterns even in chaos. When faced with disorder, in some sort of self-preserving way, we fool ourselves into finding structure, and, in this, perhaps, is the moment of visceral artistic enlightenment found in participatory art. What makes Abstract Expressionism painting and Experimental Ambient music powerful is the emotional state it elicits, not the particular “beauty” of the piece itself. Here, it is the experience of creating the pattern, recognizing what you make it out to be – for all extents and purposes an a priori understanding – and then completely grokking that.

Powerfully individualistic.
It's powerful stuff because it's individualistic.

When you do the work to have an emotional response to art, you are the owner of that experience. Authentic emotions are precious in a world where we are so often sold how to think about things, where outrage is manufactured, enjoyment is a science, and attention an algorithm. And nobody latches on to this more than young people, especially when their peer group embraces it, especially when they see that their parents don't understand it, even more especially when their parents fear it or hate it.

Tamaki captures all of this in her book. The intensity of the reaction to the music and the ritual it inspires are all laid out with fervor and excitement. Tamaki knows the proper moment to abstract her art to convey this ardor, and when to focus on minutia in order to set context and further her story.

But in all honesty, this phenomenon is almost secondary to the other things that Tamaki is exploring with Sex Coven. Ideas of social history and building community are really what I think Tamaki is scrutinizing here.

Sheehan: As much as Tamaki is examining these things it is a retrospective examination. This is as much a comic about people, and the world, moving on as it is about the excitement and personal growth that happens with discovery in youth. I loved the end of the book where the past ends in the present and the realities of running an alternative community 'free' from the burdens of modern life begins to settle on the individual concerned. The exchange between Raven and Furbaby towards the end of the book neatly encapsulates this as it does the tensions and habits that underlie the dance which an relationship involves. It's a dance that as it winds to a close always involves one step forward and two steps back. Running on default, like some background program.

Comic minutiae.
A much bigger story hides behind the short piece that Tamaki presents us with and I think this is a large part of why we both responded to the book. The minutiae of the scene I have just described has a heavy pull for me but so does the final three pages as Raven reflects of the end of the life we have just witnessed. She's back in the world now and the compromise that this involves while often trivial are always around, pressing in from moment to moment. But are they better or worse that the slightly sinister presence of Rob? Rob who does not have that many skills when it comes to being In Real Life.

At the same time the backstory which makes up the first three quarters of the narrative is appealing. That detail, the slightly strange, mystical, experience of listening to the SexCoven mp3, the discovery of the Data, the metamorphosis of an internet community into a sex cult, has the feel of world building, of the creation of a mythology but really, it seems to me, to serve as an elaborate backdrop to the exchange between the 'real' people.

Elkin: “Moving on” and “back in the world now” are apt descriptors for much of the meat of this book, Sheehan. Thanks (again) for pointing us in the right direction.

The final panel of the book sums up this theme perfectly. The resolution of that moment would seem profound if it weren't such a reflection of the daily compromises we make every day of our lives, a concession to the “really fucking stupid rules” that corral the chaos of existence in order to maintain social order, predictability, stability (or is it “Community. Identity. Stability” in this Brave New World in which we live?).

Yeah. I know. There are always those among us, though, who try to live their life without having to make these sorts of compromises, visionaries and luminaries who have latched on to something and have fancy notions of creating an Arcadia. They see undulating ideals of what could be. They have dreams and, the bold among them, try to make this place on earth.

Failed constructs.
But, alas, the history of humanity is littered with failed utopias after all. Unfettered by the constructs of the deadening effects those compromises inherent in religious and/or political expediency, human nature comes to the fore. Self-interest becomes the guiding moral principle, which, when folded into the greater goal of the pursuit of pleasure or a higher state of consciousness, only leads to the elevation of the cult of personality, the subjugation of the others in the herd – people are taken advantage of, the goal is lost, pettiness or perversion prevail.

No matter what deep beats provide the soundtrack.

And those who were part of whatever it was, those there who held out hope for something better, are the one's who feel the loss of the dream most profoundly. They stumble back bleary eyed to re-integrate into the world and start making all those small compromises that we all must make in order to live next to people, selling another little piece of our soul along the way.


“Do you still believe in SexCoven...? Even after you left the ranch?” What sort of answer can Raven possibly give other than, finally, putting out her cigarette on a service plate.

You can pick up a copy of Frontier #7 directly from Youth InDecline Press

Daniel Elkin writes about comics and other things (but mostly comics) on his blog, Your Chicken Enemy and tweets a lot about sandwiches. 

Monday, 23 March 2015


Kelly Sheehan and Daniel Elkin have a leaf through the pages of the new Emily Carroll comic, Ann By The Bed, discovering along the way a uniquely bone-chilling read. Carroll it seems has finally unlocked the door to making comics genuinely ...creepy.

Sheehan: Emily Carroll's Ann by the Bed arrived at my house on Saturday enclosed in a nifty envelope featuring a couple of illustrations from the book. At the time I was working on the script about Grant Morrison's Bible John, a comic which in some ways resembles Ann (albeit without Carroll's innate elegance). Spooky.

Spooky is a good word to use when talking about Ann by the Bed, or any of Carroll's work which I have seen to date. There is an uneasiness to the reading experience. Like English writer Robert Aickman, Carroll's work does not resemble a conventional horror story. Unique attention is paid to the creation of tension and mystery, resulting in an atmosphere all of its own. Often the result is as much fairy story as it is a tale of the supernatural. Aickman coined the term “strange stories” to describe his own work and perhaps Emily Carroll needs to think of her own niche, define her own particular style with an equally suitable term.

Carroll changes up and challenges herself
Elkin: Spooky is the perfect word, Sheehan.

I've always had an issue with horror comics. The ones I've read try so hard to layer into that dark space of our reptilian brain which responds to fear, but they only succeed in being off-putting at best. I've never really been “scared” by them. Ann by the Bed (which, we should add, is what makes up the entirety of Youth in Decline's Frontier #6) was something else. Yeah, it spooked me. It genuinely unnerved me. It gave me both the willies and the heebie-jeebies.

Which surprised me. I had read Carroll's much-lauded and New York Times Bestselling collection of stories, Through the Woods, and, while I appreciated the artistry involved in her work and I was fascinated by her inventive story telling, I was never really overly anxious or afraid reading it. Ann by the Bed, though? This is some seriously spooky stuff here.

When I try to delineate what about this book makes it such an effective piece of horror though ... well that's where my skills as a critic start to stumble. Ann by the Bed doesn't pull any new narrative tricks compared to Through the Woods, nor does Carroll do anything all that different with her art here than before. So what is it, Sheehan? What makes Ann by the Bed the creepiest comic I've ever read?

Sheehan: I think part of what makes it work is the "urban myth" format which Carroll has framed the tale with. We've all heard them, and the fact that it is a tale about a friend of a friend's experience lends it a bit more credence. There is something about the story told first-hand which makes the hackles on the back of your neck rise. Last year my six year came home scared to death that “Bloody Mary” was coming to get him. Thanks a lot seven-year-old Ruben.

I hesitate to say I was horrified by Ann by the Bed. It was a much more “pleasant” experience than that. By contrast I have recently been reading Kathleen Jones' biography of Katherine Mansfield, The Story-teller. Part of the book's structure is that it looks at the life of Mansfield's husband, John Middelton Murray, after her death. It's an extremely disturbing read. Horrifying even.

Murray was involved in three subsequent marriages, at least two of them were disasters. In the first he could not see his young bride as an individual. To him she was Katherine reborn. Sexually naïve, he impregnated her three times in close succession with children she did not want. When she finally contracted tuberculosis, she was pleased because now he could at last love her as much as he loved Katherine (who also died of the disease). His next marriage was to a violent, abusive woman who was prone to rages in which she would assault Murray and his children and smash and destroy belongings and mementos.

Reading this makes you wince and recoil from the page. You don't want to push through because there is sure to be more unpleasantness to follow. Ann by the Bed, by contrast, leads us through chills and thrills and we are willing to go where Carroll leads us. It's fun. Well, until the end. The final parts, the bit that deals with a teen slumber party, (and the bullying and social isolation that can take place in such an environment), and the following two-page sequence which shows Ann and the unwanted attentions of her bother-in-law, are amongst the most affecting in the book. They are the most of "our world". The stuff that is closest in tone to John Middleton Murray's real-life horror show. 

Elkin: That's the thing right there, Sheehan, the “most of our world” bit that you just mentioned.

Ultimately horror is horrific when it hits closet to home. When you see your own fears foisted in your face you're quickest to glisten with sweat. As Carroll tells us, “the lion has to come to someone's house” and if you hear padding across the floor in the next room, what's to keep you from screaming?

Still, the more I think about this book, the more I am able to distance myself from my initial visceral reaction and look at it more as a puzzle composed of some very intricate pieces. In this book, Carroll manipulates conventional narrative with a surgeon's scalpel cutting through cause and effect, bouncing her reader through time and space, disconcerting as she disconnects, adding a layer of displacement to the tone of its entirety. Then there's her apt choices of art style and color use, each of which adds another emotional hue. As well, she varies the thickness of her inking to contract and expand, and her lettering changes to resonate with the mood she is working with. In Ann by the Bed, Carroll uses all the evocative tools that comics offer in order to concentrate the tenor and the feel of the reading experience.

Her mastery of all the skills necessary to pull this off, in a way, pushes the craftsmanship at work to the background, allowing the reading to be immersive, the emotions taut, and the creepiness to be all that more creepy. And it takes both artist and artisan to take all the intricate pieces and connect them in such a dynamic way. Taking apart this puzzle, I see what makes good horror, which then, conversely, allows me to see what makes bad horror so bad, or at least ineffectual.

Horror ain't simple like funny ain't easy. With Ann by the Bed, though, Emily Carroll makes it appear so.

And that's spooky and creepy and scary all by itself.

Sheehan: I too responded to the puzzle-like nature of the book. There is a great pleasure to be had in parsing the components of the pages and then fitting them together. There is also great horror. Last week, reading the book yet again, I felt appalled when I realized the true brutal implications of the marks discovered on the floor under Ann's body. This was not the chill of an odd noise heard in the dark.

But back to the puzzle. Back to the game.

I'm pretty sure the parts can be fitted in different ways for different readers and they all end up with a unique picture and that's because Carroll does not provide all of the pieces to her odd jigsaw. She chooses not to show us any of the most effecting moments and by this the reader must conjure them for themselves. Everyone has their own idea about what the game “Ann by the Bed” involves. Everyone has their own idea about Ann's last moments. In that respect I would disagree with you about the reader being disconnected or displaced from the book. I would say that Carroll provides room for the reader to be very involved and to make the book and its horrors very personal.

That choice, to withhold rather than show, is one of the things that make this book so different from Through the Woods. In that book Carroll did not avoid showing her monsters. It is a mark of how effective those stories are that they were so involving despite the fact everything was right up front. I jumped a little in my seat when I finished His face all red. I was sitting on a rush hour bus at the time.

The difference in technique is one of the things I most admire about Ann by the Bed, it feels like Carroll is changing up and challenging herself. There is even a feel of sly social critique in the piece, another aspect that distinguishes it from the previous work.

Hats off to Youth in Decline for commissioning and producing this wonderful comic. The monograph series that Ann by the Bed is part of is an excellent idea. Having a publisher provide a contained environment to experiment and create must feel like a blessing for the chosen creators. It's a format which allows for bold change or tentative development and that’s to be applauded.

I have already placed a pre-order for the next Frontier, by Jillian Tamaki, and I'll be keeping an eye out for what is coming out next from the imprint. 

Elkin: Yeah, Youth in Decline's Frontier series has been a gem. While I, too, am eager to see what Jillian Tamaki will produce (as well as Anna Deflorian, Becca Tobin, and Michael DeForge for the rest of 2015), I would also highly recommend looking back and picking up copies of Frontier #5 by Sam Alden and Frontier #3 by Sascha Hommer.

As for Ann by the Bed, for me Emily Carroll's work lingers in its puzzle pieces, haunts in its entirety, and crawls into many of my dreams, shifting shapes into the things of nightmares.

“Because they say Ann Herron's blood, IT NEVER DRIED.”

Spooky. Creepy.


Ann By The Bed was released through Youth In Decline as part of their Frontier series of comics.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Family Portraits by Sam Orchard

Sam Orchard's three-part comic, Family Portraits, should be read in a single sitting. Approached as a unit, the books cohere into a nuanced exploration of gender, sexuality, culture, place and creativity (while still finding time to touch on questions of class and social privilege).  

If that description comes across as if Sam has created a kind of sociology text book in comics form then I'm not doing the work justice, or adequately conveying the way in which these constructs are so expertly teased apart and examined - or the highly personal and personable manner in which Sam manages to do this. He is a excellent host, inviting you to consider and think with not a hint of judgment or condensation.  

Family Portraits is a mixture of stories Sam has collected from individuals in the LGBTI community, along with personal reminisces, asides, observations and slight remixes of older strips and Sam's week(ish) web-strip Rooster Tails. This stringent description however fails to convey how deftly, and in what an original manner, these parts are woven together.  Too often in comics the idea of rhythm seems to boil down to a rigid staccato beat with no room for legato intervals. Family Portraits sidesteps this contrivance neatly and opts for an ebb and flow, each piece finding its own pace, its own length, its own voice, its own expression.  

That might sound like a description of a piece of music but Sam seems set on creating something akin to a symphony. So far we've probably just had the overture. Reading through the three books as they stand you begin to get a sense of the rich ground Sam is exploring, of the many, many strands of 'music' he is pulling together to produce his grand composition.
While it is the myriad voices which make Family Portraits compelling it is Sam's cartooning craft that supports those multitudes. Not flashy or sophisticated, there is little on the page which does not need to be there, Sam has a fine command of the page and the varying components that make up the whole. Varying styles and subtle use of colour usher the reader along, providing cues and reminders, allowing for changes in mood or tone. He is also a natural draftsman.  Sitting next to Sam at the 2014 Auckland Zinefest it was interesting to watch him draw as we talked. The pen never hesitated or faltered, all the time producing gentle, rounded, confident lines. Images appeared. Batman kissing Superman. Wolverine sporting a strap on. All warm, a bit naughty and funny. It was a pleasure to see someone so naturally extend themselves onto the page.  

Social messages aside a big part of Family Portraits appeal is the sense of play on the page. Along with Sam directly engaging the reader, in what feels more like a conversation than a monologue, there is also a lovely appreciation for the artifice of the page. At one point the action, of what looks like a draft version of a story is interrupted by a scribbled out panel. Turning the page we encounter a miffed Sam discouraged by the narrative, admitting that he's sidestepped difficult aspects of the story he is trying to tell. Eventually we return to the action but this time the previous stark black and white images are touched up by monochrome highlights. Panels, sometimes whole pages of them have been added, not just expanding the scoop of the story but complicating our interpretation of what we read before. Family Portraits is stuffed with that sort of invention, investing the book with a fun feel, a lightness of touch that is rare when engaging weighty issues.

Family Portraits is a great read. If there is any justice in the world it will soon be available in libraries and schools up and down the country or, ideally, sitting on your bookshelf or bedside table. Supporting Sam should, hopefully, allow him to continue with his great work, to continue his dialogue with the world and himself and help us all to open our minds and make the world a bigger, safer, more interesting place.

You can read Rooster Tails here (it contains exerts from Family Portraits) and you can buy the finished books here.

Libraries and schools can purchase copies of Family Portraits from Wheelers.

Kelly Sheehan
Faction Comics + Earth's End

Friday, 26 December 2014

Nothing Fits by Mary Tamblyn and Alex McCrone

My initial introduction to Nothing Fits came in the form of a particularly unimpressive Kickstarter video. Despite a well edited introduction montage and great atmospheric music, Mary Tamblyn and Alex McCrone were more dead than deadpan and mumbled their way through a script asking me for my hard earned cash. 'Put some effort in' I thought and half-heartedly clicked through to their online strips for a perfunctory glance.

Five minutes later I was back and pledged my financial support.

The comic that I had read was instantly appealing not to mention engaging, funny and smart. Underlying the strip's many virtues was an impressively snotty attitude. There was something brashly confident about the drawing and writing.

The opening pages introduced the scenario, characters and circumstance with admirable economy. There was nothing on those pages that did not need to be there; words and pictures complimented one another perfectly. This is perhaps reflective of Mary Tamblyn's (writer of Nothing Fits) background as an artist, born with the confidence that a picture can tell a thousand words but it must also be the result of a close creative relationship between writer and artist. Each seeking to support, rather than eclipse, the other.

If Nothing Fits reminds me of anything it is books from my 70s childhood, specifically the work of Joan Aiken, Diana Wynne Jones and Margaret Mahy, (the Godmother, the Materfamilias, of New Zealand fiction). On hand was the same feeling of mad, offhand invention, of imaginations that could be opened on a whim to gush dreams and drama. Hover cars, mummies, mad science labs, wizards, Egyptian gods, castles, snotty girlfriends, giant snakes, ghosts, strange rat people, formal gardens, foreboding forests, clones, magic portals and gods are all crammed together under one cover - but nothing feels out of place or forced.

Nothing Fits also shares with those grand dowagers an underlying tone which hints at the tragedy and disappointment of life. This nuisance is present throughout the whole comic, right up to the final illustration of the finished book, which provides an unexpected emotional punch to the gut as you saunter through the exit-simultaneously upending your readers perspective on the story you just finished.

The Wynne Jones/Mahy 70s connotations are reinforced by the art. Alex McCrone's scratchy pen and ink style brings to mind Pat Marriott and Quentin Blake, (with perhaps a touch of Tove Jansson). Giants of childrens illustration. What's strange about that is that I hated those guys when I was a kid (not Jansson!) and I love Alex's art. The pictures and storytelling in Nothing Fits have an effortless feel, as if it all just flows out from pen to page. I doubt this is true. What's on the page is probably the result of blood, sweat and tears. The product of a lifetime spent drawing.

Whatever. Alex McCrone's drawing chops are impressive.

Nothing Fits is a great collaboration between two equal, complimentary creators. The easy synthesis is reflected in the components that make up the whole. Monochrome colours wash over the inks in lovely gouache hues. From what I can tell they are painted, high-wire style, directly onto the page. That's pretty audacious. Look Ma, no hands! Makes me nervous just thinking about it. Equally as impressive, in an unassuming way, is the lettering. The font, created from the artists handwriting (I think), lends the dialogue an energy, underlying the scripts sass. No small accomplishment.

Nothing Fits started life as a web-comic. While you could quite happily experience it just on the page I'd recommend checking out the site where it all began. Along with the comments section banter there are some lovely Easter-eggs to be found in the attached process blog. Sketches, notes, additional mini-strips, fan art and asides give extra life to the main comic. It's from these features, viewed together and at a distance of a couple of years, that you feel the fission a web-comic like Nothing Fits can generate. There is the sense of things fermenting, of a community coming to life around a smart, beautiful strip devised by two young students from the arse end of the world. It's a heartening glimpse of the way the world is now, and the things that you can achieve with some pretty basic resources and a big imagination.

Nothing Fits can be brought here and read here.

Kelly Sheehan
Faction Comics + Earth's End