Friday, 17 June 2016

I Drank Holy Water, Olivia Sullivan

I haven’t felt much of a need, or even a desire, to write about comics in a while.

I started the Mini Comic Courier because of a growing admiration for small press comic creators, cartoonists who bravely forge new paths in this medium, pouring blood, sweat and tears into self-publishing their own work, and my feeling that so many of those works deserved a wider audience.

I wanted to give something back and I decided the least I could do after reading something that had touched, inspired or excited me, was sit down and write about what it was that had made that book special and maybe convince just one more person to seek it out.


I read a book this morning that reminded me of all that and made me want to write again. That I find myself sat here typing out these words, is testament to the power of that particular piece of work, and very much, the dedication and effort, the creator in question poured into its creation.


That comic was I Drank Holy Water by Olivia Sullivan, a relatively new name to the small press scene, but one of such raw talent and passion, that I’m sure lovers of sequential art will be talking about her for years to come.

I’ve been following Sullivan over Twitter for some time and she was kind enough to come to ELCAF a few weeks back to meet me and sell me copy of her book, something I had coveted since she first announced it was complete. I own a few of her earlier works and bought a copy of the Dirty Rotten Comics anthology she appeared in, and it’s been clear to me for some time, she is a talent waiting to break out and I was excited to read a longer comic by her.


To say it lived up to my expectations would be an understatement.


Strikingly brave and touchingly honest, Olivia Sullivan's comic confession I Drank Holy Water is the work of a cartoonist who grows in strength with every pen stroke and is carving out a well-deserved niche for herself alongside the UK’s finest small press creators.


Sullivan’s comics are powerful, raw, sensitive, profoundly honest, hugely evocative and alive with the thumping heartbeat of an artist who is passionate and committed to her craft.


Her scratchy, coarse, penwork and punk aesthetic is distinct and stylish, but also hugely evocative, here palpably creating feelings of fragility and vulnerability and even an itchy discomfort that brings to life the story of a young artist fighting to feel comfortable in her own skin.


On the surface, I Drank Holy Water is an autobiographical work about an act of rebellion, the casting off of a belief system and the void that leaves behind. But it is so much more than that, because, peel back that first layer of the onion and you will find another story, thematically linked and intrinsically joined, of an artist finding their voice after being told to hold their tongue for years, and the explosion of expression that results.

Sullivan's approach to autobiographical cartooning is decidedly of the 'warts and all' variety and I Drank Holy Water is all the more vivid an experience for that. For me it recalls the brutal, ugly truths that Charles Bukowski was always capable of rending into such beautiful, and deeply human, poetry.


Her unashamedly honest depictions of a childhood skin condition that stole patches of her hair, are as humblingly brave as they are viscerally reproduced, with close ups of scabs and rashes, and remembered scents of the various salves and creams she was covered in, all combining to present memories laced with a complex flood of emotions, evoking a sense of being smothered, of feeling unclean, and an oppressive and painful sense of self-doubt and worthlessness. 

My admiration of an artist that dares bare their soul the way Sullivan does here is deep and I’m often drawn to work of this type, but intensely brooding work always risks being too oppressive for a reader to enjoy, and obscure in its own darkness.


But Sullivan, perhaps naturally, understands that, and I Drank Holy Water’s darker edges are balanced out by a genuine warmth and a wry sense of humour that adds another layer of depth and humanity.


In amongst claustrophobic memories of a constricting and repressed childhood, Sullivan finds a fondness for her past.


A watercolour image of a young Sullivan and her nan strikes a brief moment of contrast with the book’s artistic style, seeming somehow fluid, dreamy, and awash with emotional resonance and perhaps, suggesting a surrogate parental force for the good.


In two other moments, Sullivan remembers being wrapped in blankets (‘Tartan is always warmer. Somehow’) and playing her Gameboy in church, islands of happiness in a memoir that focuses on a young woman struggling to understand her world. 

Sullivan’s narrative is mostly linear, but she is brave enough to know when to step outside of that, and a late section of I Drank Holy Water given over to stream of consciousness text and images is all the more powerful because of its contrast with the more traditional storytelling of the rest of the book.


Mirroring the comic’s themes of repression and release, these pages see the author let loose her creative energy, pouring passion onto the page and almost screaming at us that she is ready to reveal herself to world, unshackled by the confusion and constriction of her early life.

As she makes the choice to reject the system of belief so prominent in her upbringing, Sullivan reaches out, looking elsewhere for succour, finding solace in music and serenity in blading and skateboarding, building the pillars of her own belief system from scratch.


As a reader, I hope she also finds catharthis in creating comics, because I am in no doubt that others will take comfort in her frank depiction of some very relatable struggles and be empowered by a young artist brave enough to bare all.


I Drank Holy Water is a serious step into the limelight for a comic creator who is only going to get better and better. It’s a courageous work, which deserves credit for its unflinching portrayal of the way repression shackles creatives. Sullivan’s ability to play out her themes across every aspect of her work – in her writing, in her artwork, in her layouts, in her format, in her tone – help weave the threads of an intricate piece of work that satisfies on multiple levels.

I finished I Drank Holy Water wanting to write about, to talk about it, to scream from the rooftops about it and honestly, that’s a level of enjoyment that is so rare and precious to me, that I can’t help but recommend you get a copy by any means necessary.


I talked to Olivia over Twitter while writing this review and many of her comments added colour to my thoughts about I Drank Holy Water as they percolated. With her permission, I’ve shared that interview below:


OLIVIA Sullivan, an illustrator and comic book creator from London is a relative newcomer to the small press scene, and a recent graduate of Camberwell College of Arts.

She has freelance credits for BBC Good Food, the LTDA and Tower Hamlets Council and recently produced her first full-length comics, The Nose, an illustrated newspaper comic based on the original novel by Nikolai Gogol, and I Drank Holy Water, an autobiographical comic retrospective of her childhood in the Catholic Church, both produced as part of her final year portfolio.

Sullivan is an artist able to channel her strong emotional intelligence into her work, but one who has clearly struggled with confidence in the past.

“It hasn’t always been easy in the past for me to convince people that I can do something,” she said when we talked over Twitter about my reactions to her work.

“Those books (I Drank Holy Water and The Nose) were made through a lot of stress.

Olivia reflected that she was lucky to go to a college where drawing comics was encouraged adding she would ‘have gone mad’ if she had had to repress her desire to draw comics throughout her course.

“It does make you more fearless in what you are doing too,” she said.

Olivia said her decision to study art wasn’t one made easily and one that caused some family friction, a theme that runs through I Drank Holy Water and one that she believes could influence her work forever.

“Going and telling my family I wanted to go to art school was a big issue in itself,” she said. “I wonder if that stigma will ever go? But everything is fuel. Good, bad, weird.”

Olivia believes her style, which incorporates some linear storytelling, with a stream of consciousness style that recalls Joyce and Kerouac (whom she admits as an influence alongside Sylvia Plath), has the potential to be polarising among readers.

“Some people, I feel, may think my approach to making comics is a bit too different, I don’t know,” she said. “My longer (ongoing) project might be perceived as utter nonsense, but it all has a deeper meaning to it. 

“Those two books (The Nose and I Drank Holy Water) re the clearest stories I have ever made.

She said the interior monologue sections of I Drank Holy Water were the closest to how she has made comics in the past – as well as a style she hoped to return to - with most of her writing coming from her diaries.

“I was told I should steer more away from that at times, so I’m clearer to the reader,” she said. “It has heled my story-telling somewhat, but it’s not how I truly want to tell stories.”

Olivia admitted that writing was an emotional experience for her.

“I get angry a lot when I write,” she said. “I think it is important that I write it out, because I’m not openly confrontational.”

She said the image of her Nan within I Drank Holy Water had proved particularly challenging.

“That was tough to paint,” she said. “Loved ones that are no longer with us.

“And you are painting that for a few concentrated hours.

“It was so upsetting at times.” 

But Olivia says, as difficult as it was to create the image, including it in I Drank Holy Water was always vital. 

"It was meant to show I wasn't angry at my nan for my upbringing, so it was important it was in the book," she said. "Amongst the anger I wanted to show what I appreciated.

"It felt like catharsis."

You can find Olivia on Twitter @zenbucko or at You can buy I Drank Holy Water and her other comics at her store and you really should. 


Friday, 5 February 2016

Never Ever After by Holley McKend and Chris Baldie

I haven’t written about comics in a while.

I think I got burnt out late last year and I haven’t been able to muster the energy or enthusiasm since.

In terms of my reading habits, that’s really had two different effects:

·  I still pick up my pull list, and I still read through all the mainstream books I get, albeit often feeling like it’s a cumbersome task rather than one I particularly enjoy. I want to keep up with those books, and don’t get me wrong, there are moments of enjoyment I take from doing so, but it’s not been the same for a while.

·  I have a stack of small press books that I bought at events like The Lakes and Thought Bubble (and various things I picked up on their own), that I haven’t dared touch. That’s because I have a resounding feeling that those books deserve better than to be shoehorned into my ennui. They deserve some time and attention and I want to give them that, so I made a decision to wait until the time was right.

I don’t know what it was that made me put a handful of those small press books in my bag this week. But this morning I was glad I did, because Never Ever After by Holley McKend and Chris Baldie is the book I was waiting for to break me out of my recent listlessness. 

This is a special comic, and it made me want to write, as much as anything, because I wanted to break down in some detail what I think it is that makes it such a very good book.

There are a lot of things to love here. A lot. Just to name a few quickly, the pacing, the layouts, the clever narrative timeframe, the well-developed characters and snappy, smart, realistic dialogue, the beautiful cartooning and its ability to graduate oh so smoothly from kinetic, flowing action, to stationary close ups and establishing shots which genuinely give a sense of place to the proceedings. And that’s just off the top of my head.

But I guess the thing that really sucked me in here, that made me the willing audience that will be back for more each and every time McKend and Baldie are ready with a new episode, is that they kept their powder dry.

Let me explain that better: It’s clear that the pair have a story to tell here - pieces are put in motion, characters are introduced, weird moments of magic happen that make us realise there is so much more to come here, it’s all there - but crucially, this first issue stops short of saying too much. 

Reading Never Ever After made me realise that this isn’t something the small press is always good at.

Perhaps that’s understandable. So many small press creators have grand ideas, brilliant unique characters and stories to tell, and they want to get it out there as soon as possible. Perhaps they don’t think they’re going to get that many chances, and in a market so brimming over with glorious new ideas, where your opportunity to reach an audience is so fleeting, that may be true. But in the end, that means a lot of stories never get the space to breathe they deserve, and consequently never become the stories they had the potential to be.

McKend and Baldie aren’t prepared to succumb to that. They know what their story is worth and they set their stall out here to tell it patiently and in the best way they can

That excited me. It made me want to know more. And Never Ever After dangles enough different plot threads to make it very clear that there is a lot more to know - including a fantastically enigmatic prologue that begged me to look again immediately following my first reading.

It’s a comic I plan to re-read a few times at least, eagerly trying to glean hints of who the various characters are, why they say what they say and how they can do the things they do, and looking for some clue as to what I can expect as the story progresses. And I know I will get more out of it each time, because McKend and Baldie have poured their blood, sweat and tears onto these pages and it shows.

In this first issue alone, there are so many highlights it’s hard to pick what to talk about. There’s a page where the events of a party are related silently, and artfully, across a grid of tiny panels that I could look at for days.

There are several action sequences (including the aforementioned prologue) where the flow of the characters movements is so well realised it’s like watching film.

There’s a lovely, clever, four panel grid where two character walk down stairs and the sequence flows out of the traditional comics reading order and it’s so well done that you follow it instinctively, only stopping short at the bottom of the stairs to realise the what just happened and the masterful hands you are in.

There’s a handful of conversations between the two main characters that are so warm, and genuine and charming, that they quickly feel like old friends, their interactions as natural as any I’ve seen in comics.

There’s a story here I want to know more about badly. But I’m happy with that. I’ll wait with baited breath for McKend and Baldie to finish the next issue at their own pace, my only hope for it, that they take the time with it they so clearly did with this one, because honestly, it was well worth the effort.

I would encourage anyone to buy Never Ever After, and don’t wait until you seem McKend and Baldie at a con.

Comic creators like this need our support. They need to know that the hard work they’re doing to tell us their stories is appreciated and that there’s an audience of readers waiting to be reinvigorated and inspired by the efforts of a very talented team, with a unique story to tell and the skill to do it well. 

You can buy a copy of Never Ever After at and you can follow McKend and Baldie on Twitter @holleymckend and @ChrisBaldie.


Saturday, 31 October 2015

The Woods by Aimee Lockwood

The Woods by Aimee Lockwood

EXCEPTIONALLY creepy, experimental, brave and utterly unique, The Woods by Aimee Lockwood is another strong entry into the burgeoning portfolio of one of the most talented new faces on the UK small press scene.

The first thing that struck me about The Woods is the absolute commitment to craft that went into making it:
An A6 handmade comic; The Woods appears to have been printed on a variety of coloured pages, with a series of 'windows' of varying shapes hand-cut from each page to reveal details from the following pages. 
Just putting each issue together must have been a labour of love in itself, to say nothing of the thought that must have gone into designing it and the skill and talent that actually drew each wonderful page.
One of the things I like the most about Lockwood is her refusal to be pigeonholed. 
Her portfolio could easily be filled with charming, warm and engaging autobiographical stories that are as endearing as they are beautifully rendered, but her ambitions stretch further than that and The Woods is another example of her diversity as a storyteller.
Eschewing a traditional narrative structure, Lockwood presents a series of images which begin with a couple apparently innocently wandering into a wooded area. 

But for anyone expecting a sweet, creepy, spooky story, Lockwood has other ideas in mind. 
The images soon take a decidedly less pleasant turn, crows peck at the pearl necklace still hanging around the skeleton of a woman, at rest under a giant toadstool; a young boy stands holding a rock in the air, a look of malevolent joy on his face as he considers dropping his weapon down over the head of a defenceless duck swimming by; a man digs an ominous hole while silhouettes of horned figures watch over him; a hideous two-headed beast, part wold, part bird, part fish, slavers over human bones while naked, horned demonic figures sit on its back; and that barely takes us to half way in this gloriously twisted little book.

With each new page Lockwood ramps up the demonic imagery, offering only the barest hint of the horrors to come in the 'windows' she cuts into each page, teasing us, daring us to turn it to see how much further she can take it. 
It's a shame to think not a lot of people will get a chance to see this one.
It's format makes reproduction difficult and the issue I got was one of only 25 made I think, but I'm glad I got it.
It's another book from a cartoonist I've become a fan of very quickly.
Make no mistake about it, The Woods is an achievement and the calling card of a creator consumed with passion for comics, brave enough to approach making them in unique and new ways and committed enough to pull that off in a way that is hugely enjoyable as a fan.
I've said it already, but Aimee Lockwood is a creator everyone is going to be talking about in no time at all. 

You can find Aimee Lockwood on Twitter @AimeeDraws and you can buy her comics from her website

Food Chain by Aimee Lockwood

Food Chain by Aimee Lockwood
met Aimee Lockwood on my second day in The Lakes and I was charmed by her passion and excitement over comics, the talent she was surrounded by and the community gathering together. 
She didn't hard-sell her comics to me, but honestly, her friendly nature and obvious love of the medium would have likely led me to buy from her.
Except, I didn't need any of that, because the work she had for sale looked magnificent and I knew I wanted to buy everything she had the second I saw it.
Food Chain is an intriguing collection, filled with charm and warmth, bursting with innovative ideas, techniques and personality, and one that hides a few nice surprises which mark Lockwood as a talent to look out for on the UK's small press scene. 
From the first page of the opening titular story, Lockwood displays a talent for playing with the flow of words on her page - in one panel using a beam placed over a wooden tank as a convenient speech bubble, then following the flow of a wave of water, then swirling across her panel alongside schools of baby salmon swimming in unison. 
It works on some occasions and doesn't on others, but it always adds a sense of freshness which I hope Lockwood will retain as she progresses in comics.
Her mature sense of colour belies her relative newness to form and is a powerful tool here, genuinely adding depth to her work, with blues drenching her pages, flowing in and out of panels giving depth to the images of water that pepper the story and carrying our eyes all over her gorgeous artwork. 
When Lockwood makes herself (and her younger brother) the subjects of the story, she allows us to view it through their own wide-eyed, youthful wonder, lifting the sense of nostalgia the story is steeped in while never once letting it cross over into mawkishness. 
Food Chain is at once elegant, charming and educational, steeped in the emotional warmth that comes from someone letting their own memories and experiences wash over the page. 
Timmy is a lovely tale that pokes a little further past the nostalgic veneer we often allow our childhood memories. 
Lockwood continues to show her natural cartooning skills off here, playing with panel structures and layouts deftly. 
In Timmy, the rook her family rescued after a fall, she imbues a full personality in just a few short panels, allowing us as adults to appreciate the havoc he must have caused, one which the children of the house must have been blissfully unaware of at the time. 
This neat narrative trick plays out beautifully in the stories ending, one where we reflect on the lies adults tell children, and one where we stop to perhaps appreciate why a deceit like that might be necessary. 
Vector is a surreal departure from the two, stories we've seen so far and shows Lockwood is a creator who could have more strings to her bow than I might have first thought. 
Lockwood takes, what I'm rapidly coming to see as her own distinct appetite for experimentation to extremes here, telling a tale with a jagged and unforgiving narrative structure that is both dreamlike and nightmarish. 
Again here Lockwood's sense that colours and layouts are as much a part of her storytelling tool kit as words or images is on show and in fact here takes centre stage, with seeping reds creating a definite violent tone, and the frightening final panels effectively paying off the menace that nags at us throughout.
In The Enemy, Lockwood attempts to offer a more traditional comic narrative, without narration, and with multiple viewpoints. 
The story is an interesting one (and I imagine based on an actual experience), but it falls short somehow. 
I find myself interested in the characters, I want to know more about the girl, her relationship with her mother ("you're your own worst enemy girl") and I feel deprived of that at the story's climax. 
Again though, Lockwood is brave here, playing with a variety of ideas of how to present her unique narrative visually. 
Perhaps it doesn't fall short, but in presenting characters, and giving them voice, Lockwood has intrigued me, and when the story ends I find myself wanting to know before. 
That's a good thing.
Portgower is a classic ghost story, and one I'm happy to have read today (Hallowe'en). 
It's a well-trodden type of tale, but sitting so close to Lockwood's other autobiographical tales, it plays a neat trick on the reader until it's too late, dragging you into what, handled by a less able storyteller would have been a trite reveal, but here is a charmingly chilling bit of cleverness. 
Lockwood flexes her muscles a little here in terms of her artwork, and with a little more to go on in terms of scenery, she shows a good grasp on the power of Impressionism in sequential art to present objects and imagery in a recognisable yet stylised way. 
Tattoo is a neat way to finish, because more than anything it shows Lockwood has a lot more to offer.
It's a story driven by a neat idea, but it's more that that too. 
It has characters with backgrounds, with pains, with struggle, with stories to tell and with lives lived. 
It leaves me wondering what Lockwood will do when she unleashes her talents on a full length book and I definitely want to be around to see when she does. 

If this comic had ended up just being a collection of autobiographic stories - which honestly, I believed it would be after reading the first two strips - I wouldn't have been disappointed. 
Lockwood has a warm and unique voice that is engaging and powerful, that would have been enough to draw me in. 
But then she has this need to experiment, which is exciting. Her layouts can't be trusted to do what you think they should and her lettering rarely allows itself to be contained by such stuffy traditions as word balloons.
Her ability to use colour as something that genuinely adds another layer to the experience of reading her comics is something I'm deeply impressed by (not least because of my own incompetence with it but because it's not something you see often).
My delight in seeing her departure from autobiography into other interesting territories was palpable and I love the creepy Vector and campfire-esque Portgower
To finish on Tattoo was a master-stroke, because it leaves me very clear in my mind that Aimee Lockwood is a comic creator on the rise, one that's getting comfortable with her tools, but is already braver than a lot of people that have done this for years. 
That all adds up to someone who could go far, and while I sit happily waiting for the moment when the world and their wife are talking about 'breakout star' Aimee Lockwood, I'll be happily recommending Food Chain to anyone that will listen. 

You can find Aimee Lockwood on Twitter @AimeeDraws and you can buy her comics from her website

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

The Adventures of Om by Andy Barron - Hoss, The Chorus and Pea's Trespass

LUSH, hallucinatory and utterly unique, Andy Baron's Om series is a vibrant, visual tour de force of cartooning, overflowing with style and harbouring a poignant edge of humanity which belies the otherworldly inhabitants of its pages.
First a confession: I've had the three Andy Barron Om comics on my shelf for some time. 
Every now and again I have picked them up and flicked through them and in the end I have had to put them down again, because if I'm honest, I've just not felt ready to appreciate them fully. 
That's because they are out of this world gorgeous and just some of the most accomplished, glorious cartooning I've ever seen in the pages of a self-published comic book. 
Barron's artwork is like nothing I've ever seen before.
It's baffling and bizarre but somehow familiar.
His backgrounds are hyper-real dreamscapes, where bubblegum pink clouds fill the horizon.
The weird and wonderful denizens that inhabit that world seem impossible, yet somehow at the same time, are so well realised we believe that they could just exist ... Somewhere, somehow.
Having finally taken the plunge into the world of Om, it's rewarding to find Barron's storytelling, and particularly his fine grasp of sequential art, is easily as rich as his illustrative style.
He switches adeptly between a variety of panels and layouts, carefully selecting those best suited to share an emotion or a movement, or to grab his audience, drawing them into his bizarre story and framing his weird world. 
In Hoss - the volume I selected randomly after finding no suggestion on the covers or inside pages of any kind of sequential order to the various volumes I found myself with  - we are introduced to (I presume) titular character Om, as it is woken from slumber by the arrival of a mysterious equine-looking beast (Hoss we assume) wearing a mask. 
As Barron's creations size each other up, favourably as it happens - moving to an affectionate petting and embracing in short order - the cartoonist reveals a surprising talent, the ability to imbue these weird and wonderful creatures with a very human warmth, and that is despite the comic being entirely silent, preferring instead to do its 'talking' in other ways. 
As pleasant a surprise as it is to feel this warmth, Barron is lulling us into a false sense of security, which it isn't long before we live to regret, because in the world these creatures inhabit, not all is as it seems. 
Om and Hoss bond, with Hoss retrieving food for its new 'owner', which the pair then share in a genuinely touching moment, before falling asleep together, seemingly safe and assured in their new-found companionship. 
It's only with the appearance of another of Barron's odd creations, a one-eyed green biped, wielding a knife and fork like Wile E Coyote or Sylvester, that an air of threat emerges, and we begin to wonder how sweet a story we might actually be reading. 
This creature sees Hoss as a meal, and armed with his cutlery he approaches the sleeping and unsuspecting Hoss - left alone for now by Om - sinking teeth into it voraciously.

And it's here that Barron chooses his moment to magnificently whip that lush, colourful, warm and friendly rug he's laid out from under us, with a vicious, violent and shocking scene that leaves us questioning everything we thought we knew. 
The mask falls from Hoss, both literally and metaphorically and when Om returns to the scene and surveys the results, the fear etched on his simple features is palpable, perfectly complementing the discomfort and disillusionment we feel as the reader.  
It takes a machiavellian craftsman indeed to so masterfully manipulate our emotions, playing skilfully on our preconceptions and on cartoon tropes to fool us into believing we're safe, before tearing out our hearts and challenging us to look a little closer next time. 
After all, Barron seems to ask us rakishly, I had Hoss wear a mask, what more did you need, to know that it was hiding something? 
Picking up the next book in the trio I've held onto all this time, I wonder if Barron can repeat the trick, or whether he has something new up his sleeve with which to delight me.
While Hoss is shocking and disturbing, unveiling a dark and dangerous world beneath a colourful, cartoonish facade, 

The Chorus  - the second book in my Om read-through - is menacing from the start - and actually distinctly frightening in places.
It expands our experience of Om's world, to paint a picture of an environment where cruelty is the norm, where torture and sacrifice seep from the surface of the stunning landscapes and striking vision Barron so masterfully brings to life. 
And Barron does have more tricks, or perhaps it's just that I am a step further into this world at his point, my blinkers shed and the dark truth laid bare before me.
My first thought, looking deeper into Om is that there is potentially a message here about the violent force which nature can present, often beautiful and beguiling but ultimately merciless, with innocents here ferociously torn apart by stronger species on a whim. 
There is, perhaps, also a comment on religion here.
The Chorus, in name alone, suggests something holy, and the scene our protagonist stumbles on certainly bears the markings of a ceremony of some kind, one which sees one of the green creatures we encountered in Hoss, violently sacrificed. 
The Chorus themselves, a trio of creatures, respectively resplendent in red, green and blue, are imposing from the first, basking in the glow of a fire, the primal 
When The Chorus - an imposing trio of humanoid creatures, with beaked bird-like faces, each resplendent respectively in red, blue and green - pull their captive from his iron cage it is already bloody and battered.
The ensuing sacrifice is vicious and brutal, Om looks on, the fear etched in his face echoing our own horror at the violence of the ritual. 
Barron works overtime here, again showing his ability to utilise layouts and framing devices to better tell his story. 
Om watches in a series of small, circular down page panels, which recall looking through a telescope, escalating our sense of voyeurs of the macabre scene. 
As The Chorus gets into full swing, their horrifying dance around their burning victim takes on an additional fervour for the sharp irregular panels in which it's presented, which serve to take the reader further from their comfort zone into the dangerous and threatening environment Om has stumbled.
Without spoiling the story's climax, Barron pulls no punches and is happy to carry things through to their bleak bitter end, emphasising that this world is a pitiless one, it's inhabitants assert their power over weaker species with violence and brutality, silently, efficiently and without remorse. 
A cynic might argue, that is not very different from our own world. 

In Pea's Trespass, a limited edition six page Om Adventure - At which point I realise Om is probably the world rather than the character - our focus shifts to one of the green creatures we have seen suffer in two previous books. 
The name, and the cover - on which dozens of the creatures march in unison - paints an image of a creature that perhaps appears in abundance in this world (a 'common garden pea' so to speak), something of which there are many, and is perhaps deemed disposable by the other inhabitants of Om. 
Or perhaps it's just a reference to the colour and shape, a large globular head with huge staring eyes, perched on top of a pair of long legs and frog's feet with a similar pair of long green arms sprouting from where we might expect ears to. 
Suffice to say, becoming the focal point of the story doesn't spare the pea from the violence we have seen meted out to it in every story so far.
But Pea's Trespass offers something unique again - a slight psychosexual edge to the surreal vision Barron puts before us.
The trespass of the title could relate to a few things, the first and most obvious would relate to the mountainside assent our protagonist makes at the story's outset, suggesting it is perhaps crossing a territorial line in doing so, stepping somehow into enemy territory (perhaps hinting that the fate it suffers is of its own devising). 
The other interpretation is only slightly less overt and relates to the milk pea steals from the yellow-teated breast of the headless, limbless, white, female creature it finds when it crests the mountain. 
After gorging itself, suckling on the creature - who vaguely resembles the chalk-white protagonist from the two previous comics - the pea falls asleep, only to be awakened suddenly and violently by the arrival of another being.
This one is the same bone-white, with the same yellow nipples, but with muscles and sinew that suggest masculinity (also, notably, with arms, legs and a head - albeit a featureless one adorned only with a yellow nose-like shape tied on with string). 
Pummelling the pea in an explosion of blood the 'male' asserts dominance over the pea, as every character it has encountered on Om has to date, Barron jolting his audience into shock by washing the panel in a blood red hue, accentuating the violence of the act and its consequences. 
Left for dead, bleeding, our last look if of this creature, battered (killed?) again, and for a second time as a result of it attempting to sate its appetite. 
Is there judgement here? We might see, in the 'trespass' of the title, a suggestion the pea knew the risks it took and knew it had broken some rule or law. 
Or is the 'trespass' in the implied sexual assault of the 'female' creature?
Three times now, these creatures (this creature?) has suffered brutal violence at the hands of cruel, stronger beings. 
Is Barron making a comment about survival of the fittest? The natural order of things? 
Or can we see the pea as the common man, unfed, used and abused by beings who 'have' more, striving to survive, but bludgeoned back down at every step.
These are some of the many questions my visit to the World of Om has left fighting for space inside my head. 
There's no doubt Barron has made me a fan. 
In his art style alone, there is something so unique, so other-worldly, that I find it hard to look away. 
His grasp of the mechanics of the page are thrilling and I find myself staring at panel shapes and layouts way more than I would normally. 
And then there's this other layer to his work that challenges me deeply. 
I doubt very much whether the things I'm postulating come close to what beats within Barron when he writes these tales, but in a sense that doesn't matter.
That they challenge me to wonder is enough, because not all comics are capable of that, and the ones that are, are worth coming back to time and time again. 
Barron told me on Twitter that there are more Adventures of Om that I haven't read yet. 
You can read all them on his website at the link below, but part of me wants to hold the books in my hands. 
Some are out of print, which kills me, but Barron says he's considering collecting all the stories he's done to date. 
He also said he'd like to print them in a larger format than the A5 mini comics he sells currently. 
I'd like to see that. I think it would suit his style and I told him I'd support a kickstarter along those lines in a heartbeat. 
I advise any comic fan to take a trip to the world of Om, and if you finish feeling anything like the way I did, take the time to tell Barron. 
Because perhaps, if we all do, we'll be a step closer to that beautiful, oversized Adventures of Om collection I can see in my head. 
Andy Barron can be found at on Twitter @omcomics and reached by email on 

Roachwell by Craig Collins and Iain Laurie

A DEEP, dark, deliciously twisted bad trip of a book, Roachwell by Craig Collins and Iain Laurie, delights in its surreal twists and turns and the traps it lays for its unprepared audience. 

Enticing us in with a bold, bloody and brutal cover that depicts a diver emerging from a pool of crimson in the middle of a drab, dirty, dreary kitchenette, replete with kitsch chequerboard tiling, Roachwell makes its motives perfectly clear from the get go. 
It's an arresting and surreal image on its own, but one that only reveals its true intent when lined up with the cover of the duos other book Crawl Hole (Credit where it's due, Collins himself shared that rather macabre party trick with me).
Like Crawl Hole before it, Roachwell is a scattered selection of the dark, weird and wonderful, single page horror stories as darkly funny as they are deeply disturbing.
But Roachwell has a new trick up its sleeve, one I want to try not to spoil as much as I want to sing its praises.
Because Roachwell's unique narrative structure is smarter than you might first think. It urges the reader to look back, to read it again, to re-read and re-assess, and wonder whether if in fact what we've read was as random as we first thought. 
And some of the stories in Roachwell are definitely random. On my first read I found myself scratching my head more than once, and it's only when I let go of a need to make sense of what was on the page in front of me and allow myself appreciate the non-linear nightmare vibe that Laurie and Collins so eloquently craft that I really started to enjoy Roachwell for what it was. 
And that's clearly part of the point, Roachwell does not wish to be easily read, it delights in throwing curveballs at its reader, even going so far as to offer a whole strip in Gaelic, and several other pages written in a code I haven't been able to decipher. 
Laurie is high on my list of talented indie comic artists and it's interesting to see here the beginnings of the style that terrified people all over the world in last year's smash-hit And Then Emily Was Gone. 
The level of detail and personality he puts into his gruesome and grotesque creations drags us in to their stories kicking and screaming, and his masterful use of shadows casts an intense, menacing atmosphere over every panel. 
Collins is on top form here too. His writing style is minimalist, but nuanced enough to create a vivid imagery all of its own, the perfect complement to the juggernaut that is Laurie's striking artwork. 
He has a lyrical edge to his writing, using repetition to accentuate beats in his story that linger in your mind, waiting until the perfect moment to strike that chord again, leaving his words to reverberate and resonate in the reader's head long after putting the comic down. 
Collins and Laurie are remarkably successful in their efforts to craft a comic that is truly creepy here and that's not something to take lightly. 
Plenty of mainstream horror comics I've tried leave me bored and unmoved, where Roachwell has taken up space in a corner of my brain I didn't necessarily invite it into, a place it seems intent on lurking in and continuing to creep me out from for some time, much as Crawl Hole and An Then Emily Was Gone did before it.
But that's not all this twisted team has got, not by a long shot. 
Because as creepy as it is, Roachwell is genuinely funny too. 
It probably takes a certain twisted sense of humour to laugh at Toilet Snorkel Survivor Soup, which sees a man assaulted outside a pub and press-ganged into playing guitar for M People for eternity, or Chilled Monkey Brains, where the main character talks of staying inside somewhere cosy on cold, dark days, only for the artwork to reveal his cosy space is the belly of a monstrous giant snake, but if that's me then sign me up. 
Collins and Laurie are a great double-act and they are masters of a criminally under exploited genre in comics, that when it is done in the mainstream, it's rarely done as well. 
If you see any of their minis at conventions I highly recommend snapping them up and highly doubt you'll be disappointed. 

Monday, 10 August 2015

The Adventures of Leeroy and Popo by Louis Roskosch

My late teenage years and early twenties were plagued by a perpetual feeling that I didn't fit in, probably common to many people at that age, but that felt deeply personal to me at the time.

I felt awkward, clumsy, uncomfortable in my own skin, and more often than not, an outsider looking in at other people who all seemed happier and more self-assured than I could ever dream of being.

Reading The Adventures of Leeroy and Popo brought those memories into sharp relief and Roskosch's work is a welcome addition to an established literary tradition of narratives focused on social outcasts who gaze in at the world from the fringes of society, exploring themes of alienation and self-worth, neatly wrapped in some virtuoso cartooning that all marks him as a creator worth looking out for in the future.

Leeroy and Popo are outsiders in every sense of the word, perhaps most obviously in the anthropomorphic forms they inhabit alongside the other, clearly human, people in their community - notably here Cecilia, the object of Leeroy's desire, and later, her 'much better looking and cooler' boyfriend, with whom Leeroy feels unable to compete.

That they are so visibly different is not immediately apparent, and in fact when we first meet the pair, as Popo watches Leeroy playing video games (specifically Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess on the Nintendo Wii), the only other person present is Tyrone, Leeroy's younger brother, a bear like his sibling.

In retrospect - and as we see hints of Tyrone idolising (or at least looking up to) his older brother - we might argue this as evidence he will grow up to be as much of an outcast as either of our two heroes are.

Leeroy tells us he likes to play his game standing up because it's more 'immersive', suggesting straight away that, for him, the fantasy world where he plays a hero, is considerably more attractive than the one in which he lives his life.

We will see that need to be ‘a hero’ again, and it is in this fantasy he is most prone to hide.

The next time we see pair, they're in town and Leeroy is guiding them to the cafe where Celia, a girl who he clearly has a crush on, is working.

Leeroy's low self-esteem is evident here, he has already concluded Cecilia does not like him, yet, when they talk, she seems animated and is evidently interested in him, enthusing about the drawing style he describes and even coyly asking if he will draw her a picture.

In fiction, the outsider often exhibits a focused, desperate sense of motivation or drive, setting challenges (or perhaps more appropriately here, 'quests') to prove themselves worthy of entering society. 

Sadly it is often that very nature that leads to their failure, the need to succeed is so great and their self-worth so low, they almost consign themselves to failure before they have even begun.

Leeroy clearly believes this opportunity to draw Cecilia a picture is the way to her heart and, as a reader already invested in him, it is painful to see how quickly he his resolve that he's 'not gonna screw this up' falters.

With less than 24 hours to go, he has not even begun to draw, instead choosing to spend his time smoking weed with Popo in his car.

He expresses nerves about the drawing – albeit over handing it over rather than actually drawing it in the first place – and he enlists his friend as a 'messenger of love', adding to romantic significance he is placing on the picture and at the same time, increasing the pressure on himself and the likelihood he will fail to achieve his own lofty standards.

At the same time, he rather tragically wonders whether he can get in shape playing video games, suggesting that he wants to change - losing weight will make him less 'different' - but at the same time, he wants to find a way to hold onto the comfort blankets of his current life.

Waking at 2:30pm the next day, it doesn't even occur to Leeroy - as it must to the reader - that the time he has to complete his drawing is ebbing slowly away.

He does, however, remember his plan to get fit playing video games and throws himself into a strenuous performance of Wii Boxing that leaves him with a sprained hand, an injury he is soon describing as a 'sports injury', furthering our impression that the world he escapes to is as real to him as the one he lives in day to day.

As he sits down to draw and the hours tick by - alongside a few beers and an energy drink - Leeroy becomes increasingly frustrated by his lack of inspiration.

Popo arrives the next day and finds his friend asleep, exhausted after working all night, and while he is clearly aware the resulting drawing is a little odd - visually representing Leeroy's ‘quest’ to win Cecilia in an imagined scene from a video game - it doesn't deter him from completing his own mission, handing the picture to a confused Cecilia, much to Leeroy's dismay when he wakes and realises what has happened.

When we see them next, three weeks have passed, and it seems the strange drawing hasn't completely ruined Leeroy's chances, having bumped into Cecilia by chance and left with her number. 

We hope Leeroy will take this as a sign that he doesn't need to be a hero, just himself, and perhaps the next scene, which sees him trying to play a Superman game only to declare he 'can't deal' with it, is a sign he has turned a corner.

The next two pages are a brilliant interlude, a double page spread of Leeroy and Popo's Facebook pages and a sad testament to their isolation and status as outsiders, amassing a total of five friends between them (including each other). 

Dialogue continues here over instant messages, with Popo talking his friend into actually taking the brave step of asking Cecilia out.

When we are introduced to Fat Rick, we're presented with an extreme example of an outcast, so lacking in social graces, even Leeroy and Popo reject him, choosing to hide rather than hang out with him.

Rick enters just as Cecilia has chosen to spend her lunch break sat with Leeroy, and leers at and objectifies her in such a deeply unpleasant way she makes the understandable decision to get straight back up again.

Leeroy’s discomfort suggests a number of things, perhaps that any association with Fat Rick will reflect badly on him, but perhaps, at a stretch, that Rick represents the worst of him, who he might become if he fails to lift himself up and instead embraces life on the fringes of society.

However, his concern the encounter will affect his chances with Cecilia go unrealised, and she texts him shortly to ask him out for a drink, inspiring him to drop his usual clothes for a smarter, preppier look.

Leeroy’s nerves are obvious as he heads out to meet her, and there's an awkwardness about the ensuing date, especially when the bubbles start to appear around Leeroy's head indicating his rising levels of intoxication. 

The nervousness we feel as a reader during the date is testament to how invested we are at this point in Leeroy and how badly we fear him making a mistake, not least because of how clear it is that even the smallest perceived error would be devastating to him.

He's so unsure about how things have gone that in the next scene we see him considering reviving his plan to draw for her, but this time, with a sense that his ambition to improve as an artists is based on his desire for self-improvement. 

He's seen a way into society and he is making serious plans.

It's intriguing here as well, that he chooses the moment to enquire about Popo, whose life has been on the periphery of the story to this point, the empathy he shows in asking perhaps giving us a further insight into the change happening in him and perhaps a glimmer of maturation.

Conversely, given the relatively serious nature of the situation Popo describes, one might suggest Leeroy has been too wrapped up in his in own drama to have been as supportive as he should to a friend who has, at the very least, been a loyal wingman. 

The next scene tends to support that argument, Leeroy obsessed by the return to his ‘quest’ has switched his phone off, declines the opportunity to go out with Popo, and is visibly rude, telling his friend not to disturb him while he works on his 'masterpiece'.

That's not enough to deter the loyal Popo though, who having seen Cecilia out with another guy, determines he can't let his friend make a fool of himself and rushes to stop Leeroy giving her the finished drawing, convincing him that he can't compete with the man he has seen Cecilia with.

As the reader we are frustrated by Leeroy's capitulation here.

There are hints that this 'much better looking and cooler' - and more visibly human - guy, doesn't treat Cecilia very well.

We see him apologising for having let her down a week earlier, and his comment that 'Someone ... Something just came up', suggests he isn't exactly faithful.

But Leeroy can't take the risk and is far more comfortable sinking back into his previous existence, sinking even lower, as represented by his apparent acceptance of Fat Rick in the epilogue, his stated desire to 'get drunk', suggesting his efforts at self-improvement are over for now.

The role of the outsider in literature is a complex one, but it has often been used to examine a poignant moment or event through the lens of from someone who sits on the fringes of society and thus has that much more acute a view of it. 

The sense of pain the outsider feels as a result of their alienation and lack of any sense of belonging can heighten an emotional story and elevate the empathy of the reader.

For me, Roskosch more than achieves this here, and while it may well be a reflection of my own sense of empathy for Leeroy and the memories it dug up of my own experiences, I found The Adventures of Leeroy and Popo a compelling read that left me thinking, and had me reaching for the book to re-read thinks in the following days.

Roskoch’s art is the perfect companion to his story and using only the simplest lines he is able to convey a variety of complex emotions, embuing his characters with convincing, real characters that add depth to the book.

And it's not just in his expressive and engaging character design that he shines, but also in his elegant establishing shots, where meticulously rendered architecture adds another layer of texture to the world Leeroy and Popo inhabit. 

It was Roskoch’s cartooning style that made me reach forThe Adventures of Leeroy and Popo, but it is the rich characters and poignant way in which he deals with his subject matter that will have me coming back for more.