Monday, 13 September 2010

CLiNT #1 - Review (Part 2 of 2)

In Part 1 of this review, I concluded that the non-comics content of Mark Millar's new magazine CLiNT was more likely to alienate readers (even its target male readers!) than to attract them. If this venture is going to be successful, therefore, then the comics inside will need to be good enough to persuade people to buy it in spite of the non-comics features. So ... are they?

So far, it has to said, the reaction to the comics hasn't been overwhelming. The main criticism, however, has been less concerned with the quality than with the fact that most of the stories have either been published elsewhere already, or soon will be.

As a casual comics reader who hasn't read any of the comics previously, perhaps I can try to gauge what the average magazine buyer (as opposed to a die-hard fanboy) might think of them.

Kick-Ass 2
Plot summary: A sequel to Kick-Ass. Potty-mouthed pre-teen vigilante Hit-Girl is now attempting to build a new "super team".

First up is this eight-page extract from Millar's own yet-to-be-released Kick-Ass 2. This seems like a shrewd enough move. Obviously Millar has a vested interest in promoting his own work but, from a commercial perspective, it means the magazine also gets to ride on the wave of publicity that is accompanying the current DVD release of the Kick-Ass movie.

The artwork here is fairly cartoonish which suits Millar's jokey dialogue, but I couldn't help thinking it would be better suited to a smaller size page. Blown up to fill a magazine page as it is here, the simple lineart (pencilled by John Romita Jr) looks as if it needs more work. The writing is designed to amuse rather than engage the brain and I did enjoy what was here. Bizarrely, the art style and the emphasis on the gags reminded me of a foul-mouthed Peanuts strip, and I had no problem imagining Lucy as Hit-Girl and poor old Charlie Brown as the long-suffering Kick-Ass! The problem, for me, is that with only four panels per page and only one or two lines of dialogue per panel, there really isn't enough story revealed in these eight pages to help newcomers decide if this is something they'd want to continue reading.

Plot summary: Vampires meet gangsters in Prohibition-era New York. Oh, and there are aliens, too!

Turf is the first graphic novel written by Jonathan Ross and, before I read this extract, I must admit I'd pretty much made up my mind not to buy it. Like anyone looking to make a living in any field of the arts, it's hard not to feel a certain peevish resentment towards those for whom doors automatically open, just because they've already achieved celebrity status doing something else. Admittedly Ross is a self-confessed comics reader but, let's be honest, that hardly makes him any more qualified than the average non-celebrity fanboy.

It was a surprise then, to find that Turf is actually pretty good. It has a huge advantage over the Kick-Ass 2 extract in that all twenty-six pages of its first chapter are printed here - more than enough to allow readers to decide whether or not they're going to like the story and the style. The hugely detailed artwork (by Tommy Lee) and muted, nicotine-stained colours successfully evoke the feel of 1920s prohibition-era New York. Compared to Kick-Ass 2, it has almost twice as many panels per page and each one is filled to overflowing with Ross's verbose dialogue. That might not suit the average comics fan used to leafing through a DC or Marvel title in less than five minutes, but for anyone who - like me - enjoys reading a comic rather than simply looking at the pretty pictures, Turf is a fine effort.

Its one flaw, I'd suggest, is a very heavy over-reliance on third party narration. To some extent this is simply a matter of stylistic preference, but I've never thought this device was well-suited to modern comics. First person voice-overs are fine, but the inclusion of a third party narrator seems like a throwback to the days when the art of creating comics was trying to shake off the techniques used in illustrated stories but had still to develop the techniques which would be better suited to the new medium. To me, every third party caption takes the readers out of the comic's world, and reminds them: "Hey, this isn't real, you know!"

That aside, there's a lot to like in Turf and, from having been previously determined not to buy the graphic novel, this chapter has already persuaded me that I'm going to have to put my prejudices aside and give it a try!

Rex Royd
Plot summary: Ummm ... man builds army of clones and/or robots to act as body guards and/or take out super heroes? Oh, Hell, who can tell?!

Frankie Boyle, one of the co-writers behind Rex Royd, is on the cover of the first issue, suggesting that this comic is meant to be one of the magazine's high points. It isn't. At least not for me. There's a simplified "blockiness" to Michael Dowling's artwork, vaguely reminiscent of Mike Mignola but leaving far too much empty space on each page. The writing is basic. Minimalistic, even. In eleven pages there are very, very few lines of dialogue at all and those there are seem to be grunted, rather than spoken. There certainly aren't enough to build either atmosphere or character, and there are barely enough even to convey what on Earth is supposed to be happening. One to miss!

Plot summary: In a world without super heroes, a super villain embarks on a campaign to humiliate and then murder some of the world's leading police chiefs.

Oh, come on - you can't blame Millar for putting in another of his own stories. It is his magazine after all!

The artwork in Nemesis (by Steve McNiven) has a more realistic slant than the gag-strip style of Kick-Ass but, again, seems to lose something by having been printed on a magazine size page. While there are undeniably some very intricately detailed panels here, many of the pages taken as a whole still seem quite "empty" - as if they are waiting for someone else to come in and finish them off. I suspect this would be less of a problem in a standard "comic size" edition.

Like the Kick-Ass 2 excerpt, there are very few panels per page and only a limited amount of dialogue per panel, so it's hard to escape the feeling that this is going to be a very slight plot, stretched out over far more pages than is really necessary to tell the story. There's far more padding than substance. Nevertheless, there are twenty-three pages in this first chapter so, unlike Kick-Ass 2, it is at least possible to get a feel for just what that story might be, and for one or two of the characters involved.

Nemesis, it seems, is Millar's attempt to be Garth Ennis. Characters swear excessively, blood and gore are splattered gratuitously across every page and the overwhelming impression is that this is designed to shock first and to tell a story second. It could appeal to a few twelve year olds still going through their Beavis and Butthead phase, although - if they've already read Preacher - Millar's tendency to stretch out three pages worth of story over ten may become apparent even to them.

In short, shock-comics have been done before (ad tedium!) and, I'm afraid, they've been done much, much better than this.

Space Oddities
Summary: Intended to be a regular slot to showcase 3 - 5 page stories by new writers and artists.

This is billed as a "Huw Edwards presents ..." feature. I have no idea why. Is the gruff but affable Welsh BBC presenter known to have an interest in space? Or in comics? I don't know, and the magazine makes no attempt to explain it. If it's intended to give by-lines to apparently random celebrities, the magazine really needs to add some kind of an explanation, even if it's only a cheeky, self-mocking nudge and a wink.

Anyway, the story in this issue is The Diner, a three page humorous piece by Italian artist Manuel Bracchi. If you've ever tried to write a comic story in five pages or less, you'll know how hard that can be. It's to Bracchi's credit then that the artwork here is clear and professional, opening with two easy-to-follow pages (notwithstanding the almost complete absence of dialogue!) and ending on a genuinely amusing punchline. In short, this as good a light-hearted SciFi spoof as anyone could put together in the space available, and it easily puts Frankie Boyle's far longer effort to shame!

So ... the million dollar question: is the first issue of CLiNT worth buying, notwithstanding the God-awful attempt at magazine features? Well, yes. Just about!

Ignore Rex Royd and the dire magazine content and, at £3.99, the 26 pages of Jonathan Ross's Turf and the lightweight but fairly amusing eight-page slice of Kick-Ass 2 are worth the cover price alone. The other comics are at best middling but, if you regard them as bonus "supporting material" rather than core content, then you're still getting value for money. It still has a long way to go but, if Nemesis can step up its game (or if a better title can be found to replace it), future issues of CLiNT could even become something to look forward to.

Friday, 3 September 2010

CLiNT #1 - Review (Part 1 of 2)

If you haven't heard of this yet, CLiNT is the new British comics magazine put together by Mark Millar, writer of Kick-Ass. The first issue has had mixed reviews at best, most critics welcoming the fact that there is a new comic magazine of any description daring to brave the choppy waters of the UK's comics market, but being less than enthusiastic about the contents.

In its favour, it's generally acknowledged that conceptually CLiNT is trying something new. It isn't, for example, aimed solely at existing comics fans and is designed to sit on the shelves of newsagents like WH Smith, sharing shelf-space with other "hobby" magazines, rather than having to fight for attention among the glut of DC and Marvel titles in a specialist comics shop (although I did, in fact, buy my copy in London's Forbidden Planet!)

With a view to capturing that "non-comics" audience, its contents are something of a mixed bag. As well as five comics stories (more on those in Part 2 of this review), it has an interview with stand-up comedian Jimmy Carr and a selection of magazine style one- or two-page "novelty" filler items. For me, these were CLiNT's real Achilles heel.

The Jimmy Carr interview is no more probing or entertaining than an average fluff piece in a weekly TV guide (and there's not even a token question relating to comics!) The shorter fillers include a Top 10 of Hot TV Mums, a list of Charles Manson's other intended celebrity victims and the tongue-in-cheek Deeply Moral Babes - Overdressed Porn for the Religious Right. I know the magazine is aimed primarily at a male demographic, but these features seem deliberately designed to alienate completely any potential female readers. Worse, from a commercial perspective, the writing lacks the one thing that this kind of 1980s faux-laddishness needs if it's going to have any appeal even for a male audience - personality!

A successful magazine needs a voice of its own. It builds and retains its audience by speaking to its readers in a language they understand; by sharing their interests and enjoying the same sense of humour. Jeremy Clarkson is successful not because he knows more about cars than anyone else, but because he shares the fans' passion for them. Loaded (before it abandoned wit and irreverence for simple-minded crudity) was successful not because the writers were interested in most of the subjects they covered, but because they covered them in a way that shared their fans' sense of self-mocking, youthful exuberance.

Millar's CLiNT has no voice of its own. It seems to have a very clear idea of who it doesn't want to appeal to, but no clear idea of how to address those it does - if, indeed, it even knows who they are! Having alienated most of the female demographic, it must surely be even more important to ensure your offering will have twice the appeal for male readers. The non-comic features here, however, are random at best and covered in a way which is dry and humourless - hardly a house style likely to appeal to any male, old or young, fanboy or not.

Ironically, given the way it's been marketed, if CLiNT is to achieve any kind of success, then - based on this first issue - it will have to be in spite of its non-comic content, rather than because of it. So, are the comics strong enough to carry the magazine until it can sort out its problems in other areas? Answers coming up in Part 2 of this review!