I bring the mighty unwashed American hordes two examples of great comic culture. One of which you’ll see very soon, one you might have to wait a bit.
The first is Jack Staff, by Paul Grist. Issue 1 just came out and its beautiful. I admit to being a little worried when Grist stopped Kane in order to do a ‘superhero’ comic and I was a fool for doing so. Grist tackles the ‘retro superhero’ genre here perfectly by building a strong supporting cast, a mystery that the reader can solve instantly while the cast run around clueless, an X-Files style investigating department thrown in, a nosy reporter with an alliterative name and a guest appearance from the cast of Dads Army. It’s funny, clever, steeped in history and using strong simple brushstrokes, both in writing and in art, that Paul then uses as the foundations to build infinitely complex thoughts and characters. There are similarities to books like Astro City or The Factor, but executed with far more skill and charm.
Issue 1 is out in Britain now, published by Dancing Elephant Press and should be winging its way to American shores shortly. It’s just become my favourite superhero comic (now that Invisibles has finished), just nudging over Black Panther.
Now to take the meaning of the word ‘comic’ to its basics… all quotes in the next bit are from memory and are likely wrong. Gets the spirit over though, eh?
I went to see a recording of TIME GENTLEMEN PLEASE last night. It’s a new sitcom, starring Al Murray in his The Pub Landlord character and is written by Richard Herring and Al Murray.
So what’s the comics connection? Well, it’s script edited by Richard Herring’s comedy partner… Stewart Lee. And he likes comics. Seen him in Gosh and Comics Showcase in London, and comic actor Bill Cashmore tells me that he gave all his friends copies of the Buddy Bradley TPBs for Christmas once. So it counts, it is relevant, it is.
Anyway, it’s a great sitcom. I won’t get to see it, ‘cos it’s been commissioned by Sky Television, which is a satellite pay service. Bastard, really, ‘cos Sky usually only shows American imports, of which the best get shown on terrestrial TV in a year or two, films, which do the same and football which I either want to see from the terraces or not at all. And now they’ve started commissioning dramas and comedy… most of which have been reportedly crap. Except this one isn’t. Not by far. As recent British sitcoms go, it’s up with Spaced, dinnerladies, League Of Gentlemen and The Royle Family.
It stars a previously existing comic character, The Pub Landlord, created by stand up comic Al Murray who has worn his skin over five years of doing the circuit, taking him from from an unknown to a famous comic creation, with hardly any TV or video exposure whatsoever. The Pub Landlord is a bigoted, racist, homophobic, sexist yob, who is touched by the beauty of unsophistication and repulsed by anything that threatens his word. Ish. When some bloke rings him up to breathe heavily down the phone at him, he responds “it’s not normal, a man should never hear these sounds in his ear from another man” before shouting “I was never confused” and finishing with the yearning “still… it’s been a year”. The last two catchphrases are familiar to fans, as is his opening lines “Rules is rules. It’s a pint of beer for the gentleman and a glass of white wine or fruit based beverage for the lady. Rules is rules. If we didn’t have rules, where would we be? France!” His partner in crime from the other side of the bar is alcoholic (“We don’t use the ‘a’ word here. We say ‘publican’s friend” Terry played by Phil Daniels of Quadrophenia, Holding On, Sunnyside Farm and Blur’s Parklife fame.
The show also stars, as an Australian barmaid, Julia Sawalha. You may know her as Saffy from Absolutely Fabulous. “It’s amazing, Australians, they can sense bar work from miles around. They’re genetically engineered for it.” Now, I fell in love with Julia when I was about sixteen, in her debut and starring role as Linda Day in Press Gang, one of the best ITV comedy dramas ever… and it was a kids show. I’m not the only one, Richard Herring did too (when he was slightly older admittedly) and, indeed, built a Julia Sawalha Shrine as part of his TV show with Stewart Lee, Fist Of Fun. “What has Keith Allen got that I haven’t, Stu?” “Well Rich, he’s got charm, wit, sophistication, good looks, the respect of his comedy peers… and he’s got Julia Sawalha”. Richard has also confessed to acting a complete prat when he first met her. And so what does he do? Casts her in his sitcom, as a busty, sexually precocious barmaid with a loose fitting top. And he even gets to do some heavy breathing down the phone to her… to which she responds in kind. You see, writers *do* have power. Sometimes.
The show pits character against character as Al Murray’s prejudices are challenged. One of my favourite things about bigots are when their views are revealed as contradictory… so women aren’t allowed in the pub, well not if they’re on their own, well unless they’re behind the bar, but they shouldn’t drink beer, well unless they’re Australian which… and on. Everything is rationalised away in this character’s most remarkable brain which can hold two conflicting points of view simultaneously. And he’s a marvellous lynchpin to base the series around.
The writing is fast and furious, no line is wasted, gags wrap themselves round each other, separate gags are told by separate characters simultaneously. Pub observations are based in reality and then stretched to breaking point. The production is superb, the set reeks of one of those crap pubs that no one goes into anymore, wide and spacious and plenty of places to sit. Everything reeks of the seventies and no one has thought about changing it since. And there are gags if you look for them, today’s pub special is Soup In A Basket, the trivia machine in the corner is called Fact Hunt. Say it a few times quickly.
So why am I plugging this British sitcom in what is ostensibly an American comic book website? Well, as I said, Time Gentlemen Please has been commissioned by Sky, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch, who also owns Fox, so maybe you Americans can get to see it too, if you write to Fox and beg. How impressed will they be by a show that gets mail in the USA when it hasn’t been broadcast, let alone finished filming in the UK? Who knows, they may even show it without feeling they have to remake it first.