Definately a Fine ComicA column article by: Regie Rigby
Y’know, it’s funny. You bang on for ages about something, complaining that this or that isn’t happening. You worry and fret that a vital corner of the market isn’t being served. And then something comes along that is almost perfectly designed to fill the void, and you just can’t get excited about it. And that’s how I feel about The DFC. And I’m actually rather more than a little annoyed about that, because I’ve been getting excited about it for a while now. It sounded almost perfect. For a start, it’s published by Random House. I’ve been arguing for years that “regular” publishers ought to get into comics. There is, after all, a wealth of talent and stories to tap. They have the finance, the contacts and the expertise to make things happen. I’ve thought for a long time that they haven’t done something like this already, and have long held the conviction that if they did, they’d wipe the floor with the comics that the comics’ publishers put out. Turns out, I was wrong. Now, don’t be thinking that The DFC is rubbish, because it isn’t. It has rather a lot to recommend it in fact. If it was a small press anthology put out by a bunch of enthusiastic amateurs I’d be in raptures about it right now. I need to say right up front that I enjoyed reading it – and really what more can you ask for? I’ll have a lot of good things to say about this comic in the course of this column – and I don’t want you to lose sight of that. I really did like this comic. But not as much as I thought I would. And that bothers me. I’ll get into why later, but for now I’ll concentrate on the comic itself. The DFC is available only by subscription, and my copy of issue #1 dropped through my letterbox while I was away in the far north of Scotland last week, and on arriving home I initially reckoned that their presentation was pretty damn good. The first A4 sized edition arrived in a striking red and telly striped envelope that really stood out in the pile of otherwise nondescript mail that awaited me. Indeed, it was the first thing I opened, and superficially I was well impressed. You certainly can’t argue with the talent on show. Regular readers will know the esteem in which I hold the Etherington Brothers, who provide their Monkey Nuts strip – a strip which is not only brilliant, but has featured recently in the from the non comics reading public. Then there’s the comic’s real casting coup – the strip John Blake written by fiction writing superstar Phillip Pullman, the man behind some of the best books in my school library, including the exquisite ”His Dark Materials” trilogy*. Pullman is big news, and has the rather useful characteristic of being an attraction to both kids*** and to parents. The other strips are equally enticing. The Spider Moon is a jaw droppingly lovely fantasy strip from Kate Brown, who you might remember from my review of this year’s Bristol as she was the talent behind the equally lovely Manga Shakespeare edition of A Midsummer night’s Dream. Here we are in a world where prophecy fortells the end of the world, crushed beneath a falling sky. And now, the stars are indeed falling… It’s early days, but the six pages we’ve had so far are enchanting, intriguing and breathtakingly beautiful. Indeed, for my tastes it’s by far the best thing in the book – and as you’ve seen, competition for that title is stiff indeed. In addition to the strips already mentioned The DFC also has what appears to be a “Famous Five” style strip in Aggs and Son’s The Boss, which details the adventures of two (so far) kids who seek out wrongdoers under the direction of “The Boss” – who we have thus far met only in the cliffhanger at the end of the first instalment. Then there’s school based S/F action in Neill Cameron’s Mo-Bot High. Asha’s new at Midford High School, and there’s something really odd going on behind the bike sheds… More cartoony capers are provided by Dave Shelton’s brilliantly slapstick Good Dog, Bad Dog Sarah McIntyre’s Vern and Lettuce and James Turner’s Super Animal Adventure Squad. All this, and jokes, puzzles and activities. That’s a lot to be crammed in to 36 pages. And you know what? That’s part of the problem. There’s too much here. There are no bad strips here, but I’d have liked longer bites from less of them – the others could easily be brought in at a later date. I suppose this is the curse of the anthology, but they’ve got the balance wrong here. I could live with that though. What is really going to hurt this book is the price, and the production values. Oh, and the distribution method – which is linked to the production values, so I’ll start with that. The DFC is available only via subscription through the website. I’m not sure how widespread the marketing has been, but I have to say I’ve not seen much. Well, I’ve not seen any, in point of fact. For the life of me I can’t quite see how - short of word of mouth – potential readers are going to find this comic. Then there’s the price. The DFC is Three Quid. That’s more than any other similar product I can think of off the top of my head. I know kids get more pocket money than I used to, but I still suspect that three quid’ll make a big enough dent in your average kid’s weekly income to make them think twice. That all suggests to me that this isn’t a comic that kids are going to buy – which is what I was hoping for. Instead I suspect that this is a comic that adults are going to buy for kids, and that’s a real shame, because ultimately, that’s what’ll kill it, and I don’t want this book killed off. But at the end of it all, we have the production values. Oh dear. You see, as somebody who has a lot of friends who self publish their work , I can absolutely see the quality we have here. The paper is heavy and rather pleasingly rough to the touch, and the cover is heavier still. The printing is fabulous and I’m sure that it really is the best that money can buy. On a technical level I’m sure that Random House has done a great production job. And yet… To people who don’t take an interest in such things, well, The DFC looks no more impressive than the sort of thing my mates have put together. As a pertinent example, the Etherington Brothers used to put significantly more impressive looking stuff together back in their totally independent days when literally everything they did was hand produced. And when they did it cost less than The DFC. Now, I can understand how The DFC comes to cost so much – there is some seriously expensive talent on show here and that must surely make up a pretty big chunk of the cover price. And as I say, while it isn’t glossy or stuffed full of the sort of tacky free gifts the comics on the UK news stand tend to carry, the understated look of The DFC must surely have been expensive to put out. Let’s be clear. The DFC is a great comic book. There is not tat here, no dross. It’s a truism that most anthologies tend to contain something that will appeal to everybody, but also that everybody will find something to hate. I don’t think that’s true here – I suspect that most people will find that everything is worth a read, although some things are more worth reading than others. I confess to being more than a little disappointed in Pullman’s contribution, which seems to me to be the weak link in the book. Given that his writing genius is undisputed, I’m choosing to assume that his difficulties can be put down to his lack of familiarity with the techniques of comics writing and that he will, therefore improve. And there’s the thing. This is an enjoyable book – about the only thing I can criticize is the price na dthe distributon system. I hope to be proved wrong. *The trilogy comprises the books Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass**, and, barring a rather dodgy ending, is pretty close to perfect. It even garnered my favourite all time book review having been described by the Catholic Herald as “more worthy of the bonfire than Harry Potter”. Those of you with strong religious views should know the trilogy is strongly atheistic in it’s stance, although in no way dogmatic, and I know many Christians who regard it as brilliant. It certainly features my favourite angels in literature, and has the best, most subtle appearance of God in a work of fiction, bar none. Pullman claims to have been influenced by Milton, and I can see that this is the case. I’d go so far as to say that he comes close to surpassing him, and that is astonishing. **You can call the first book “The Golden Compass” if you like, but you’ll be wrong. The alethiometer isn’t a compass – I don’t care what the book was called in America, and I certainly don’t care about the movie. ***He’s a massive hit in the school library – the kids really lap up his stuff, which is encouraging because his language is rather challenging – proof, if proof were needed that we underestimate our youth.