OK, I'm now forty years old. This means two things.
Firstly, I'm now very definitely middle aged.
Secondly, since my birthday was on Friday*, it's been something of a busy weekend having far too much of whatever passes for fun at my immensely advanced age**, so this week I've not even managed to review any of the shorter comics I picked up at last week's Thought Bubble con.
However keen I am to sample the varied delights promised by the Etherington Brothers' Baggage, from the DFC Library, or the sequel to the Rose Black vampire comic I bought in Bristol many years ago, or the intriguing The Vessel of Terror which I picked up at the AAM/Markosia stand while I was explaining to Harry-The-Publisher why he still didn't have the five-issue Sunset comic I signed up to write five years ago, they will have to wait until I have a couple of hours to spare.***
I have however made sure that I sat down and read issue #3 of Terry Willey's Verity Fair from IDCM****. Long standing readers will know Verity by now. A jobbing actor of a certain age, Verity had a moment of fame in the Eighties as "Pose Girl", a member of a New Romantic band called "Boutique X", and (along with most other British actors, it must be said) once featured in an episode of The Bill*****. Now she's just another woman looking for acting work –- although last time we saw her (about this time last year, as it happens) things were looking up. She'd landed a new agent to represent her and work was beginning to flood in.
Ever the cheerful northerner****** Terry uses his introduction to inform us that this is, in fact "the most boring issue yet; if you are waiting for more comedy drunkenness, hang on for Issue #4," thus demonstrating that his glittering career in sales and marketing is likely to remain ever so slightly out of reach. Interestingly, he also warns that the issue contains spoilers for Surreal School Stories Volume 2. Now, he also suggests that Surreal School Stories Volume 2 might never actually get written, but even so, I'm thrilled to know that it does at least exist in his head.
What's Surreal School Stories?
Well, I'm glad you asked. Surreal School Stories is the collection of illustrated stories I'll be spending some time searching for in my attic later on.
Ah. OK, yes, I see that doesn't help you much.
SSS was a spin-off from Sleaze Castle, which I suppose should be regarded as Willey's breakthrough project in comics. Sleaze Castle told the story of Jocasta Dribble and her adventures at a Northern British University. Well, and her adventures in a strange parallel universe. It really was quite brilliant and I confess I fell in love with Terry's art at first glance. Anyway. In SSS Wiley told******* the story of Jo Dribble's school days at the eccentric but brilliant Tycho Brahe School for Girls. I was rather fond of it, Jo remains one of my very, very favorite comics characters of all time.
What has this got to do with Verity Fair? Good question. Well, it seems that I've totally missed the fact that Verity Bourneville (aka Tracy Perkins) was one of Jo Dribble's fellow students back at Tycho –- hence the spoilers for any future SSS Vol. 2 contained in this issue. Indeed, there's even a bit of a cameo for Jo and a couple of other Tycho old girls in this issue, and it was nice to see them again after all these years –- however briefly. Thing is, I don't actually remember the young Miss Perkins from SSS, hence my imminent trip to my comics archive in the attic to find the original source material. But all that is history –- and possibly a column for another time. The real question here is "is Terry right –- is this issue boring?"
The short answer is a fairly emphatic "NO!" but the short answer doesn't really cover it, so the long answer goes more like this:
Behind the slightly surrealist cover, complete with pocket watch, skull, cigar and Doctor Strange font, Willey has, in Verity Bournville/Tracy Perkins, created a character of genuinely engaging complexity and depth. In addition to that, the quality of his writing is such that I suspect if he had presented us with 24 pages of Verity reading aloud from the ‘phone book it still wouldn't be boring. He's right to say that not much happens to advance the plot in this edition –- it being made up mostly of flashback to earlier points in Verity's life –- the things that aren't happening are doing so in a terribly interesting way.
The flashbacks are in fact hugely informative, dealing as they do with Verity's attempts to make sense of what she describes as the "piss-the-bed, panic attack, lights on ‘till dawn" nightmare she had in Issue #1, which drove her across town in the middle of the night to the arms of the mysterious man we learned more about in #2. One takes us back to some mysterious events from her schooldays, which make up the spoilers for SSS mentioned above, and which shall not be mentioned here*******. A second flashback sequence goes back to the early days of her relationship with the aforementioned mystery man, and involves some ingenuity and broken spectacles.
Both these flashbacks, and a wonderful sequence where the present day Verity participates in the "Line up" round of popular BBC 2 music panel game Pop Goes the World –- in truth a very thinly veiled pastiche of BBC 2's perennial Never mind the Buzzcocks are exquisitely scripted and damn near perfectly drawn. The short sequence where Verity joins the line up with "Gail Mulligan" from the '80s band "Glasgow Camera" is just pure delight –- and proof that Terry can draw totally accurate likenesses of real people every bit as well as he can draw the characters he makes up in his head –- "Gail Mulligan" may well be a fiction, but anyone who watched Top of the Pops in the '80s will recognise the high note hitting, petitely framed Glasgow songstress on Page 14…
And then there's the cliffhanger at the end.
A change of mood so total and so sudden that it made my head spin.
Verity Fair is, without question, one of the best comics currently in print. There is, genuinely nothing else like it. It's only just dawning on me that through Sleaze Castle, Surreal School Stories, Petera Etcetera********* and Verity Fair Wiley is slowly building up a comprehensive and logical universe with a history –- not a continuity which would be unwieldy and off-putting, but a history, a reassuring background which is there if you choose to study it but eminently ignorable if you just want to enjoy the story in front of you, in the same way that you can enjoy The Archers********* without having read the enclosures act of 1750.
Verity Fair is 24 pages of pure charm and joy. With a side order of giggles and a dash of profundity for seasoning. But it's more than that. It's part of a larger whole that is turning out to be significantly greater than the sum of its parts. I for one can't wait for the next instalment. Neither should you. Follow the link, my foolish friends, follow the link…
*Which is why I'm a couple of days
late too –- I was, how shall I put this? Too drunk to type at the weekend…
**Yes, I know that forty isn't all that old, but I'm a teacher. I work with teenagers all day. I'm now old enough to be their dad (indeed I'm older than many of the parents I meet at school now) and surrounded all day by people who think that you're essentially past it at twenty five. I feel ancient.
***Which, the way I'm going is likely to be in July…
****I mention this every time I review one of Terry's books, but I still think that it's brilliant that "IDCM" stands for "I do comics, me!" OK. Just me then? Fair enough…
*****For the benefit of non-UK readers, I should say that The Bill was a long running soap featuring the adventures of the officers based at "Sun Hill Police Station" in London. At some time or other almost every working actor in the nation appeared being arrested, rescued, murdered, robbed and otherwise brought into contact with the stalwart defenders of the Queen's Peace.
******Non-Brits might not be familiar with UK regional stereotypes. I trust British readers will see that comment for the sarcasm it was…
*******Terry both wrote and illustrated SSS. Sleaze Castle was written by Dave McKinnon, with Terry on art duties only.
********Because I want you to enjoy reading SSS Vol. 2 some day…
*********Which told the story of Jo Dribble's little sister Petera.
**********A popular –- at least with me –- soap on Radio 4 featuring "The every day story of farming folk." It's the longest running soap-opera in the world, you know…