Bristol was a couple of weeks ago now, and indeed for many has been supplanted in memory by the MCM Comic Expo which hit London last weekend. Not me though, because I didn’t go. Besides, as my old friend Budgie remarked when we were discussing the column in the Ramada Bar* “you used to get about six week’s worth of columns out of Bristol” so I should have plenty of material to be going on with without trips “up the smoke”**.
One of the things that makes Bristol interesting is the element of chance encounter. Oh, there are all manner of interesting comics to be had from the stands – about which more later – but you can also pick up interesting things from people you meet as you wander ‘round. I picked up my first copy of Queen of Diamonds in the bar one Bristol, for example. It seems that there is at least one such random encounter every year.
This year’s encounter was actually in the car park of the Ramada as I walked between the “mainstream” section which was housed there, and the “small press”**** section at the Mercure Hotel around the corner. As I walked down the Ramada steps I could see a gingery bearded bloke squinting myopically up at me, trying to work out if he recognised me or not. He decided that he did, and hailed me as I passed – although since I’d already recognised him I’d have stopped anyway.
It was Terry Willey, whose work has been pretty much a constant since I first hit the UK Con scene back in ’95, when he was the artist on the slightly surreal Sleaze Castle. I think it’s safe to say that he’d never drawn or written anything I didn’t like, so I was pretty pleased to discover that although he wasn’t sitting behind a table, he did have a new comic.
Publishing under the banner idcm (which rather pleasingly stands for “I do comics, me”) Terry’s latest opus is Verity Fair, which follows the exploits of middle aged actress and sometime fish and chip seller Verity Bourneville (real name Tracy Perkins). Who is she? Well, in Terry’s words she’s “a mess, a loudmouth, waver of hands, a pain in the neck, a cack handed, bath-singing, confabulating pest”.
Personally I just think she’s wonderful.
Like Willey’s other heroines Jocasta Dribble of Sleaze Castle and Surreal School Stories fame and her sister Petra from Petra Ecetera, Verity is a real person. Not super confident, not slick, not overly clever or terribly successful. Just normal. Just a jobbing actress with a portfolio of small jobs behind her – enough to pay the bills but not enough to be wealthy or well known, and at first glance her exploits seem to be pretty unremarkable.
With the exception of her acting agency’s offices burning down in the opening pages, it seems all that happens is Verity goes out with her mates, goes for an audition and goes home. As ever with Willey’s writing however, the reader is rewarded for paying closer attention. For a start, although we meet most of them only briefly, every single member of the vast supporting cast feels fully realised and well thought out. There are no two dimensional bit players here – any one of them could easily walk out into their own book. Willey’s writing makes you feel like they all have their own stories, it’s just that we’re not following them at the moment. They’re all a positive joy to read in their own right though, and Terry, if you’re reading this and you ever have the time, I could cope with a book about Verity’s stroppy niece.
Anyway. There are some lovely narrative touches and hints of things to come. There’s a nightmare and a mysterious man and evidence of more acting talent than Verity lets on about, but also some simply beautiful uses of the sequential art form that are breathtaking in their simplicity and effectiveness.
Of course Terry’s been at this “doing comics” game for a long time now, so it shouldn’t be surprising, but he really is a bloody master at this comic art stuff. He has Verity break the forth wall and talk to us directly a couple of times, which is a hard technique to pull off, but Willey does it with aplomb. He also uses the panels and the gutters, with characters peering out of them for emphatic effect.
This is a beautifully written, exquisitely drawn, superbly coloured book. Quite possibly the best thing Willey has done to date, which trust me, is praise indeed. He seems to be possessed of an almost supernatural talent for writing strong, engaging and believable female leads, and Verity looks as though she’s going to slot into the pantheon very nicelt indeed.I can’t wait for the next instalment (some of which I’ve seen, since Terry kindly let me flick through his folio while we were in the car park) and am seriously hoping I’ll be able to get hold of it before Bristol next year. If you like comics with a bit of wit, if you like characters you can believe in, if you like good comics you really should go and take a look at this.
I once told you that a comic was so good you should buy it even if you needed to sell a kidney to be able to do so. I’m tempted to make the same recommendation now, but I won’t, simply because if you read Verity Fair you’ll be losing an organ anyway because, my foolish friends, if you have a heart, Verity Bourneville will steal it.
Less likely to steal your heart, but quite likely to catch the culprit if that, or anything else should go missing***** is the hero of one of the books I picked up whilst browsing at the Mercure. Now, you lot probably already know about Detective Chief Inspector Harker, because Jason Sacks has already reviewed his series here at Comics Bulletin. As has been previously noted in this column however, I haven’t been paying much attention over the last couple of years so not only had I missed Jason’s review, I’d also missed the entire comic. It wasn’t until I saw the ever smiling face of my old acquaintance, the York based comics creator Vince Danks that my oversight was rectified.
Vince was the creative force behind the supernatural espionage thriller Sapphire, of which I was a big fan, and then worked with writer Roger Gibson on the anthology comic Raven******. Now, still working under Vince’s Ariel Press imprint this dynamic duo are back with a darkly humorous detective double act. DCI Harker and his Sergeant, DS Critchley.
Harker is a hard nosed copper with a touch of genius. Think Gene Hunt and Inspector Reagan with a touch of the intellect of Inspector Morse and Commander Adam Dalgliesh*******. Critchley is sharper suited and perhaps a little sharper tongued, but younger and more likely to jump to conclusions. They are a fabulous combination.
So far, without my noticing, they’ve managed to produce twelve issues of this series, comprising two complete story arcs – The Book of Solomon and The Woman in Black. Fortunately for me, both arcs have been collected into trades, so I cheerfully snaffled one of each – and I’m very glad I did.
Gibson has woven two tightly plotted mysteries which, in the finest tradition of the genre, feed you all the clues you need to solve the thing yourself, but wrapped up in enough red herrings to keep Harker in kippers for life.******** I don’t want to tell you too much about the plots, because I don’t want to spoil your reading experience if you haven’t already read them*********. They are literally dripping with nice touches though.
Take the mystery writer who features in The Woman in Black. Agatha Fletcher, homaging perhaps the greatest female writer of detective fiction of all time, the immortal Agatha Christie, and perhaps the greatest fictional writer of detective fiction of all time, Jessica Fletcher. Simple but effective, like all the best things. Then there’s DCI Harker’s understated visit to the grave of an ancestor in Whitby. Nice touch.
Danks has a wonderfully clean and detailed style which makes the locations instantly recognisable – I know Whitby, the location of the second arc, very well, and I knew every place they visited. Anyone who buys Harker directly from the creators will have no difficulty in recognising Harker and Critchley either, since they bear striking similarities to their creators. I’ll leave you to speculate on which is which…
I bloody loved these books, and since Gene Hunt has fired up the Quattro for the last time, Reagan is long gone, Morse has gone to the great beer garden in the sky and Dalgliesh has retired to write poetry, Harker has stepped in to fill a gap in the very nick of time. I’ll certainly be making sure that I don’t miss any more of this truly intriguing and genuinely clever series. You shouldn’t either.
Next time, we’re going to take a look at some of the titles I picked up from my friends at Markosia – including a totally unrelated book called Harker – and another gem from the small press tables at the Mercure.
See you then!
*Well, technically we were discussing the column outside the Ramada Bar because it was so damn hot…
**Why do we English*** talk about going “up the smoke” or “up to town” when we talk about London? I mean, it’s south of just about everywhere so we’re really going down the smoke.
***Because I’ve never heard a Scot or a Welshman use the terms.
****Still not a term I like, but it’s the one everybody knows, so…
*****Sorry. Even I’m ashamed of that link…
****** Both of which have been positively reviewed here – check out the archives for more info.
*******And if you don’t know who any or all of these great heroes of detective fiction are, please google them, then invest a little money in some books and DVDs. If you’ve missed Life on Mars/Ashes to Ashes, The Sweeny, Inspector Morse and P.D. James’ Dalgliesh mysteries, then you are seriously missing out on one of the finest corners of modern British culture.
********Harker is partial to a kipper, which given the importance of the red herring to detective fiction, I thought was a nice touch. What? Well go and look up what kippers are made from, and what colour they can go when they’re smoked. Honestly, I thought it was quite a funny joke.
*********And if you haven’t, you really should.