Such a Parcel of Rogues in a Nation: The New Scottish Underground (Part Two of Two)

Posted by on January 26th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Previously: Part One.

Scotia Redivivus: The Comix Resurgence

With the establishment of Hope Street Studios — an auspicious location if ever there was one — Jamie Grant was able to create a hub for new talent, anchored by Northern Lightz’  successor, Wasted,  but also giving rise to small press ventures and blog comics.  It’s engendered the kind of collective mentality that’s always been central to exciting comics, from the early bullpens to Fort Thunder and Story Ark.  Not only a physical proximity, but shared experiences and a common cultural identity help to strengthen the unity between the artists.

Unlike previous generations, the talent emerging from Hope Street is far less insular.  These are guys who grew up with The Simpsons as well as “The Bash Street Kids”; who identify as much with Enid and Rebecca as with Dennis and Gnasher, and for whom comics primarily mean American exports.  It’s that mentality that really prevails in the three publications under scrutiny here — Wasted, Nexion and Khaki Shorts — three anthologies that share much of the same cast of creators and really exemplify the new wave of Scottish underground cartooning.

Wasted #2, Nexion #2, Khaki Shorts #21

Of the three titles, Wasted has by far the highest profile — its editors are both A-list creators for DC Comics, it enjoys circulation in newsagents and they even manage to wangle Frank Quitely in to draw “Shit the Dog” — which is why it seems so odd that it would set itself up as another stoner comic. Weed culture is so mainstream now that there isn’t the same stoner identity as existed in the ’70s and the question remains — do people who smoke marijuana really want to read comics about people who smoke marijuana? It’s an anachronistic fallacy that leads to many the comic’s weaker strips, like “Spliffy the Stoner Chick” — she gets high, her clothes fall off, the establishment is affronted — and “The Dopranos,” which turns the Mafiosos into drug dealers in the name of comedy, completely missing the point that The Sopranos was riotously funny to begin with.  Again, most of this dated comedy comes from Alan Grant whose idea of counter-culture now seems tragically irrelevant.  Yet, sometimes the topic produces some unexpected gems.  One of these is the gleefully surreal “Zinder Kuprise” by Craig Collins and Paul McCann that plays almost like an homage to Crumb’s “Stoned Again” with the same zany devolution of the characters.  It succeeds because it celebrates the bizarre, rather than simply lapsing into a tired cry of, “Ha-ha, stoned people do things differently — take that, society!”

Zinder Kuprise - Written by Craig Collins, drawn by Paul McCann

Most of Wasted’s stand-out material falls firmly out-with the remit, though.  Fraser Campbell and Iain Laurie’s “Black Cape” strips are darkly comic tales of superheroes living in Glasgow’s east end — suffering from chronic depression or alcoholism, their costumes stained with god-knows-what.  It owes as much to James Kelman as it does to Stan Lee, and of all the strips, it is the most successful at capturing something uniquely Scottish. The downward cycle of apathy and social deprivation that affects so much of the country is amplified in their town full of out-of-work heroes. While some of the subject matter may be hard to stomach, it still manages to be funny since Campbell’s writing rings true, both in the keenly observed dialogue and the all-too believable domestic scenarios.  In turn, Laurie’s art is perfect for capturing the ridiculousness of unkempt, overweight men in costumes and the grey misery of council estates.  The addition of Derek Dow’s colors makes the strip probably the most polished in the comic with the earthy textures adding the extra layer of filth that was lacking in “Black Cape’s” earlier days as a blog comic.

Black Cape - Written by Fraser Campbell, drawn by Iain Laurie, colors by Derek Dow

Alan Kerr’s “Lusi Sulfura” and Curt Sibling’s “Total Fear” are also stand-out works, mainly due to the sheer slickness of their art.  Kerr’s titular demon is his sounding-board for railing against the watering down of alternative culture — from the limpness of emo to designer rock fashion — all rendered in a gorgeous pop art style with thick, inky lines and vector pattern shading.  His cover to Wasted’s second issue even manages to rival Frank Quitely’s for sheer energy.  Sibling’s approach shares a similar aesthetic with clean, fat brushstrokes that look so much better when presented in black and white — issue one’s gaudy coloring being something of an eyesore. “Total Fear” continues the exploitation tradition of underground cartooning with outlandish scenarios involving rubbery monsters and pneumatic heroines that Russ Meyer would approve of.  It walks that thin line between comedy and sincerity, so that even when there’s some less-than-subtle political commentary or one of his protagonists loses her clothes, it’s done with a nudge and wink that makes it utterly endearing.

Total Fear by Curt Sibling

While the majority of the parodies in Wasted fall flat, satire is one of the main strengths of Nexion and Khaki Shorts.  Rather than lampoon the straw men of pop culture icons, the artists and writers poke fun at the mediocrity that’s infesting mainstream entertainment.  Craig Collins launches some barbed attacks on George Lucas and the endless cycles of remakes and franchises, while Rob Miller takes a pretty daring step to mock the hollowness of stoner humor, a move that probably doesn’t sit too well with his Wasted honchos.

Kounter Kulture Kevin by Rob Miller

These two anthologies feel so much freer than Wasted, with no real genre constraints — it’s no real surprise that no-one chooses to write about getting high — and, as a result, the work on display has a much higher hit ratio.  Iain Laurie’s pet project “Powwkipsie” makes its uncomfortable presence felt in Nexion with a squirmy “adventure” that seems to ask, “which came first, the egg or the why did the chicken cross the road?” as the world melts into a state of hyper-entropy.  It’s just as confusing as it sounds.  We also get a solo outing from Paul McCann where his Nickelodeon-friendly style belies a horrifically vile tale and in Khaki Shorts, John Miller’s intense stream-of-consciousness narratives are allowed to run riot.  They very rarely make sense and often the captions completely take over his panels, but with his chisel-nib pen work, it looks totally unlike anything else in comics.  The frenetic urgency of it all makes his work a challenging read, but when we’re faced with the space adventures of Frank Zappa or the quasi-autobiography of his Secret Agent tales, it’s a challenge worth accepting.

The Schattenmutter by Iamus (Paul McCann)

The real power of these self-published ventures, though, is that they allow the creators to experiment with the possibilities of a collective through frequent collaborations.  Collins and Laurie seem to have found a particular synergy together. Their ongoing strips “Roachwell” and “Omniscient Zorgo” as well as the one-of collaborations, really allow Laurie to flex his artistic muscles, drawing everything from his typically odd-looking humans to floating alien heads and foul-mouth banshees.  He’s the perfect vehicle for Collins’ staccato-paced wit and the brilliantly-titled “Seamus Heaney’s Heinous Penis” sees the two of them on fire, and that strip’s final, hideous reveal lingers far longer than is comfortable. There’s even something of an open-source freedom with the creations and seeing Curt Sibling take on “Powwkipsie” — with a musical number, no less — or jam with Electric Soup’s Dave Alexander is a joy.

So, it’s not just new voices on show here and even the cheaply photocopied Khaki Shorts can bring some big guns.  Its issue 21 celebrates the 20th anniversary of Electric Soup and reunites Alexander, Quitely and Shug for some new material, including a brand new “Greens” strip that really leaves us wanting for Quitely to return to creator-owned material.

The Greens by Frank Quitely

Of course there are weaknesses with these publications and while the ratio of wheat to chaff is high, there are a few notable clunkers.  Dave Gordon’s blatant tracing of Skin Two models would be bad enough, had he not then decided it was also a good idea to letter his work in Comic Sans; and Martin Conaghan phones in another Alan Moore rip-off — this time John Constantine — proving he really doesn’t have any original ideas.  It’s a shame, really, since Nulsh’s ligne claire artwork on that story is rather nice.

While writers like Grant Morrison and Mark Millar have brought attention to the country in recent years, it’s always been within the context of the mainstream which can’t help but stifle their national identity somewhat.  Publications like Wasted, Nexion and Khaki Shorts have given new outlets for that voice and, for better or worse, it’s great to finally see an underground comix movement gain momentum in Scotland.

It remains to be seen whether that momentum can be maintained, with Wasted on an erratic schedule at best and some dubious editorial decisions — beyond the stoner theme, it now appears that “Black Cape,” easily its best strip, is being dropped.  Even though having Alan Grant behind the comic is no doubt something that will guarantee it exposure, his increasing dominance of the pages with strips like “The Fun Guys” — yes, they’re magic mushrooms — makes it seem more and more like his own vanity project.  Thankfully with the increasing ease of self-publishing and digital distribution, it looks likely that Khaki Shorts and Nexion will outlive their parent publication and hopefully give us more of the unfettered insanity that the Scots do so well — no drugs required.

Lusi Sulfura by Alan Kerr

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One Response to “Such a Parcel of Rogues in a Nation: The New Scottish Underground (Part Two of Two)”

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