Tuesday, September 1, 2015

ALL STAR RECOMMENDS THE BECKY CLOONAN EDITION



Rover, wanderer, nomad, vagabond.

It’s right there in both her twitter bio and at her website, ripped from a Metallica song, all you need to know about Becky Cloonan.  Born in Italy, she’s rested her head for most of her life in parts of the US and Canada but she’s constantly on the move, firing muskets with 2000AD’s Mike Molcher in England one week, hanging out with beardy metallers in the Netherlands the next, and most recently, spotting platypi in Queensland. Clearly, this wanderlust is a vital part of her life. More than that, however, it could also sum up her approach to her work, her art and her craft.

Hauling her backpack from Gotham’s private schools, to the wilds of the Hyborian Age, to the achingly real lives of the super-powered down and out, to Castle Dracula, to a flooded future New York filled with punk rock pirates, to 12th century Iceland, to way, wayout there in the cosmos aboard haunted space vessels, to creaky old apartment buildings afflicted with supernatural terror, to Gothic fantasy realms filled with desperate, broken-hearted lovers, Cloonan’s “Where I’ve Been” genre-map is marked with so many pins you’ll barely see any terrain beneath them. There is literally no type of story that she won’t curl up in and make her own, staying there until some new idea-constellation draws her attention away and off she sails once more.

She roams many worlds, this Becky Cloonan, so let’s visit a few of her destinations. While by no means comprehensive, I’ve tried to cover as much ground as possible. If I’ve omitted your favourite Cloonan comic (and there are a number) my apologies, but at least I’ve saved something for when she returns…

COMICS OF THE WEEK : BY CHANCE OR PROVIDENCE, CONAN THE BARBARIAN, DEMO, DRACULA, EAST COAST RISING, GOTHAM ACADEMY, NORTHLANDERS: THE GIRL IN THE ICE, PIXU, SOUTHERN CROSS
By Becky Cloonan & Friends
Published By a bunch of folks

The first twelve-issue run of Demo began back in 2003, marking it in many ways as the prototype of a style of comic so very popular now in 2015. An exploration of diverse super-powered youth, stripped of costumes, archenemies and mega-crossovers, Demo went low-fi (as its title suggests) with its super-theatrics, containing its stories and all of its characters into single issues where, more often than not, powers were completely incidental to plot. Demo is about outsiders, their lives, their loves, their ordinariness and lays all this out on its black and white pages in downbeat, dramatic fashion – the gloominess, but heartfelt truth of teen angst stripped bare.

Although lacking the refinement of her later work, Demo clearly marked Cloonan as one to watch and watch closely. Cloonan, bravely for such a relatively new artist at the time, shows serious artistic dexterity, altering her artwork from story to story, sometimes subtly, sometimes radically, from shoujo-esque big-eyed manga characters, to Paul Pope-like urban waifs of thick lines and flowing hair, to characters so inky and reduced in feature they almost look like they are printed from woodcuts.

Her gift with facial expression is already on display here. Look at the below. Has there ever been a more perfect depiction of honesty in a character’s face rendered with so few lines?



Vertigo re-published the series in 2008 and it would only be a few years later that a second, six issue volume appeared from the publisher. 2011’s Demo Volume Two doesn’t skip a beat yet is, overall, far more optimistic in its story resolutions and is fuelled by much less teen angst in general tone. Cloonan again mixes it up from issue to issue and shows the refinement that the intervening years of hard work and craft provided.  Now both volumes are available in a single collection from Dark Horse, making for well over 400 pages of this highly influential gem from a period where indie and mainstream comics really began to bleed together significantly.

East Coast Rising, written and drawn by Cloonan, came and went in 2006 as a single volume from Tokyopop. It garnered an Eisner nomination for best new series and yet somehow never returned to bookshelves ever again thanks to Tokyopop cancelling the series and leaving its creator with ¾ of its second volume actually completed yet never to be printed. Fuck you very much, Tokyopop…

For my money, East Coast Rising shines as a rare, true example of westernised shonen manga done right. There is no artifice to …Rising, with Cloonan giving her natural early inclinations towards manga and Paul Pope a freer reign, yet never losing sight of her individuality in the process. It’s ridiculously fast paced, with the manga format allowing for long, expansive action sequences and multiple double-page spreads. The tones by Vasilis Lolos are superb, adding depth to the art and that extra dab of manganess complimenting Cloonan’s thick, inky lines perfectly.

Set in a future, flooded New York, …Rising is focused on a young boy named Archer who survives the destruction of his original vessel by pirates aboard the feared ship Hoboken. Rescued from the depths by the crew of the La Revancha, Archer reveals that the crew of the Hoboken also stole his map – a map leading to a legendary cache of treasure formerly belonging to a long-dead mayor. With its punk-rock pirates, snapping turtle kaiju, skull-faced death kraken, ship battles and lost treasure, …Rising rollicks along, with perhaps its only flaw being that so many characters are introduced they have a tendency to get lost in the shuffle during its sprawling, lengthy, multi-person chases and battles.

Ending on a major cliffhanger, it’s a true shame the series was never continued, as its bouncy energy, streak of adventure, gorgeous vessel design and overall sense of fun are quite contagious. My own copy is beaten and exposure-yellowed from frequent flip throughs and readings. Cloonan would soon get pretty serious with her writing, for the most part ditching the fun YA shonen aesthetic permeating …Rising. It would return, however, nearly a decade later and prove not only critically welcomed, but commercially viable.

In 2008, Cloonan, Fabio Moon, Gabriel Ba, Raphael Grampa and Vasilis Lolos won the Eisner award for Best Anthology with their self-published comic, 5. I’ve sadly never so much as even glimpsed a copy of and as such am halfway convinced it never existed in the first place, so let’s move on to the next effort by this group (sans Grampa, unfortunately), Pixu, a grey-toned horror graphic novel published by Dark Horse in 2009.

One of the more successful efforts at creating supernatural dread on the comics page, Pixu updates the old weird fiction trope of old houses and institutions as supernatural hotspots. Rather than conjuring strangeness and horror through “alien” creatures/gods of interdimensional origin, as in the work of Lovecraft and Hope Hodgson for example, in Pixu the horror is still supernatural and rooted on site but instead manifests itself in very human ways – obsessions with cleanliness, compulsive behaviours, fraying relationships, buried secrets and the hidden perversities of its cast.

Set in an old, dank mansion converted into apartments, each creator features his/her own character(s) for the most part of the story, breaking down their characters’ sanity slowly as the exterior evil, shown in inky, splotchy tendrils creeping into panel, and blotches of mould on ceilings, tries to burrow its way not just into the house, but into their souls. Character arcs begin to intertwine as the creepiness ramps up, with death, mutilation and immolation awaiting all.

A wonder of multi-person co-creation, Pixu is surprisingly subtle despite the grisliness of its last third. It becomes something of a Pinhead puzzlebox of a comic, asking readers to bring the dark parts of their own imaginations to the table to help open it up and construct narrative meaning and sense. Multiple explanations and motivations are there for the taking, all depending on just how dark you’re willing to go.

Cloonan’s character, Claire, vomiting on her boyfriend Omar right before she serves him up a bowl of soup filled with shards of her own bloodied fingernails, is just a sliver of the unnerving oddness within this black and white triumph of atmospherics over exposition.

“The Girl In The Ice,” (2011) a Cloonan-drawn, two part story from issues 35 and 36 of Brian Wood’s brilliant, much missed Viking anthology series, Northlanders, is the gloomy, downbeat tale of an old hermit whose land is caught in a turf war between warring clans. When he finds a dead girl’s body frozen in the ice beneath him, his curiosity about her demise and his genuine concern for her fate has him hacking her corpse from its frozen grave. Bringing the girl’s body home, he plays armchair coroner and quickly suspects foul play -- “a crime of empowered men in a lawless land.” When he receives news that soldiers are to be posted at his home, however, he must return the girl to the ice before they arrive, or face the inevitable accusations of his role in her death.

Cloonan’s art showcases both Iceland’s snow-capped mountains rolling ever onward in panoramic blue-tinged panels and the lines of weariness carved into our old man’s face, the marks of a life hard-lived, with equal skill and care. It’s her gift with expression that bonds us to this poor fellow so quickly, the sadness in his heavy-lidded eyes, alternating with fury at the girl’s circumstance and the soldiers’ arrogance. Becky humanises him beautifully and as the story of this “old man who only wanted to know the truth” heads towards its inevitable end, Cloonan’s art deftly, poetically reminds us that the harshness of this land is equally matched by the harshness of ourinner character.

While not comics, I’d be remiss not to mention the illustrations Cloonan provided for a 2012 Harper Collins release of Bram Stoker’s Dracula as it shows off the artist’s work at its most lavish and design-orientated. Full-page colour illustrations and spot illustrations running horizontally down the page accompany the complete text to Stoker’s classic. Cloonan’s Count is as handsome as you’d expect with her giving him life, even as his eyes are rimmed red and his white shirt blood-spattered. The sensuousness of Stoker’s story and his characters’ seductive abilities are on full display, without the cheesiness inherent to many such attempts at sexing up the story visually. I mean, just look at this:


It’s really the only version of Dracula you’ll ever need to own.

In 2012, Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan were tasked with relaunching Conan The Barbarian for Dark Horse, putting this former indie team, now bona fide mainstream stars, back together one more time. It was an inspired choice, with Wood busting out his pulp chops and Cloonan bringing the swoon to everyone’s favourite Cimmerian. With Dave Stewart’s moody colours perfectly suited to what, in my opinion, is Cloonan’s finest sequential art to date in issues 1-3, the team made quite the splash with The Queen of the Black Coast, which introduced to the Dark Horse run of Conan one of the most enduring characters of Hyborean mythos – Belit.

However, as celebrated as the book was when it launched, there were also numerous and vocal criticisms plaguing it. The vision that many a mouth-breathing Robert E. Howard obsessive had of their favourite loincloth wearing barbarian with his hyper masculine, musclebound physique, simply did not gel with Cloonan’s youthful, handsome, more realistically proportioned and sinewy warrior.

It was bizarre. I love John Buscema’s Conan probably more than a straight guy should, but Cloonan’s Conan, with his smiles, eye-glints and the enthusiasm of a man with the thrill of travel and adventure in his blood, is a complete breath of fresh air. He is very much alive, Cloonan’s Conan, and I could haggle with Howard purists all day about the “authenticity” of her depiction, but really, this Conan feels like flesh and blood to me (which is the problem for many), a man whose passion for both adventure and Belit feels real.

And it’s with Belit that things get really interesting, for Cloonan’s Belit is near spectral in appearance. She’s the myth here, not Conan, virtually translucent in skin tone, raven-haired, lithe, strong and possessed of intelligence demonstrated not only through her words but through a mere look.  It all feels far more believable to me. Conan, this titan of a young man, needs to fall for someone more striking than himself, a figure more mythical, more beautiful, someone almost post-human in physicality and femininity. Behold!



Collecting her three efforts self-published between 2011-2013, the tales in By Chance or Providence bring the seriousness to Cloonan’s writing, a real sense that sleeves were rolled up with the itch to prove something, most likely to herself rather than her readers.

“The Mire” won her an Eisner in 2012, but all three of these efforts are superb and wonderfully varied in their atmospherics.  All three stories are essentially fantastical, brooding love stories with dashes of uncensored Grimm, The Romantics, ancient myth and Shakespearean tragedy dosed into their sumptuous grey-toned pages. My personal favourite, by a hair, would be 2013’s “Demeter.”

Named after the Greek Goddess of the Harvest, “Demeter” follows Anna who toils long and hard on the land but loses her lover to the sea.  The lengths that Anna will go to in order to save her doomed romance forms the emotional core of the tale, even as she dares to “rise to meet” the waves should they intrude on her land-bound life. Wonderful stuff.

“Wolves” (2011) is the most overtly horror of the trio with it’s tale of a hunter paid to kill a werewolf who is in fact his lover. It’s all shadow and moonlight, monster and sword and the obviousness of its plot does nothing at all to diminish the power of its ultimate reveal and the subsequent transformation of the hunter into a lone wolf of the forest, naked, carrying naught but the knowledge that the coming full moon will bring not transformation but something far worse – memory and guilt and the pain of lost love.

The Eisner-winning “The Mire” is mostly set in murk and on haunted ground, with its young squire protagonist bearing a letter that unknowingly contains the details of his own origins through a stretch of swampy, supernatural land called The Withering which is haunted by a territorial, skull-faced spirit.

Cloonan’s command of short-form comics is on full display in this trio of stories. All three feel expansive and fully realised despite the relative shortness of their page count. Her pacing is on point throughout them all and, point proved, Eisner collected, she moved on yet again.

It really should not have taken this long to get a book like Gotham Academy out. It seems like such a no-brainer and there’s a part of me that’s actually a little surprised the title isn’t 100 issues old yet. However, 2014 was the year this ongoing book finally appeared, featuring a cast of multi-cultural teens and their day-to-day lives at Gotham’s premier private school. This being Gotham however, the notion of “day to day” is hardly normal.

Co-written by Cloonan and Brendan Fletcher and beautifully illustrated by Karl Kerschl, the team’s bubbly characters – Olive, Maps, Kyle, Colton and co. -bounce their way through class and after-school adventure with a manga-esque fluidity and such richness of colour that the panels actually resemble clipped animation cells pasted onto the page. These quirky characters, juxtaposed with the austere, traditional school buildings and grounds, breathe a big burst of fun back into the Batverse, something that’s been generally missing since the New 52 initiative started.

Tonally, it’s the return to East Coast Rising that I mentioned earlier with unfolding mystery in place of lengthy widescreen action sequences. There’s so much to love here – The Cobblepot family as both History Class material and engine of the mystery, an unnamed student yawning during Bruce Wayne’s speech, Aunt Harriet (!) and the academy’s never-ending secret passageways and tunnels. The comparison to Harry Potter is perhaps inevitable and somewhat apt (provided even by Cloonan herself), but with its old cemeteries, rumours of ghosts, Lovecraftian incantations and secret maps, I find it more Mystery Machine than Hogwarts. Fittingly spooky mysteries rooted in Gotham’s history, characters and mythology propel the book forward and cause its charming, “meddling” teenage detectives to frequently allow their curiosity and adventurous streaks to get the best of their common sense.

In a Bat-era where a villain like Mr Freeze has had his complexity and the tragedy of his origin stripped from him, making him just another psycho for Batman to punch, Gotham Academy even has the balls to cast Killer Croc in a sympathetic light and Batman in the role of antagonist. Packed full of Easter eggs for Batman trainspotters, the creative team do not forget that their title also needs to function as a teen drama. The creators slowly, patiently reveal more and more about their cast, their histories and their intertwined relationships, and in the process create perhaps pound for pound the single best book DC currently publishes.

Sadly, we now conclude our journey into the creative worlds of Becky Cloonan by joining Alex Braith on her five-day trip on the Southern Cross, a huge spaceship bound for the moon of Titan. Alex searches for answers to the mysterious death of her sister Amber, who worked for a shady corporation drilling for oil on Titan. Written by Cloonan and drawn by Andy Belanger, Southern Cross is four issues old as I write this, a weird-fiction tinged, deep space mystery, a fantastically oddball slice of comics SF from Image Comics. The Southern Cross itself resembles theYamato from Star Blazers gone haunted and industrial, its staff and passengers look like refugees from the grungy Euro SF pages of Jean-Marc Rochette’s Snowpiercer. It looks tremendous.

Belanger’s clearly having a blast here, with the design of the ship itself and its interiors, as well as the especially starry cosmos swirling about it, beautifully realised. His cross-sections of tube-filled hallways and various levels add extra claustrophobia to this story – a nice little cherry of anxiety on top of this narrative mound of paranoia and building insanity. Lee Loughridge’s colours deserve a mention here too, enhancing the artificiality of the ship’s light through his use of neon pinks, yellows, greens and Blade Runner blues. 

Cloonan’s well-plotted mystery ticks along, eager but in no great hurry, as all good mysteries should behave. Her cliffhangers are weird, horrific, compelling and increasingly psychedelic and Belanger’s layouts become more broken and fractal to match them.

Another mysterious death aboard the Southern Cross is revealed and Alex’s supernatural encounters increase.  All the while, the mysterious gravity drive ominously WHUMS like something lost from Kirby’s Fourth World due to malfunction, possession or omniscience…

“That’ll be fifty GCPs,” says a dodgy drug-dealer who doses Alex’s eyes with a psychedelic drug of truly cosmic, dimension-bursting properties.

“Keep it,” Alex says, handing over a stack of bills. “Where I’m going I won’t need it.”

And here we end. At a cliffhanger. With a promise that in less than thirty days, Becky Cloonan is going somewhere else. The good news is, as with most of her trips, she’s going to be taking us with her.




WEBCOMIC OF THE WEEK : COMIC ATTACK-BECKY CLOONAN

Hopefully one day, Comic Attack, Becky Cloonan’s semi-autobio…errr…kinda-autobi…errr…well her comic strips featuring herself, are put in their own dedicated spot so we can just click on over and enjoy her adventures baking zucchini bread, running from dinosaurs, forming dance posses and being romanced by Putin one after the other until the end of time. Until then, click on over to her Deviant Art page and enjoy.






COMICS VIDEO OF THE WEEK: ORBITAL COMICS PRESENTS: GOTHAM ACADEMY DIRECTOR’S COMMENTARY WITH BECKY CLOONAN

Another one for process nerds! Thanks to Orbital Comics London, here’s Becky Cloonan, in front of a charmed audience, pulling Gotham Academy #1 apart to reveal its mechanics and its super-sweet centre. A wonderful look at the collaborative spirit behind the title, this hour long video might ease the pain of those unable to attend either this Friday or Saturday when Becky holds court at All Star.





See you next week. Love your comics.


Cameron Ashley spends a lot of time writing comics and other things you’ll likely never read. He’s the chief editor and co-publisher of Crime Factory (www.thecrimefactory.com). You can reach him @cjamesashley on Twitter.

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