Produced by Matthew Craig via dictation software and a headset as he waits for his poor knackered drawing hand to recover, Both Sides is a double header, exploring the nature of heroes and villains, first through misguided youth, then through broken-hearted Iron Age blacksmith. You couldn’t get further apart, yet each have choices to make, choices (or a lack thereof) that will turn one into the villain, and find the other rescued from a path of self destructive isolation.
Like much of Craig’s work, these comics also serve in his ongoing love affair with Birmingham. The first story features the cast of characters from the Midlands based comic Bostin’ Heroes and their reactions to a new young villain on their patch. The second is similarly Midland-centric, albeit set centuries ago before Birmingham was Birmingham, as a blacksmith is forced to choose between his personal tragedy and the future of his people. Like so much of his earlier work, he uses this emphasis on place extremely well, creating something very personal, no matter what genre he writes in. Indeed, that personal, humanist touch is what really makes Craig’s writing work for me.
The first story is by far the best, as Craig and Bostin Heroes artist Jack Davies tell The Ballad Of Billy No Mates, just your average council estate kid in modern Britain, whose weekly highlight till now was hitting the Job Centre for another fruitless no vacancy result.
That is until he’s gifted a mysterious parcel on his doorstep; a hoodie that gives our wayward youth new powers to release his frustrations on his small, no hope world; his mom, his school, the job centre, the army recruiter that didn’t want him, and tellingly, the statue that took one of his mates away in a joyriding accident.
Billy’s not really a bad lad, or he might not have been had things worked out a little better. But bad choice, easy options, and that hoodie all bring him to a place where he’s fighting the Midlands’ premier superhero team.
It’s nicely done, this superhero kitchen sink drama. Could have been clearer at times in both story and art perhaps, but that’s maybe because both Craig and Davies are trying a bit too hard to pack a lot of social and personal commentary in just 10 pages.
The second tale just didn’t do it for me. It doesn’t help that Craig’s chosen to deliberately adopt some approximation of Iron Age Black Country dialect that just makes reading one bit harder, creates a barrier between story and reader, and a barrier that hampers the telling of the tale rather than adding to it.
This is the tale of Brom Of The Cornvii, and it’s all the way back to Celtic Britian, a village in the Midlands where one man whose heart has been broken by the loss of his wife and daughter finds he’s presented with a choice between continued isolation and a return to his tribe.
It’s a standard tale, dressed up in historical trappings. You can almost see Stallone in the role of the blacksmith, pumping anthemic tunes playing as he makes his decision, prepares his steel and is off to face the marauding horde who’ve ransacked the village he’s distanced himself from in his grief.
It’s not bad at all, and on a second read was a damn sight better than I thought, once I’d got over the initial trouble with the language (Black Country born and bred I might be, but mom wasn’t one to have that sort of talk at the dinner table, bless her middle class aspirational ways). But it’s very much an A to B to C tale, no matter how cleverly Craig switches time around with multiple flashbacks. Nice, but nothing great.
However, here’s where Craig’s very personal touch, his love for his home county really came good, a sweet, maybe not so historically accurate funeral pyre that allowed him to join Brom’s tale with modern Birmingham:
Because, as anyone who’s ever been a Brummie will tell you, there’s no mistaking the Rotunda. Nice touch there Matthew.
Right, you can pick up Both Sides from Craig’s website, it’s a 22-page B&W A5 comic with color cover, available for £2.00 (incl. P&P). You can also get in touch with him via Twitter, especially if you fancy providing art for one of his stories whilst his poor hand recovers.