Review: Meanwhile – Strangehaven returns, but there’s so much more to enjoy…
You know, God bless John Anderson for being foolhardy enough to return to anthology comics.
I make no bones about this, the big draw for this Meanwhile anthology is all about the return of Gary Spencer Millidge’s Strangehaven. I imagine I’m not the only one with that thought either. Anything extra to that is merely a bonus. Luckily, or maybe because Soaring Penguin are a publisher who really have their act together, the rest is pretty damn good indeed.
We’ll get to the rest in time, but forgive me if I go all misty eyed about Strangehaven for a bit first. And, looking at the whole thing now that I’m posting it, apologies for going into it so in depth, it wasn’t meant to run this long, but sometimes with anthologies there’s a pressure to write too short, too briefly, instead of concentrating on each strip in turn. Meanwhile is well worth the lingering over, but should you want the takeaway from this, Issue 1 is a real success, a damn fine example of how a great anthology can be, whether it’s single strips or the three ongoing tales, there’s absolutely something for everyone.
But first, a trip back in time to 1995. And Strangehaven….
Strangehaven came along in ’95 when I was at Nostalgia & Comics Birmingham at the time when we had a great new breed of UK comic makers making some great comics. There was Sleaze Castle, there was Exit, there was Kane. Oh yes, and there was Strangehaven. From the moment I saw Millidge’s retailer promo copy arrive in the post I knew that this was going to be something we could definitely get behind. And we did, to great success, continually restocking first the comics and then the collections, a perennial seller, an easy sell as well, “Twin Peaks meets the Prisoner with a soundtrack by The Kinks and fabulous artwork” a familiar phrase on the shopfloor.
In the end, it took 10 years to publish 18 issues that made up three collections, 18 issues that told a fantastical tale of a village and its inhabitants, Millidge’s photo realistic artwork and fabulously mysterious thriller providing continuing entertainment for so many fans over the years. The third volume of the collected Strangehaven meant an ending with a real twist, a definite cliffhanger, a shocker that I mention in the review of the series thus far here on the FPI blog. The series stopped for way too long, never the speediest of artists, Millidge found himself caught up with other things that took him away from Strangehaven for too long.
Cut to 2014 and Soaring Penguin and publisher John Anderson, who first published an anthology by the name of Meanwhile back in ’97, and had been chatting to Millidge about the possibility of resurrecting Strangehaven. This 2014 version of Meanwhile is the direct result of those chats, where Strangehaven can continue with 16-pages per issue, building up into the fourth volume, ably supported by several other particularly interesting comic series and one offs.
Make no mistake, although I came for Millidge and Strangehaven, I left anticipating issue 2 of meanwhile to read more of the rest. It’s a quality anthology.
So, what’s it all about then….
Strangehaven by Gary Spencer Millidge
The difficulty of dropping straight into a story already three-quarters done is dealt with pretty well by Millidge, with a prologue/recap chapter that takes the form of a wandering priest’s recollections, overlaid in black & white flashback sequences, the stark contrast deliberate to distinguish the b&w then to the full colour now.
Very swiftly we get a reminder of just what a strange place Strangehaven proves to be as we hear the priest’s tales of murders, explosions and disappearances in a previously sleepy, very traditional village that now makes Midsomer look sedate and tranquil in comparison.
The priest really does tell a truth when he talks of Strangehaven being somewhere “… where saints and sinners live together in peace and disharmony” and “once you have tasted the fruit of the village, it is impossible to forsake it’s seductive power.”
Of necessity this prologue ends up as a walkthrough of the cast and the series so far, but thanks to Millidge’s delicate touch and a neatly twisted end where the priest proves to be just as messed up as the villagers he’s been telling us about, it does all it’s meant to, setting things up, tantalising, intriguing.
Introductions made, it’s time for the new Strangehaven… opening with a meeting of The Knights, the local collection of business types dressing up in their silly robes and playing at magic whilst what they’re really after might just be the naked women and dancers at the latest meeting. But there’s village politics to be done even there, the Knights’ grand plan revealed towards the end of book three to control the village through magical means perhaps the truth perhaps mere fantasy. Whatever it is, village newcomer Alex’s respective anonymity is an attractive proposition for some.
Meanwhile, there’s repercussions from the crimewave, all manner of suspicions of where, what, who and why, the local doctor really doesn’t seem himself at all, whilst local ‘eccentric’ Adam Douglas is preparing for his return to his home planet, telling all that the spaceship’s near complete and the day is approaching.
And against all that, there’s the mystery of the village itself. What is keeping Alex here really? Is there some mysterious secret behind it as the various magical groups seem to think? How come some residents can seemingly leave and others seem trapped here? The idea that there’s something very different about this peaceful(ish) little village seemingly straight out of The Village Green Preservation Society still enthralls as much as it did back in ’95.
Millidge’s art in colour feels just that little looser, his figures not so photo-referenced, something less refined about his line, perhaps of choice, perhaps through necessity to speed up production. Whatever the reason, it’s still recognisably Strangehaven, still entrancing, still fascinating.
Strangehaven awaits. It’s such a damn pleasure to be back. Who’d want to leave?
Right, after that, shall we have a little look through the rest of Meanwhile. Trust me, it’s not JUST about Strangehaven….
10 Minutes by Yuko Rabbit, translated by Motoko Brimmicombe-Wood
I’d only seen a couple of preview images of this before hearing the tag-line; “a world where one girl’s personal gravity is the reverse of everyone else’s – and who holds the key to her world’s survival.” That was enough to convince me that this was well worth a glance and more. A look at Rabbit’s website merely added to that thinking.
What’s here is equal parts enticing and lavish, Rabbit’s light linework style strange, slightly off-putting even, some Chris Riddell in there perhaps, but more than that, the delicate nature disguising something darker, some threat always there in the background.
It’s all about Teodor’s new job looking after ‘the gravity tower’ and its sole occupant Judita…
That’s such haunting imagery there, all the dark, adult fairy-tale mood I think Rabbit’s going for in 10 Minutes. Judita chained and trapped, the depth of depair in her eyes so horrible. No wonder she’s retreated inside herself, mute and miserable, her unfortunate predicament due to the fact that her personal gravity works in reverse meaning those chains are needed to keep her in the castle. It’s no wonder she’s so wide-eyed and amazed when she’s allowed to see the outside world.
The gravity tower thing is a strange one though, and for the life of me I was confused about it despite repeated readings. Teodor told that if Judita leaves the tower for more than ten minutes then gravity will reverse and the men will ‘fall’ towards the sky. He’s told the conditions in the tower allow Judita to live here relatively normally but as soon as he unchains her she’s floating off. I keep looking back over it and part of me thinks I’m missing something obvious, part of me thinking Rabbit’s plotting is just off. Thing is, despite all this plot point confusion there’s STILL enough here with the art and the ideas to make me wonder where 10 Minutes is going.
Next up, a set of three single-pagers, the winners of the Comics Unmasked competition, spinning out of the exhibition that was on at the British Library earlier this year. The competition task was to create a 9-panel comic on one of the themes of the Comics Unmasked exhibition (those themes being Mischief & Mayhem, To See Ourselves, Politics: Power and The People, We Can Be Heroes, Let’s Talk About Sex, Breakdowns). The results are pretty good…. we’ll start with the overall winner…
The Amazing Roger Casement by Fionnuala Doran
Roger Casement, for those of you (me included) who didn’t know, was a native born Irishman who found fame in Victorian Britain as British Consul to the Congo, where campaigning against government and Empire led attrocities would later be the cause of his loss of first his knighthood and later his life, executed for treason, an Irish Republican, an activist and so much more.
It’s a fascinating story, one that Doran has stripped back to basics, quickly painting a picture of a life of activism, great deeds, repressed sexuality and even literary fame…
9 panels is a tight ask for detailing a life. Seeing how well it’s done here, I’m not one bit surprised that Doran won the Comics Unmasked competition.
Bridgit Mayne’s 2nd placed Tonight takes the other tack, a nine panel drifting tone poem that looks alright, reads alright and cleverly finds a way to squeeze a tenth panel out of the page courtesy her background.
Finally, Sean Bright’s bronze performance Peas In Our Time takes a comedic path, a single page well suited to a 9 panel limit, the daft idea of the electorate bringing something mundane and harmless to power. It’s an easy route to take, although he does it well. But comparing both this comedy short and the mood piece, you can certainly see why Doran won the day.
Bad Bad Place by David Hine and Mark Stafford
Definitely part of the draw of Meanwhile alongside Strangehaven, as last thing Hine and Stafford collaborated on was the disturbing and dark The Man Who Laughs, a brilliantly adapted version of Victor Hugo’s classic. Bad, Bad Place is a new, ongoing series, all concerning that ubiquitous urban thing, the derelict building with a mystery, that spooky, rumoured to be haunted by all sorts according to the local kids, the ‘bad, bad place‘.
Stafford’s art is lightweight and fresh, manic from the off, his madman dressed for the past yet carrying his Iceland carrier bag warning us off a great image, although his warnings are completely ineffectual, at least as far as young travelling Jenny is concerned…
Heh. “Barmy old git“. Good line.
She’s intent on getting a coffee and the truth behind this deserted town of ‘Faraway Hills’. Thanks to the barmy old git, Ned, she’s going to hear the story first hand. Well, a story.
Not necessarily the story.
Seems Faraway Hills was built on the land that once housed Crouch End, the developers bulldozing and rebuilding, the bland overlaying the old. All except one patch of land, protected from high up in the government, a no-go zone at the edge of the new place that suddenly, overnight, marks the reappearance of the old house. Yes, that’s the ‘bad, bad place’.
So, the word is out, don’t go into the Castavette house, no good will come of it, it’s a bad, bad place and no mistake. They don’t listen, they never do.
Great start to a series, no clue how Hine’s going to extend the run though, perhaps we’re looking at a themed series, a story of onebad place after another? Whatever, it’s a fine tale.
Melody Baker by Chris Geary
Futuristic spy thriller, an agent trapped, bombs about to go off…. The first page nearly had me completely sold. Nearly. Because that first page is a corker, something gloriously retro about it, promising some of the great style and kinetic action flowing through the rest of the strip.
Thing is though, that’s all there is, as the actual tale itself comes off as a mid-level Future Shock. It’s nice looking but essentially a little empty. Perhaps that was the point, perhaps the idea of a straight out action piece, a bit of classic Modesty Blaise or the like was the mood and effect Geary was going for? If so, far enough, but it still felt a touch flat once the fun of the style wears off.
Heavy by Sally Jane Thompson
We’ve featured Thompson here a few times, what with her Red Jack strip in The Phoenix (written by John Dickinson) and her books Now & Then and Atomic Sheep. This standalone strip definitely plays to the older work, captures something of the essence of drifting ennui, of a mood dragging someone down, of finding release. It’s a poetry piece, a mood piece, wordless but laden with emotion, the need to escape the world, to cast off the weight of the world, to go up, to transform, to fly.
Thompson’s style and her choice of colour tones make this work, the relative scarcity and simplicity of the artwork and events more than made up for by the layering of meaning and emotion properly done pieces such as this encourage you to take from the work.
Overall, Meanwhile does a fabulous job, creating a proper anthology, with every strip hitting a different beat. Sure, old favourite Strangehaven may have been the impetus to read, but the appeal of Hine & Stafford’s singular vision and Rabbit’s flawed yet stunning piece is enough to keep me reading.
Next issue sees new work from Krent Able, Jenny Robins and Krystian Garstkowiak. I’m looking forward to it. Meanwhile is a really impressive debut.