Monday, February 28, 2011

Struckhoff, Deathlings & Black Label Comics Anthology (2010)

Ian Struckhoff et al, The Deathlings: Anne’s Story no. 1.Black Label Comics, 2010. Pp. 28. ISBN 1396402418. $5.99.

Ian Struckhoff et al, Black Label Comics (anthology) no.1. Black Label Comics, 2010. Pp. 44. ISBN 1396402433. $8.00.

Reviewed by Kate Onyett

I hold up my hand: I am not a big comic buff. I cannot reel off data regarding writers, artists and movers and shakers in the industry (my one fact is that Mark ‘Luke Skywalker’ Hamill is active in the comics trade and has been for some years); but I like reading them, and it is clear to deduce from readerly reaction when a comic works and when it does not. First I did some digging. Just who is Ian Struckhoff? He arrived suddenly into my world view through these comics, and is not a name I recognise. The anthology comic proudly tells us on the inside of the front cover that Black label Comics are “independently published”. Privately published work has long had a reputation for producing somewhat dire writing that should never see the light of day: the suspicion is that if any writer can get it published, it is more a work of ego than of art.

Although independent publishing is not the same as private, there does remain a small worry in the back of the mind; is this some fantasy strip by a sub-standard talent flaunting itself because it found a press to publish at all? The worry is compounded by the fact that the whole world of Black Label—comprising, we are told, several different stories, universes, genres and planned comic book series—is sprung from the mind of one man. It does start to look troublingly like a narcissistic trip. But then there is the sheer scope of the project: from the sample chapters/ snippets in the anthology (cunningly designed to give one a taster of the main series and tempt one into investing in the whole), there are at least six separate, but interrelated series to be developed, stretching from noir to western to bizarre to gothic, and all with the influence of the fantastic (some positively steeped in it). Artistic duties are farmed out, and in fact there is a call for artists to submit samples of work on Struckhoff’s deviantART member page, but the thrust of the vision remains his, suggesting that Black Label has been a real labour of love and effort to enter the world of comic books. He states on his deviantART page that his reason for being online is “to get involved with the community, to show my artwork to the world, to become a better artist.” While not uncanny to the need for networking and contact-making, he is also open to learning and to sharing. This is not publication purely for personal satisfaction, but also sharing a vision with a much wider audience: the motives seem sound for a business venture based on a personal strength.

More of Struckhoff can be found on his deviantART page, where a short biography gives his interest as photography, comics and philosophy. Comics are often used as a forum for espousing and examining the interplay of reality and imagination, especially through the reworking of myth and legend. The combination of a graphical eye with a contemplative mindset is not unpromising for thought-provoking story lines. I was pleased with the breadth of engagement he has to his work and with the wider specialist community through the website. The commitment to his work carries on through an enthusiastic and positive write-up (on the webpage devoted to the comics themselves) of his first trip to ‘Comic Con’; perhaps the biggest and most important fantasy/sci-fi event in America each year for anyone involved in creating fantastical fictional world and the fans who love them. Struckhoff’s work appears to mostly comprise the theme of the fantastic—from gothic to fluffy-light. His images, both photographed and drawn, consistently play on ideas of feminine beauty, grace, power and sexuality. It is not surprising to also find strong females at the heart of his stories.

To the stories, then, because comics can only stand on how they grab the reader. Time is of the essence for comic books, where the reader needs to be involved, interested and hooked in far fewer pages than a novel, or even a short story. If a picture paints a thousand words, then comic books, profoundly based on the visual, should have this as the strongest selling point; information about where, who, when and what all served up at once in a few succinct frames. So: does it interest? Does it intrigue? Is the artwork pleasurable and does it add to or detract from the experience? These were to be my guide to reviewing (and apologies to anyone savvier about comics who find it too simplistic).

The material is sensationalist; no doubt about it. Anne’s Story is a gothic fantasy about a young woman falling into a world of weirdness she does not yet comprehend, watched over by the strangely omniscient Ani, a being from another realm. The anthology features violence, zombies, apocalyptic landscapes and serial killings. This is not half-hearted stuff: Struckhoff and his artists are throwing all they’ve got at it to sell the idea. And underneath it all is this idea of inter-connectedness. In the anthology, Ani’s voice directs the cowboy through his mission among the zombies (‘The Deathlings: Black Label’), she is seen watching the action in a post-apocalyptic somewhere where two children play a dangerous exploring game (‘The Deathlings: Kid Stuff’). Although she does not feature directly in ‘Huginn & Muninn’ or ‘The Dark Age’, the fantastic element is still very strong. The former is about Odin’s two ravens in human form abroad in the world, and the latter, as Ani explains in the amusingly cartooned introduction to the collection, is specifically about a crime-noir world where “all the magic went away, except she [the heroine] meets this guy Nero.” Naturally, given this juicy dangler of a spoiler, the denouement there will be some type of magical incursion. A multi-serial production under one label does strongly suggest a master plan at work by the author, and all the stories, either directly or by implication, build steadily from intentionally mythic roots.

And all feature strong female leads. The two ravens are given beautiful female bodies to inhabit while they search out Odin’s curiosity, of the two children it is the little girl who prompts the action, followed by her older male companion and even the male cowboy character is on a mission directed by a female. Strong femininity is the core of this work, and while it might seem empowering, women are also brutally murdered (‘Dark Age’; Anne’s Story), and in a short, sweet little story about a female inventor that almost seems a little throw-away sweetness in the middle of the exotic action and gothic finery, the character’s main hubris is her inability to find love (a typically female emotional quest); realising she cannot make it in her workshop.

The most obvious female is Ani, the aforementioned watcher. Depicted as a slim, well-proportioned female of youthful appearance, with pale skin, spiked black hair, dark Goth makeup around eyes and mouth, dressed in raggedy, very brief black clothes and a cloak that wraps around her with a life of its own, she seems the very pin-up of gothic desirability. With a motif of scissors and strange stitched lacerations over face and body, she could almost be a rag-doll of the mind, but unfortunately she stands upon the shoulders of giants, and suffers for comparisons. She will definitely put any comic-reader of any breadth at all in mind of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman epic, with strong overtones of Sally from A Nightmare Before Christmas (but that could be just the stitching...). Specifically, Ani is a conglomeration of Death, Delirium and Dream. Her puckish childishness, oscillating with mysterious gravitas could come from any of Gaiman’s pages, and the idea of the ‘Deathlings’, the overriding story arc behind the comics, seems a paler version of Gaiman’s hugely involving tapestry of fantasy, fable and legend.

This isn’t to say that Struckhoff’s idea fails. The fact it can bring up such strong comparisons will conversely provide an ‘in house’ thrill of recognition to those who have read widely. It is also interesting to see how he will take on the challenge of similar-themes-but-new-working. Anne’s Story ends with the image of her broken body on the ground, and a short story in the anthology assures us she is not dead: her best friend is directed, by Ani, to find Anne hidden somewhere in a dream world. Struckhoff is staking his plot out: he wants individualist characters (Anne is teased by her friend for always wearing boyish, punky clothes; the badge of the street-smart ‘individual’), strange situations, and to blur the boundaries. This is different to Gaiman, who re-treated old legends and fairy-stories; imagining the reality of supernatural life by humanising its component parts. Here’s to hoping I have not read this wrong and Struckhoff can prove himself a man of his own ideas.

Anne’s Story introduces us to the Deathlings through Ani: she appears in a young woman’s dreams, warning her of dangers to come, but remaining vague on details, only promising darkness and danger. Her warnings seem apt when Anne, trying to find a barbeque in the woods to which her crush has invited her, gets lost and finds a very different gathering. One that turns distinctly sinister when she consumes a special drink and starts seeing the people around her for the creatures they really are... my biggest criticism of the story (aside from the Ani character—see above) was the art work. Yes, it’s strong, yes it’s detailed and yes, the style suits the story: rich colours and clean lines fading into shadows and less definition when Anne finds the supernatural camp-out. But Anne herself is meant to be eighteen. She looked about mid to late twenties. I had a hard time thinking of her mother as her mother; they looked more like sisters. Long-legged, toned and generously-chested, Anne fits the format for most comic book females: idealised to the point of unidentifiable, ridiculous, even. I would believe Anne’s dark-haired, punk-gothic fragility more if she actually looked her age. Feminine beauty is a definite preoccupation with Struckhoff, and such styles of drawing are par for the course in comic books, but I felt a little disappointed there was not more variety from a series purporting towards something magical and special.

So was I intrigued? Would I buy into such stories from this first issue? Yes and no. I have already voiced my concerns over Anne’s Story, but I am a bit of a sucker for the epic-mythic. It’s obvious that, with his multi-pronged project, this is what Struckhoff is aiming for, and so, yes, I would be interested to see more. I might even be wiling to give Anne’s Story another chance, to find out more about the Deathlings, whoever they may be.

In terms of catching interest, the anthology is the best hook. Collecting up the ideas of one’s projects and releasing it so soon into the label’s run (these two were the first releases; released together last year) is a smart move. It is like a trailer at the cinema; it does make you curious, and that does make you want to know more. Added to this, repeating themes: zombie-invested wastelands in more than one tale, the mirroring of Ani and Anne’s physical appearances, possible crime connections between stories; all these draw the stories closer together, giving one a sense of being a part of a bigger picture. The desire to belong, to see it all, is tempting.

The use of different artists and their styles for each story (a staple of comic book formatting) helps to provide texture to the selection, and the artist is well chosen to the tale. ‘Dark Age’s noir thriller is all hard lines, angular view and grey-greens and black. ‘Black Label’s cowboy is saturated in hard lines and bright, stark reds and yellows under a hot, dusty sun. ‘Kid Stuff’ is all cheerful pastel hues and soft, forgiving lines; even the zombies are slightly fade in detail so they don’t look so bad, unlike those the cowboy faces, which are all leaking fluids and raw, exposed flesh and bone.

I liked the format. I liked the genre and how it was dealt with. I even like the idea of one stable, many horses under one manager. It won’t be to everyone’s taste, but that is a genre-specific consideration. Lovers of fantasy should give it a try as a refreshing new voice on the scene. I found two stories, perhaps three, within the Black Label Comics Anthology that particularly snagged my interest, and I would pick and choose the stories to follow, but Struckhoff has made a promising first impression with his vision.

See for details on purchasing Black Label Comics

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