Three Rooms in Valerie’s Head

Three Rooms in Valerie’s Head,

David Gaffney, Dan Berry,

Top Shelf

Valerie’s mind had three rooms: a front, a back and a cellar. If there was something she didn’t want to think about at a particular moment she would move it into the back. Then she could concentrate on playing the accordion. Or explaining her job to her mother. The problem was the cellar.”

I’ve been rather looking forward to reading Gaffney and Berry’s new book from Top Shelf, the description intrigued me when I first heard about the book, a woman who has serial problems with each relationship she attempts, and the obsessions and problems that cause each to go wrong or to fail to satisfy her standards. Relationship problems are nothing new for comics tales, of course, but here they are given an extra-fine twist: Valerie keeps her ex-boyfriends preserved bodies in her cellar, bringing them up regularly to talk to about her day or latest problems, even posing them into a sort of diorama (playing pool in the pub, performing trad jazz). And as she moves each body around and talks to it, this leads us nicely into a flashback of her time with that particular former beau.

And what a collection they are, each with some very serious defect. Well, at least, that’s how they are presented to us, but of course we are getting all of this from Valerie’s perspective. We see all the flaws in her would-be partners exposed over the course of their relationship, and wow, some of them really are hum-dingers – the boyfriend who hates wearing corrective lenses so has his car windscreen ground to his optical prescription so he can drive without glasses. Terrific. Not so good for anyone else in the car with him, like, say, Valerie, who is left nauseous by the distorted glass. And then there is the boy who is the first one she’s known who has a house with no street number! Oh dear! Or a bizarre fixation with the eyes of a former girlfriend that he has to tell Valerie about.

But each of these failings and flaws slowly reveal much more about Valerie than they do her would-be boyfriends, and we see more and more of her problems surface, of the aspects of her own character, expectations and problems which sabotage any really strong relationship developing more deeply. Talking with these preserved bodies of former boyfriends may be some sort of therapy for Valerie, but it is also a crutch she is using to validate her choices (and failings) to herself, to be in control of her own narrative, but it also reveals the gaps in her life, it reveals the needs she has but either can’t connect properly with someone else to fill, or perhaps she’s a bit scared and backs off before she gets too close (and yet given her cellar collection, she clearly can’t let go either).

In some hands this would have been one of the emotional-confessional, “oh I am such an emotional mess” type tales which Indy comics has rather more than its share of (not to knock that sub-genre, I’ve enjoyed more than a few of those comics over the years). This is a very different beast, less the autobiographical confessional of some failed relationship comics tales, this is far more comedic and with a delightfully surreal bend to it so that even when there are moments which  are rather sad they also manage to evoke laughter. It’s no mean feat to conjure both pity and humour from the same scenes, but Gaffney and Berry do that repeatedly throughout Three Rooms.

Dan’s art adds to that mix of surrealism, pathos and comedy enormously, his expressions on Valerie’s face as she argues with her cast of deceased boyfriends had me giggling away, but at the same time feeling sorry for her (actually Dan’s art had me roaring with laughter on a number of occasions, those expressions cracked me up). It also makes you pause and think – we all have little fantasies and daydreams, little narratives we tell ourselves about ourselves and our lives. Perhaps, thankfully, not to the surreal extreme Valerie has, but pretty much every person does have them, and that means we can all see a little of ourselves in Valerie, the hopes, the fears, the failings, the coping mechanisms; she’s not exactly a mirror to the reader, but she is perhaps a distorting reflection reminding us none of us are perfect and each of us tries some mental tricks and stories to help us deal with life’s slings and arrows, each of us could easily be Valerie.

That this is all delivered with a delightful level of humour – and a humour that steers away from meanness, it’s not laughing at Valerie’s foibles and failings – Gaffney’s script and Berry’s art working hand in glove, the dialogue and the imagery, especially during Valerie’s talks with her deceased beaus are so nicely timed together, they hit all the right beats.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Maddy Kettle: the Adventure of the Thimblewitch – a gorgeous all-ages tale

Maddy Kettle: the Adventure of the Thimblewitch,
Eric Orchard,
Top Shelf

Maddy Kettle eric orchard top shelf cover

I have been looking forward to this first Maddy Kettle book for months – Eric Orchard regularly posts and tweets some of his work in progress and the Maddy work has been drawing me in with its lovely, luscious art. The book opens with young Maddy on a train at night (a gorgeous scene, a steam loco running under a bright, starlit sky), accompanied by her special floating toad Ralph and her parents, who are now mice. Maddy is arguing with them about the best way to have the spell on her parents reversed – she is all for the adventure, anything to save her mum and dad, but her mum and dad, now mice or not, are still her parents and they tell her in no uncertain terms that she can’t, that it would be too dangerous, she is “just a little girl.”

Back then our lives were all about books.”

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From there we flashback from the night-time train to the bright light of day, Maddy’s home with her parents in the Kettle’s own bookshop, her father just returning from a book-buying trip and Maddy is delighted at the thought of her dad being home and of them being surrounded by even more wonderful books. But there is more – her dad has brought her a special gift, a rare floating spadefoot toad – Ralph – who, as he floats, will need to be kept on a piece of string. This unusual companion takes a bit of getting used to (sleeping floating upside down in the air outside the window!) but he’s such delightful company he’s soon beloved by the whole family and Maddy’s school friends.

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And then came that “terrible night”…Maddy and Ralph awoken by banging and crashing in the house in the middle of the night – she discovers her mother and father turned by magic into mice and glimpses Thimblewitch flying away and some terrifying Spider Goblins, all dark-featured and glowing-eyed menace. And just like that Maddy’s happy family bookstore home life is turned upside down. She’s determined to find a way to restore her mum and dad, even if they forbid it, but when a second intrusion by the Spider Goblins takes them from her altogether she finds she simply has to try now, and embarks on a quest to find the Thimblewitch, face her somehow and get her parents back.

Along the way she will meet all sorts of wonderful characters, such as Harry and Silvio, who fly in their balloon to do ‘cloud cartography’. They’re shocked to find the Thimblewitch has done this to Maddy’s parents as she used to be known as a good person and a protector of the Cloudscape, a first clue that not all is, perhaps, not as it seems. Harry and Silvio kindly offer to help Maddy on her quest and Maddy sets off with them into a remarkable cloudscape.

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I’m not going to go any further into the plot for fear of spoiling this utter delight of a story – suffice to say that Maddy only knows the little she has glimpsed of events, but there is much going on here that she has no knowledge of yet, and we find out alongside her on her quest, a journey which, as all quests and journeys should, changes Maddy a little as she meets new people and learns along the way. There are some beautiful scenes that take you off on lovely flights of imagination (in the case of Silvio and Harry’s balloon, almost literally) and Orchard suffuses the entire book – even the darker, scarier parts like the Spider Goblins raid – with a magical feel, going from charming whimsy to outright wonders, and there are lessons to be learned (never a bad thing in a book for young readers – or older readers come to that), about judging others, about making up your mind before you know all sides, the value of good friends and family, all filtered carefully through the story so those messages aren’t hammered into young readers but will sink in naturally through the narrative and leave a lasting impression on them.

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The artwork is simply gorgeous throughout, from the cosy warmth of the Kettle family in their bookstore to those star-bright, deep indigo night skies, or the dark menace of Spider Goblins, red eyes glowing in the dark, or the wonder of the Cloudscape Harry and Silvio share with Maddy. This is a truly wonderful book for the young reader, and those of us who still nourish our inner child and who never lost that sense of wonder. Adventure, friends, family, both scares and wondrous delights await, and you will find yourself frequently just stopping to admire the artwork; all of this and a nice lesson in consequences and morality too, as well as a brave and resourceful young female lead character. Maddy Kettle is a pure delight, one to share with your younger family members, or better still, read it alongside them. Then go back, wallow in that gorgeous artwork and know this is one of those books you will come back to repeatedly. Simply wonderful.

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this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Jeff Brown’s A Matter Of Life

A Matter of Life,

Jeffrey Brown,

Top Shelf


American cartoonist Jeff Brown has been a bit of a favourite with many of us here for several years. In recent years he’s expanded his audience with some delightful all-ages Star Wars parodies imagining Darth Vader actually trying to be a dad to Luke and Leia, but he remains best known (and loved) for his bittersweet autobiographic works. Yes, I know, Indy cartoonist doing autobiographic comics is almost a cliché these days, but for me Brown always stands out with his simple but elegant and effective style and voice – he’s one of those creators that the minute a new book is announced you know you’re going to have to read it.

In this recent book he turns his attention to family matters, mostly the men of the Brown family – himself, of course, but also his father and his own wee boy. Eschewing the regular chronological approach, instead A Matter of Life (I’m guessing the title is a nod to the classic Brit fantasy A Matter of Life and Death) offers up several snapshots of life in the Brown household – we can go from a very young Jeff at school or church (lot of church scenes, his dad being a minister) to adult Jeff with wife and child of his own, or back to high school or college age Jeff. The theme that ties these short scenes together is little glimpses into formative moments – all those little things (and the odd Big Thing, good or bad) that makes up this funny old thing called Life that we all deal with.

Brown is always quite honest, rarely trying to revise his personal history to make himself look better – instead he offers it up, warts and all. There he is as a kid in Bible study class or church youth group holding forth about the meaning of events in the Bible or God’s intentions, but in the commentary present day Jeff is noting that he wasn’t really that clever and most of this was stuff he had heard from his dad and his fellow ministers or read somewhere, repeated now as if he’d thought it up himself. Or a bit older and now at college and realising that an old school friend who writes to him a lot isn’t just being friendly but is actually gay and in love with him, and the cold way he responds, not from homophobia as such, just from being socially awkward and too young to know better. Some elements will be familiar to many readers – being young and curious about sex but not having a clue, and this being pre-internet youth no real way to find out. One sheltered girl in class is teased for asking what a condom is during a sexual health class, while teenaged Jeff sits at the back thinking “what’s this oral sex thing they’re talking about?” Or there are those awkward moments when shared aspects of family life you took for granted as a kid simply fade as you get older and become your own person – in his case religion becoming increasingly remote to him, failing to make sense any more, while his parents are still firm church-goers (and indeed his dad is a preacher) but he stops going and eventually decides he doesn’t believe anymore (leading to a delightfully surreal moment about feeling Jesus in your heart – taken literally with a tiny wee Jesus standing in his heart calling out “Jeff?”).


Like all of life there are happy moments and sad moments – his dad becoming ill, so slowly, gradually that they don’t realise the seriousness of his ailment at first and that horrible dawning that a loved one is going to die and there is nothing you can do about it. Then being a dad himself and having to explain to his wee boy about it all, that one day he and mummy will be gone, that one day, hopefully when he is very old, he too will go. It’s pretty emotional, suddenly brightened as his wee lad, understandably upset, suddenly declares I know, I’ll fight Death, daddy! And suddenly the now sombre dad is grinning again because of his wee boy.


Or simple little things like his mum telling him that music he listens to is just a noise and he’ll never listen to it when he is older – young Jeff adamant he will love that music forever, the way you do with your music when you are a teen. And then admitting years later as an adult that his mum was right… Or warnings by some in his church that heavy metal music and science fiction books would lead to the Dark Side – quite why reading Douglas Adams would lead you to Satan’s service is beyond me (may lead one to the Evil Demon of Missed Deadlines, of course), and Jeff takes a shot at this narrow minded view in fairly gentle yet effective fashion with his younger self thinking “I guess I shouldn’t let them know I play Dungeons & Dragons...”


And that’s the way it rolls, little vignettes from different parts of Brown’s life and his family’s, the little mysteries when you are a child, wondering, the bigger mysteries that puzzle you as an adult, the stupid things you did from awkwardness, or things you said without thinking when younger and brasher and look back at now and wince. Lots of little moments and then the odd bigger ones, but each leaving a mark, each shaping the person you will become. Then being a parent himself and thinking how on Earth did my mum and dad manage, this is the hardest thing in the world?! And there’s more of that Life stuff just starting out again with the new little Brown, all told in his quite gentle, honest manner. Jeff Brown is one of those comics creators that any decent collection requires on its shelves, and this 2013 slice of life is a perfect way in for those new to his work and a welcome addition to his previous work for the established fans.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

March Book One

March, Book One,

John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell,

Top Shelf

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A cold January day in 2009, Washington DC, and a venerable politician goes about his morning routine before heading to his congressional office, preparing for inauguration day – a new president is about to be sworn in. Always an important day, but this particular occasion is more remarkable than most – Obama is about to take the oath of office, the first black president of the United States of America. The veteran old politician we see preparing for the day is congressman John Lewis, not just a man who has served his constituents for decades, but a veteran of the Civil Rights movement, a campaigner who stood there during the famous March on Washington in 1963, giving an important speech alongside Doctor Martin Luther King’s iconic “I have a dream” speech, surely one of the most moving and inspirational political speeches of the 20th century.

In a way I found this quite a daunting book to review – not, I hasten to add, because of anything wrong with the book. It’s beautifully put together, open, accessible. It was more a worry that anything I might say wouldn’t really do justice to the events recorded here, from eyewitness testimony of someone who was there, who stood up for rights for himself and others and had to struggle terribly for it against vile, brutal, racist thuggery that it is hard to credit was ever allowed to happen in a free and democratic society. And so I delayed it, kept rethinking it, rewriting it and eventually just had to decide to post it, warts and all. I’m not sure any review can do justice to someone’s memories of events like these that helped shape the world (and are still shaping it, Lewis is still fighting the good fight), but at the very least I can commend it as a book very worthy of your reading (and hopefully the sort of book you will want to pass around friends), and also one of those stand-out works which again emphasises how well the comics medium is suited to tackling any subject.

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But, as I said this first book of John Lewis’ memories of the long march for Civil Rights is, quite deliberately I would think, made as open and inviting as possible to the reader, regardless of prior knowledge on the part of that reader – if you’ve read the history of the period or if much of it is new to you, this will still welcome you in gently. In a way it reminds me of Walter Scott’s approach to retelling Scottish history, the “Tales of a Grandfather”, and it did feel like that to me, as if a much-loved, warm-hearted older relative, a grandfather or favourite uncle, were telling a tale. And what a tale it is…

Through the framing device of a lady bringing in her young boys to meet Lewis and learn a little about the history of the struggle for equality we are taken back to his earliest days, as a young boy on the family farm in Alabama, his love of the animals, especially the chickens (although, as he points out wryly, there is a bit of a pitfall to becoming emotionally attached to your animals on a farm, since eventually they end up in the pot…), an early desire to become a preacher prompted by the gift of a Bible which he read and re-read and then school – especially school: “But school was important to me, and it was ultimately the reason I got involved in the Civil Rights movement.” In a simple but moving scene he also highlights the roles of educators, librarians and books in creating awareness, an enthusiastic school librarian telling the children “read everything.”

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But how does a young lad in a rural county start to learn about the movement, much less get involved? Especially when much of the advice he is given is to keep his head down, not to attract the attention of “white folk”. A favourite uncle clearly sees something in the young boy, something he himself is probably not yet aware of, and he takes him on a road trip to expand his world a bit. This isn’t the usual road trip we’d think of today though, the freedom of the open road, seeing new places – as the book explains the trip took careful planning, such as carrying their own food because there are no roadside restaurants ‘coloured’ folk will be allowed in, some places they just can’t risk stopping in. It’s a simple part of the tale, but like many simple examples it illustrates a complex and distasteful truth, that a century after the end of the Civil War some citizens of a democratic country couldn’t fill up the tank or eat at a roadside diner in the Southern states simply because of the colour of their skin. And that was simply the accepted norm. Until some very brave people started to challenge it.

The early episodes where young Lewis is introduced to those creating the Civil Rights movement are fascinating and horrifying in equal measure – on the one hand to see a young man realising that he and others can make a difference, can work with others to make their society a better place, it is uplifting, inspiring, empowering, even; you feel, perhaps, just a little of that excitement he and his friends must have felt that they could make things better (and isn’t that something any of us in our societies should always aim to do?). And the determination to follow that model of Ghandi and remain resolutely non-violent is admirable in the extreme. Turning back on violence and hate with more violence and hate in response only fuels an endless cycle, trapping both parties. In some very upsetting, harrowing scenes we see activists (black and white) subjecting each other to harassment, derogatory remarks, pushing and more, to train themselves not to react with violence. I’m not sure I could bite my tongue or remain still in the face of that sort of provocation, and yet here are these young people disciplining themselves to do just that. To be better than those who want to ‘keep them in their place.’. It’s remarkable.

And it is at the same time horrifying in exposing the virulent face of unreasoning bigotry and pure hatred based on nothing more than seeing an entire group as ‘different’, and that difference justifying Jim Crow laws of discrimination, actually using institutions of state to repress and control black people, something you would have thought unthinkable in a free, democratic society, that it would do this against a section of it’s own citizens. And of course there is the raw hatred, indoctrinated into each generation to generation which justifies this control and repression, and which all too often leads to outright acts of sickening violence, with the perpetrators rarely held to account in any hall of justice, because those who are supposed to administer justice are as swollen with the same hatred – or indeed sometimes the acts of violence are perpetrated by those such a policemen who are supposed to ‘protect and serve’.

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Throughout Nate Powell, whose work I have admired greatly since his powerful  and atmospherically drawn Swallow Me Whole, brings this to life with quiet, un-showy monochrome artwork, clearly striving not to let the art become more important than the story here, but also still ensuring these moments of memory are brought vividly to life. It’s obviously quite an emotional story, and Nate’s art captures this essence and enhances it, most notably, for me anyway, in the expressions, from the haunted, worried look as some of the black characters traverse a mostly white area to the hideous, contorted expressions of unreasoning hate as police lay into peaceful protestors, or the opposite, the gentle, loving expression of friends helping one another, that simple expression on a friend or loved one’s face that can be enough to get us back up the floor and make us keep going because we know they’re lending us their strength.

This is a slice of recent history, but it is also a personal tale, a beautiful reminder that all historical events were enacted by people. Actual people, not remote historical figures, real people with families, loved ones, hopes, dreams and fears and that to make that history they had to embrace the dreams and overcome the fears. And this is history that remains painfully relevant to modern society – just a few days ago a UK politicians tried to claim that recent extreme winter storms were God’s wrath because of Parliament allowing gay marriage; there is always someone, for whatever reason, prepared to justify treating others in an unfair manner because they are ‘different’, and March reminds us how hard the road to equality for all is and that we’re not at the end of that road yet, but perhaps we can see it, and we can all keep marching towards it. March made it into my top three graphic novels from 2013 in my Best of the Year.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Reviews from the past: Regards From Serbia

Another old review of mine I thought I would repost on here, this one from the FP blog back in 2007:

Susan Tomaselli on 3AM has a feature on Aleksandar Zograf’s Regards From Serbia, published earlier this year by Top Shelf (link via Marko at Neorama). I’ve been reading Regards myself recently and found it fascinating – the strife in the Balkans is quite recent history of course and it gave me a peculiar feeling as I read it because I remember following the events on the news throughout the 90s, while many friends would also watch and comment sadly how they had just been on holiday to that part of what had been Yugoslavia only a year or two before those events.

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As I read on that peculiar feeling increased; half-remembered events from the BBC news resurfacing in my memory contrasted against Zograf’s first-hand accounts from ‘the other side’ (as he tells an American during a trip abroad, he’s from Serbia, the ‘bad guys’!) – it isn’t just that he describes the surreal nature of living under threat of bombings and the ranting and spin of politicians (in the West as much as in Serbia, all full of justifications for their actions, all ignoring the harm to civilians they caused), it’s seeing events from the news reports we saw in the UK but from the perspective of someone who lived there. While NATO commanders and US and UK politicians cheerfully told us that we were using precision weapons to surgically strike only specific targets, the reality of being at the other end of a ‘precision’ raid is somewhat different. Precision is a very flexible term, especially when presented a military campaign to a cynical public sensitive to civilian suffering (although Zograf still manages to inject humour into this grim situation).

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Of course when you read Regards From Serbia it puts you in mind of other works, notably Joe Sacco’s comics war reporting, but I think Regards stands on its own – the fact that Zograf is describing his own home adds much to the impact of the book; how would we feel if the place we had lived all our lives suddenly became a war zone? Not something that would happen to us? Well, I seem to recall before the struggle in the Balkans most of us assumed we’d never see large-scale armed conflict in Europe again… The surreal nature of trying to lead as normal a life as he can during abnormal events lends the whole thing a dreamlike – or nightmarish – quality, something Zograf exploits openly, taking the darker dreams he has during the war as raw material for the comic strip. In some ways the surreal and often absurd nature of wartime events and the humour used to deal with them reminded me a bit of Spike Milligan’s war memoirs. On the art front there’s a lot of heavy, black ink which seems appropriate to the subject matter in the same way black and white film seems more suited for serious documentaries. Zograf’s characters are often seen from a side-on perspective, only one, large, oval eye visible in profile, reminiscent slightly of classical Egyptian art but also very much (to me at least) of Pablo Picasso and several times I found his scenes reminding me of Picasso’s powerful and terrifying nightmare vision of war in Guernica.

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A large section has been included by Top Shelf reproducing many emails back and forth from Zograf to friends and fellow comics creators in the rest of the world (when the power was on and when the net access wasn’t being blocked by the West); I know some thought this distracted from the comics, but personally I thought it was a good idea, adding to the very personal perspective on the events (I also enjoyed Monty Python’s Terry Jone’s contribution). And that personal perspective is the heart of Regards From Serbia; Zograf never pretends to be a reporter or historian – he presents the events that went on around him and his family and friends, their thoughts, feelings, hope and fears, from a very personal and emotional place, presenting us with an insight a more impartial news report of history text never could.