Monday, 29 June 2009

"A Rip-Roaring Mindfuck"

All in all, that was pretty cool.

One of the great things about stumbling blindly through the unmapped foothills of a career in comics is that pretty much every step offers you a "first" something. Last Saturday, by way of example, was my first bookshop signing. I'd seen a couple of these happening in the local Waterstones in the past, so I was slightly wary. There's something unutterably sad about the sight of an unknown author sitting alone at a signing table, that helpless, apologetic smile flickering up at anyone who happens to throw a disinterested glance in their direction. The potential for soul-chewing humiliation seemed rather high to me, but I figured that if the worst came to the worst I could simply add Chelmsford to the already impressive list of places I've no intention of showing my face again. Nothing ventured, right?

Turns out this particular venture was a lot of fun. I got to sign some books (and I'm finally starting to pin down my unruly signature to some level of consistency, so gigs like these are good practice for me), I chatted with the customers and staff and generally had a cool-to-awesome time of it. The two hours flashed by, and I emerged with some measure of my dignity intact. A particular high point was one customer, with whom I had a kind of surreal, wide-ranging dialogue that lasted for pretty much the whole time I was there, with him stepping aside whenever I was signing books but always ready to pick up the thread again. Seriously, that one phenomenally cool guy was worth the trip on his own.

Getting back home, I saw that the profoundly excellent John Freeman of Down The Tubes had posted the following Cancertown review on the site.

In Review: Cancertown

While regular downthetubes readers are well aware there are plenty of "graphic novels" on the market, they also know many are actually collections of monthly comics, better known as "trade paperbacks", perhaps complemented by additional material such as pin ups and background "extras". It's actually quite rare to pick up a graphic novel that truly exploits the opportunities afforded by the longform equivalent of a novel, slowly but surely delivering a story over many pages rather than in bite-sized, previously-published material.

Cancertown is one of those exceptions.

It's the story of Morley, a former mental patient with an inoperable brain tumour who conducts search-and-rescue missions into a monstrous, alternate version of London. Except that, if you're reading Cancertown without the advantage of press previews, even this nugget of information only becomes apparent as you read the story - and that carefully strung out, steadily-paced unfolding of the story is just one of the appeals of this horror tale, a book I described to someone asking me what it was about as a "rip-roaring mindf***".

Morley suffers from a rare mental disorder that causes him to believe a number of weird things about himself and his relationship to the outside world. The major upshot of this is that his delusions manifest themselves in a twisted alternate world he calls Cancertown. The real fun for Morley began when dispossessed people - those who were lost or who had a diminished sense of their own identity - started to fall into Cancertown and Morley decided that his purpose in life was to find those people and return them to the real world before they became permanent residents.

Cancertown is no easy read: you have to pay attention as Morley's adventure and encounters with warped characters such as Corpsegrinder and Piecemaker unfold, and what may be the truth of the origin of Cancertown is revealed. The overall feel of the book is distinctly unsettling but riveting -- a graphic novel you'll find yourself wanting to read in one sitting.

Speaking personally, I think I would rather have had a little more exposition than unanswered mysteries, but that isn't to denigrate Cy Dethan's script, which successfully delivers a powerful horror story, ably complemented by Stephen Downey's creepy otherworld art, the Cancertown elements juxtaposed by very realistic "real world" sequences the artist reveals in background notes are based on photo shoots and other reference. While this is still early days for Downey, with the right guidance I can easily see him making the jump to, say, drawing for Vertigo or other publishers. Good luck to him -- and Cy, too, whose potential as a writer is, frankly, enormous.

Considering that all the creators involved in this project are, for the most part, relative newcomers to the professional comics industry, and the opportunities to break into the mainstream these days are scarce, they can all can be proud of their work on this book. In his introduction, veteran comic creator Bryan Talbot, whose talent for creating longform graphic novels himself is well known, suggests we're seeing the first outing of creators who will make their mark in future on the wider comic industry: and I can fully agree with that sentiment.

A tip of the hat too, to newcomer publisher Insomnia Publications for publishing Cancertown: they're nurturing some fine new talents that would otherwise find publishing opportunities in short supply, and if this first title is any evidence of intent, then we can expect further treats in coming months.

• Cancertown is written by Cy Dethan with art from Stephen Downey, with colour by Melanie Cook and lettering by Nic Wilkinson and is introduced by Bryan Talbot. It's available from specialist comic stores and the Insomnia Publications web site:

So, yeah - not a bad weekend. I'm now looking forward to hearing how Crawford and Stephen got on at the Dundee Literary Festival and Q-Con.

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