“Punks Not Dead” — Is It?

Here’s the thing — there are a million and one perfectly valid reasons for walking away from the first issue of writer David Barnett and artist Martin Simmonds’ Punks Not Dead, the latest offering from former Vertigo editor Shelly Bond’s new (-ish) Black Crown line at IDW, fairly unimpressed. For one thing, it seems to either not understand, or to deliberately eschew, punk’s radical politics in favor of glomming entirely onto its obnoxiousness. For another, it further cements the narrow aesthetic and editorial constraints that Bond has frankly shackled this entire label with since its debut a few months back. And for yet another, despite its present-day setting, its core premise is hopelessly dated and leaves the book wide open to charges of being the sort thing cooked up by people trying to be self-consciously “cool” — only their idea of what passes for “cool” is about 40 years past its expiration.

Okay, so that’s not exactly a “million and one” reasons — more like three — but let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves : after all, what matters most (or should matter most) about a comic is the quality of its story and art, right? We should be judging Barnett and Simmonds on the merits of their ideas, sure, but also on how well they’re able to communicate them. In short, it’s up to them to prove doubters like me wrong, is it not?

Meet Feargal “Fergie” Ferguson, a fairly typical 15-year-old nominal “outsider” with a decidedly atypical home life in that his single mother makes her living by shilling a million and — sorry, we’ve already been down that road, let’s settle on a dozen or so — bogus stories about her “problem” child to the tabloid press and TV talk-show circuit. One day he’s a hopeless junkie. The next he’s a gay porn addict. The day after that he’s a put-upon bullying victim. And when those all run their course, he might be a combination of any or all of them. Whatever sells, I guess — unless and until the gutter media realizes they’re being played for suckers, which apparently hasn’t happened yet.

One day, I suppose, it will, but until that day comes they travel a lot, and it’s during one of those travels — or, specifically, an airport layover between them — that “Fergie” makes the acquaintance of Sid, a very peculiar sort of ghost who “lives” in a Heathrow men’s room, and who no one else can see or hear. Don’t ask me how that works.

In fact, don’t ask me how any of the paranormal “rules” in this comic work at all — and don’t ask me who Sid even is (or should that be was?), either. In Barnett’s backmatter text piece, he makes it clear that he’s not meant to be Sid Vicious, despite the comic explicitly referencing his date and place of death — which line right up with the circumstances of Vicious’ demise. Is this comic just being coy, then? Perhaps playing it safe legally? Well, maybe — and maybe not.

Certainly, as depicted by Simmonds, Sid looks more like the bastard love child of Gary Oldman’s take on Vicious from Sid & Nancy and Neil Gaiman’s Dream of the Endless, so there’s some visual evidence to suggest that maybe he really is just some ephemeral manifestation of the “Spirit of ’77,” as Barnett claims/insists. And he’s a bit less vulgar and confrontational than most of us would probably expect Vicious to be, although he still has attitude to spare. So I guess the jury’s out here on whether or not the creators are being straight with us, or too clever by half — and that’s perhaps the comic’s greatest single virtue.

You get where I’m going with this line of specious “reasoning”? Punks Not Dead — as the absence of an assumed-to-be-there apostrophe from its title should clue us in on from the start — is a book that enjoys fucking with its readers. Subverting expectations is one thing — and there’s plenty of that on offer here — but to do so with a smirk (albeit one hidden beneath a sneer)? That takes something that the best punk rock always had : balls. And the fact that Barnett and Simmonds clearly have them to spare goes some way toward convincing me that their understanding of punk as a cultural phenomenon, as an ethos, as a way of life, goes well beyond the merely superficial.

Even so, Simmonds’ crisp and precise art, while certainly hinting at a bit of Bill Sienkiewicz-style anarchic chaos at the margins (probably fitting, then, that Sienkiewicz himself does this issue’s variant cover), is far more controlled than you’d expect, particularly when overlaid with Dee Cunniffe’s ultra-clean color flats. But again, that’s not really meant as a “knock” — confounding expectation being, as already stated, an integral part of that whole “fucking with you” thing. Besides, it looks really welcoming and each character has an appearance equally distinctive and real. A comic that’s easy on the eyes may not scream “punk,” it’s true — but it will keep you engaged in the proceedings.

As will the just-referenced characters. “Fergie” comes off as a likable enough kid with a reasonable amount of depth to him; his mother’s a one-note cipher, sure, but at least an entertaining one; Sid’s utterly fascinating no matter who he’s supposed to be; and MI5 “ghost hunter” Dorothy Culpepper is the sort of been-there, done-that, and loved-every-minute-of-it wizened old crone that feels like someone cult British comics author John Smith (frankly my favorite funnybook scribe from the other side of the pond not named Moore) would come up with — I pretty much love her to death already.

So what the hell — count me in for this one. Punks Not Dead may not do much to dispel, or even assuage, my overall concerns about the extremely fenced-in remit that Bond seems to have foisted upon Black Crown immediately upon inception — one that inherently marks this so-called “curation operation” with the stench of an exercise in nostalgia — but if you’re willing to roll with the ground rules she’s set in place, this just might be as good as it gets. And you know what? That’s quite a bit better than I was figuring.

Weekly Reading Round-Up : 01/28/2018 – 02/03/2018

Would’ja believe — there wasn’t too much that came in my mailbox this week and it was my LCS that kept me busy with new stuff to read? I swear, it’s true, so let’s have a look at some items of note that I picked up —

For a series/line that prides itself on being “old-school,” Josh Bayer’s All-Time Comics seems in some ways to hew pretty closely to modern publishing norms. Issues frequently ship late, for instance, and their latest release, the bumper-sized (and subsequently more expensive than usual) All-Time Comics : Blind Justice #2, marks the end of the first “season” of the range, with an Image-style gap of three or four months now on deck as they get their ducks in a row for their next not-exactly-an-arc. The script this time out is a Bayer solo endeavor, and frankly not the greatest — the last half of the comic essentially being an extended “bad guy rant” — but it’s still kinda “warts and all”-style fun that will appeal to most Bronze Age babies like myself by hitting all the right nostalgic notes. It’s really down to the art to essentially carry most of the weight here, though, and weird as it sounds to even say things like “Noah Van Sciver inked by Al Milgrom” and “Sammy Harkham variant cover,” that’s precisely what you get here, and it’s every bit as awesome to look at as said phrases would lead you to expect. I have no doubt that the overall ATC project will continue to confound readers looking for some over-arching unifying grand purpose, as it appears that Bayer and co. really don’t seem to have one, but for my money that’s a large part of the appeal of what they’re doing, and even though I’m sure admitting as much will brand me an intellectual simpleton in the minds of many in the critical community, I’m seriously looking forward to seeing where this whole thing goes next, as regulars like Benjamin Marra return to the fold and newcomers like Gabrielle Bell (yes, you read that right!) join in the four-color carnage. Operating in a previously-unexplored middle ground that exists between the polarities of “homage” and “spoof,” these comics are hitting a “sweet spot” for me — even when they run six bucks, as this one did.

It’ll cost you seven, though, to pick up the second issue of Shelly Bond’s Black Crown Quarterly, and to be honest, I think I’ve seen enough at this point. The format’s nice, with heavy cardstock covers and high-quality glossy paper, and to be honest, most of the individual strips range in quality from “pretty decent” (Rob Davis’ “Tales From The Black Crown Pub,” Jamie Coe’s “Bandtwits,” Leah Moore and Nanna Venter’s “Hey, Amateur! How To Be A Badass Goth In Nine Panels”) to “actually quite good” (“Cannonball Comics” by Christopher Sebela and Shawn McManus, who illustrates in a very engaging and eye-popping style quite unlike anything he’s ever done), but the “Cud : Rich and Strange” ongoing by Will Potter, Carl Puttnam and Philip Bond continues to be a dud, the inclusion of more preview pages for David Barnett and Martin Simmonds’ forthcoming Punks Not Dead make me wonder if we’re not going to end up seeing the entire first issue before it even comes out, and the text pieces are either essentially extended promo blurbs for other Black Crown titles like Kid Lobotomy, or else self-consciously “hip” music and travel recommendations. What frustrates most about BCQ, though, is that Bond’s hopelessly dated tastes and aesthetic sensibilities end up making the overall package less than the sum of its parts, and at the end of the day it almost feels like she’s assembling a comic for an audience of one — herself. Unless you, too, are an anglophile whose musical knowledge doesn’t extend beyond the borders of late-’70s UK punk, it’s hard to see the appeal in an anthology this specifically — and rigidly — constructed. Gotta love the pull-out poster featuring the Bill Sienkiewicz cover variant for Punks Not Dead #1, though.

In what passes for a “bargain” this week, five bucks will get you in the door of Justice League Of America/Doom Patrol Special #1, and while it’s not a spectacular read or anything of the sort, I did have fun with this first part of “Milk Wars,” a five-part weekly crossover that sees Gerard Way’s Young Animal line clashing head-on with the “proper” DC Universe. Way and Steve Orlando wrote the script for this book, and thematically and tonally it seems pretty well right in line with what the My Chemical Romance lead singer is doing with his main Doom Patrol series, in that it borrows equally from Grant Morrison’s run on the book and Larry Cohen’s cult-favorite horror/comedy hybrid The Stuff. I don’t know much about the current Justice League Of America line-up, but it appears to be a bunch of B-and C-list characters like Lobo and Vixen, so I guess re-casting them all as a 1950s neighborhood decency brigade is no particular skin off DC editorial’s back, and for the purposes of this story the conceit works — as does ACO’s frenetic, mildly psychedelic art. Perhaps even better than the main feature, though, is the two-page backup strip, which begins what I’m assuming will be an extended introduction to the character of Eternity Girl, who will soon be featuring in her own series courtesy of this story’s creators, Magdalene Visaggio and Sonny Liew. I’m as shocked as anyone to see a cartoonist of Liew’s caliber taking on an assignment for DC, and equally shocked that he wouldn’t just write it himself since that’s how he’s made his bread and butter previously, but if this brief Silver Age-style yarn is any indication, he and Visaggio should make a good team. Anyway, all in all, this comic stood head, shoulders, and udders (read it and you’ll get what that reference is all about) above most “Big Two” fare.

Lastly, we come to Motehrlands #1, the first of a new Vertigo six-parter from writer Simon Spurrier and artist Rachael Stott that proudly wears its 2000AD influence on its sleeve and isn’t afraid to plunge you in at the deep end from the get-go and trust that you’ll catch up — at some point. The action’s pretty breakneck in this one, though, and absolutely absurd, so don’t expect much hand-holding in this wild mash-up of badass-bounty-hunter, “reality” TV, and dysfunctional family tropes, our main protagonist being an inter-dimensional mercenary skip-tracer who lures her mother, a sort of washed-up female version of that “Dawg” guy, out of retirement in order to help track down the third member of the clan, the good-for-nothing brother/son. It’s a fast-paced and — here’s that word again — fun read, and Stott’s art is a nice mix of the conventional and the far-out, so I’m probably gonna stick it out in single issues, but if you missed the first installment, “trade-waiting” probably wouldn’t do you any harm, and will more than likely save you a few dollars.

Okay, I think that’s good enough for now — the small-press stuff was in short supply this week, which is kind of a bummer, but I’ve got a box on the way from Retrofit any day now of some comics I missed out on from the tail end of 2017, so hopefully I’ll have read enough of those books by this time next week to talk about at least some of them in my next round-up column. Hope to see you again in seven short days!