Links Post May

Things Other People Have Done

  • A helpful round-up of ten comics dealing with mental illness. After visiting the comics exhibition at the British Library earlier in the month, I’ve found my interest in comics from roughly ten years ago is slowly rekindling and crawling out from the blanket of general disinterest in everything and dislike of the medium, being gently reminded that although I’m surrounded by people who consume comics solely as a superhero narrative medium, there are other uses, styles, and forms the medium takes. It is good to be reminded that sequential art has functions beyond the fannish.
  • Compiled some of London’s most celebrated independent publishers, so that I can harangue them about how much they really really want to publish me. I suspect that’s not what they intended when they made this list but that’s what it’s for now.
  • Put up a collection of photographs taken by T. E. Lawrence during the Arab Revolt so that I can stare and stare and stare at them.

Two Brunels and a flood of sewage

This bank holiday I took the Resident Australian and her very expensive camera, and went to explore the first tunnel built under the Thames with a group of other nosy buggers, care of the London Transport Museum and, in my case, a friend who’d bought tickets and couldn’t use them.

Suited up in the same blue latex gloves I used to wear when my day day job was cataloguing dusty boxes of brain samples in a windowless basement, this time to prevent Weill’s disease from the omnipresent smattering of rat whizz, we descended undramatically down the escalators, and off the platforms onto the track.

Photos as always by J. Reilly

The tunnel runs from Rotherhithe to Wapping (or Wapping to Rotherhithe, if you prefer), and was finished in 1843 to great acclaim and a visit from approximately 50% of London’s then 2 million-strong populous. It was originally built as a goods tunnel, intended to relieve the pressure on the bridges and the ceaseless river traffic, but was only used as a pedestrian tunnel (with archways that quickly turned into the shagging grounds of London’s tireless hookers) before being sold to the railways, who extended it and ran the East London Line through it. Then the East London Line was incorporated into the London Underground, and later transformed into the London Overground. 

Interior of the Thames Foot Tunnel, mid-19th century

It took 18 years to build, thanks to a series of disasters including: a ship that dropped anchor through the roof and drowned several workers (and nearly did in Isambard Kingdom Brunel, son of the tunnel’s creator Sir Marc, and future celebrated engineer and inventor himself); running out of money (which was resolved by holding a banquet in the half-finished tunnel to raise more cash, which at my estimation after having been down there seems like a tight squeeze!); and digging time being limited by a lack of air and pockets of methane created by seepage from the sewage-choked Thames above. We were informed that a new “super sewer” was even then being built beneath our feet, carrying water below the tunnel below the river.

Just when you think you’ve reached the bottom of London you discover there’s more London underneath it.

Photo by J. Reilly

Most of this fascinating story I’d already had thanks to a book called London Under London (which I cannot recommend enough: the front cover even features the aforementioned banquet), and to Horrible Histories, but there is something to be said for hearing it all over again, especially from a cheerful and proud man with more than a little of the late Bob Hoskins about him, down an echoing hole under the river. There were six metres of mud above our heads, he said, and the tarpaulin Sir Marc used to plug the anchor-made hole in the roof so the tunnel could be pumped was, as far as he knew, still embedded in it.

London, which in the annuls of ancient cities isn’t even very old, still has so much history in it that you could waste a pleasurable lifetime studying it even without going into much detail.

J. Reilly (c)

One thing I hadn’t heard about was this: when the Royal Family – at this point consisting of Albert and Victoria – came to investigate this marvel of civil engineering, the ladies of negotiable virtue hadn’t yet moved into the archways you can just see above. Those little glimpses between the twin tunnels were instead reserved for traders, sellers of knick-knacks, gew-gaws, and general “tourist tat”. Given that the tunnel was also appallingly muddy, the seller of handkerchiefs was in luck when Queen Vic slid down to the tunnel: they were all purchased to lay in front of her royal footsies.

As our guide told it: the seller was then out of handkerchiefs and needed more stock. Being an enterprising fella, he gathered up the used hankies and began selling them as souvenirs – “as trodden on by the Queen” – a trade he kept up right until someone noticed that the muddy footprint on later hankies was that of a size 10 men’s boot.

“So there was entrepreneurship, and a little bit of fraud, too,” said Not Hoskins, with some pride. Absolutely the spirit of London, both Victorian and modern.

J. Reilly

The tunnel you see is not finished the way it was at first. The tunnel is, after all, more than 150 years old, and needs protection against wear and tear on its bricks. The story goes that the Underground surveyed the tunnel in the 00s (of the 21st, not 20th) and found it in desperate need of support. The day before a £23 million project intended to clad the tunnel in concrete was due to begin, Heritage in Parliament had the place listed as a Grade II historical building, and the whole process was set back.

The tunnel walk is a regular occurrence. This photo was taken in 2010 by Lars Plougmann.

What you can see is a compromise. The tunnel is clad, but the concrete conforms to the original shape of the tunnel. At the Rotherhithe end, the four arches that protrude out from under the river have been left as they were: blackened by coal smuts, crumbling like diseased wood, with a gas canister for the old lighting system still rusting in its alcove.

The history of London’s civil engineering advances is often a bittersweet one. Men died building this tunnel, and with the labour practices of Victorian England being what they were, I imagine their families were not well-compensated for it. The conditions were incredibly dangerous – even without the threat of drowning in the notoriously foul water of the 19th century Thames, the gas build-up in the later stages was so great that diggers had to be dragged out unconscious by their relieving shift.

Diagram of the tunnelling shield used to construct the Thames Tunnel, London. Contemporary image (19th century), probably from the Illustrated London News.

The tunnelling shield developed by Sir Marc and Thomas Cochrane made this enterprise possible at all – several attempts had already been made to tunnel the Thames and not succeeded – and was later improved by Peter W. Barlow and James Henry Greathead; the basic idea is still in use today, with tunnel boring machines replacing the labourers. The invention of the tunnelling shield in this project is almost certainly one of the developments that allowed the Underground Railway and its imitators around the world to be created.

We returned to the platform and then to the entrance hall of Rotherhithe station where, true to form, there were souvenirs on sale – as well as some hand sanitizer, for any inadvertent contact with the rats.  Both a recollection of the past, and a nice reminder of all the progress that has been made since the tunnel was built.

Writing Motivation Advice Chiefly For Myself

You’re allowed to sit in on this, but bear in mind that if anything doesn’t fit your situation it’s because I am shouting it at myself through a very long cardboard tube in the hopes that it sounds more authoritative when it comes out the other end.

Things you definitely have to do.

  • Write. You cannot slouch about the place calling yourself anything relating to “a writer” if you do not write anything.
  • Edit. Editing is part of writing. Firstly, that thing you wrote six months ago is full of dodgy bits where you decided that the correct phrasing didn’t matter and the important part was getting all the information down. It is now six or more months later and the correct phrasing does matter now, as does the fact that you’ve overloaded the scene with information and need to go and remove the stuff that isn’t pertinent. Yes, including the stuff you thought was good or interesting. If it’s not necessary it’s not staying.
  • Stop behaving as if “editing” doesn’t count as writing and therefore browbeating yourself for not doing “any” writing.
  • Research. You can’t confidently write about a place or time if you don’t actually know anything about it and are constantly worried that the whole course of your story is going to be thrown out by information you were too lazy to get hold of.
  • Stop putting off research on the grounds that you “need to concentrate properly”, you’re perfectly capable of absorbing information by osmosis and the more you get of it the more likely you are to retain it.

Things you do not have to do.

  • Seek other people’s approval for any ideas you have. While it would be lovely to pique someone’s interest, because being asked questions about an idea is a great way to get it into a reasonable and audience-friendly shape, there is also the factor of most people being self-centred idiots who simply do not have the concentration span to listen to your idea. Stop trying to sell them on it and go away and write the thing because you want to write it. Then think about your sales pitch.
  • Know exactly what you’re doing. Yes, it is easier to write a polished book if you have a very thorough outline. No that does not mean that you can just leave things forever because coming up with an outline is hard or you have an order for writing worked out. You can write to find out what you’re writing, too.
  • Readjust your idea to suit what people are talking about liking. You are writing it because you want to write it, therefore write what you want to write. Don’t write to please people who don’t have the same tastes as you, you’ll just end up resentful of them and resentful of the work you’re doing. This point in particular also stands to the acquaintance who nervously asked me what I thought of vampire novels: the fact that I mostly do not like them should under no circumstances prevent you from writing yours. You’re not writing it for me.

Things you definitely should not do.

  • Continually put things off because you feel they might not be perfect.
  • Write for people who aren’t into your core interest in the story (e.g. if you are completely smitten with Achilles-esque hubristic heroes in search of personal glory, 60ft tall ice monsters, and weird mole fetish sex, don’t feel that you suddenly have to cater to people whose principle areas of interest are small-town divorced mothers trying to maintain personal dignity, car crash recovery, and cancer statistics in mining towns).
  • Abandon editing something because it’s “clearly terrible and cannot be saved”.
  • Make blog posts instead of working.

More unhelpful writing advice can be found in How Not To Write By Someone Who Doesn’t.

Collaboration in a Constellation

Some time ago, I embroidered the constellation of Scorpio in a combination of glow-in-the-dark machine thread and holographic machine thread, with silver metallic machine thread connecting the stars, because sometimes you just want to make something aggressively shiny. That’s some stiff-backed velvet there, of the sort used in displays. Not sure what the technical term is or how it came to be in my possession.

I sent it to a friend who binds books, because I haven’t seen many embroidered book covers – my grandmother until recently made embroidered slip covers for blanks for me – and wondered if there was something about embroidering a piece of cloth that makes it impossible to bookbind with it.

Anyway, that turns out not to be the case.

Notes from my esteemed collaborator:

using iron-on adhesive and tissue paper, i turned it into bookcloth. the book is 4” x 5”—small, but heavy because of how thick the pages are. the end pages are black cardstock with silver metallic sharpie borders. there are 150 white cardstock pages, edged in silver metallic sharpie, and a black ribbon bookmark featuring a glittery metal star charm.

As I believe I mentioned before, there are few feelings quite so satisfying as seeing someone take a piece of your work and incorporate it into a piece of their work, producing a collaborative product that’s more exciting than anything either of you could have done on your own, whether that’s writing a comic script or embroidering a book cover.

Being an evolutionarily-minded person I can only assume that’s a neurological adaptation designed to help a highly social species work together to ensure the success of larger projects and thus the heightened survival rate of the genes of the species.

Still feels good though.

Layout and Panels: How To Do An Exhibition

PAGE ONE:

Begin with the exterior of the British Library, establishing location. People outside, sunny day. Billboards advertising the Library’s new exhibition on comics and graphic novels stand outside. Don’t bother showing the intrepid blogger buying tickets or anything because that’s boring, just go straight to the entrance of the exhibition.

It begins with some quotes about comics, both hagiographic and condemnatory, designed to show the polarising nature of comics and give an overview of the divisive cultural impact to be outlined.

Or to try and convince people the artform is relevant. It’s an uphill struggle.

PAGE TWO:

A mirrored archway and a neat line-up of cut-out images make for a comic introduction with a sense of three dimensions rendered from two. Get it? Like comicsThrow in some creepy mannequins dressed up as members of Anonymous for reasons that you don’t need to explain until we get to the politics section.

Begin with Mr Punch.

PAGE THREE:

A curved walk through history.

Someone has clearly gone to some trouble with regards to ensuring a good review from the noisier sections of Tumblr, determined to make note of the prejudice and gaps in representation in the earlier history of comics, incorporating the cross-media appeal of comics characters as early as the 1880s along with product endorsement and music hall songs… confronting at least ugly prejudice in small glass cases.

At this point our story is remarkable in content but not presentation.

PAGE FOUR:

Guy Fawkes-masked mannequins loom out of the semi-darkness and the font becomes enormous. We’re about to be introduced to the political overspill of comics’ influence, and their reflection of social issues, and place at the forefront of satire. This is good because I recently watched Dr Lucy Worsley talking to Michael Rosen about the history of satirical free comment in Britain and was able to give a whispered lecture to the Resident Australian about how our noble and ancient tradition of freedom of the press to criticise their “social betters” came about by an accident of poor parliamentary scheduling and inability to go back on a mistake without looking silly, i.e. the most British way of achieving it possible.

So many creepy masked mannequins.

Does this page deal with both satire and propaganda? Yes. Does it show politicised responses to changing social situations both from the far right and the far left? Yes. Does it have a slight left bias? Probably yes but I’m a disgusting woolly-jumper-wearing liberal socialist hippy c**t so this merely affirms my sense that I am right. Does it thankfully break out of the traditional ghetto of politicised comics in order to talk about not only fascism and anti-fascism during the 1980s but also pro- and anti-suffrage comics, historical perspectives on past movements, and raw and sad satire on the slow struggle of queer rights/gay liberation in the 20th century? Yes.

Was I more excited about the fact there is a page of original artwork from V for Vendetta?

Absolutely yes.

This page is also the time to show that the thought process behind the layout of this exhibition has been impeccable. I wouldn’t talk about the flow of visitors through a space under ordinary circumstances, but this was good enough to merit notice: at no point was I forced to back up or head in a contrary direction in order to see all of the exhibits. No one got in anyone’s way except by lingering too long, and most people didn’t linger too long.

Of course I would expect an exhibition about comics to be sensitive to being readable and easy to move through, because that’s at the nuts and bolts level of successful comics. I am just used to being disappointed in my expectations. Especially where mainstream interest in sequential art comes in.

PAGE FIVE:

Another example of clever design. This bulge contains the process of comics, and it is at the core of the exhibition, the way the process is at the core of comics: there is a drawing table, and it is occupied by some fresh sketches and the materials to make more. There is a large video screen. There is a wall covered in the process sketches, scripts, thumbnails, pencils, inks, and ideas of several teams of creators, who collaborate in different ways and to different degrees to produce startlingly different works.

Kieron Gillen’s script, incidentally, reads the way he talks, only a lot slower and less sidetracked.

The genius of this page is not immediately apparent, but it offers escapes to each section of the exhibition more or less directly: the creator’s mind must be able to travel where it pleases.

PAGE SIX:

Racy. This sexy page is sealed away in a side-stream, a veiled bubble of hidden desires gently segregated from the main, which both represents its position in comics (since I suppose they couldn’t have dug an extra underground to be more explicit about it) and gives people an easy out if they decide they don’t want to look at sex in comics/it isn’t appropriate for their age group.

Which again, is good exhibition design. One goes in a loop: in past Aubrey Beardsley and early erotic comics including a hilarious work satirically advocating “rights for sodomites” from the French Revolution which apparently became (this is the funny part) pornographically popular in Britain. “Ooh, bumming,” said late 18th-Century Britain. “Political content? Nah mate, that’s three men doing some botty-spearing. Nothin’ political there.”

The sex bubble contains a variety of approaches to sex in comics, from the sardonic (Steven Bell’s middle class orgy) to the personal (sad stories of masturbation) to the deliberately provocative (the Oz obscenity trial) and, justly and fairly, the pornographic. As is the case in almost any discussion of sexuality as part of a larger debate, when “gay sex” comes up it’s exclusively male, but otherwise a fascinating view onto a subject usually treated as not fit for discussion.

Side note: Obviously this is an area I am interested in, having hauled myself through museums of erotica both in Amsterdam and Paris, and it’s always interesting to see what’s going on stylistically in people’s sex: Peter van Straaten’s Lust has been on my shelf for nearly 7 years with its newspaper cartoon/book illustration feel bringing a sense of nostalgia and whimsy to orgies and covert sex, while works on display at the British Library are more rooted in the aesthetic of the 60s underground, and a style which looks quite specifically British.

PAGE SEVEN:

Back on the agenda, we head from the initial curve of history, politics, and sex through to the straight-and-narrow: the gallery becomes a long oblong, and we’re discussing heroism. Another great mirror between content and form, because that’s what successful comics are.

Here you have the choice of moving straight down a large glass case or examining displays hidden in a children’s nursery/playroom/classroom/artist’s studio, which is a change from the swift, directed readability of before. I could say something trite about “examining both sides of the issue” but I don’t recall the content being laid out that way.

Amid collectable statuettes and Karl Urban’s Judge Dredd helmet, the history of British comics heroes (Dan DareJudge Dredd, the preference for anti-heroes beginning with The Ride To York) is briefly contrasted against the American yearning for untouchable supermen (there’s even a tentative explanation raised for the USA preference for the mighty and unassailable – these fantasies were born of the Depression and the sufferings therein), and while the difference in the heroic character cycle (British comics heroes blossom and die, American ones are eternally recycled) is illuminated and subverted with the reincarnation of Archie the robot as an acid raver, there’s also a lengthy piece celebrating the British Invasion: the influx of British writers into American comics which is unfortunately probably to blame for the grimdark obsession people keep complaining about, what with UK writers’s apparent preference for the mortal and fallible.

It’s also probably responsible for the number of comics in the mainstream which got weird about chaos magic, and that’s where the exhibition is headed next:

PAGE EIGHT:

Appropriately for a page entitled the breakdown of comics, this is where the tidy structure of case by case, panel by panel reading goes instead into chaos. The surprising number of practising magus in a certain generation of comics writers, and the ways in which people have explored both the limits of the comics format and the limits of the known and imagined universe within comics are on display, backed against the walls, dangling in the centre of the room in glass pillars. William Burroughs of course makes an appearance: there’s a haunted house to stick your head into, there’s a huge screen showcasing something Hewlett-related that I was too tired hang around and watch.

An afternote, here: there are two computers which are apparently allow one to browse more comics, just as there were a dizzying proliferation of tablets on stalks throughout allowing one to do the background reading there and then, leafing through this comic or that comic (Judge Dredd: America is one title I recall). I did not make my acquaintance with the last computers because some French tourists had commandeered the seats in order to have a conversation. Nothing’s perfect, I guess.

Art Dump 5-5-2014

My excuse for not updating this time is that my laptop exploded. Or at least completely died. In theory I do have a post to make about the excellent comics & graphic novels exhibition at the British Library, but for now: more doodles!

Alright, not a doodle, more an insanely complicated fractal-ish pattern that I spent days on. This is the level of productivity I can muster when I’m both avoiding a thing and have no laptop.

A portrait of Dane Dehaan for a friend who has currently cast him as one of the leads in their ongoing headfuck of a novel.


My attempts to capture two entire crowd scenes, however, continue at a slow crawl.

More stuff over on Redbubble, if you’re interested, including some you can purchase.