Ugly Mug 6 – a review (part 2)

Herewith we resume our biased, insider-view appraisal of the contents of Ugly Mug #6. I’m pleased to note that I seem to be on the right track, since (thanks to the immediacy of social media) Harley tells me I’ve “really nailed the spirit of what [Ugly Mug] was aiming for”.

John Bagnall found time in his busy schedule to draw two pages of ‘Viktor Frankenstein’ this August. It wouldn’t be far off the mark to regard this story as a “reimagining” of a Hammer movie. Bagnall is a firm fan of the Hammer studios and their output, and the more Gothic the settings, the happier he is; in one of his 1980s strips he neatly summarises the entirety of Dracula A.D. 1972 in a single memorable panel. I mention this as that particular movie speculates about how Dracula himself might fare if he visited 1970s Britain, and today’s strip does similar – proposing that Doctor Frankenstein has now retired and fled to a small seaside town in England. This scenario allows Bagnall to turn in a series of miniature postcards depicting all those aspects of “Englishness” that he cherishes, but are now slowly fading away; part of an ongoing project which John has been working on for many years now. Study the panels for details of shop signs, shop interiors, old furnishings in old bedsits, and the strangely touching image of Frankenstein himself, decked out in braces and long-sleeved shirt, smoking a cigarette and being served a steak and kidney pudding. Every panel is so packed with detail and loving linework, that it seems to hem in the lead character (who appears in nearly every frame) to the extent that his memory, and his own sense of self, is gradually effaced. Yet he still can’t completely forget his own past, which returns to him at the end in a vivid nightmare – and it’s about the only moment in the whole strip when his ugly gap-toothed mouth registers a manic smile. That penultimate panel contains a gorgeous oddball version of the Frankenstein monster’s face, that makes me wish Bagnall would do an entire Frankenstein book one day.

Now we turn from story-telling to abstraction and the pages of Jim Barker. Thus UK genius worked for the Automobile Association for 20 years and has also produced many hospitality guidebooks during his career. Doubtless this knowledge and experience has led him to create the “city plan” drawings here, five pages of instances (and the back cover too). Some of them recognisably began life as something resembling a map grid, and some include directional arrows and symbols that might once have represented local interest points, but the drawings soon take off into crazy designs and shapes, creating labyrinths for the eye and mind as we try and follow their internal logic. As a draughtsman, Barker seems equally at home with the soft edges of a conte crayon or the hard lines of a dip pen, incising lines forcefully and with conviction.

Certain motifs are repeated, be they simple squares or decorated circles; a truly feverish mind (such as my own) might be tempted to connect the dots and look for stories within these teeming masses of information, much like the Story of the Two Squares as created by El Lissitzky in 1922, in which a black square and a red square fly down to earth. I’d also like to align Barker’s work with certain short stories by Borges, whose work sometimes alluded to maps as metaphors; and the novel City of Glass by Paul Auster. Certain obsessive readers of that modern novel have traced Quinn’s walk onto a map of New York City, in hopes of revealing hidden meanings. There’s also the Situationists and their derives, Guy Debord’s psychogeographic map of Paris from 1957; evidence of these intellectuals imposing their own “reading” of the city onto reality itself. Our well-informed editor Harley is evidently aware of all this; it’s not a coincidence that his own one-pager ‘Reading The Streets’, appears directly before Barker’s section. In nine incisive panels, Richardson processes the information he sees around his neighbourhood, soaking up every visual and verbal cue available and arriving at some quietly surprising conclusions. Iain Sinclair can go jump in the lake!

Jason Atomic is a UK artist who curates Satanic Mojo, a wild comic book / magazine truly deserving of the “underground” epithet. Actually I never read a copy, but contributors include such twisted creators as Krent Able, Savage Pencil, and Billy Chainsaw, and there are strong themes of diablery, witchcraft and the occult on offer, if the covers speak true. Today’s story ‘I Got Hung on the Wire’ begins innocently enough, a slice-of-life autobiographical tale about the author’s school days in 1973. But it very quickly moves on from a school story to an anecdote about a walk in the woods that goes horribly wrong, causing our hero to get a permanent scar from being hung on barbed wire. The artist uses this comic as a framework to include flashes of mysterious, quasi-occult and violent imagery – for instance, the odd sense that he’s “following another kid”, as though he’d suddenly transported into the pages of an M.R. James story; and the allusion to an out-of-body experience. Another disruptive panel is that close-up drawing of his wound, a second of grotesque body-horror that Cronenburg woulda loved. And there’s the strange flash-forward to the Hellfire Caves, which might be an excerpt from a forthcoming chapter. Am I reading too much into it, or does the panel at the foot of page 3 invoke the Hanged Man, the 12th card from the major Arcana of the Tarot deck? As you may guess, I’m finding this Atomic story a delirious read, and even those parts of the story that might be deemed “normal” convey an ominous sense of a situation that’s on the verge of spinning into chaos – as it does! Jason Atomic depicts himself as a rebel and outsider from a very early age, and I’ve no cause to disbelieve this account of himself, as this story is laced with several digs and snipes at the “straight” world.

After that episode of nightmare weirdness, let’s pause for a quieter poetic moment. I’m very impressed by ‘Sandecay’, a five-pager by iestyn. This Brighton artist also happens to run a blog called zinelove where he celebrates small press comics. This story is based on his impressions of family holidays on Sanday, an island in the Orkneys. He does it with very simple “diary entry” styled captions, and open-ended sketches of the landscape, the sea, the sky. As he travels deeper into the beauty of his surroundings, he makes no bones about perceiving nature as “magic”, and he starts to muse on death and decay as manifested in the skeleton of a bird, a decrepit old house with scattered floorboards, rusting farm machinery. He sees growth and decay “entangled” together. These things are expressed in his semi-poetic prose and the careful drawings of found objects and scenery, images which grow ever more puzzling as the work progresses; the corpse of the hare is particularly unusual. I like the sense that he’s almost struggling to see something, and the drawing reflects that struggle. Another triumph is the non-linear page composition of iestyn’s work here, where the comics strip grid gradually breaks apart in order to allow an experimental flow of images and words, creating compositions that owe virtually nothing to traditional comics narrative techniques. Yet it’s very natural. Outside of those formal concerns, the reason I like this approach is because, to me, it’s much truer to the way we humans actually perceive things, and the artist makes a very credible attempt at expressing how our memory works as we reflect on things. This approach culminates in the beautiful final page, where the panel grid has fallen away to reveal an array of fleeting visual images, as fragmented and fuzzy as memory itself, with the simple text woven directly into the composition. No easy task to convey such intangibles, but iestyn doesn’t shrink from the job. To use his own expression, “all things tumbling down together” is how he achieves this very personal and moving work.

Patricia Gaignat is a painter, sketcher, and maker of small books, maybe based in London. I loved her page of street scenes – the details of cars, buildings and signs – and the style of her line and watercolour just oozing nervous energy, which might be one of the qualities our editor likes about her work. I like the sense that everything in the picture is barely hanging together, as though all of this apparent solidity is actually the product of an unreliable video machine or hologram projector, where the image is flickering and glitchy, and may vanish any second. Yet Gaignat’s observations are spot on, and no detail is fudged or faked; it’s safe to say she drew these in situ, not copying from photographs. Less keen me, I must admit, on her portrait drawings, presumably based on life studies; she just seems to draw the same face, eyes, nose and hair every time, as though working to a personal template. That said, she’s a good observer of body language as expressed in hand gestures and tilts of the head.

Masaman contributes “Japanese graphix”, dotted throughout the magazine at strategic points. These single panels are just plain odd, no words and nothing explained. One of them I might categorise as an “illogical anecdote”, with its jumble of a Manga warrior with a tree, a cityscape, and two blobby monsters, but it’s impenetrable. Further blobby monsters appear on other pages, sometimes with vaguely recognisable human features, but they’re mostly mutants, products of a diseased brain. Yet their flesh looks vaguely soft, like it’s made of clay. I am bewildered.

I myself contributed three stories to this issue. One of these is a chapter from the lengthy Windy Wilberforce epic The Saga of the Scroll, drawn many years ago. I like to do what I think of as personal and poetic comics, and so I find it very fitting that this story follows on directly from iestyn’s ‘Sandecay’. My story likewise contains themes of growth and decay in the landscape.

The Astorial Anecdote about Endicott is more recent. In February 2022, I saw a window cleaner preparing his equipment when I was walking to work. A single glimpse suddenly inspired a story. As I thought about it, I knew I had to focus on straps and ropes and other means by which he might ascend the side of a building. A character started to take shape; he seems to think of himself as a commando, or soldier in the SAS, with his shaved head and lean muscular body. But as soon as the window cleaner enters the Astorial world, he’s faced with a dilemma based on his own misperceptions of reality. I like the way that he goes to tremendous physical lengths to try and recreate that one fleeting glimpse, but for all his effort, he’s just flailing about getting nowhere. The situation isn’t remotely improved when a so-called “professional” investigator appears, and despite giving himself airs of being in control, he simply creates more chaos. The Brigham character at the end might not actually be the criminal they’re seeking; he’s more like an observer mocking their futile efforts to control the world.

I also expended days of effort to craft a simple six-panel half pager about an obsessive record collector. Every corner of every panel had to contribute to the story; I tried to insert as much information as I could, passing over the same grid multiple times. Actually, it’s not really about collecting records at all, although the starting point was a real-life Forum post I read on the Discogs website; it’s just an insoluble mystery. Harley remarked “That’s the first hour of David Lynch’s Lost Highway condensed into six panels.”

Denny Derbyshire appears with a single half-page drawing ‘Winter of the Asteroids’. Not unlike the cliff strata x-rayed by Marc Baines (see previous post), Denny presents an “impossible” view of a landscape and sky in multiple layers, that might be overlapping in time and space, providing a far-reaching vision. Her world is dotted with ancient sculptures as well as floating asteroids (or microscopic cell-life), presided over by a pagan figure with the head of the sun and antlers. Even without this rich panoply of esoteric images, the pen and ink rendering is just a feast for the eyes – cross-hatching, lines, stippling, solid blacks, effortlessly creating sensuous textures and reflecting her painterly skills.

Niall Richardson is the editor’s younger brother. He too showed a gift for comics from an early age, but didn’t go down the route of comic books or story-telling. When his graphic images appear, I lap them up. There’s one here on the title page. What a curious figure. You could compare it favourably to the heavily stylized work of Kaz, the New Yorker of Buzzbomb fame, but as with much of Niall’s work there’s something very wayward going on under the surface. And on the surface itself, come to that. Niall’s figure stares down at something held in his palm – a knotted worm, or a piece of magical barbed wire. Did he pick it up, or is it an unwanted talisman from another dimension? An elegant visual riddle that can’t be solved, let alone translated into words; what a way to begin a book. As the gears in the mind of this magician (with his hieratic hat and cape) start to turn, so too do our minds churn as we struggle to make sense of the fascinating, puzzling contents of Ugly Mug 6!

Available from The House of Harley