Monday, 14 March 2011

Comic Review - Albion

I've read Albion over a dozen times now, and I'm still not sure how to evaluate it. I'll admit I was expecting something a little more straightforward, possibly Watchmen for British superheroes. That said the premise itself isn't really the problem. The central concept is that all the heroes were real, and have been hidden away in a prison in Scotland by the government, while the daughter of the deceased Eric Dolman and a Scouse comic fan named Danny try to break them out. Moreover, this plot more or less works. However, this comic really isn't quite aimed at me. While I'd like to think I have a better knowledge of the IPC/Fleetway comics than most modern comic fans (I've been reading comics since about 1993, and only over the past few years have I delved that far beyond the X-books, something I'm happy to admit), and there are characters I don't recognise, and thus don't really 'get'. Enjoyment would be a lot less qualified, I suspect, for someone who really knows their stuff on this era (though maybe not… even a callow youth as myself was a little uneasy about Robot Archie's conversion into a guard-killing war machine, and subsequent unmourned 'death'). The book doesn't really spell out who many of the characters actually are, which creates something of a feel of elitism to the thing - the comic seems to be daring you not to recognise a certain character so it can mock you, which is rather arrogant.

One interesting thing is that it's not just the conventional 'super-hero' characters that are revived. While the Spider, Robot Archie, Charlie Peace, the Steel Claw, Tim Kelly, 'Zip' Nolan, Mytek the Mighty et al. are included, so are Eagle-Eye (and his nemesis, the fantastic Grimly Feendish), Bad Penny, Faceache and Captain Hurricane. All of these are through a glass darkly interpretations, Eagle-Eye being a gloomy, traumatised head warden, Feendish a sadistic murderer and Hurricane a sedated psychopath. It's all interesting, but then I expect someone's having a loved character trampled on in here. It's probably okay for Alan Moore to do this, though, because he's Alan Moore, or something. 

[Segue: - I'm very curious as to how much involvement Alan actually had, to be honest. When there are two other credited writers, the vague credit of "plot" doesn't necessarily mean much… the cynic in me can imagine a Sunday dinner at the Moore household, with little Leah struggling to come up with a story for her homework, and Alan saying "Why don't you do one about British comic characters being imprisoned in Scotland?"]. 

The story as a whole lacks his finesse for the large part - I can't remember Alan reverting to swearing every other speech bubble for no readily apparent reason, for example - I suspect the excuse is to ground it in the 'real' world or some such, but it's actually a bit too crass. The characters are all interesting, but there's not enough space for them all, and only the Spider, Eagleton, Nolan, Peace and Penny really get much development. Danny, our nominal identification figure, spends most of the page-count as a passenger, serving to ask Penny questions so she can have a brave stab at explaining the plot.

Because, sadly, Albion's a little flawed regardless of how much - or little - you know about the characters involved. What exactly Penny's been waiting around for is unclear - she seems to have known, for example, that Robot Archie is an ornament in a Manchester pub for a while, and yet doesn't bother actually collecting him until she's roped Danny in (and do they just walk out of the pub with him or something?). Charlie Peace goes from hostile old bastard to loveable rogue in the space of about three frames. Then the four of them just break into the castle and let everybody out. The Spider is possibly involved, as is Brian's Brain, but it does just all go swimmingly.

All this aside, Albion is good fun to read. The central concept of all the characters being real is nicely done. That the government would want them out of the way (and want their stuff) is an interesting angle, and it's a most natural idea that The Spider would relish, and be equal to, the challenge of bringing everyone in. I like the Eye of Zoltec being commandeered as a protective device by successive Prime Ministers, too. The conspiracy theory stuff is well done as well. 

Early on, artist Shane Oakley indulges himself in a couple of great flourishes - Penny's Beano-style origin flashback, Captain Hurricane's rose-tinted war memories rendered in the style of a Valiant strip while juxtaposed with Nolan flicking through photos of the carnage he was capable of, and the "unpublished" Janus Stark strip - though it's a bit of a shame these devices aren't used a bit more often. That said, the art, while a little too consciously 'dark', is pretty and well-rendered. The frames are just crammed with detail, and someone more versed in the old comics will have a field day spotting the cameos.

Overall, it's a mixed experience. As research/buying odd old comics adds to my knowledge of those involved, this gets better with every read, though the narrative is a little too fractured and convenient to ever make it a total classic. That said, whoever wrote the thing seems to have gone out of their way to make this an inaccessible, cliquey series, and it'll take more than a love of Moore and a curiosity for older characters to make this enjoyable. If you know and love these characters, this is well worth a read If you want to find out more about Britain's "silver age" comic characters, visit International Hero and scout around junk shops or ebay for old issues and annuals. Just make sure you don't cry out at anyone you think you recognise in the street, or some girl will drag you up to Scotland to break her dad out of jail.