A Review Asks Only Whether One Can Live With It Or Die Of It

I've been reviewing small press publications on www.bugpowder.com for a few years now. Totemic small presser Andy Luke recruited me; he'd been impressed with my essay, Closing Shots From A Grassy Knoll, and was convinced that I could restore some cheer to the reviews section.

Ostensibly a scoff-mixture, Closing Shots From A Grassy Knoll discusses the pathogenic presence in UK small press of comics creators eager to produce work sterilized by an ambition to be adaptable to the strictures of an intrusive company bent on 'product development', and who derive a vanity-buzz of satisfaction from tucking themselves into deadlines and knocked-off scripts. "This budding hack is fuelled by little more than the desperation for a sense of celebrity," I wrote, "and must be destroyed."

My muscular reviewing-style grated with small press enthusiasts' indulgence in self-satisfied congeniality and writer/artist shape-throwing, but I refused to conveniently dismiss creators with throwaway compliments, employing instead a reviewing discipline based on four simple tenets: 1, perspective is to be achieved; 2, the standards by which one is judging the work are to be made clear; 3, credit is to be given where it is due; and 4, one should not be such a fucking misanthrope, you above-being-human narcissist.

Regularly achieving three of the four principles with my aesthetic evaluations, and quickly developing an obsessive-compulsive urgency for production of symmetrically paragraphed reviews, the meaningless absurdity of opinionative writing soon revealed itself to me. I was not deterred.

John Robbins


Posted on June 14, 2008

The antithesis of po-faced comics with inferred depth – which sidestep the writing process courtesy of the tolerance and inherent appeal of this seductive medium – Contraband insistently exhibits meaning and aspires to provide a substantial reading experience. However, stubbornly over-scripted missteps hijack this intent as author Thomas Behe uses characters illustratively and makes few concessions to authentic-sounding dialogue: all speak with the flat voice of a writer working strobe-like through his fine-tuned gripes and bite-size philosophies. Taken in isolation, these ill-humoured asides and acerbic convictions prove interesting, but in the context of Contraband's non-linear narrative, they add a desultory, disorienting clutter that obstructs the flow and momentum of the story.

The conceit which forms the fulcrum of this sci-fi speculation on a dystopian near-future requires little suspension of disbelief: violent mobile video abuse is the new contraband as the boundaries of privacy are blurred in a tech-savvy society that utilises portable digital media to capture and distribute reality torture-porn. When self-styled citizen journalist Toby is forced to hunt down a female activist sabotaging the globe's most controversial cellphone channel – Contraband – his search leads him 8mm-like into the ugly reality of a voyeur underground populated by profit-hungry youths disconnected from any sense of repression or conscience, and with insatiable thirst for celebrity; the progeny of the liberalisation of social taboos, and of our You-Tube culture of instant gratification.

Though the execution is flawed and the economical cartooning style of Phil Elliott and Jim Sharman delivers a homogenising processed-sheen (amplified by overindulgent line-spacing on the computer lettering), Contraband succeeds in imparting with eloquent vitriol the author's moral outrage and frustrations, which inevitably topple into misanthropy; Behe's despair at the decay of civilised society and at the culpability of human nature is palpable. But as the work unwieldily articulates his justifiable anger, one can't help but be soured to the all-pervasive cynicism of the superfluity of opinions and to the relative absence of redemption in the story. Conversely, a glass half-empty is no bad thing when said glass contains vile-tasting medicine that, ultimately, is of benefit. Contraband, then, is prescribed reading.

148 A5-ish pages, $12 from www.slgcomic.com