Berserker #1

Berserker #1

As far as first impressions go, this new comic book-format Breakdown Press magazine is a total success. You can't tell from my scan at left, but the cover stock is so extremely thin and glossy as to seem perpetually wet; running your fingers up and down the surface, prints trailing, you can almost feel the slime on the skin of that Robert Beatty alien, his Martian sky moist from evening humidity, prison brick wall dripping from new-sprayed paint. Yet this is not a soft world - the interior stock, non-glossy, is quite heavy and firm, so that one senses not only flesh from touch, but the easy peeling of such skin from bone: a hardness only suggested by Beatty's painting, but vivid in your hands. Who picked out the paper? Was it Joe Hales, the print producer? Someone at Hoddesdon's Crystal Press? They did a wonderful job.

Reading the magazine is not so uncomplicated a pleasure, though at least it has cohesion of its side. The editors are Tom Oldham, a Breakdown co-founder, and Jamie Sutcliffe, a writer-on-culture and one of the operators of Strange Attractor Press, a house devoted to books on marginal and esoteric subjects, among them several fictions by the magician and comics writer Steve Moore, who (among other things) devised the "Future Shock" format for twist ending short stories in the UK's venerable genre comics weekly 2000 AD. And -- beginning on the inside-front cover, where we approach the "Nerve Centaur" to encounter Low Priestess Kleax Nix Vizz, the magazine's maniacal host -- it is clear that Berserker wants to evoke the immediacy and thrill-power of Britain's history of serial comic venues, if in part, one guesses, as conceptual binding. Or, to hear it from Oldham: "There’s a lot of people producing comics who are working in genre, whether that’s formally or in terms of content. There’s also a lot of contemporary art floating around that’s sort of mining genre narrative and genre narrative aesthetics. We just wanted to do something that presented that work, and the format and mode that we chose to present it in was that of a European science fiction anthology comic à la 2000 AD."

Yet Berserker is not overwhelmingly a comics magazine. I counted 33 pages devoted wholly to comics, with 31 assigned to various text features, though -- unexpectedly for a project set on evoking publications where prose contributions often seem like little more than space-filler -- I wound up enjoying the non-comics half of the thing more than the rest. Of particular note is Sutcliffe's own presentation of preparatory and unpublished drawings by Alan Jefferson, an artist who, over the course of roughly half a decade, created a space music audio drama titled Galactic Nightmare, with accompanying album illustrations, entirely on home equipment; in Jefferson's rough sketches of men reeling and agog, giant metal monsters hosing cities with deadly green rays, we get a clear sense of the laboriously on-the-level genre fare the magazine evokes by its editorial dressing - just a little off-center, however, by dint of private determination, and viewed in its most gestural and unrefined, preparatory state.

All of the text pieces, in fact, are concerned with the making of things, and the interplay between the thing and the self, the flesh upon bones: Sammy Harkham's interview with Beatty ("I use whatever is cheap and works"), whose 'personal' and 'commercial' work inform each other; Phil Serfaty's chat with Joey Holder, an artist who rejects the dichotomy between the 'natural' and 'artificial', blending biological forms and interfaces by which to measure/categorize/ascertain them in a unified digital space; Peter Bebergal's account of trying to construct a golem by studying the depictions and meanings of such; and, especially, a narrative the artist Adham Faramawy, who writes an appreciation of author Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis (or: "Lilith's Brood") trilogy of SF novels, while also supplying examples of his own art that seem to respond to "...charged erotic images of bodies, where gender roles are undermined and flesh is made porous by alien organs, a sexuality permeated with body horror," in the words of the artist, who deems this a hopeful state from his own position of bodily discomfort.

Hardeep Pandhal

The comics collapse these distinctions, in that they are all ostensibly 'genre' narratives, defined by received or implied rules, given forms less slick (and, impliedly, more 'personal') than necessitated by the audience expectations and cross-platform obsession of today's pop comics mainstream: "this blurred space where genre work tips into something that’s maybe self-reflective and critical, or where fine art practise, which is declaratively critical, tips into a different mode," per Sutcliffe. This is not a new idea in comics, of course, and most of the artists involved will be well-known to diligent comics readers; of the six included, I was only unfamiliar with Hardeep Pandhal, who is primarily a 'fine' artist working in drawings, music, clothing, video, etc., though he's also published with the comics-oriented Famicon Express group.

His Berserker piece, "Bang Bros", concerns the exploits of a person of indistinct gender with a pacifier for a head which functions as both a analogized teat and a penis. The protagonist sees Tupac when looking in a mirror and seeks to become a successful rapper, living a simulated life of wealth by withdrawing every dollar of personal savings from the ATM and then depositing it again at the bank counter; our hero winds up beheading a G4S guard and stealing a bag of money, and then chases a slate-white and green-hooded Uber driver with a bomb and a nude woman in his car toward a deadly confrontation atop the Statue of Liberty. I'm being a little facetious reading this as a totally straight narrative, though, since the six pages of the story are fashioned mainly from allusive images and words, a lot of its pun-laden language related to the narrator's sexualized relationship with American black culture, imagining himself fucking a blonde woman under an H. Rap Brown quote and wander the streets with Tupac suckling furiously on his latex head. "THESE IMMIGRUNT'S ARE ALL STEALING MY BLOW JOBS!" he roars, though the narrator's ethnicity is evidently uncertain. A writer for Frieze once described a 2014 solo exhibition of Pandhal's as "purposely slippery in its exploration of cultural identity," and this story likewise conveys an ambivalence toward racial or national categorization, preferring to instead situate its cartoon artist in a state of flux amidst cultural manufacture.

Anya Davidson

Pandhal is the only contributor who has not published extensively in comics, and he is also the only one to present a self-contained story. Er, DATA BLAST. It's at this point the magazine's concept begins to chafe against its contents, as the other five comics are all debut chapters of serials, none of them more than six pages in length, and few of them all that compelling as introductions. Granted, the same goes for many actual 2000 AD thrills, but those benefit from the largesse of weekly publication to maintain anticipation; I don't know when or if a second issue is Berserker is set to appear, so I'm left with a great deal of space devoted to segments of works that beg to be considered on their own, in a way that does not flatter their authors or particularly satisfy this reader.

Anya Davidson handles herself the best out of the group, since her "Night Timers" shoves all science fantasy elements into the background and operates mainly as free-floating anxiety over contemporary economic concerns. The heroine's partner has left her, and she's out of doors. Her parents can't help her because they need to move away to chase paying work. She moves into a windowless apartment in a teeming complex where crime is rampant and injured residents refuse medical care for local remedies, presumably to avoid unpayable bills. An older woman tells the heroine that she's been to jail, and "[t]he only difference is you have to pay to live here." Throughout, Davidson's art is brightly cartooned and often quite funny, especially in her drawings of a Komodo dragon-themed youth gang; in this way, the SF acts to alleviate the heaviness of her depictions of financial strain, giving it a wry and resilient texture. It doesn't need to continue, but it could.

Lane Milburn is also noteworthy, in that his "The Gig" is the only one of the serial chapters that actually feels like the introduction to a 2000 AD story: a wander through situational worldbuilding, with the 'big' concept announced at the very end. A Twitch-style video streamer maneuvers through a protest, unmoved, sidebar contents humming vulgar; it's the "Year of the Ikea Luröy Slatted Bed Base", which evokes Infinite Jest, though the action is closer to Haskell Wexler's Medium Cool. On the final page, it's revealed that he's providing material to a Luciferian content provider that disclaims all responsibility for his personal safety, even as he's offered a new job at an ominous zoology event. It does need to continue, and I want it to.

Benjamin Marra, colored by Leon Sadler

The remaining comics don't fare as well. Benjamin Marra's "Drug Destroyers!" is notable mostly for the watercolor hues applied by Leon Sadler: heavy, sickly yellow and green and dull red, giving Marra's figures the look of sirens and pollution reflected on chrome. The scenario, though, concerns a pair of future cops who battle a syringe-firing drug runner while engaging in porn video dialogue, as if the two officers are fucking via the intermediary of law enforcement. It's an okay masculine violence-as-sex-as-conquest joke, but one Marra has done similarly and better in his book Terror Assaulter: O.M.W.O.T., the excellent final chapter of which makes a compelling argument that such routines benefit from an accumulation unlikely here in the near future. Similarly, "Odnal's Pral" finds Lando of the Decadence group offering a characteristically wordless and surreal allegory, in which masked conquistadors enter a ceremonial pool and emerge as goopy brain creatures who immediately set about battling the local desert population of giant green heads. The battle's end closes this installment, but Lando's work in particular demands completion to best mull over its implications; for now it just seems simultaneously elusive and blunt from its incomplete nature. Faring worst of all is Jonathan Chandler, with "Sword of Sorcery" (colored by Sarah Louise Barbett) - a conversation between a frustrated cleric and a mysterious NPC in a virtual world role-playing game that closes on an anal penetration joke, the piece largely serves to demonstrate that the prolonged length of Chandler's John's Worth comic books are necessary to allow his offhanded dialogues to breathe. Here it just seems like half a chat.

What emerges is a concept anthology that's sometimes fun, but often seems to trip over its own concept. Even setting aside matters of serialization, what is being said about these comics, by the dictates of this magazine? If the message is that some comics approach genre as a means of communicating personal messages, I don't think Berserker does much better than simply observing these cartoonists among their peers; the curatorial impulse can be a useful one, but the level on which this publication is operating doesn't strike me as altogether more informative than just knowing about Decadence, or Famicon Express, or Breakdown Press for that matter. I can see why the artists would participate; Breakdown carries with it some prestige, and the remit seems like it might be fun, even above whatever money is involved (if any, I don't know anything about the contracts). But as an anthology -- a package, a statement -- if all I'm to do is celebrate the birth of new comics by artists of arguably shared interests into the world, I might as well start hailing the old SPX annuals too; those could be fun too, at times.

But let me pull back a little. All this time, I've been writing from the perspective of a heavy reader of small press comics; I presume that's most of the audience here. Yet it could be that Berserker is targeted not at me, or you, but the broader readership of UK comics, or even, pertinently, the local cognoscenti, which editor Oldham flatly considers feeble: "In the UK people aren’t literate in the language of comics and don’t understand what good fucking comics are. The idea that there’s nobody writing about comics in an interesting or exciting or provocative way is bonkers." I don't really know much about the formal UK comics discourse, but in the event that it's largely polite takes from generalist news platforms reacting to whatever big book an agile publicist has flipped onto their desk, paired with the multifarious enthusiast discussions of superheroes-and-adjacent and art galleries with their heads up their asses, it wouldn't be altogether different from North America; you have to collate the good stuff. I guess that's also the idea here? But if Berserker is meant to send a message about comics to the greater mass, I'm not sure this array of scant beginnings is going to overcome their prejudice. It's one thing to call people dummies; it's another to show them how they're wrong, and as much as this anatomist enjoyed some of the skin and bones, my hopes for universal revolution are tentative right now.