guttergeek the discontinuous review of graphic narrative

The DFC (Random House UK, 2008- ). weekly, subscription.

By Jared Gardner

Spending the summer in London, my first stop, needless to say, was at a local comic shop to discover the latest in British comics. What I discovered, of course, was “American” comics, the vast majority of which are written by Brits, but very few titles I don’t see every week at my local at home, with the exception of 2000AD, which frankly seems to have changed little if at all since I first started reading it a quarter century ago, and of course Beano which has somehow managed to become less funny after 70 years than it was in its infancy, something few could have predicted way back when. But both Beano and 2000AD are anthology weeklies, old and tired as they are, and they reminded me how little we have done with the format in the States since the old story papers of the nineteenth century (The New York Ledger, The New York Weekly). Despairing that there was nothing new to be found under the British sun, I visited the Cartoon Museum in Bloomsbury to soak up some of the history of English comics past. Instead, I was introduced to The DFC, a new anthology weekly recently launched with the noble ambitions to revitilize not only British comics, but comics as a whole by providing a serial anthology directed at intelligent younger readers. Nine issues in, there is every reason to be optimistic about the future of this important venture, if they can find their audience. Given the somewhat unlikely cover price of the weekly (£3, or roughly $6) and the even more unlikely strategy of offering the book via subscription only, this is a mighty big “if.”

The DFC in every way merits both the hype and its hefty cover price, although at almost twice what readers are used to paying for an issue of Judge Dredd, it is going to be a hard sell to reach kids without sympathetic parents. Judging by the turnout at the Cartoon Museum that Sunday in early July for a workshop hosted by many of The DFC’s talented young writers and artists, the book has already found a core audience, thanks in large measure to a successful run-up of previews in The Guardian and a good deal of well-managed hype, much of it focused on the serialization of a new Phllip Pullman story, John Blake. Pullman’s love of Victorian penny dreadfuls is well known to his loyal readers, and he has lent his considerable fame and influence to The DFC in part because it is the best hope to revive some of those serial pleasures for a new generation. And there are tremendous pleasures to be had in The DFC, which already has my kids hovering anxiously by the mailbox waiting for the latest issues. I haven’t yet broken it to them that they will be deprived of as soon as we return to the U.S. in a couple of weeks. Hopefully, Random House will find the whole thing sufficiently profitable to bring it to the States in the not-too-distant future.

Pullman’s “John Blake” is lushly illustrated by John Aggs, and it tells the story of a mysterious “ghost ship” which travels through time and space to remarkable effect. Aggs also brings his talents to “The Boss,” this time as a writer, with his mother, Patrice Aggs, illustrating. “The Boss” is a school adventure story in which the kids team up on an otherwise tedious field trip to yet another castle to foil a mysterious plot. “Monkey Nuts” is a splendidly anarchic romp created by the Etherington Brothers, who seem to be daring each other on each side of the desk to greater heights of cacophonous silliness. A more subdued, Miyazaki-esque approach to both the storytelling and the artwork is found in Kate Brown’s beautiful story “The Spider Moon,” which tells of a girl growing up in a world whose future is very much uncertain with far too many burdens being placed upon her talents. Neill Cameron’s “Mo-Bot High” takes a more mainstream manga approach to both the art and story, offering what is to my eyes a fairly unsurprising tale of a girl who discovers the dangers (and her own hidden talents) at virtual robot fighting. More recently, after “John Blake” took a hiatus, the remarkably energetic John Aggs launched a new serial, “Robot Girl.”

Alongside these adventure serials,
The DFC also offers some terrific humor serials, including the wonderfully silly “Super Animal Adventure Squad” and the gentle and delightful “Vern & Lettuce” by Sarah McIntyre (one of our generous hosts at the workshop at the Cartoon Museum). “Good Dog, Bad Dog” (by Kirk Bergman and Duncan McBoo) is a longer comic serial riffing off of the classic American detective genre with the perfect crime-fighting formula that only a good dog and a bad dog can provide. In my house, “Vern & Lettuce” and “Good Dog, Bad Dog” are the first stories we read each issue. Only Jim Medway’s “Crab Lane Crew” (and its predecessor, “New at the Zoo”) have proved unanimous disappointments among my very, very small sampling of younger readers (and I can’t disagree with their judgment on this score).

I have watched my sons return to these issues again and again, in a way they have rarely done with other comics. I have even, for the first time in my career as a Dad, been forced to put some limits on their seemingly insatiable appetite for the series. When I ask them what makes
The DFC so dear, they fumble around the obvious terms they think I will like to hear: good story, good characterization. But when pressed they also turn back to the unique pleasures of the book: the thrill of not knowing what is going to happen next week and the hopes that one more reread will make it all clear. These are unique serial pleasures for which none of us need feel ashamed.

Officially, the title is an empty signifier, and readers are invited to provide new suggestions each as to what the “DFC” means (my favorite thus far remains “Dracula’s Favorite Cardigan”). But it is an open secret that the title originally referred to “David Fickling’s Comic.” Fickling, a children’s book editor at Random House, has been touted by the
Times as the “saviour of the Great British comic.”