Ninth Art editor and comic book writer Antony Johnston tells the story of his life as a comics fan, from Alan Moore to Azzarello, from ZENITH to WHITEOUT, from first flings to reignited passions.
17 April 2006

Antony Johnston is one of the three founders of Ninth Art, whose contributions include three years of editorials covering subjects such as graphic design, continuity, and the decline of the underground scene - as well as the Ninth Art round table Triple A.

For most of the past five years, he's also been writing comics, with nine graphic novels under his belt covering everything from horror to romantic comedy to action caper. His forthcoming works include STORMBREAKER, the graphic novel adaptation of Anthony Horowitz's first Alex Rider novel, and his first ongoing series, the post-apocalyptic WASTELAND, with artist Chris Mitten - both out this summer. You can read more about his work at his website, Mostlyblack.

THE TIME MACHINE (from 2000AD #324)
Alan Moore and Jesus Redondo

1983. I was eleven years old, for heaven's sake. I ask you, is that any kind of age to be reduced to a blubbering wreck by Alan Moore?

THE TIME MACHINE remains one of Moore's best short works, and it's certainly my favourite. It's a simple, tragic tale; Harry Bentley loses his job. He and his wife argue all the time. He realises how much happier he was when he was younger. So Harry decides to build a time machine, destroying his life and marriage in the process.

THE TIME MACHINE is only five pages long, but squeezes in enough moments that ring true - even to an eleven-year-old boy - to avoid the feeling of short shrift and incompleteness that regularly plague short stories in comics. And the story's 'twist', a prerequisite for any short story in 2000AD at the time, is brilliant; the time machine doesn't work. In a sci-fi comic filled with people hopping from century to century with nary a thought, this was a bold move.

"Time travel was, quite simply and brutally, impossible. He could never get back. Never."

So Harry Bentley kills himself. And as he drowns in the cold, black waters, his life flashing before his eyes... he finds his time machine.

"And it worked. It really, really worked."

Excuse me, I have something in my eye.

Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell

Now, then. No time for tears here, we're too busy reshaping the universe to the sound of Morrissey. Or something suitably late '80s and alternative, anyway.

I never had much interest in superheroes. It wasn't the powers I objected to, it was the ideology. Why would someone who could fly and carry houses waste time waiting for another flying man to rob a bank so they could have a fight? I mean, a man's got to have a hobby, but come on. Surely there are more interesting things to do?

So when ZENITH - a superhero story - turned up in the pages of 2000AD, I was pretty sceptical. That scepticism vanished by page five of episode one, in which a Nazi superhuman kicked a British superhuman around Berlin to remove any last opposition to the Third Reich. Page five, you see, was a full-page splash of an atomic bomb exploding over Berlin - while the two 'super-soldiers' were still in the city.

Zenith, the biological son of genetically-engineered superhumans, didn't want to be superhero. He wanted to be a pop star. And from that atomic bomb in Berlin, ZENITH just gets better and better. A retired superhero who's now a Member of Parliament. An insane mega-rich businessman threatening to nuke London because he thinks world leaders should be nicer people. Lovecraftian gods possessing superhuman bodies and wiping out every other superhuman in existence so they can take over the universe...

As you read ZENITH, you can almost see Morrison warming up for THE INVISIBLES. Pop culture references, pseudoscience, parallel dimensions, gods playing games that have a nasty habit of destroying ordinary peoples' lives, the potential for humanity to become one with the cosmos... It's all there in prototypical, socially aware form.

And another big part of the appeal was Steve Yeowell. This was his first major work, and while the first few episodes are a little shaky, by the middle of the first series he produces some of the best monochrome/impressionistic comics art you'll ever see.


CRISIS was launched off the back of 2000AD, giving a core of the same creators somewhere to tell what we would now call 'mature readers' stories. 2000AD's readers were growing up, you see, and they wanted something "meatier", as writer John Smith put it. CRISIS initially featured just two stories per 28-page issue, one episode of each taking up half the comic. For an audience raised on six-page episodes, this was practically an epic.

THIRD WORLD WAR, by Pat Mills and Carlos Ezquerra, was an unashamedly left-wing political diatribe dressed up as a story about delinquents conscripted as aid workers in a near-future Africa, whose population of potential consumers was ruthlessly fought over by capitalist mega-corporations just as its farming population was crushed into poverty by the same interests. It was blatantly didactic, politically naive, and not a very good story. It was also the first time most of its intended audience, and certainly I, had ever heard of South American death squads, destruction of the rainforests, toxic pesticides or the symbiotic relationship between big business and big politics. We lapped it up.

NEW STATESMEN, by John Smith and Jim Baikie, was the strange bastard child of ZENITH and WATCHMEN. Featuring genetically-engineered superhumans named after each state of America, NEW STATESMEN fused concerns over genetic manipulation, the political annexation of Britain by the USA, politically expedient warmongering and the corruption of authority into a sometimes confusing (but always compelling) story of murder, mayhem and sex in the near future - all told with Smith's trademark poetic panache. It didn't match the lofty heights of either of its forebears, but not for want of trying.

CRISIS also showcased new strips and creators. Duncan Fegredo, Sean Phillips, David Hine and others all got their big breaks in the comic, either as guest artists on the main features or - when the main features took a break, or finished altogether - as creators of new strips run in their place. Probably the most famous of these was a politically-charged story about Northern Ireland called TROUBLED SOULS, the writing debut of a young upstart called, ooh, Darth Ennis or something like that. Wonder whatever happened to him?

CRISIS was a book very much of its time, and when it finally stumbled to a halt after three years nobody really missed it. But in its short life CRISIS exposed a new generation of readers to a new generation of creators and stories, and paved the way for many of the books and creators we cherish today.

Alan Moore and David Lloyd

Speaking about books that were resolutely of their time...

Thanks to the recent film adaptation, there's a bit of a backlash against V going around at the moment. "Ooh, it's not as good as I remembered it to be." "Ooh, it's so dated." "Ooh, nothing much happens." I am here to tell you that these people are Sick and Wrong and will be the first against the wall when we all start wearing Guy Fawkes masks and take the power back. No, hang on...

Anyway. The point is that V FOR VENDETTA is a comics tour de force, a potent mix of politics, character study and formal experimentation. It is in fact all the more glorious for being a product so firmly of its times, but with a message and theme that is as relevant now, in these times of cultural xenophobia and eroding liberty, as it was twenty years ago in those times of, erm, cultural xenophobia and eroding liberty.

Look, I grew up in Thatcher's Britain. I remember the threat of nuclear war, and the end of everything, seeming very real. I remember worrying that out of the mad old bag who ran our country, the senile old puppet who ran our allies' country, or the cancer-riddled old idiot who ran our enemies' country, one of them was bound to push the big red button sooner or later. Feelings of social and political impotence weren't just common, they were the norm. So when my young, angry student self discovered a book that actually talked about the dangers of my country's political direction, and did things with comics I'd never imagined, my mind may as well have been Big Ben in Chapter 1. Boom.

Some people might say that's the only reason I rate V, that if I could just see it out of context I'd realise it doesn't hold up. This argument deftly sidesteps the issue that it's too late for that. The damage was done a long time ago.

Peter Milligan, Brett Ewins and Steve Dillon

This, on the other hand, is timeless. Of all the books I've chosen for this Top Nine, SKREEMER is the one that has never dated, and I suspect never will.

I don't care about formats. If an obscure, old 7" b-side I'm looking for is released on CD, that'll do me. I read loads of comics in collections only, not caring about whether or not I own the original issues. And if a comic I do read in single issues is collected, I'll buy the collection and either sell or donate the originals. Even my old, potentially worth-a-bob-or-two old SANDMAN issues got sold off on Ebay for a song once I bought the collections. I just don't care about the format, so long as I have the content.

So why do I have the single issues of SKREEMER still sitting on my shelf, years after I bought the collection? Honestly, I just don't know.

Perhaps it's because SKREEMER is one of the finest single stories I've ever read in comics. Perhaps because it's by three of my favourite creators, all at the absolute peak of their skills. Perhaps because more than fifteen years on, it still seems fresh and years ahead of most other comics every time I read it. And I re-read SKREEMER a lot.

SKREEMER is ostensibly the story of Vito, a boy who grows up through the school of hard knocks in a devastated future America to eventually become a mob hitman, or 'Skreemer', and from there become crime boss of, well, everything. But Vito has a serious problem; he can see the future. Or at least, he believes he can. And he wants to change it. The future, that is.

The book cuts to and fro in time, mirroring images and speech from the past, present and future in a maze of temporal and emotional complexity. This isn't a light read that you can sleepwalk through. It demands your concentration and attention, not least for the amount of subplots and character conflicts that Milligan throws into the plot, all of them connected in ways that aren't immediately apparent.

But what makes SKREEMER special is that nothing is wasted or unresolved. Not one panel or piece of dialogue is irrelevant; not a single plot point is lost or fudged. On the art front, every image is both clear and atmospheric, every character distinct and individual.

Like an especially difficult jigsaw puzzle, SKREEMER is hard work and sometimes frustrating. But when it's finished you stand back, look at the whole and realise that the pieces were there all along.

Nabiel Kanan

And just when you thought I was all about the genre comics... Actually, no, I am all about the genre comics. Which makes EXIT a very odd man out in this Top Nine, but there you go.

EXIT was pushed on me by my then-regular comic store owner in the early '90s. This was the same man who offered me a money back guarantee on the first four books of CEREBUS, for which my now-groaning bookshelves hate him, but they can shut up because EXIT was a genuine paradigm shift in my comics experience.

Here was a comic about... ordinary people. Teenagers, in fact. And... it wasn't set in the future. Or on a different world. None of the characters had superpowers, or hi-tech weaponry, or magic amulets. They weren't members of shadowy government agencies, or freelance bringers of justice. They were just... kids. Kids who'd finished school and were wondering what to do next.

But they were some of the best-written kids, with real problems and real dialogue, that I'd ever come across in any medium. Kanan has the kind of ear for dialogue and eye for character nuance that some authors spend their whole lives trying to master, and he was doing it at the age of just twenty-one. The bastard.

The plot of EXIT is kind of irrelevant. There's an attempt to inject a minor thriller storyline in there, but really, it's about life as a teenager and all the myriad problems that come with it. It's about people drifting apart, some voluntarily, some against their will. It's about people falling in and out of love, and the small decisions that change your life forever.

It's also about Kanan's incredible art. EXIT was his first comics work, and the art is primitive at times. But it's perfect for the story, and somehow Kanan injects a washed-out, hazy summer feel into a completely stark, black and white (no greys) art style. It's naturalistic and subtle, a masterclass in understatement.

Greg Rucka and Steve Lieber

I lost interest in comics for a few years during the '90s. For a while there, the only time I entered a comic store was to buy the latest CEREBUS collection. There was just nothing else that looked interesting.

Until 1998, when I decided to go looking for these good comics I'd heard so much about recently. WHITEOUT wasn't the first comic I read upon my return (though it was one of the first) and it wasn't even the best (though it was still very bloody good). But it was, like EXIT, another paradigm shift into the possibilities of comics stories that are set very firmly in the real world.

WHITEOUT is the story of Carrie Stetko, a US marshal in the American-controlled portion of Antarctica. That was one of the things that attracted me to it; it's a very unusual setting for a crime/detective book. What kept me was the story, a tightly-plotted and effortlessly told murder mystery that uses its unusual setting and odd-one-out lead character to the full, to tell a thrilling story with a very human and emotional core.

If EXIT opened the door to comics' potential for non-fantastical stories, WHITEOUT was the book that pushed me through and slammed the door behind me. Right book, right reader, right time.

Grant Morrison, et al

This is the best book I read when I returned to comics. In fact, it's one of the best books I've ever read, and I'll fight anyone who says different.

I'd heard of THE INVISIBLES when it launched. I'm ashamed to admit now that I simply dismissed it out of hand. I didn't even read an issue. And this was during that "nothing else that looked interesting" period, too. God, what a disaster.

On the upside, when I did finally give it a chance I had plenty to keep me going. I bought SAY YOU WANT A REVOLUTION one Saturday afternoon, in the next town over. I think I bought other books at the same time, but to be honest I don't remember now. Because when I got home and cracked the cover of THE INVISIBLES that evening, I read it and read it again and couldn't put the bastard thing down all night. I actually made the trip again the very next day, just to buy every INVISIBLES collection I could find (No volume numbers on the spine, and unbeknownst to me the rest of Book One not yet collected - thanks a bunch, Vertigo, that confused the hell out of me).

You don't need me to tell you about THE INVISIBLES. But I will tell you about the impact it had on me. See, in my 'wilderness years' of the mid-90s, three things had dominated the time I previously spent reading comics. They were, in no particular order, strong hallucinogens; quantum physics; and magic.

Yeah. You can probably see why THE INVISIBLES felt like the best book I never knew existed.

If you've never read THE INVISIBLES, you should. It's that simple. It's not a perfect book, by any means. It has flaws and errors, problems arising from editorial mandates, some duff art choices, and swings in quality that move it from genius to treading water. Sometimes it has all of these in a single issue. But as a work of importance in the medium, both for comics' potential and as a cultural marker, THE INVISIBLES is pure gold.

Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso

Finally, we're back to genre. And, perhaps revealingly, another non-fantastical book.

100 BULLETS continually surprises me. The high concept is brilliant, and it's surprising that no-one ever thought of it before. The overarching conspiracy storyline is surprising just because it's there - and, like LONE WOLF & CUB, is drip-fed to the reader in precise enough amounts to keep you reading, while holding enough back to prevent you leapfrogging the narrative.

Most surprising of all is its consistent quality. There are very few other books out there (curiously, most of them are Vertigo stablemates of 100 BULLETS) that maintain both a consistent creative team and a level of quality that puts other books to shame. Yet Azzarello and Risso make it look effortless.

It's hard to pin down any one thing that makes me like this book so much. Complex plots, elliptical narratives, sharp dialogue, suspense and a sense of foreboding are pretty much the ingredients for my perfect story, in any medium, and 100 BULLETS has all of them in spades. It was the perfect comic to kick my own revived interest into the new millennium.

Roll on, the rest of the century.

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