1984: Somerset Holmes

Somerset Holmes (1983) #1-4, Somerset Holmes (1984) #5-6 by Bruce Jones and Brent Anderson

The first four issues of this series were published by Pacific Comics, and when they went bankrupt, Eclipse comics took it over, as they did with so many of Pacific’s books.

The first issue details how the book came to be: Jones and Anderson had worked together, and editor April Campbell thought it would be a good idea that they did a longer series together, and they came up with a Polanski/Hitchcock affair.

And Campbell did the modelling for the title character.

So there’s a little featurette, including pictures of the Pacific Comics headquarters.

And Campbell/Jones acting out some of the scenes. Brent Anderson relies heavily on photographic reference, I guess.

And after that introduction, the comic is pretty much exactly what you’d expect: A very cinematic paranoid thriller of a comic book.

It’s printed on coated shiny stock which really lets pages like this shine. I mean, literally. But it also lets the black get really juicy and heavy, which is perfect for this book and Anderson’s artwork.

It’s not all fumbling around in the dark emulating camera moves. Anderson is also well versed in native comic book storytelling, which is a relief. (That’s a very nice two-page spread of a woman waiting for a doctor and getting bored.)

The backup feature in all six issues is Cliff Hanger (*groan*) with artwork by Al Williamson, and it’s a pastiche of 30s adventure serials. Apart from the wonderful artwork, it has the required ridiculous plot, and works great, I think. All the tropes are covered.

For the second issue they did a recap page that takes longer to read than just re-reading the first issue would have taken. They didn’t repeat this in any of the subsequent issues.

Hang on… I remember that page! Or rather, I remember a review written about it at the time. Must have been in The Comics Journal? Perhaps by Heidi MacDonald? What I remember is that she said that no rich woman like that would ever not rinse her face thoroughly, so the page was ridiculous.

How strange what things we remember. Or do I? Perhaps I should look it up…

Yes! It’s in The Comics Journal #93, and it is indeed by MacDonald:

And I’m shocked at the huge gaffe that editor Campbell let by in #2, where a rich bitch is about to, God help us, dry her face with soap on it. The very horror of the thought..

That’s something I’ve gone around remembering 32 years now. Geez.

What else did she think of the comic?

What really interests me is the approach that’s been taken by writer Bruce Jones, artist Brent Anderson, and editor April Campbell. “Cinematic” is a popular buzz-word among fans and critics, but here it’s been takén to a fascinating extreme.

There is scarcely any element in the first three issues that does not tell the story in exactly the way a ‘film would, and not a comic. The first issue opens with a series of twenty-one identically” shaped panels, and the credits flash as Somerset is run down by a car. Right on through, every panel fulfills some cinematic function.

But then:

In fact, what we’ve been calling “cinematic” is actually, to coin a clunky term, “comicsmatic.” XVhat Jones and Anderson use is an attractive but slavish imitation of a movie, while the “comicsmatic” is the idiom of comics and nothing else.

[…] In #3, Our Gal Somerset and good-bad guy Brian battle a thug atop a speeding tram, another deliberate evocation of Hitchcock. Here, Anderson is forced to use comics grammar—speed lines to the vanishing point and exaggerated perspective – although still very conservatively. Then, in a moment of pure comicsmatics, the thug drops the presious key, and Somerset makes a desperate grab for it, her hands in a panel on one side of the page, the key on the other side, and the panels gradually Come together.

A trick? Yes, but also a moment that film could never duplicate.

Geez. That’s basically what I said above, but I chose a different page to illustrate it…

I guess I’m right!

Oh, yeah, I didn’t mention what the story is about, because I think explaining plot is boring, but it’s basically “woman with amnesia is hunted by villains (OR ARE THEY)”. You know. But it’s well done. The many twists are quite twisty, and not all of them happen as you expect them to.

With #5, the book moves to Eclipse, and the paper moves from a coated stock to a matte paper, and the results are best described by the technical term “eww dude”.

Anderson seems to lose interest in the artwork about one third through, and there are many pages where he seems to have just sketched the characters in.

He also cuts way back drawing backgrounds.

What happened? When Pacific went under, did the funding disappear, too, so that Anderson drew the fifth issue over a drunken weekend? The last issue is better, though, and they tie up all the loose ends very tightly. Perhaps a bit too tightly, but it’s a satisfying end.

And apparently some people thought that Jones had ripped off Hitchcock a bit too overtly, but, eh, it works.

Eclipse released a collected edition the next year, which I have not read, but it apparently reprints the series without any alterations. It has never been re-released. Cliff Hanger has apparently never been reprinted.

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