Wednesday, May 07, 2008

PROPAGANDA Reviews: Gary Spencer Millidge's Strangehaven

Gary Spencer Millidge’s Strangehaven has been around for a very long time. And in it’s 13 year publishing history there have been a grand total of 18 issues of his quite wonderful comic. I have to admit I stopped reading it in comic form a while back, since the insufferable wait for each issue was akin to sado-masochism. But recently I had a chance to catch up with the story in Volume 3 of the series: Conspiracies. And I’ve realised / remembered why I don’t hold it against Gary that he’s taking so very long to get the story out - when the work is as good as Strangehaven it really doesn’t matter how long it takes. And it is very, very good indeed.

Up until this reading of the third volume I would have told you that Strangehaven was a mix of the finest in British storytelling. There’s a delightful low-key atmosphere to the tale where Gary slowly and steadily builds up the layers of cosy village life punctuated with the bizarre and unusual. I might even have taken the easy route and told you it was a perfect comic mix of the Kinks playing The Village Green Preservation Society, elements of the Prisoner and a dash of Twin Peaks.

But this latest volume completely changes everything you thought you knew about Strangehaven. Suddenly everything is blown apart by revelation after revelation and however tempting it is to spill the beans, I’m not going to. Suffice it to say that this is the volume where old and new meet and the ever-present but low level weirdness seems to coalesce and make perfect sense right in front of your eyes. There’s a stunning moment where Millidge throws such a curve into the story that it just stopped me in my tracks, amazed that he pulled it off so beautifully well. It’s a spectacular piece of storytelling in a fantastic book.

But if I can’t tell you anymore about where Strangehaven is going I can fill you in on where it’s been: Strangehaven is a small village in the South West of England, existing in what seems to be an idyllic version of a past England, just as Ray Davies described it; strawberry jam, vaudeville, variety, draught beer and village greens. Into this peaceful idyll comes Alex Hunter, careering into the village courtesy of a car crash, a bad marriage and a strange apparition in the road. Whilst convalescing something seems to just click and he decides to stay, or rather he finds it nigh on impossible to leave.

No-one in the village seems at all surprised by this strange turn of events. Over the coming weeks Alex begins to discover all that is strange within Strangehaven, as we and he are introduced to the residents. Strangehaven seems to be just like every other small community; full of love, lust, betrayal and never-ending intrigue and gossip. Of course, not every small village has an Amazonian Indian Shaman or a clandestine order of mason-style village elders called the Knights of the Golden Light who may be powerful, controlling influences on the village or a group of middle aged men all too fond of white robes and secret handshakes.

(A page of Millidge’s detailed artwork from Strangehaven. Funny handshakes and bizarre uniforms. Welcome to the countryside.
Gary has some of his original artwork for sale on his site, which you should check out)

Over the course of the first half dozen issues Millidge paints a vivid picture of life in this bizarre yet easily believable place. Strangehaven is a perfect place to live, seemingly decades out of touch with modern life. Then, from about the second book, Millidge starts to increase the drama, turning a kitchen sink soap opera with touches of weirdness into a full-blown tale of passion and resentment, as everyone’s affairs and relationships seem to dissolve at once, leaving a village smouldering with dangerous and unstable passions. It feels like it’s only a matter of time before the situation explodes. Which brings us to book 3, where everything comes together and the story suddenly picks up the pace, as all that is strange about Strangehaven starts to be revealed.

(I bet you’ve all got something equally weird in your closet.
Another delightful page of tranquility before the storm in Strangehaven.)

Strangehaven is a truly wonderful comic, masterfully crafted, each issue a perfect glimpse into a place that looks so very much like the world outside our windows. Story and art convey a sense of slightly otherworldliness, where the mystery and intrigue are just hidden under the surface veneer of the norm.

Along with Paul Grist’s Kane, Strangehaven ranks as the best in British comics and is a must read for anyone willing to commit to the torture that becoming a Strangehaven reader entails. The only problem is that after reading Book 3, you, like me, will be completely caught up with the story. Which means we’re all left waiting, waiting for the next episode. The torture begins again……

Originally posted at the FPI blog here.

Pop along to see Gary this weekend at the Bristol International Comics Expo.

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