To Leap From One Universe To Another, Unafraid! That's Sorcerer's Work! (The Last War in Albion Part 1: Near Myths, Gideon Stargrave)

(37 comments)

“To leap from one universe to another, unafraid! That’s sorcerer’s work!” - Grant Morrison, Zatanna #1, 2005

Figure 5: A particular story from the slush pile, from
Watchmen #12, 1987
[previously] The remaining nature of the war will be revealed in the telling. All that remains is the task of selecting a beginning point and commencing the narrative proper. By virtue of one of the major figures being extremely invested in it, that beginning point will be the publication of Grant Morrison’s first paid comics work, a five-page story entitled “Time is a Four Letter Word.” This is a decision with consequences. The nature of the war, as previously stated, is that its effects span much of history. “Time is a Four Letter Word” is akin to an outcrop of rock. In truth it stands upon tens of miles of buried rock - a geologic strata spanning in every direction. The visible layer is a mere fraction of the whole, apparent only due to chance events: the scouring of a glacier, the cleaving of a river valley, the picking of a particular story from the slush pile. These fleeting circumstances determine how the underlying tectonics of history and ideology are transmuted into surface terrain and material culture, defining the very world itself. 

This is not the beginning so much as the first visible stone. Still, there is a level of arbitrariness to it. Both Morrison and Moore had previous publications that were not paid jobs. Either could go first. However, starting with Morrison has two advantages. First, it is something Morrison is passionate about. In his extended commentary on Pádraig Ó Méalóid’s “Alan Moore and Superfolks Part 3: The Strange Case of Grant Morrison and Alan Moore,” Grant Morrison insists, “In October 1978, Alan Moore had sold one illustration – a drawing of Elvis Costello to NME – and had not yet achieved any recognition in the comics business. In 1979, he was doing unpaid humour cartoons for the underground paper The Back Street Bugle. I didn’t read his name in a byline until 1982, by which time I’d been a professional writer for almost five years. Using the miracle of computer technology, you can verify any of these dates right now, if you choose to.” This all being true, it would be unduly partisan to start the story anywhere else.

Second, however, any alternate ordering would remove Grant Morrison from the story for too long. While Morrison is correct to note that his first professional comic sale predated Moore’s, the truth is that Morrison’s early comics work consists of four short stories in an Edinburgh-based anthology that only lasted five issues before folding, a four year run of a newspaper strip in local Scottish papers, and five issues in DC Thomson’s Starblazer. Other than that, Morrison has no professional comics credits prior to 1985, and it's not until 1986 that he began producing comics work at anything resembling a high volume, by which time Moore was writing Watchmen. Morrison, in essence, spent the time from 1979 to 1986 treating comics as an occasional payday as he tried unsuccessfully to make it as a musician. 

Indeed, Morrison’s own vehement objections to Alan Moore describing him as an “aspiring writer” in 1983 is inadvertently revealing, as Morrison claims to have not “read his name in a byline until 1982,by which time Moore had contributed to Doctor Who Magazine, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back Monthly, and 2000 AD, and had been living exclusively on his writing income for four years. Morrison, given that date, likely first encountered him in Quality Communications’ Warrior, where he, starting in 1982, wrote a revival of the 1950s/60s British superhero Marvelman. Certainly Moore was not yet a major figure in comics as of 1982, but to have not seen his byline anywhere indicates a surprisingly casual level of comics readership on Grant Morrison’s part. 

In other words, while Morrison’s first professional publication predates Moore’s by a few months, the establishment of their careers as significant figures in British comics goes in the opposite order. But to use 1985 as the point to begin looking at Morrison’s work would be both unfair to him and cause him to be omitted from the narrative for too long.

Figure 6: Near Myths #2, 1979
Accordingly, Grant Morrison’s first paid work appeared in Galaxy Media’s Near Myths #2. Edited by Rob King, Near Myths described itself as “a Science Fiction and Fantasy comic primarily for Adults, although it is suitable for older children.” Morrison was seventeen, and presumably aware of the comic because it was a published out of Edinburgh, and thus part of his local Scottish comics scene.

“Time is a Four Letter Word” is more interesting conceptually than in practice. Beginning with a Celtic barbarian figure confronting a naked priestess at Stonehenge, it transitions from this sword and sorcery hero declaring gravely, “I have come from Cerne Abbas and Ynis Wytrin, from Abiri and the Green Plains. I have seen the power change on the old tracks, seen the…” as his dialogue bubble extends off the panel, eaten by the panel below it, the words fading away. In the next panel, meanwhile, a scantily clad woman reclining in a futuristic-mod office, listening to her grinning manager, who has his dialogue bubble begin off panel. It fades in with a half-readable line - “Seen the trouble we had at Greenwich. There’s new Trixies opening up already. Christ, we’ve lost Oxford completely. The chronal overspill swamped a six mile radius.”

Figure 7: Speech bubbles bleeding between characters and
panels in "Time is a Four Letter Word," Near Myths #2, 1979
The problem, it appears, is that time is collapsing such that old things are bleeding into the present and overlapping. And so the confrontation between scantily-clad post-mod heroine and her boss Quentin at Stonehenge parallels with the Celtic warrior at the start of the story and a more ambiguously timeframed protagonist who attempts to rape a corn maiden bathing in a lake. The plots blur together and switch interchangeably as Quentin and Dana arrive at stonehenge, triggering the collapse of time. “The accumulated time store of Stonehenge breaks loose. The rush of energy spans the world, triggering the final chain reaction,” as the world explodes into singularity.

It is, as mentioned, conceptually neat, but ultimately it is also hamstrung by its structure. Morrison’s formal experimentalism is impressive, and his grasp of page layout sophisticated, but he’s substantially weaker on the mechanics of storytelling. The introduction of the corn maiden rape plot is ultimately confusing, coming well past the halfway mark of the comic and not seeming to add any new ideas. Morrison hasn’t learned to make his three settings visually distinctive, and the transitions are thus muddy and unclear. Morrison has an impressive set of techniques and a good idea, but has not yet learned how to wed them to each other.

Nevertheless, it is an impressive debut for a seventeen-year-old writer-artist, and its publication was no fluke. Morrison’s talent is obvious but raw. A similar sense pervades his next story, spread out over Near Myths #3 and #4, featuring “Gideon Stargrave, last of the mods” in a series of excitable psychedelic action scenes entitled “The Vatican Conspiracy.” 

Figure 8: Dominatrix nun from "The Vatican Conspiracy," Near Myths
#4, 1979
Gideon Stargrave is a dandy action hero investigating, in a shock twist of titling, a conspiracy at the Vatican that he’s drawn into when the mysterious Jan Dark comes to him to ask for his help, followed shortly thereafter by a priest who breaks down Stargrave’s door, accuse him of being a heretic, and promptly opens fire. This sets off a chain of action set pieces including Stargrave being killed by a talking duck police officer, a helicopter chase, a snowmobile-set shootout down a mountain, Stargrave’s death and resurrection, a gunfight with a dominatrix nun, the ritual sacrifice of Joan of Arc (the secret identity of Jan Dark), the loosing of Fenriswulf, son of Loki, and the election of a new pope. While this certainly makes for a lot of event, especially for a mere twenty-one pages, the actual plot as such is relatively thin. 

Figure 9: Jan Dark prior to being rescued by Gideon
Stargrave, Near Myths #4, 1979
There is a case to be made that a dandy action hero gunning down a dominatrix nun is something that does not require any additional justification. Certainly Morrison’s later career will more than once make a functional story out of nothing but a set of slick images. He is, after all, a creator who has proclaimed that “I find my depth, paradoxically, in the surface of things.” The difference is that in those future instances he’ll be helped by clearer visual storytelling. More than once in “The Vatican Conspiracy” the scene transitions abruptly and across both space and time, but no clear narrative marker exists to guide this transition. Morrison’s art, while retaining the stylistic innovations of “Time is a Four Letter Word,” is not up to the task of clearly delineating a scene change (a trick that, to be fair, would be done more through coloring than linework these days anyway), and Morrison declines to add caption boxes establishing a jump in time, such that the comic goes casually from Stargrave killing a hooded executioner and rescuing Jan Dark to him walking into a room decorated with a Che Guevara poster and proclaiming “it’s my sister Genevive’s flat” while a dark-haired woman (Jan Dark, as it turns out, though her hair and clothing is completely different from a page ago) lies in the bed without so much as a “a few hours later.” 

Figure 10: Jan Dark one page later, after rescue and an
initially unexplained jump in time and space, Near Myths
#4, 1979
This is, admittedly, a deliberate choice. In fact, Morrison uses caption boxes elsewhere, and uses them well, describing how in the streets of time-collapsed London “the sirens still sound. Far off, explosions of glass and the rattle of machine gunfire move echoes in the streets. And even the slow fall of rain cannot extinguish the napalm fires or wash away the blood in the choked gutters” before sardonically adding, “it’s no joke,” the first indication that it might have been. (Arguably this passage parodies Alan Moore’s at times overwrought style in Swamp Thing some five years before that comic debuted.) Given this, it seems as though the rapid shifts of scene are in some ways the point - that there's a deliberate experimentalism here. But the resulting lack of clarity is difficult to praise. 

Nevertheless, one must acknowledge the importance of the Gideon Stargrave strips. Morrison gave the character a return engagement in the first volume of The Invisibles, making Stargrave a fictional character created King Mob in a three issue arc. But even before this Morrison clearly saw them as the most important aspect of his Near Myths work, using them metonymously to talk about that work in both 1988 and 1989 interviews, years before The Invisibles. And it’s clear that Stargrave was, in Morrison’s mind, his “primary” creation, as the end of “The Vatican Conspiracy” teases his intended appearance in Near Myths #5, “The Entropy Concerto.” This, however, was not to be - save for an appearance in a two-page strip in a 1985 benefit comic for the Ethiopian famine Stargrave did not appear again until The Invisibles

Figure 11: Gideon Stargrave resembling mid-80s Grant Morrison in
"Famine," Food for Thought, 1985
The 1985 two-pager is compelling, creating an unnerving juxtaposition between fashion photography’s obsession with thinness and real famine that hinges on moments of sublime perversity like the image of a model who “got the chance to actually fly out to Ethiopia for a photo session with some dying children,” a session at which she got some “great ideas for makeup.” But more interesting than the content is the shift in Stargrave as a character - here he’s a photographer fairly obviously visually referenced on Grant Morrison himself, and starkly different from his appearance in Near Myths - indeed, without the caption identifying the story as a Stargrave story it would be impossible to recognize it as such. This gets at why the character has such apparent significance to Morrison: he’s an authorial stand-in. In the letter column to The Invisibles #22 Mark Millar referred to him as “Grant Morrison with a girlfriend, cool clothes and no stammer,” although perhaps the more pertinent evidence is the very fact that he’s an alter ego of King Mob, himself a conscious authorial stand-in.

Regardless of Stargrave’s later successes, however, “The Vatican Conspiracy” marks the end of his involvement in the war for now. Instead of “The Entropy Concerto” Near Myths #5, hastily edited by Bryan Talbot instead of Rob King, editor of the first four, ran a story by Morrison entitled “The Checkmate Man.” “The Checkmate Man” depicts a “temporal assassin” - a cyborg constructed by the CIA - who goes back in time and murders historical figures, reshaping the present world. 

It is in some ways very much like the Gideon Stargrave stories and “Time is a Four Letter Word” - full of jumps across time and space and an ever-shifting universe. But where those stories focus on the action, “The Checkmate Man” takes an entirely different approach. The only part of it that could be described as an action scene takes place on the first page, and the remaining nine pages consist of Conrad, the eponymous assassin, reflecting on the stress and horror of his job. It’s a surprisingly intimate character piece, miles from Morrison’s other Near Myths work. [continued]

Comments

Darren K. 3 years, 11 months ago

An interesting start but a bit frustrating. As Morrison's early work is unavailable commerically and generally unread, it would have perhaps been advantageous to post more or larger images, particularly as Morrison was drawing the strips as well.

I hope you will be illustrating The Last War in Albion appropriately. One frustration I have with actual comics analysis and criticism is the lack of illustration, particularly in print. Since this is intended to be a blog and use the format of the blog, there is a great deal of room for the use of images and I hope you will find some new ways to approach writing about comic's use of word and image.

(At times I feel the only was to really write about comics is in the medium of comics.)

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Anton B 3 years, 11 months ago

I'm surprised you didn't point out the immense (bordering on plagiaristic) debt that all of the Morrison work you featured owes to Michael Moorcock. Gideon Stargrave (at this point) is nothing more than a cheap knock-off of Jerry Cornelius. Both are time travelling assassins with 'cool' attitudes, mod wardrobes, incestuous relationships with their sisters, obsessed with brand naming and futuristic hardware. etc. etc. Moorcock's narratives and characters also cross over into alternate time-lines and genres both past and future just as Morrison's do and even the titles echo those of Moorcock's own work. eg. Morrison's 'Entropy Concerto' to Moorcock's 'The Entropy Tango'. In fact the stylistic lifts are so blatant that it suggests that Morrison naively expected Moorcock to be flattered and pleased. There had been a tradition in the sixties and seventies for authors such as Brian Aldiss and M. John Harrison to, with Moorcock's blessing, use and expand on the Cornelius mythos. In fact this use of his concepts without acknowledgement annoyed Moorcock (who later, incidently,) became friends with Alan Moore.

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Darren K. 3 years, 11 months ago

All good points, but what sort of slack should you cut a seventeen year old in love with new ideas that are BLOWING HIS MIND. That's sort of what being a seventeen year old artist (in any media) is about. Very few arrive fully formed and original (and "originality" is a whole other argument - perhaps "personal, individual take" might be a better phrase).

How can you hold someone's juvenalia against them? How far do they have to move away from it before you can sweep it under the rug? And with Morrison, how much has he really moved away from it?

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Scott 3 years, 11 months ago

Yeah, while plagiarism is certainly nothing to dismiss, getting grumpy or sniffy or outraged about an artist's magpie tendencies when they're only seventeen years old and just starting out is perhaps holding them to too strict a standard. Otherwise, we'd have to decry the young John Lennon and Paul McCartney for pretty blatantly basing their first attempts at songwriting on what Buddy Holly and Elvis were doing. Since this eventually led to "Hey Jude" and "Across the Universe", I can't bring myself to come down too harshly on their earlier lack of originality.

Developing as an artist is all about taking things from the artists who inspire you and finding your own style based on them. I think it's fairly safe to say that Morrison has accomplished this.

"In fact the stylistic lifts are so blatant that it suggests that Morrison naively expected Moorcock to be flattered and pleased."

Again, though... seventeen. A certain degree of naivety can surely be forgiven here.

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Philip Sandifer 3 years, 11 months ago

The phrase "I'm surprised you didn't point out" is probably inevitable with this project, but equally, is a tricky one. Its nature is to circle back to points, and some aspects of topics are consciously left for later.

Which is to say that if you're hoping to hear an extended discussion of Michael Moorcock, you'll be frustrated for about two weeks, and then very happy.

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Philip Sandifer 3 years, 11 months ago

It will be heavily illustrated, but equally, respectfully so. Which is to say that I want a defense of fair use to be both legally and morally sound, and not to reprint excessive portions of the comics. I could probably provide a bit more, and will go and add another picture or two later this morning, as there is a point I probably should have illustrated and didn't (the unclear transition in "The Vatican Conspiracy"), but past that I don't think I could justify more without tipping into "illegally reprinting the comic" instead of "illustrating my point."

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Philip Sandifer 3 years, 11 months ago

I should also note that all the images can be clicked on for larger versions.

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elvwood 3 years, 11 months ago

Except now you've revealed that, it'll be a case of happy anticipation for about two weeks...

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Philip Sandifer 3 years, 11 months ago

Extra images added, btw - would love to hear whether it helps.

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Theonlyspiral 3 years, 11 months ago

I was just thinking "Man I hope Moorcock gets some love..." and then here you go doing that. It's like you're in my mind...

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Spoilers Below 3 years, 11 months ago

This comment has been removed by the author.

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Spoilers Below 3 years, 11 months ago

Again, though... seventeen. A certain degree of naivety can surely be forgiven here.

And had he stopped at seventeen it would be a lot more forgivable. Still being a jerk about it at an age when he really ought to know better...

That he can't make up his mind whether he's ripping off JG Ballard of Moorcock is similarly frustrating.

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IG 3 years, 11 months ago

Good to hear the Moorcock connection will be discussed.

The grinning manager's opening line is pretty clearly 'Seen the trouble we had at Greenwich', btw!

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Anton B 3 years, 11 months ago

Thanks Phil, your answer was the response I hoped for. to everyone else I hope I wasn't being too 'grumpy or sniffy or outraged' I take all the points about Morrison's age at the time he produced this work and can indeed believe his enthusiastic response to having his mind blown by Moorcock's writing inspired him to emulate him (I did the same thing myself at the same age). I was genuinely enquiring as to whether there was to be any reference to this in Doctor Sandifer's blog entries as he is specifically angling them as a record of a 'Magical War' and this aspect of Morrison's career has certainly impacted on both Moore and Moorcock's critical responses to him and his work.

for the record I'd probably ally myself more with 'Team Grant' than 'Team Alan'. I happen to think 'The Invisibles' 'The Filth' and 'Sea Guy' to be some of the finest comic book series ever produced.

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Philip Sandifer 3 years, 11 months ago

Yes - that fits. Updated. Thanks - could not figure out "trouble" from the bottoms of the letters.

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Philip Sandifer 3 years, 11 months ago

Yes - on the one hand I go five blog posts and about 12,000 words on these four strips. On the other, I drift around a ton of topics and context. Moorcock is one of five major topics introduced in the next four posts, all of which are still broadly about the Near Myths material.

Incidentally, Morrison's statements aside, the matter of whether Stargrave is inspired by Moorcock or Ballard is quite easy, and I settle it in... I think the next post.

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George Potter 3 years, 11 months ago

Really enjoying this so far. It's especially fascinating to me because although I've been a Moore fan since Saga Of The Swamp Thing #20, I've really only recently gotten into Morrison's work (via We3 which I hold to be the most emotionally powerful comic I've ever read).

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BerserkRL 3 years, 11 months ago

Moorcock (who later, incidently,) became friends with Alan Moore.

Speaking whichly, for anyone who hasn't, check out Moore's amazing Melniboné/Marylebone introduction to the first volume of Chronicles of the Last Emperor of Melniboné (readable via the "look inside" feature on Amazon).

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BerserkRL 3 years, 11 months ago

Oops. Proper Amazon link here.

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Eric Gimlin 3 years, 11 months ago

I've always been slightly baffled that the Stargrave story, at least, hasn't been reprinted given its connection to the Invisibles. I was lucky enough to trip across issues 2-5 back in the 90's; other than issue 1 the entries at the GCD are my fault.

I'm in the crowd looking forward to your comments on Moorcock; I at least briefly considered suggesting the Eternal Champion as my sponsored essay from the Kickstarter. Also looking forward to your thoughts on Luther Arkwright, for that matter.

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Darren K. 3 years, 11 months ago

Any more art is a plus! I recognise that you might, at times, wander into the "illegal reprinting" zone, and no one wants that (well, no one sensible). But full pages, at times, are almost certainly going to be necessary. It is the basic compositional unit/space of comics. In the case of Gideon Stargrave, it would have been nice to see these mishandled transitions. I don't know if they are necessary to prove your point - and you point is still clearly in the opening stages - but it would be good to see how Morrison is failing to handle things at this stage, where is early weaknesses lie. Fig 10 helps in this regard, but without the panels before it, it is still somewhat shorn of context. This could, perhaps be a minor quibble, or perhaps not - I look forward to seeing where we go from here!

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Darren K. 3 years, 11 months ago

Anton - I didn't see your point as grumpy, I thought you brought up a good one. It just sort of pulled out my thoughts on 17 year old Grant Morrison. He was just a kid. So many of the "British Invasion" creators appeared fully formed because their juvenilia was hidden away in small print UK comics that it is hard to remember that they were all kids once.

Except Alan Moore. He was 56 when he was born, and always has been.

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David Anderson 3 years, 11 months ago

Thank you for that: both Moore's introduction and Moorcock's.

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Philip Sandifer 3 years, 11 months ago

I would guess that despite being proud of his early start, Morrison is not particularly pleased with the material, which he does tend to refer to as "incoherent."

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Pen Name Pending 3 years, 11 months ago

As a total outsider to comics, I first thought everyone was talking about Michael Moore instead of Moorcock.

Moorcock wrote that Eleventh Doctor novel, didn't he?

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Philip Sandifer 3 years, 11 months ago

He did, which I shall have to cover, although it's terribly strange and frankly would fit far better in a Michael Moorcock blog than TARDIS Eruditorum.

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Theonlyspiral 3 years, 11 months ago

I like to say that it's about "The Doctor" more as an idea or force rather than the 11th incarnation that we know and watch on television. Just like his version of Amy is more of "The Companion" than the Amy Pond we see on the BBC.

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Anton B 3 years, 11 months ago

'I like to say that it's about "The Doctor" more as an idea or force rather than the 11th incarnation that we know and watch on television'

Possibly, My reaction to Moorcock's DW novel was rather like my reaction to David Lynch's 'Dune' movie that I talked about on another comment thread here recently. The combination of my favourite author and my favourite TV show should have produced my dream novel. Instead it was a just a bit of a mess. (not as bad as the Eoin Colfer 'first Doctor' debacle though).

'Except Alan Moore. He was 56 when he was born, and always has been.'

That made me literally laugh out loud.

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Anton B 3 years, 11 months ago

Oh and @BerserkRL

Fantastic appreciation of Elric and Cornelius by Moore in that intro. Thanks for the link.

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BerserkRL 3 years, 11 months ago

On Terraphiles, this.

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Scott 3 years, 11 months ago

"to everyone else I hope I wasn't being too 'grumpy or sniffy or outraged'"

I didn't mean to imply you were, Anton, honestly; I was just speaking generally in response to the point Darren raised there.

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Anton B 3 years, 11 months ago

No offence taken Scott. I actually thought I may have been to vehement in my attack reading it back. Blimey I think TE might have the politest comments threads on the webz.

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Daru 2 years, 3 months ago

Extra images did help out :)

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Daru 2 years, 3 months ago

"Morrison’s early comics work consists of four short stories in an Edinburgh-based anthology that only lasted five issues before folding, a four year run of a newspaper strip in local Scottish papers, and five issues in DC Thomson’s Starblazer"

Wow. I know I'm posting on long-dead threads, but have to comment (during my binge catch up on The War) as you blasted me with a big wave of early teen nostalgia Phil.

Since I read them as a kid I have never thought of Starblazer again (I didn't keep them) - but I googled it and wow, there were the covers of the books I bought as kid! Weird and lovely feeling nit possible without this blog.

Thanks Phil.

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Daru 2 years, 3 months ago

Damn - meant to say "not possible".

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Daru 2 years, 3 months ago

Oh and wonderful to hear about Near Myths again - I think I still have the issue featured i the cover pic above in a box in my parent's attic.

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Simon Fraser 1 year, 8 months ago

If I may awake this slumbering thread. I recently found my copies of Near Myths (signed by Morrison ) and a copy of The Fauves ( Morrison's band ) 'Tortured Soul' on 7" vinyl.
I think there might be someone out there who appreciates these things more than I do, so I'd accept a reasonable offer.
simon@simonfraser.net

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