The title of this blog review borrows a line from the Clash’s brilliant London Calling. But it’s perfect for this graphic novel London Calling that works so very hard to create so much mystery. The best I can describe it as is a surreal story of psychic spies chasing vampires in post war 50s London through a filter of The Goons, Monty Python and even, with the off-kilter look at a very familiar time using a host of fantasy and genre ideas, Moore and O’Neill’s League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
But that briefest of descriptions really doesn’t do justice to something that really, really attempts to be quite fantastically different from anything else out there. That it doesn’t always work, that it’s a flawed work almost isn’t the point. It’s something well worth your attention, just for the sheer passion, the ambition, and the craft, that’s gone into it.
London Calling opens in a flooded London, of uncertain time, although later architectural clues (The top of The Gherkin) puts us firmly post 2003. A woman charts a boat through the drowned city, picking up three little oiks up to no good, who seem to speak almost exclusively in old TV catchphrases. Are they her children? We don’t know. What happened to London to leave it flooded near to the top of St Paul’s? We don’t know. Who is this Frenchwoman? Is she even French – the accent keeps slipping later on after all? We don’t know, and strangely she’s not entirely sure either.
Welcome to just a little of the intriguing, bewildering mystery that is London Calling.
(London Calling page 1. A flooded London that we later realise has decidedly 21st Century architecture poking out from the water, men and boys in strange, old fashioned clothes, and a mysterious Frenchwoman punting to the rescue. A mystery indeed. By Stephen Walsh and Keith Page, published by Time Bomb Comics)
This woman may be Charlotte Corday, agent of the French Secret Service. She may have been sent to London 50 years ago on a top secret mission. She may be there to find the head of a group of vampires in residence in Highgate Cemetery. Or perhaps none of it ever really happened and it’s all just a story made up by Corday to pass the time as she and the boys boat across a flooded London.
Corday’s story is set 50 years earlier in a 1950s London, familiar yet surreally off-kilter to what we know. She was sent by her Parisian masters to hunt the chief vampire down – exactly why is never explained but it does tie into a French nuclear holocaust protection plan involving feeding vampire blood to the French army. That works out about as well as you might expect.
(During interrogation by the British “V” Squad, Corday’s simple explanation for her presence seems just a touch insane. From London Calling by Stephen Walsh and Keith Page, published by Time Bomb Comics)
Corday is sent to London just before the decision is made to move Paris to safety using nazi technology. Yes, move Paris. Of course. Part of the joy in London Calling is that little things like that are thrown in as extraneous to the actual story.
Once in London, Corday gets involved in all sorts of strange goings on as she seeks out the vampires of Highgate Cemetery. She gets the inside track on Churchill’s psychic war, meets the Met Police’s garlic toting, stake wielding “V” Squad, wanders past a Martian attack in the street, falls foul of vampiric gangsters, and all along, tries to re-establish contact with the French – who end up communicating via children’s TV character Dennis The Donkey.
How’s that sound? Confusing? Surreal? Bizarre? Brilliant? Oh yes, London Calling is all of those things. So much of London Calling just simply isn’t explained, the mysteries and inconsistencies are left for you to puzzle over. There’s even a few mentions made by the characters in the story of their awareness that they are simply part of a story, so add a meta-fictional aspect to the already confusing storyline and you have a heady mix.
Infuriating or intriguing – that’s up to you really. Personally, I found it all quite deliciously intriguing – it’s so nice to read something good yet still find there’s more questions than answers when you get to the end of it.
(Corday’s French masters choose the obvious contact point of “Dennis The Donkey”. Is it any wonder the British intelligence service isn’t quite sure she’s all there? From London Calling by Stephen Walsh and Keith Page, published by Time Bomb Comics.)
Walsh spins an impressive story, so much weirdness and surreality on top of what looks, thanks to Keith Page’s quite lovely artwork, like a very traditional, classic British adventure comic.
But there are times when the ideas overstretch the execution and Walsh’s story goes over the fine line from intriguingly bizarre into the realms of just simply confusing. Similarly there are some problems with some of the pacing and storytelling, but behind that is a quite magnificently different story, and something well worth overlooking the flaws within.
There’s a lot of me that absolutely loves the contradictions and unanswered questions in London Calling. It immediately reminded me of the ridiculousness of those Goon Show tapes my dad gave me as a boy. There’s a lot of that in London Calling – the feeling of not really needing everything to be spelled out, the way Milligan, Secombe and Sellers could invent a fantastic story, give it the semblance of an adventure plot and then career off into all manner of strange, surreal events and inexplicable plot twists.
To see it attempted in a comic is a wonderful experience. That it doesn’t always work isn’t surprising. To try to use these comedy techniques in the loose, chaotic comedy adventures found in The Goon Show is one thing, to attempt to do it in an adventure story where the comedy is secondary was almost always bound to bring it’s own problems.
(Keith Page populates the pages of London Calling with a rolecall of familiar pop culture faces. From London Calling by Stephen Walsh and Keith Page, published by Time Bomb Comics)
London Calling also throws in elements of classic Hammer Horror, the best of classic Ealing Studios spy and comedy films and so much more. And using Keith Page, a veteran of those classic Commando Library comics, is a masterstroke – the style immediately creates a sense of time and place, a firm grounding to spin off so many strange elements of the story.
I loved his inclusion of so many familiar faces in the cast – all the way through you’ll find yourself scanning the artwork seeing the faces of Lionel Jeffries, Tony Hancock, Kenneth Williams, Patrick Macnee and many more. It’s fun, although a little distracting occasionally.
London calling may be flawed, but it’s quite brilliantly flawed. A fantastic adventure, but smart and brave enough to ask so many questions of the reader. The greatest praise I can give it is that on finishing London Calling I immediately felt like reading it all over again, partly to try to work out some of those unanswered questions but mostly just to enjoy it all over again.