With an all-too-infrequent new issue out relatively recently and a trade paperback collecting the first six issues due out last month (so surely shipping any day now, though I've yet to see it), it seemed an opportune time to review Gary Spencer Millidge's wonderful but irregularly published Strangehaven.
Chronic lateness is a common annoyance for those of us who prefer the kinds of comics that don't feature colorfully costumed characters. While Millidge isn't the worst offender, his incessant apologies have grown a bit thin, and I'm glad he's quit promising to hold to a schedule and admitted on the indicia that his book is published "irregularly."
Still, like many others who have been far worse about this (how many years have we been waiting for Hepcats #13 and Tyrant #5?), when he does come out with an issue, it is usually worth the wait, even if I have to go dig out the last few and reread them to figure out what's going on.
Strangehaven has been described as "Twin Peaks in England," and comparisons have also been made to the cult TV show of the 60s, The Prisoner. While Milledge may count those shows among his inspirations, Strangehaven is something completely different, something entirely its own.
The setup is repeated in longish prose piece opposite the first story page at the beginning of each issue, so new readers won't be too lost coming in wherever. Alex Hunter, on holiday in Devonshire (in the southwest of England), crashes his car trying to avoid the ghostly figure of a woman on a narrow, twisty road one dark and rainy night. He wakes up in Mrs. McReadie's guest house in a little village called Strangehaven. To his own surprise as much as anyone's, he decides to stay in town, and accepts an fortuitous opening for a schoolteacher (which is what he does) in the village school. However, at least once he has tried to leave and discovered that he can't. That is, the road he takes out twists and turns and he gets lost until he finds himself right back in town.
There is also a character who claims to be an alien from outer space, and another who really is, despite his blond hair and Anglo-Saxon features, a former shaman from the Amazon rain forest. In the latest issue (#9), we finally learn his story. Finally, there are the Knights of the Golden Light, a group bearing no little resemblance to the Masons, who may or may not be engaged in magic and witchcraft.
This really only scratches the surface of the weirdness going on in Strangehaven. But weirdness isn't the whole story.
The main appeal of the village are its charming characters. The ones who don't seem like people we know are, for the most part, people we might wish to know. Oh, sure, there's the young man who has a girlfriend on the side for whom he's always promising to leave his wife, and he's as you might expect a bit of a jerk, but only a bit of one, really, and you can actually kind of understand what these women see in him.
It's the charming people and the beautiful scenery that make Alex Hunter want to stay in Strangehaven, and they're what make us want to visit it as often as Millidge's schedule will allow.
A bit about that schedule. One reason why this book is so slow coming out is the painstaking care Millidge takes with his art. Lately, he's adopted a "rougher" style which he says has helped speed things, up, but these words must be taken with a grain of salt, as both can only be said to be true with respect to his own earlier work. The new style won't be mistaken for, say, Jeff Smith or Mark Hempel. It's more like Gerhard's backgrounds. Even loosened up, Millidge's style is almost obsessively photorealistic and painstaking. I can't imagine that he can ever do more than a page a day, and some of his earlier pages looked like they might have taken him a week.
Of course, the main reason for the delays of all alternative comics is that, with the industry as a whole so depressed, most indy comics make so little money their creators have to do other things for a living, and the other things take time. So if we could, say, double his circulation, maybe Millidge could afford to come out more often. Tell your friends.
There are those who think that "monthly" and "comic" are, or should be, permanently joined like Siamese twins, and that it's not worth trying to follow a book that comes out whenever its creator gets around to finishing an issue. They're wrong. I'd rather read one issue of Strangehaven than any six issues of Uncanny X-Men - and before you think that's faint praise, I'll let you pick the six month run, including the Claremont/Byrne issues.
Now is a very good time to get into Strangehaven because the first six issues have been collected into a trade paperback titled "Arcadia." I am particularly fond of this title, having graduated from Arcadia Valley High School, and being of the opinion that the small town it's located in is, in its own way, also a magical and somewhat odd place with lots of charming people.
The ad for the trade paperback contains kudos from Tony Isabella and Wizard magazine, more known for championing good superhero stuff rather than a fringe alternative with an uneven publishing schedule. It also has praise from Eddie Campbell and Dave Sim, neither of whom has recommended a superhero book in public in at least 10 years. When people as diverse as this agree on something, it's a pretty good bet there's something important going on.
This is a very good comic magazine and now, at least one good comic book. If you like good art, good story, and a touch of the weird, you can't go wrong with Strangehaven.
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