Inspired by his childhood favourites of Smash!, Wham! and Pow!, the acclaimed Power Comics trio, Peter Duncan set about the task of creating a modern day equivalent. He hoped to gather together not only the very best in local Northern Ireland talent but also from the wider net of professional UK comics creators. This was going to be a physical comic too, all lovingly and professionally printed; a modern, smart and funny homage to those classic Oldhams titles. Not a small task. But my word has he pulled it off. In fact, he's pull it off in spades.
Splank! may have started out as an April Fools Day prank blog post, but this has been a very real project and the end result is a product which feels very much like some of those comics which filled the newsagent shelves during my own younger days. The front and back covers, with its Walter Wonder, His Life's A Blunder by pig pal Marc Jackson, has even been coloured to match the newsprint of the Oldham/Fleetway/DC Thompson comics of old. A nice touch and straight away it's an indication of the love that's gone into this final product. Having Marc's talent front and centre doesn't hurt either and is a great start, but he's not the only recognisable name involved here. Oink! fans will instantly feel at home with the drawing style in this strip for example:
Well okay, "Davy Francis presents" is a bit of a giveaway. Peter himself has become known as The Grumpy Penguin amongst friends and family (the actual reason can be seen in a short mockumentary by Peter's nephew on the BBC's The Arts Show site) and in Splank! he appears a few times in various strips, the one above being the comic's version of his origin, with the story by Peter and the script and art by Davy. He makes for a very funny Uncle Pigg-esque character, popping up here and there and I hope we get to see a lot more of this in any future issues.
The legendary Mike Higgs will be a very well known name to readers of the aforementioned Smash!, Whizzer & Chips or Buster and their ilk and the grumpy birdman above appears alongside his creation The Cloak, all written and drawn by the man himself. But that's not all, there's more adult onesie buffoonery with Ninja Monkey: Origin Story, another story idea by Peter but which Mike then runs with and develops over two full pages. It's a hell of a scoop to have Marc, Davy, Mike and Nigel Parkinson too on board and hopefully their names can help Splank! reach out and into the hands of people who may not necessarily have purchased a small press comic before.
One thing that's very apparent in a few of the strips is the comic's place of origin, Northern Ireland (where The Oink! Blog and Beyond also resides), with a few local sayings or accents popping up and the occasional local place name. It's a nice touch to acknowledge this amongst the UK-wide talent pool and adds an air of originality, but without alienating anyone from outside the province. Peter is also one of the team behind the excellent Sector 13, Belfast's 2000AD fanzine, the third issue of which has just been released and I wrote about it a few days ago. Some of the contributors have made the jump over to Splank! and I said in that previous post I'd love to see more from the imagination of Glenn Matchett, but little did I know my wish was about to come true so quickly.
Writer Glenn and artist Scott Twells are two such local individuals, who have produced one of the larger strips in the comic. On the surface of it, this looks like an adventure strip, which was something the Power Comics and early Beano/Dandy and Buster comics would have had in amongst the funnies. But when you settle down to Greenbeard and the Adventure of the Pirate Princess you soon realise it's more of a comedy story than you thought upon first glance. That first glance is wonderful though. The first page is dark, almost greyscale as young girls share pirate stories by torchlight, before it bursts into glorious full colour when we're transported back to the time of the tale, with two sisters narrating across individually coloured captions.
As the girls bicker over the details of the story we see poor Greenbeard being put through the wringer as his situation changes at the whim of the girls' memories. Imaginatively told with a real sense of fun, the only shame is that we simply don't know when a second episode will appear. Hopefully there's more to come from Splank!, but if not this is a strip worthy of its own graphic novel. Yes, it's that good.
Another character I'd love to see more of is Ethel Death, a young girl in a family of, well, dead people. Hailing from northern England, cartoonist Cat Byrne has also recently drawn a special cover for #1 of Sector 13 for Peter and the team. An artist and illustrator, it was only in 2016 Cat decided to make the leap into comics and her website has examples of her work so far including Ethel, who has been created for Splank!.
Her artwork is a simply gorgeous style which suits this particular character perfectly. The two-page strip is basically a family sitting down for a meal together. The fact they're all dead makes the rather typical dinner table dialogue extremely funny! It's a genius bit of writing and the skeletons of Ethel and her little sister are incredibly endearing. As the first strip after the editorial it makes a huge impression on the reader too, as by this stage you're still not sure as to what to expect after the likes of Marc Jackson and Mike Higgs on pages 1 and 2. From here on in you know it's not just the big name artists who are going to be the stars of this premiere issue.
With family-friendly morbid humour (surely a unique selling point right there), Cat's Ethel Death and co. are already missed and I look forward to further adventures around their family home.
From a skeleton family to a newly found friendship between a snail and a tortoise, courtesy of John Farrelly. Contributing the excellent artistry of his Flesh strip in Sector 13, which was all realistic dinosaurs and gruesome action, Beans and Tucker is just as gorgeous but couldn't be any more different. In fact, it's hard to believe this is by the same artist! Beans is a snail who makes a daring escape from a bag of escargot on its way into a French restaurant, Tucker is a tortoise accidentally thought dead by his owners and buried in a pet grave when he was just hibernating. They're a fun couple, two very different personalities and the strip itself ends on a couple of sublime gags!
This strip takes up a good few pages at the back of the comic and I was initially left with the same feeling I had when I'd read Ethel's story, that I couldn't wait to see these two in more adventures. This being the story of how they get together, there's a load of possibilities here and I was impatient to see those come too fruition. Little did I know these characters have already appeared in several strips from John, which I found on his website. Brilliant. After reading them and coming back to this story I had a new appreciation and found it even funnier than the first time around, so I highly recommend you do the same.
Over its 44 full-sized pages, Splank! #1 contains 15 different strips in all, ranging from Nigel Parkinson's private detective called Dresden Q. Otherside, Defective Detective who has all the skills necessary except common sense, to Irish leprechaun Sheena Shenanigans, or how about an actual adventure strip up haunted chimneys in the intriguing story of the beautifully drawn Johnny in the Stacks. Splank! really does have it all. In fact out of all of this content there was only one I'd say was average, about a boy called Mouse who can use computer commands in real life. It starts out like a neat update of strips like Chalky from Cor!!, but he ends up "copy and paste"-ing anything he wishes, including shop stock (theft), or even money (fraud). Personally it just didn't sit well with me and kind of sticks out as an oddity in a family comic, the art also feeling a bit flat compared to the rest of the issue. But an anthology comic is never going to hit the spot with every strip for every reader and this is just my own personal opinion.
But one average strip out of 15, with the rest ranging between good and excellent is a stunning achievement and let's finish on another highlight, called Spookytown. Remember the classic strip Strange Hill from Tom Paterson? Well this could easily be its (watch out, pun approaching) spiritual ancestor, featuring the daughter of Van Helsing who ends up befriending the kids of all the monsters her famous father banished many years ago to the secretive Spookytown.
This is another faultless creation of Glenn Matchett's mind and is beautifully illustrated by Dave (Beano/Dandy) Windlett too, who has brought a lovely Saturday morning cartoon vibe to it. The last panel of the strip has Victoria Van Helsing stating her life is about to get very complicated, with her father unaware of her new friends. I do hope that's the case because I want to see more of this set up. It just feels like the perfect strip to showcase what Splank! is all about and upon reading it I was reminded of many, many happy Saturday mornings with my Big Comic Fortnightly and Funny Fortnightly comics. I was swept up in a wave of nostalgia with a brand new character, a brand new setting and a brand new story. How is that possible? I don't know, but they managed it and I might go as far as to say these were probably the most enjoyable four pages of an incredibly enjoyable comic.
There's more strips here too, as well as a preview of a new comic called The Cthulhu Kids coming this summer from Peter Duncan (does this man ever sleep?) and Andrew Pawley, creator of the GalaXafreaks comic. Throw into the mix a spoof article along the lines of that April Fools, about the "original" Splank! and another supposedly forgotten comic and you've got one complete package that just screams quality. And laughs.
Peter states in his editorial that he's as excited about Splank! now as he was about those trio of Power Comics as a kid. So should you be.
So how do you get your hands on it I hear you shout impatiently. Well you can check out the website or if you just want to dive right in (and rightly so) you can order it up for only £7.00 including all postage and packaging via PayPal and this very address: Splank@Boxofrainmag.co.uk.
Outside the UK? Peter's got ya covered. The price for the Republic of Ireland and Europe is £9.45, USA and Canada is £10.45 and Australia is £10.75. Again, all prices include postage and packaging. If you live anywhere else in the world (hey, you could be reading from Uncle Pigg's tropical island after all) I'm sure Peter wouldn't mind you contacting him through his website.
Get to it folks, don't keep a grumpy penguin waiting!