From completist fanboy to SANDMAN addict, Ben Wooller reflects on the evolution of a compulsion. Plus, he pays a visit to M John Harrison's fantasy city of Virconium, in the early 90s graphic novel THE LUCK IN THE HEAD.
08 August 2005

CONFESSIONS OF A HALF-ARSED COMPLETIST

I woke from a vivid dream.

Walking through a white mansion. Opulence. Curving stairs. Ornate columns.

Then I'm in an all-glass room, a small house actually, what I take to be the guest house. It's on the beach, like right on the beach. People are walking their dogs, looking at us. I look back at the mansion, across a tennis court. Sand covers the court but for patches of grass, sprouting up around the posts of the net. The mansion looks all too small from here, unreal, and the crumbling white paint reveals plain red brick beneath it.

"I thought it was bigger," I say, of the garden.

"Nope," says the man standing next to me. "It's only ever been the tennis court."

Suddenly, we're under a patio, covered in green shade cloth. The man is talking about to me about old Mickey Mouse comics. The shade cloth is covered in leaves. They're not leaves, the man says. "They're comics. We need to get them."

He starts to pull down the shade cloth. It shifts and falls around me. I see the leaves are leaves, with tiny cobwebs between them. And crawling towards me are tiny red back spiders.

Of course, I woke up frantic, dry-mouthed and head and joints aching. Damn fever. I couldn't get back to sleep.

NEEDS AND WANTS

We've all felt it, right? The strange desire to own things, like complete sets of comics, or trading cards, or toys. The - well, I'm not sure if addiction is the right word - the need of the completist to read every appearance of Wolverine; to have a complete run of HELLBLAZER; to collect every minutiae of Ashley Wood's published work.

Completists aren't restricted to comics, of course, but we certainly have our share. In the 90s I was definitely a completist, even belonging to the first category: Wolverine appearances-a-go-go. Of course, back then, he was only in about six regular titles. Yes, I was the guy who bought MARVEL COMICS PRESENTS.

Maybe it was due to getting older, but in due course I got bored of superheroes and discovered Neil Gaiman's SANDMAN. A familiar, even clich├ęd, story, but it was something completely different to the comics I'd read before. I never really looked back.

'Completists aren't restricted to comics, but we have our share.' Or so I thought. But even when it came to SANDMAN I had to get the entire series - at that point all but the last two stories had been collected. Starting, obviously, with the first volume, PRELUDES AND NOCTURNES (and the DEATH: THE HIGH COST OF LIVING TRADE), I was determined to get the other books as quickly as I could, and over the next few weeks spent what was then for me a small fortune on the other volumes. I wanted to know how the story ended, after all.

But was that really the action of a completist? Surely if I was dead set serious about the whole SANDMAN experience, I would've bought the t-shirts, the temporary tattoos, the posters? After all, I did with X-MEN. I still think the Jim Lee triptych looks cool.

With SANDMAN, however, all I really wanted was the story, and a finite one at that. I'd never read a finite story in comics. I was the type of guy who got excited when characters in vaguely linked novels would mention something that happened in the previous book or short story.

With SANDMAN, I was torn between wanting the story to continue and wanting to know what happens in the end. There was a sense of relief: I wouldn't have to keep buying it. Like every story, you enter it at a specific point, and follow the narrative. There are references to other stories but you don't need to know what happened to appreciate what you're reading. Continuity is there, but there's no one policing it.

Of course when it comes to books like SANDMAN, TRANSMETROPOLITAN and PREACHER you need to read all the issues to have the whole story. Can you imagine missing an issue of PROMETHEA or INVISIBLES, and still keeping up with the story? Otherwise it's like that time I bought Nabokov's LOLITA, only to get to page 92 and have the book become THE LIFE OF SAINT TERESA OF AVILA BY HERSELF. From Humbert in misery about not killing his wife so he can be with Lo, to "May the Lord allow me to always please Him forever". A nice little bit of irony, perhaps.

Terry was swell and all, but I needed to know what happened to Lo. Although the thought that, somewhere, a nun was reading SAINT TERESA only to stumble upon the lustful musings of pervert, did make me smile.

THE COLLECTOR

It'd be wrong of me to say I don't collect anything anymore. Well, everyone else calls it collecting. I'm not sure what I call it. I don't collect comics, but rather, I buy a few titles, easily available in the Age of the Trade, and I play catch-up on comics that I was either too young or too stupid to read when they originally came out.

When it comes to comics' illustration-less brethren, there are more writers I follow, their work generally being easier to track down. But not always. One such writer is British author M John Harrison, and I'll admit that I've been tracking down every book he's written, trawling flea markets and second-hand bookshops. It's the completist in me, because he's just so damn good.

Harrison was part of the NEW WORLDS crowd in the 60s, helping Michael Moorcock edit the magazine. He also wrote some JERRY CORNELIUS comic strips with Moorcock (art by Mal Dean and R Glyn Jones). JERRY CORNELIUS of course, was one of the inspirations behind Bryan Talbot's LUTHER ARKWRIGHT, and the INVISIBLES' King Mob. He also appeared in the original AIRTIGHT GARAGE by Moebius, as it was published in METAL HURLANT, but was cut out in subsequent reprints.

'I've been tracking down every book M John Harrison's written.' The only book of Harrison's that I needed was the graphic novel adaptation of his own short story, THE LUCK IN THE HEAD. Published in the early 90s, in the short lived Victor Gollancz/Dark Horse graphic novel push, with stable mates like Alan Moore and Oscar Zarate's A SMALL KILLING and Gaiman/McKean's SIGNAL TO NOISE, it was still listed on Dark Horse's website. I asked my local shop if they could get me a copy. Better yet, they had one in the back, in a dusty, ratty old Mylar bag. I snapped it up.

As part of the larger VIRICONIUM sequence, THE LUCK IN THE HEAD is like my dream: feverish, disorienting, disturbing and always shifting. VIRICONIUM was Harrison's commentary on the cookie-cutter Tolkienesque fantasy that, even today, thirty years later, still fills the bookshelves.

VIRICONIUM is the continuity police's worst nightmare. As the stories progressed, Viriconium, the last city at the end of the world, a strange kind of late 19th century, fin-de-siecle environment, had dozens of different names, and characters that had died in earlier stories reappeared as if nothing had happened, completely disconnected from previous events. That staple of fantasy novels, magic and swashbuckling, occurred off page, and the heroes were more likely to be poets and drunkards than swordsmen.

THE LUCK IN THE HEAD is about Ardwick Crome and his dreams of the titular ritual. The only way to stop the dreams is to kill the queen of the city, who wants to rename the city (a theme of the VIRICONIUM series the way the reality of the stories changes for the reader: the characters are oblivious).

The art by Ian Miller is nightmarish and unsettling, caricatures and photographic collages in limited colours; reds, purples, greens and blues, like a still-more-sinister Ralph Steadman. The pages are split between full-page paintings and loosely sequential art. The structure and events, and even places, differ between the graphic novel and the short story. Harrison immediately introduces us to the city, unlike the short story, where we meet Crome who has strapped himself to his bed. We're eased into the city, a move that, while effective in a needless kind of way, ultimately complicates the story.

Still, it's a good read. And now I've got all his books. Until the next one comes along, that is.

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