Comics review: Marc Ellerby's Ellerbisms

A comic strip that began life with few pretensions.

Ellerbisms began life with few pretensions. It was to be a diary comic like so many others: a page of a Moleskine a day, illustrated with something which happened to Marc Ellerby in the last twenty-four hours. These are the bread-and-butter of the indie cartoonist's world, and, along with gag strips, make up the majority of webcomics (once you exclude the furries, at least). But, as Ellerby says:

Then I met a Swedish girl called Anna and it stopped being so sporadic (and boring).

What you end up reading is a chronicle of a relationship, messy bits included, written as it happened. To this end, Ellerby has also added a new prologue and epilogue, as well as adding a few pages in near the beginning to elaborate on the context of some of the strips. This is a good idea; those early strips, already the weakest part of the book, occasionally make reference to events which Ellerby simply didn't get round to illustrating in real time, and the extra content helps the story hold together as one coherent piece.

New artwork next to old does serve to emphasise how much better a cartoonist Ellerby is now than he was when he started. But thanks to his decision to excise the first few months of Ellerbisms strips, and turn the book from "the complete collection" to "the complete Marc and Anna", there's little of the genuinely amateurish stuff left in. His very first strip remains as a nostalgic title page, and it's a nice scene in its own right; but if the first twenty pages were like it, readers might never hit the good stuff.

Which would be a shame. Like Joff Winterhart's Costa-nominated Days of the Bagnold Summer, Ellerbisms' short episodes, frequently just a page each, build up a detailed, touching portrait of the young couple (whereas Bagnold Summer's episodic nature was an affectation, this is the real deal). We see them fighting over nothing, singing and preparing, and their holidays, working days, and days out in the park. The end, when it comes, isn't surprising, because we have come to know the pair so well that the writing was on the wall. But it is saddening nonetheless.

Not that Ellerbisms is a mopey book. It wears its page-a-day heritage on its sleeve, and the pages of silliness and gags are frequently laugh-out-loud funny. But without that emotional core, it would feel like so many other good but ephemeral webcomics.

Ellerby has also worked hard to make Ellerbisms worth reading as a book, rather than just mooching off the still-available free archives. As well as the aforementioned extra content – and removed content, because what's not collected is as important as what is – it's also packaged together with production values (including delicious rounded corners, a hat-tip to the Moleskine heritage) that well exceed what was necessary to get it out the door. It's all part of Ellerby's – and diary-comics co-conspirator Adam Cadwell's – audacious self-publishing venture, Great Beast.

The two are publishing high quality editions of their complete diary comics – Cadwell's The Everyday is available in hardback, nigh-on unheard of for a self-published webcomic – as well as their other works, like Cadwell's six-part Blood Blokes, about hipster vampires, and Ellerby's Chloe Noonan: Monster Hunter, a sort of Buffy-without-powers. If it works, it will let them cut out the middleman, and may just make publishing these sort of comics, if not quite profitable, then at least break-even. If it doesn't, it will have been an expensive experiment.

No matter what the quality of the physical objects produced, Great Beast will live or die on the skill of its artists. While Chloe Noonan has failed to find the commercial success it deserves, leading to a reboot being planned, it shows that Ellerby has the chops to make something fun and accessible. Hopefully it will find the audience it deserves, and give Ellerby a ticket to riches. But Ellerbisms is proof that he can do much more than just that.

What you end up reading is a chronicle of a relationship. Photograph: Getty Images.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Conjuring the ghost: the "shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genuis" of David Litvinoff

A new biography tracks down the elusive Kray confidant who became a friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

David Litvinoff is a mythic character to anyone with an interest in London during the Sixties. An intimate of the Krays, he was a tough and violent Jew from the East End. He was also a musical genius with an unrivalled knowledge of jazz, the blues and rock that made him a valued friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was his ability to move from the East End to Chelsea, from the dives of Soho to Notting Hill, that was the critical factor in the extraordinary vision of London that Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg conjured into the film Performance, for which Litvinoff is credited as dialogue coach. And yet, even though all this is known and recorded, he remains a ghost, a figure who wrote nothing and who systematically destroyed all the records of his life he could lay his hands on. Even his exact role in Performance is shrouded in mystery. He is said to have dictated much of the script to Cammell. This biography claims that Jagger’s mesmerising song on the soundtrack, “Memo from Turner”, was in fact a memo from Litvinoff.

Multiple reports describe him as the most brilliant talker London had known since Coleridge, but although there are rumours of tapes they have always been just rumours. I’d have thought he was a figure who would defeat any biographer – a shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genius lost in a mist of hallucinogens – but Keiron Pim’s account of this extraordinary character is a magisterial work of scholarship. He tracks down all the living witnesses; he has also unearthed letters, and even some of those long-lost tapes.

The story that emerges is even harder to believe than the legend. Litvinoff came out of the Jewish East End but he was from one of its most talented families. His name was not even Litvinoff: his mother’s first husband went by that name but David was the son of her second, Solomon Levy. Long before he met the Krays or the Stones, he was a gossip columnist on the Daily Express, practically inventing the Chelsea set that shocked the prim Fifties. By that time he had met Lucian Freud, who painted him in an astonishing study, the working title of which was Portrait of a Jew. Litvinoff was furious when Freud exhibited it with the new description of The Procurer, and the bad blood between these two men, both of whom inhabited the drinking clubs of Soho and the Krays’ gambling joints, remained for the rest of their lives. In fact, it is Freud who comes over as the villain of the book, fingered by Pim as the man behind the most violent assault on Litvinoff: he was knocked unconscious at the door to his own flat, on the top floor, and awoke to find himself naked and tied to a chair suspended from the balcony, nose broken and head shaved bald.

I learned much from this book: a period working for Peter Rachman before he became involved with the Krays; sojourns in Wales and Australia when he was fleeing threats of violence. The big discovery for me, however, was Litvinoff’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the jazz and blues traditions that gave birth to rock’n’roll. He taught the Stones a lot but he taught Eric Clapton even more – they were both living at the Pheasantry building on the King’s Road, and Litvinoff seems to have had unlimited access to the most recherché back catalogues and the most recent unreleased recordings. The book traces, but does not comment on, a transformation from an amphetamine-fuelled hard man in the Fifties and early Sixties to the oddest of hallucinogen hippies by the Summer of Love in 1967.

But, for all Litvinoff’s knowledge, wit and gift for friendship, his tale is a tragedy. A man who could talk but couldn’t write; an out gay man long before it was acceptable, who seems never to have been at ease with his sexuality; a proud Jew without any tradition of Judaism to which he could affiliate. Above all, this was a man who lived to the full the extraordinary moment when London dreamed, in Harold Wilson’s Sixties, that class was a thing of the past. Back from Australia in the early Seventies, Litvinoff awoke again to find that it had indeed been a dream. His suicide in 1975 was cold and deliberate. He had outlived his time. 

Colin MacCabe edits Critical Quarterly

Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock’n’Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim is publisyhed by Jonathan Cape (416pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser