In which I sulkily refuse to acknowledge my recent absence (ask me no questions, I’ll tell you no lies) and just go straight into talking about a comic about an old man who fills his days by chuntering incessantly about nonsense to a disinterested and increasingly uncomfortable audience in the low single digits. I can’t imagine what attracted me to it. ALBY FIGGS by Warren Pleece
ALBY FIGGS by Warren “The Boy” Pleece Blank Slate, £8.99/$13.99 (2014) © Warren Pleece 2014
What’s in a name, eh? There are worse places to start after all, so over here in the UK Alby is an archaic diminutive for the name Albert, one more commonly encountered today in the heathen lands of Australia and New Zealand, or in movies with astoundingly literal titles in which young men run around CGI mazes. Then there’s the fact that the fruits of figs(sic) are renowned for their laxative and irritant qualities. Keep you loose they do; sparing you the details, sparing your blushes. Basically “Alby” tells us he’s an old geezer, while “Figgs” metaphorically encapsulates (oooh!) his tendency to run off at the mouth and cause low level distress in his listeners. He can talk the hind legs off a donkey, and no mistake.
Alby’s a pretty common character type in the UK but probably less so in, say, America, as falling prey to his type of harmless verbals depends on a bone deep politeness and a terror of causing offence being present in his target. Now no one wants to come right out and say it, America, but you are a bit uncouth for that, more of a British ”thing”, donchaknow. Mind you, truth to tell, Old Blighty’s getting a bit brusque too. There was a time though, there was a time, when you couldn’t make it from one end of a shopping esplanade to the other without being buttonholed by some loquacious old dear, whose weirdly needy extemporising combined with your repressive upbringing would lead to you nodding glazedly through a highly dubious reminiscence involving Christopher Biggins, Hot Gossip and a Fray Bentos pie while time turned treacley around you. You don’t get that so much now. Seriously, you don’t miss it ‘til it’s gone, do you?
Of course you do still get buttonholed, but it’s buttonholing of a different order, usually by shifty eyed men asking for “bus fare”. However, in a nice nod to traditional values it is still an unspoken but required formality to humour their entire spiel and enter into the shared fantasy that this “bus” isn’t made of heroin or Tennants Extra. No word of a lie, they look really hurt if you just give them the money and hustle off with a “Yeah, sure.” Look at you like you just shat on the social contract. Heart-breaking it is. Not that you’d care, America. Anyway, Alby’s a different breed to those lost to the phantom bus routes of addiction; his addiction is to attention and he’s not after handouts; the only currency he wants is conversation. Nah, I just said that for cheap alliterative effect. Conversation’s a two way street and Alby’s a one way diversion which adds hours to your journey. The scenic route, if you will. He just wants your attention; he just wants someone to listen. I know, I know, I’ve totally lost you now, America. Listening to people, what’s that about; little wonder we lost our Empire. Hang in there, America, I’ll pick something violent next time, promise.
Anyway, long story short, Warren “The Boy” Pleece captures that familiar character perfectly in the pages of this book. And, bless his cotton socks, he doesn’t just go the one-note route of having Alby yammer on in every episode with the same punchline, strip upon strip until the world freezes in the dark of a dead sun. This probably explains why Alby Figgs isn’t in The Metro every day. One for the commuters there. Heart and soul of the city they are, bless. No, instead Alby Figgs’ fundamentally mundane yet undeniably emotive encounters are instead confined to this tidy little book destined for the perusal of picto-lit sophisticates like what we is. And make no mistake as picto-lit goes this is some sophisticated stuff on show. Now, language is Alby’s bread and butter and Pleece pulls a blinder in this regard. Colloquialisms abound and the rhythm of every dodgy discourse rings true. Mind you, it’s not chat city, it’s not all wall to wall prattle. No, it’ll probably surprise you to learn that for a book in which the main character lives to talk Pleece uses silence to superb effect. Artistically ironical, I’d call that; shrewd stuff like Melvyn might bray on The South Bank Show. Pick of the litter is the strip called “Sis” set on a bus, which with its lengthy silence interrupted by a hurried and carefully neutral farewell contains such depths of truth that it could just as well be titled “The English Character in Four Panels”. ‘S dead clever is what I’m getting at. You know there’s some serious smarts on show when a strip called “The Rickenbacker Falls” is set in a guitar shop and involves not just a Rickenbacker falling, but also a decisive encounter between Alby and his nemesis which ends with doubt as to whether any fatalities have occurred. Geddit, like that Sherlock fellow, yeah? No, not that new soshul medjah effete child one. No, the old one, Rathbone, The Cush; we had proper Holmeses in them days. Oh aye, Alby’s got a nemesis, his very own mouthy Moriaty and they’ve got a history too.
Given that the book is composed of single page strips of four panels Peece packs them with content while keeping a visual lightness of touch. Proper storytelling, I’m talking about there; the uncanny transference of intangible but weighty emotions via the alchemical magic of words and pictures. Comics, yeah? Not everyone can make it work, but them that can shouldn’t be ignored just because they veer past the flash and the crass to focus on concerns closer to home. Thanks to Pleece’s deft storytelling touch and peerless cartooning chops, what could easily have been an exercise in sour tempered repetition instead involves a rounded character with a lively supporting cast whose commonplace days casts a wider light on all our lives. The nub, if you will is it’s just a book about an old bloke who likes to talk, but it’s bloody well done.
Alby Figgs is a little joy, a little gem of a book. One which, in common with its titular character, tells you volumes about this country but only if you’ll only take the time to stop and listen. Go on, bend an ear and make an old man happy. VERY GOOD!
NEXT TIME: I haven’t the foggiest, me old mucker. Spare some change for some – COMICS!!!