A sad farewell

Only a few weeks ago my Irish chum Stephen – who did his comics and movie work under the pen-name Garth Cremona – told me that a result from a hospital stay had come back. With the worst possible news – a terminal diagnosis. I am a writer, a wordsmith, I, all false modesty aside, can turn a phrase to most occasions when I want to. And so could Stephen. But I was without words at this news, and told him as much, and he replied that so was he.

I couldn’t let that lack of words stand in the way of talking to my friend though, and dropped him a line or two, but didn’t hear back. Given the circumstances I was not surprised. And then this week his other half Tina, who he had told me several times was the total light of his life, took over his Twitter feed to announce that Stephen was gone. It was only a few weeks from the diagnosis and my friend, so much younger than me, was already gone.I’m heartbroken at his sudden passing, and I hate to think how much worse that is for Tina and his family.

I’ve lived through sudden loss of a loved one, and it is horrendous, marks you down to the soul for life ever after. It all but broke me when dad and I lost mum so suddenly. To lose someone even younger like Stephen is just so bloody wrong, and my heart is heavy for his loss and even heavier for the sorrow and grief that Tina and his family must now bear.

Stephen, under his Garth Cremona pen-name volunteered his services as a film reviewer for me on the Forbidden Planet Blog, for no other reason than a desire to promote good works – especially loving the chance to promote Indy works. He was hugely active on the Irish comics scene as a creator and also a supporter of other Indy creators. All of this was done without ego, just for the love of it all, to highlight interesting artistic works. In between reviews we tweeted and emailed each other banter and chatter and bonded over it and other, more personal matters. With FP deleting the blog only a day after I was paid off I can’t even pay tribute to him on there.

I find it hard to believe that I will never again get to tease him over his love of even trashier horror films than even I liked. I’m not going to swap messages with him again, talk about the comics and films we loved or hated. There should have been years of that more to come and suddenly there isn’t. Gone to the great editing suite in the sky and far, far too damned soon. I’ve reached that period of life where losing people becomes sadly more frequent, but Stephen was much younger and should never have been gone early like this. I will miss you, my friend, and I will see you again one day for that great Director’s Cut, in wonderful wide screen.

And damn you cancer, damn you to hell for all the pain you have caused to so may of us, up yours, cancer, up yours with a diamond tipped chainsaw for all the sorrow you have caused.

And on a final, silly note, whenever Stephen sent me in a piece to edit for the FP blog, as I went to schedule it under his nom-de-guerre of Garth Cremona I would find myself singing “Garth Cremona” to the tune of “My Sharona”. I told him this once, and he was mightily amused by the idea.

Der Hauptmann – The Captain

The Captain,
Directed by Robert Schwentke,
Starring Max Hubacher, Milan Peschel , Frederick Lau

Written and directed by Robert Schwentke (The Time Travelers Wife, Flight Plan, Red, Insurgent), The Captain – Der Hauptmann, to give it it’s original title – is a compelling tale of the closing days of the Second World War. Shot in a beautifully crisp, glowing, silvery black and white the elegance of the cinematography is, right from the start, at odds with the brutality at the heart of The Captain, as we see a terrified and oh-so-young German soldier being chased through a winter landscape and woods by his comrades. They are not just hunting him and aiming to kill him, they are clearly enjoying it, especially the officer in charge. Hubacher’s soldier is a creature of pure fear, seeing his violent death just a few footsteps behind him, his uniform and boots torn and ruined, his face so filthy only his astonishingly clear eyes looking out of that mess look human.

It is the final days of the war and German has turned on German, no longer just fighting the invading Allies but devouring their own, all civilised restraints are gone, years of the hard-edged Nazi regime coupled with the grinding brutality of warfare has cracked the veneer of civilisation, even the vicious rules of warfare are disregarded. Schwentke’s film, like Apocalypse Now, shows how that red-toothed animal is set loose by endless brutality, and even more alarmingly, how while some refuse that dark call and others try to turn away, some men are seduced by it. They come to like it, revel in that dark freedom that comes when they think there are no more rules, no more consequences.

Hubacher’s Willi Herold doesn’t quite start this way, he is the terrified soldier – a deserter, perhaps, broken by the relentless enemy attacks – being chased and shot at by his former comrades. After eluding them he trudges across country, finding an abandoned staff car, with a suitcase containing a captain’s uniform. Swiftly removing his own ruined uniform this private gives himself an immeadite promotion by donning this found uniform, but more than that, as he looks at himself in the car’s mirror he starts to assume the pose, the attitude he expects from a Nazi officer. This is a very young man, remember, who has been brought up in Hitler’s Germany, even before the shock of the war; imagine the role models he has had in his youth, those roles he is now assuming.

When Peschel’s Freytag comes stumbling down the road and reacts to him as if he was a real captain, Herold starts to play the role for real. Taking Freytag as his driver they stop at the nearest village, Herold playing the quiet, icy Nazi officer so well that the locals in the inn are soon too scared of him, providing them with food and lodgings. But there is a price – desertion is now rife as it is clear the Third Reich is doomed, and many of those deserters have been looting and raping their way through the countryside. After catching one those same locals he cowed with his act earlier now call on him to walk the walk for real, to “pay for his roast dinner” as one puts it. As the horrified Freytag watches helplessly Herold agrees with the locals, draws his gun and shoots the deserter right in the street. It is the start of a slide into brutality and depravity.

It isn’t long before Herold encounters more men separated from their units like Freytag – or perhaps they have just given up and deserted – and again he uses his newly borrowed authority to overwhelm them, again playing the arrogant, cold Nazi officer to perfection, exactly the sort of officer they expect. Encountering a group of military police rounding up deserters to take to a nearby camp, Herold expands his authority, telling them all he is on a special mission by order of the Furher himself, to investigate the reports of low morale and desertion behind the lines, snowballing his lies and actions into ever greater levels of brutality and atrocity.

This is not an easy watch, despite the quite beautiful black and white photography; The Captain lays bare and ugly fact of human nature – brutality begets brutality, violence more violence, Herold like one abused who then goes on in turn to become an abuser, a chain of vile cause and effect poisoning the soul. And worse still he starts to enjoy it, to relish it even, and so do a number of the men who fall under the spell of the Captain. And this is very much a man’s world, the only women seen briefly here are at a couple of celebrations, companions for the soldiers, the rest of the time it is men and other men committing acts normal society would repudiate, reminiscent of Hemmingway, perhaps.
The fact that the film is apparently based on a real person and events makes the events all the more horrific.

Hubacher as Herold and Peschel as Freytag both give up some incredible, intense performances in what must have been pretty emotionally-draining roles. Herold takes us from frightened, filthy, dishevelled soldier on the run to the overbearing, cold-faced Nazi officer, face impassive, his clear eyes. He falls so easily into this role the young man must have seen acted out before him throughout his youth in Nazi Germany, but Hubacher also throws in subtle changes in expression and body language early on, as Herold is unsure of himself, waiting to be found out and exposed, and you can see him changing as he realises others are following his assumed authority, no matter how vile his orders. It’s a damned fine bit of acting. Similarly Peschel’s Freytag as the everyman, just an ordinary guy who wants the war to be over, to go home, terrified of being shot by his own side, relieved when Herold takes him in, then the mounting horror in his expression as he witnesses the monstrous acts Herold brings the other soldiers to commit, another superb piece of acting , the two men’s performances playing off one another perfectly to bring emotion, sorrow, fear and utter horror to the viewer.

The Captain is released on September 21st

The original selfie…

In between looking for a new job I’ve been trying to keep myself busy (doing some more reviews for different places, sadly not paying ones though, those are very had to get hold of now), and going out to make sure I don’t spend too much time at home alone (way, way to easy to brood and let the little black voice hold sway). So after scouring the job sites this morning again (fruitlessly) I headed out to the Royal Scottish Academy to take in the Rembrandt exhibition with a chum, and I am glad I did.

The exhibition had a number of works, from small sketches and some of his print work to his famous portraits, later works influenced by Rembrandt, and of course those amazing self-portraits. The latter are still astonishing, centuries on, not just for the raw humanity they show, painted at different eras of the artist’s life, but for the remarkable techniques, the sense of three dimensional reality. Seeing the original painting of this one above was just magical, the sense of a real person, even the textures – I had to restrain the urge to run my fingers across the section depicting his cap, it looked as if you could actually feel the velvet (naturally I didn’t, the gallery wouldn’t care for that). Some works just retain their power across the centuries…

Just Scots Going Around Their Business

Saint John’s Church on Princes Street has been painting large murals commenting on social and moral problems for many years. It’s been a little while since I saw a new one, but noticed today a fresh one had been painted, celebrating the diversity of multi-cultural Scottish society and timed to coincide with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year – in an especially nice touch the figure on the upper right pays homage to Raeburn’s 18th century painting of the Reverend Robert Walker ice-skating on Duddingston Loch in Edinburgh, now famous as the symbol of the National Galleries of Scotland:

Just Scots Going Around Their Business

Killer App: Bedeviled

Bedeviled,
Directed by Abel Vang and Burlee Vang,
Starring: Saxon Sharbino, Bonnie Morgan, Brandon Soo Hoo

Using internet and social media as a new gateway for evil to stalk pretty, young teens in the American suburbs is hardly new – film (itself a technological artform) has always, since its earliest days, reflected our fascination with and fear of new technology, from the Lumiere’s steam train scaring audiences to the giant engine in Metropolis to recent films using the internet, like Pulse or Unfriended. We’ve seen quite a number in recent years, hardly surprising given our seemingly endless fascination with and increasing use of the online world and social media (especially now it goes everywhere with us on our ever-present smartphones), and horror has often been quicker than most forms to explore our love-hate, desire-fear relationship with technology and how it affects individuals and society.

In Bedevilled it takes the form of the eponymous App, which a group of high school friends are all sent… From their deceased chum. Most of us would be a little worried at receiving an invitation to download an App from the phone of a friend who had died a few days before, but our teens just install it right away (to be honest this doesn’t stretch credulity, I imagine a lot of people who practically live on their phones would just install new Apps without blinking too). Of course any horror flick fan knows that such an App is going to prove to be an open invite to bring evil to play right into the home – in some ways this is the 21st century version of the curious teens playing with an old Ouija Board they found in the loft, and in fact one character comments as much during Bedevilled.

There’s a pretty decent opening here, with the soon-to-be-deceased member of their group being menaced in her home, with a nicely creepy figure that unfolds itself in the darkness of the nocturnal home. After that though, I have to say it seemed to very much veer into an awful lot of teen horror cliché: of course the youngsters are all good-looking, they all live in large houses (where the parents are almost always absent so they can be alone when spooky noises scare them at night), there is a lot of those daft things people do in horror movies, like deciding to explore the dark house for a noise and not actually switch on the lights, the “this can’t be real” moments, the childhood scares that suddenly become manifest after they’ve discussed them, there are numerous dark scenes shot from low tracking angles and so on.

For the first half I was, I admit, thinking this is running through way more than its fair share of clichés. But then I started wondering if in fact this was deliberate, that the film-makers were actually taking all those many standard tropes of the teen horror and deciding to have fun with them, that they know fine well that horror fans know these are standard elements and we’re all in on the joke here. I really couldn’t quite decide which it was, just running through those clichés or being postmodern and having fun by deploying them. It does offer up some nice little scares though – the talking App invites one girl to pan the phone around her room, like an augmented reality app, and even though you know, you know well before it happens, that as she pans the screen around there will be something horrifying at some point, it still gives you a good jump when you see it (the digital App equivalent to the old seeing something scary standing behind you in the mirror, but when you turn around, it isn’t there trick), and that seemed to reinforce for me the idea that the use of those standard elements was deliberate.

Bedevilled may not be the most innovative horror, or even social media horror, but it does have some cool little moments, and I think it knows its audience. My recommendation is to treat this as fun popcorn horror – watch it on a Saturday night with a bunch of friends as part of a double-bill with some other teen horror, maybe, with the popcorn and booze and that’s just the way to take this.

Bedevilled is out on VoD from The Movie Partnership from 17th September

Now you see it, now you don’t

Well, a day after my final turn at FP I go to check something on the FP Blog and… It wasn’t there. Taken down already, virtual corpse not even cold. That’s an extra kick in the pants, I thought it would be archived online so those years of articles, reviews, interviews and guest pieces wouldn’t just vanish. As one person remarked, she was upset as she had several items bookmarked to read. Just as well most of my reviews are also here on the Woolamaloo Gazette, including that final post which was up for basically a day on the actual FP blog before it was zapped. Sad to see all of that work just wiped away like that.

Meantime the search for a new job goes on – hint to publishers and arts and culture organisations out there, knowledgeable, experienced, passionate bookseller with a flair for promoting good writing and reading online, available for hire…

And it’s over – So Long, and Thanks for all the Fish

Well, the day I have been dreading for several weeks has come to pass: I’ve been living under the cloud of imminent redundancy, and as the termination date has crept closer and closer I felt increasingly bad. It isn’t just the practical side of things – having to look for a new job, the crushing feeling of not getting posts you are well suited to, the way it saps your morale and sense of self worth, the worry about being able to pay your bills – it’s the emotional side. Not just that it fuels the wee black voice, there’s also a sense of loss: having drinks with some of my colleagues yesterday was very odd, I’ve worked next to some for thirteen and a half years, I’ve known them since before some of their children were born and it is very peculiar to think we’re not going to be part of each other’s daily lives anymore, quite upsetting. We’ll see each other from time to time, but it won’t be as it was before.

Always hard moving on, even when it is by choice, when it is forced on you it makes it harder. Here’s a copy of my final post from the Forbidden Planet Blog:

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Richard has already taken his final bow on the blog (see here), and now it’s my turn. Truth be told I have been putting this off all week, and here I am typing it now, on my last day at FPI. Quite emotional, as you can imagine; I’m trying to persuade colleagues in the Edinburgh store, beneath which the Blogcave lurks, deep under Edinburgh’s ancient Old Town, right above the haunted undercity, that they should play the sad piano music from the end of the old Hulk TV show as I walk out for the last time tonight.

Thirteen and a half years: I started the blog when I began working on the webstore for Forbidden Planet International, looking after the graphic novels and books. I had pitched the idea to Kenny of using a blog so we could highlight some of the titles we sold in the stores and online, celebrate them, draw reader’s attention to them, recommend books, use it for announcing news, not just our own but news and events from others in the comics community, to give them an added voice (especially in pre-Twitter days). To his and FPI’s credit they agreed and also supported the idea that we would keep the blog pretty non-commercial – of course we’d trumpet our store events and offers, we’d link reviews to the webstore where you could buy the graphic novel we were reviewing, but that was about it, it was left mostly as a space to celebrate comics, science fiction, fantasy, horror and animation, all our geek loves. I think Kenny saw it as a nice way to give something back to the comics community, and that’s a nice way to think of it.

As time went by more contributors came onboard, allowing us not only to cover more, but also to take in a more diverse range of tastes. Richard continued from the sort of recommendations and reviews he had done when he worked in our Nostalgia & Comics store in Birmignham – it was something we had in common as I too had organised mini-reviews and staff recommendations in my old bookstore, and I knew that A) readers loved those personal recommendations and B) it often gave a new creator a chance to be spotted by readers. To be honest, as time went on Richard was less a reviewer and more a co-editor with me; I can’t imagine having run the FP blog this long without his help, as well as his articles and reviews, and while we all reviewed numerous small press works, Richard was king on those, writing up on so many small press comickers that it often felt like they saw us as “their” site, which frankly we loved.

Then Our Man In Belgium, Wim, provided us with Our Continental Correspondent columns, bringing European works and comics trends to the Anglophone audience. I think any of us who truly love the medium are in awe of the status of the Franco-Belgian comics market, where bande dessinee is seen as “the ninth art”, a respected status those of us in the UK, Canada, America and other countries could only dream of (although that has changed a lot – look at Mary and Bryan Talbot’s Costa Award win for instance – and is still changing for the better here). Wim not only brought us news and reviews of European comics, from new talents and revered veterans, he did it the way I hope everyone on the blog did, with their own personality and passion for the medium (I think we all used our own voices, kept it personal, never a house style or corporate tone, and I think that’s another reason readers liked it).

I learned a lot more about European comics through editing Wim’s posts, and it only sharpened my hunger to see more of these works translated and published in English. And, rather wonderfully, that sometimes happened because of his pieces, especially his Translation, Please columns where he would champion some astonishing new comics work he’d seen in French, Dutch, German, Spanish, Italian, and highlight why this was an author and a book Brit and North American publishers should be looking at and thinking of buying English language rights to. Several publishers told us they looked specifically for those European publishers and creators on their trips to continental conventions on the back of reading about them through Wim’s columns, and several ended up making deals and translating those books. I call that a pretty good result.

More people joined us through the years, some for a short time, others longer, but all added to a plurality of voices and tastes and subjects covered. My old Irish chum from our days on The Alien Online (early SF & comics review site some of you may recall fondly) Pádraig contributed some long, thoughtful interviews, not least with the mighty Alan Moore, Zainab brought a new perspective with her own tastes and an eye for creators and titles that were not as well-represented as they should be, especially women and ethnic creators (an increasingly happening area in comics coverage, I am glad to see, but Zee was doing it well ahead of the curve and continues to do it now), Nicola, then working at our Glasgow store (now a Grande Fromage at the Glasgow Comic Con) brought an impassioned fangirl rush to her picks from the week’s new releases (and got me reading some I would otherwise have walked past).

Matt Badham would do us some great pieces and some cracking interviews, which, in what I thought was a nice touch of solidarity and cooperation, would be published by ourselves and John Freeman’s Down the Tubes at the same time. There was something nice about that – not competition, working together, all part of the bigger community. Hannah Chapman wrote some great pieces on the Indy scene and on women in comics and webcomics, now she’s a creator and pushing the splendid Avery Hill comics. Malachy from our Belfast store and my book group chum Misti joined me in my eternal love of good science fiction and fantasy, so we could cover more of the prose side of geekdom as well as the graphic, Stephen, under his Garth Cremona pen-name, was our resident movie fiend, and another Irish chum, James Bacon, would contribute not just reviews but all sorts of interesting articles, from a gallery exhibition of comic art to some science fiction stage plays and reporting from San Diego Comic Con (along the way also chatting to local comic store owners in California and getting their views).

And that’s not counting everyone – a lot of others would contribute when they could (remember most of us were doing all of this in our own free time), and then we had numerous guest blogs. That was something I always wanted – when we ran our guest Best of the Year posts each December we would have a different writer, artist, editor, publisher, reviewer every single day in December, picking their favourites, before the blog crew chose their own; it meant we got a wider net, more reading tastes, that works we hadn’t seen or had time for got shout outs. Most sites would have a Best of the Year article around December, but I don’t think anyone did it quite the way we did with so many diferent guests getting a chance to shout out their faves.

Similarly our guest posts gave creators free reign to use the blog as a platform to talk directly to the readers about their work. We had reviews, previews and interviews, but it seemed to me there was something missing – reviews are our opinion, in interviews creators only get to answer the questions put to them… Why not have a feature where we removed ourselves from it and gave the slot entirely to them, to talk about their new work in their own words, in any way they wanted to. It gave readers some insight into the creation process, what elements of the story meant to the creator and why they worked the way they did, and at the same time served to highlight their new work and interest readers.

I remember one year we did a whole themed Director’s Commentary run with not just the winner but all shortlist nominees for Myriad’s First Graphic Novel prize, after one of the judges, Bryan Talbot, commented on the high standard of all of them, so we arranged to let each and every one of them do a guest spot about their entries. I know I am biased, but I think that was a damned good use of the platform we had to share. After the debacle of the all-male creator Angouleme shortlist a few years back a whole bunch of women writers, artists and publishers did a coperative guest spot with each highlighting women in the medium.

We loved being able to use the blog for something like that and other things, and as we’ve been seeing with certain sad groups attacking women, LGBT and ethnic creators virulently, it’s important those with a decent platform use it to defend diversity: more diverse voices means more intersting and unusual reading for us, which is a win-win situation. And, simply, it is the proper and decent thing to do; comics and scifidom are communities, and communities support and celebrate one another, and when we do that, we all win. Many are continuing that push, and all power to them; the blog here may be going quiet, but those of us who worked on it still have your back in the comics and SF community.

We’d all love to have done more, to turn the blog into a virtual journal, perhaps. But we all had work and life and other commitments, and we were all doing most of our reading, viewing and writing in our own time, after the day job. That’s a lot of hours of our own time, and always there would be more good stuff out there that we just couldn’t get time to cover. In a way though, that is a sign of how much comics, especially in the UK, has changed even just in those thirteen and a half years of the blog’s existence. When we started we had a pretty vibrant small press scene, with a couple of yearly events like Caption and then Thought Bubble celebrating them, and just a handful of UK graphic novel publishers, like Cape, or veterans like Knockabout. But then more events – mainstream and small press-friendly, from tiny local, small town events to European style comic art festivals like the Lakes were added to the calendar, and the already thriving small press scene got bigger, better, more diverse and interesting.

And the number of Indy publishers also grew in the UK: Myriad, Blank Slate (run by our own Kenny), SelfMadeHero, Soaring Penguin, Avery Hill, Nobrow and more. And many of those bloomed over those following years: suddenly UK comickers went from thinking why don’t we have our own Drawn & Quarterly, Top Shelf or Fantagraphics here to having those and seeing them prosper and reach new audiences. Just last month I chaired events with SelfMadeHero and Nobrow authors at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, the largest literary festival on Planet Earth, and there were our Indy comics presses strutting their funky literary stuff, alongside small press creators given their own comic fair on opening day. We also saw some of those new Indy publishers here translating European comics for an English language audience, and then, oh so gloriously, taking their UK titles to European festivals and seeing them picked up for translation there. Wow. So many good changes over those years.

I’m honoured we got to be a small part of those changes, that we got to enjoy reading those works, and had a megaphone to shout out those creators and publishers and watch others pick them up, other sites like Broken Frontier coming along and adding their voices to this flowering of talent and creation. It has been a remarkable time for comics, especially in the UK. And it still is; if anything it is just getting better and better, and I hope very much that lending our voices to the chorus helped those creators and publishers, and I know more than a few readers who have told us over the years they only knew about a new work because of one of our articles, that they picked up a book they would never have seen otherwise. That, my comics chums, is a very, very nice feeling when you hear that.

(I’d like to think this is Richard and I going out in a blaze of six-gun glory, but fear we are more Pooch and Sunlounger than Butch and Sundance, and no, I don’t know which of us is which)

And… well, there’s more, but I have already gone on far longer than I intended to. I meant this to be shorter, pithier, but I am writing it on my last day here as it comes into my head, and I think I’m going on so long because I am reluctant to finish, because it is my last FP Blog post. Like David Tennant’s Doctor “I don’t want to go.” But go we must, things change, and let’s face it, thirteen and a half years is a pretty good innings for a comic blog. It has been a pleasure to be able to cover so many fine writers and artists, to celebrate the success of new publishers and watch comics culture flourishing as never before, from small press and Indy to the maintream, covering every subject from adventures to gender to health to science to poetry and more, and quite wonderful to have been a small part of that. I’m sad to leave the blog, to leave FP, the thought of not seeing colleagues I have worked years beside is, naturally, upsetting. But mostly I am proud of what we did, with few resources and a bunch of book and comics readers working away in our own time simply because we loved good reading.

So long, and thanks for all the fish. And always, always know where your towel is.

And keep reading. Always keep reading.

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And there it is, the last post after thirteen and a half years. I think we did a lot within our constraints and I’m pleased we helped a lot of writers, artists and new publishers to get noticed. But it’s over, and I’m looking for new work, still. So any publishers out there, bookseller for hire with decades of literary knowledge, passion for promoting good reading, huge range of experience in highlighting good authors through events, reviews, interviews, social media and literary festivals. I’m also house-trained.

Turning Widdershins: Finding Baba Yaga

Finding Baba Yaga,
Jane Yolen,
Tor Books


(cover image by Shutterstock, design by Jamie Stafford-Hill)

So, this is a tale
Both old and new,
borrowed, narrowed,
broadened, deepened,
rethreaded, rewoven,
stitches uneven,
re-plastered, re-harled,
rehearsed, reworked
until it’s my own.

Love comes through a back door,
leaves by the front.
Not all baptisms occur at the font.
Witches are made, of blood and bone.
Witches are made, not only born.
A story is, not always means.
We pass on our genius
as well as our genes.

You think you know this story.
You hope you know this story.
You want to tell this story,
perhaps now you will.”

Our many cultures in our world are rich in folklore and myth, tales and characters that persist for generations, centuries, even outlast the millennia; passed down, by oral storytellers originally, later through the written word, later still radio, film, comics, online. They never go away, prove an endless spring of inspiration to creators of each age because the old stories that have endured the battering winds of the centuries without eroding speak, at their heart, of very human conditions, of love and hate, isolation and belonging, fear and hope, youth and age, ignorance and wisdom, cowardice and bravery, treachery and loyalty. These tales can feature trickster spider gods like Anansi, or brave but flawed heroes like Achilles or Gilgamesh; gods, heroes, villains, talking animals, magical creatures like dragons. But all of them, really, are about us, about people. It’s why they still fascinate us.

We denizens of the 21st century are no different in that respect from any of the people who went before us, from that writing explosion fueled by libraries and journals in the 19th century back to the medieval monk in a scriptorium working by candlelight, the storyteller sharing his tales by firelight at night as the caravan camps in its desert crossing (a tradition still honoured in some remote places), the wandering bards going from town to town to spin their tales to the Classical Greeks, right back to our ancestors painting tales on rock walls (again, not entirely gone, the Aboriginal people of Australia still honour this practise, telling stories and singing them to the land and the people).

Certain stories echo more frequently, prove truly flexible and adaptable to each new age, yet without losing their ancient roots, and that great figure of Russian and Eastern European folklore, the Baba Yaga with her iron teeth and chicken-leg house that wanders the forest is one of those. In very early versions of the Russian language her name can mean midwife. Or sometimes a seer or fortune teller, or a witch. Those multiple possible meanings nicely illustrate the complex nature of the Baba Yaga: sometimes she can be a kindly woman who helps a traveller, sometimes she is feared, flying through the air on her giant mortar and pestle, kidnapping children to devour. For others she is a protector of the wild nature of the land, or even a spiritual guardianr of the nation.

(Above:the Baba Yaga as depicted from the great Mike Mignola in Hellboy, published Dark Horse; below Ivan Bilibin’s 1902 illustration of the Baba Yaga)

The prolific and highly gifted Jane Yolen gives us all those aspects of the Baba Yaga and more; she plays both with the mythic tropes and archetypes and yet at the same time she gives us a rounded, real character we can believe in, not just a mythic figure, but a person. This is no mean feat and takes dexterous writing skill; to do it in verse takes even more ability, and I can’t help but wonder if it added to the difficulty for her in penning this story. But it was a good decision: some stories simply work better in verse. I’m not sure why, they just do. I think poetry, sometimes, can touch our emotions and immerse the reader further into a feeling, a setting, than prose can (I often find when prose creates those feelings so well in me that it almost becomes lyrical, poetic). Poetry can be like jazz is to classical music, or magic to science, a different perspective on the world, on people.

In Finding Baba Yaga, Jane Yolen gives us Natasha, a young girl in a troubled home, running away, going into that place that so many of our old stories warn us about, into the deep, dark forest that still haunts our collective dreams, and it is there, after walking by the silver moonlight, that she will find that famous chicken-legged house and the iron-toothed old lady inside. Had she been a pretty young lad she’d have ended up in the pot, but, grumpily and yet acceptingly, almost as if she (and the house) knew she would come, the Baba Yaga lets her enter, lets her stay, and as their relationship forms the young woman comes to understand more of the world, of its stories, of her place in those stories, of her own past, her future, and her own being, her own power.

There’s a strong element of the feminine throughout the verses in Finding Baba Yaga; there are a few male figures, such as the handsome (and crafty) prince, but they are very much relegated to supporting characters, ornaments there to help the story unfold. It is the women here who are the important characters, and with the arrival of pretty Vasilisa they become, for a time, a trio, which again harkens back to myths, some older than Baba Yaga’s, the three women who are also one (think the Kindly Ones in Gaiman’s Sandman or Medusa and her sisters or a thousand other takes on this ancient belief of a trinity of womanhood). It also manages to weave some sly, often dark humour into the tale – the Baba Yaga remarking about her sister’s house made of gingerbread and candy and how impractical that Hansel and Gretel house actually is (bears eat parts of it), and how dirty it is inside because she can’t help herself, she always bundles her young help into the oven and eats them…

It is, quite simply, a beautiful, magical, immersive piece of storytelling. I was extremely fortunate to find that the regular science fiction evenings in Edinburgh that the Shoreline of Infinity journal team organise had Jane as a guest earlier in the summer, and months before the book came out she read some of it to us. Poetry is, I find, often best when read out loud, especially by the original writer, so this was an absolute delight to hear Jane reading from her tale in verse. In a nice bit of coincedental timing I had just received an advance copy a few days before that event; it’s rather nice when coincidence turns into a little spark of magic like that.

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(Jane Yolen reading from Finding Baba Yaga at the Shoreline of Infinity’s regular Event Horizon evening in Edinburgh, photo from my Flickr)

This is another of the extremely welcome little novellas which Tor has been publishing over the last few years both physically and in digital form. We’ve reviewed quite a few on here, some by writers new to us, some by established favourites, but all a short but delightful dip into that writer’s world. I think Tor are to be commended for continuing to support and publish these novellas (which cover everything from hard sci-fi to fantasy to horror and even, as here, poetry); it’s a terrific way for readers to encounter new writing without the investment in time a larger book may require, and a good showcase for the writers (as are Tor’s regular short stories they post on their site). It’s also an ideal format for this unusual form of storytelling, of spinning a new take on the bones of old myth, a young woman’s journey seen through the magical power of poetry.

Plus Jane uses the word “widdershins” several times, which I find quite pleasing…

Finding Baba Yaga, a short story in verse, is published by Tor in October

We Shall Fight Until We Win

We Shall Fight Until We Win: a Century of Pioneering Political Women,
Edited by Laura Jones, Heather McDaid & Sha Nazir,
404 Ink / BHP Comics

Two small Indy Scottish publishers, BHP Comics (who are also behind the Glasgow Comic Con and the Edinburgh Comic Art Festival) teamed up with 404 Ink to create this anthology of “pioneering political women”, We Shall Fight Until We Win, which marks the century since (some) women got the vote in the UK with an all-woman creator team (nicely diverse line up too in terms of age, orientation, ethnic background, all encouraging to see) with short pieces on women from different decades across that century.

It’s a very interesting read, some tales being several pages, others being but a single page, and I admire the fact that they decided this would not take the route of only picking subjects most can admire, it also takes in subjects such as Margaret Thatcher because, even for those who loathed that very divisive politician the book cannot ignore that she was the first woman prime minister and the effect she had on changing politics in the UK, for good or ill, and while I personally cannot stand her I think it was indeed important that an anthology of this nature acknowledged her.

The range of subjects is as wide as the backrounds of the creators here, some well-known – Emmeline Pankhurst, Nicola Sturgeon, Dianne Abbot – while others may only be familiar to those who have an interest in specific parts of history. That’s a good thing, of course, because it means even if you consider yourself fairly well-versed in history there is a good chance you are still going to find out about a remarkable person you hadn’t heard of before. I like that aspect of these kinds of works, it is no bad thing, regardless of age, to be exposed to new people and ideas and events.

I’m not going to go through each individual chapter and creators, but I must mention a few that stood out for me personally. I liked Kathryn Briggs and Heather McDaid’s The Glasgow Girls right from the first page; I loved the style, infused with touches of Mackintosh and Art Noveau, and the title, riffing on the famous Glasgow Boys art movement. While most of the entries here opt to highlight a particular individual, this one has a warm, cooperative, social, community feel to it, celebrating a group of young women – school girls at the time – who saw immigrant families being settled into their local neighbourhoods in and around Glasgow, many of whom had fled terrible circumstances.

The children of these refugee families would attend local schools and they became part of the community, so when the seemingly eternally short-sighted and cold-hearted Kafkaeque monster of the Home Office opted to eject some from the country, placing entire families (including children) into detention, these young girls acted, they organised, they protested, they whipped up support, they stood up for their friends, and by god they made a difference. I was very touched by this particular story, partly because it showed the power of good will, well directed, but also because it chimed with an element of Scottish identity which is dear to many of us, that “we’re aw Jock Tamson’s Bairns” (essentially meaning we’re all the same, regardless) and that no matter where you came from, when you live here with us, you are one of us. Which is not to say we don’t have bigotry and racism in Scotland, sadly we do have that ignorant hatred too, but there is a song social and community strand to the national identity that still wants to embrace that inclusivity and standing by one another, and it was wonderful to see such young women taking that lesson and applying it to help others.

Jenny Bloomfield and Grace Wilson’s Life and Times of Mhairi Black, the very young, working class woman who became an SNP MP and brought her blunt, no nonsense approach to the stuffy, rule-obsessed House of Commons and showed it what she thought of their arcane rituals and customs (she was there to represent her electorate and didn’t give a damn about the games and rituals older MPs played by, much to their ire), had me smiling as it summed up this firecracker. Hannah Berry told of a woman I hadn’t heard of, Jayaben Desai, who stood up not just against misogyny and racism but the simple exploitation more than a few uncaring company’s have used on their workers over the years, organising together, as a union, to fight for their rights, something that affects all of us.

Hari Conner and Durre Shahwar’s story of Noor Inayat Khan was remarkable, a descendant of Tipu Sultan, who volunteered to serve in the WAAFs (Women’s Auxiliary Airforce) during WWII, then trained by SOE and parachuted behind into Occupied Europe as a wireless operator, risking life and torture by the Gestapo to help liberate it from the Nazis, and paying the ulimtate price. I could read a whole book on that unbelievably brave woman, who was executed in the hell of Dachau, her last word reportedly a defiant “Liberte!”

I think the one that most emotionally affected me was Sabeena Akhtar and Erin Aniker’s The 60%. Like The Glasgow Girls this wasn’t about an individual, in fact this time not even about a small group, it was about, well, about most women. Not the ones in the history and politics texts who are remembered for their deeds and thoughts which changed the world, but for all the other women who didn’t have the “privilege to fight and franchise”, the mothers, aunt, the working women who then went home from that work to raise children and look after husbands. Your mother, my mother, our aunts, sisters and others who changed the world in other ways while raising us, carnig for us, teaching us, setting an example while nurturing us. I think that particular story is pretty universal “and though you haven’t read their names, I’d wager you know their faces.” Of course we know their faces, they are our own family and friends.

I was lucky enough to hear BHP’s Sha Nazir and Heather Palmer, and 404 Ink’s Lauren Jones (see below) discuss the project on the opening day of the Edinburgh International Book Festival (my report on some of the comics and SF events from this summer’s festival is here), and it was fascinating to listen to how they went about this collaboration between the two Indy publishers (404’s first forary in comics). Not just in terms of embracing creators from a diverse number of backgrounds (something BHP has a strong ethos about, to their credit), but also from the production side – much of this work from new talent and established creators like Hannah Berry and Denise Mina (and our old chum and former FP blog reviewer Nicola Love, who I must give a shout out to) was solicited and completed and edited within two or three months.

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(Heather Palmer, Sha Nazir and Lauren Jones signing after their Edinburgh book fest talk, pic from my Flickr)

If these were two big publishers cooperating they would still be working out a legal document before they had started at that point! But being small and nimble BHP and 404 could push ahead quickly on that deal and the actual project to have it ready in a remarkably swift time period. I’m also heartened by hearing that copies have been going out to many school libraries in Scotland, and after chairing an event later at the festival with Sha Nazir several school librarians came over to chat about the book and other titles BHP had, and to note down other suggestions for graphic works they could use to help kids learn about complex subjects. It’s nice to know that this will be read in many of our schools.

Kangaroo: a Love-Hate Story

Kangaroo: a Love-Hate Story,
Directed by Kate McIntyre Clere and Mick McIntyre

Kangaroo has been doing the rounds on the international film festival circuit, receiving quite a bit of acclaim, and now with it being eligible for the 2019 Oscars they are making a push to get it noticed a bit wider by cinema-goers (and the Academy, the old “for your consideration”), which is how yours truly managed to get a screener to watch. And although this is very, very hard to watch in places, I am glad I had the chance to see this Australian documentary. As the film-makers and others point out early on there is a real dichotomy in the image of the kangaroo – it is the national symbol of Australia, it’s on their coat of arms, that sports-mad nation nicknames many of its teams after roos. And yet they slaughter millions of these animals every single year.

Not just slaughter, but killed often in the most disgustingly inhumane ways. Make no mistake, although this is a compelling documentary, you will need a strong stomach in certain parts of this film, it does not pull many punches in depicting just what goes on, nor should it – one of the central points here is that so many, in Australia and around the world where roo products (meat, leather) are exported, are totally unaware of what is happening, aided by a complacent government that seems to be in cahoots with a wealthy, multi-million dollar industry (and isn’t that something we’ve seen all too often in many different industries in many different countries? Strange how easily morality and decency can go when big money is involved). There are some stomach-churning scenes filmed by activists who are determined to break that cover, bring these practises out into the light – literally, as most of the hunting is done at night.

The law says any kangaroos “harvested” need to be killed swiftly and humanely, as you’d expect from similar standards in any animal food industries – we all, rightly, get sickened and outraged if cattle, pigs and sheep are made to suffer before the inevitable abattoir date and we have built up laws to protect the animals from such needless suffering. But shooter firing at night from a truck bumping over rough terrain and firing at a moving target often miss. Many roos are hit but not fatally, some take hours, days or in one case the crew documents, two weeks to die. Two weeks of agony and suffering. And that’s not the worst – there are the baby Joeys, the mothers shot, the baby still alive but helpless. The hunters take the baby animal and swing it by its hind legs, dashing its head on the nearby Ute (that ubiquitous Aussie truck), or in one especially sickening scene, the man stands on a tiny infant Joey after pulling it from the pouch of the dead mother. Yes, I did warn you, there are some stomach-turning scenes here. I’m an old horror fiend, grew up in that first wave of unregulated “video nasties”, and can take all sorts of gore on film. If it is fictional. Seeing it inflicted on an animal for real. Not so much.

The film doesn’t use these tactics just as shockers to get your attention and raise your awareness though, it is quite clear how stressful and disturbing this is to the film-makers and to the activists who are gathering this evidence, often at the risk of their own life. One couple who film and collect evidence bought land as a preserve for wildlife, but the law allows neighbouring farmers to drive onto their land and kill roos legally. Yeah, imagine a bunch of gun nuts on a truck in the dark of an outback night driving right past your house on your ground firing away and imagine not just the animal slaughter on your own property but how easily that could end in a human tragedy too. They gather evidence in film and, gruesomely, in body parts, that are then examined by vets to prove violations of the hunting rules. The government has largely ignored such evidence before, but with green politicians getting into office now they have politicians who are able to highlight this evidence, and as well as taking it to Aussie authorities, media and people to expose the reality, they take it to other countries who import kangaroo products, which hits the industry where it hurts (suddenly big sports stars like Beckham find out their footie boot leather came from kangaroos and how they were killed, and the major companies like Adidas, unsurprisingly, soon also decide this is not good).

Maybe you aren’t an animal lover and are wondering why you should be bothered. There is more here than just respect for nature and animals though – the big industry sways government policy (you know, governments, who are meant to represent the people, not corporations) and attempts to do similar abroad (one sequence shows some rather underhand shenanigans as they try to influence Californian politicians to lift a ban in imports). And then there is the health question – the roo meat for human consumption does not get the same strict hygiene rules that beef or pork does. The shooters drive through the outback at night, shoot a roo, hang it on the back of the Ute, gut it then and there (another pretty awful scene to watch – blood, knife, innards and bolt-cutters for those strong legs. Yes, shudder), then drive on looking for more. They all have to be shot between dusk and dawn when it is cooler, but as this is allowed at night it can regularly be over 30 degrees centigrade. And it takes all night to fill the truck, so imagine all those corpses hanging in that heat for hours before being driven some distance to the nearest refrigerated storage chiller. Driven in heat on dusty, fly-ridden roads while exposed to all of that contamination and heat, spoiling away. Independent studies of roo meat on sale in shops showed high levels of salmonella and e.coli. So even if you don’t care about animal welfare and enjoy your red meat, you should be worried about this.

It’s often a hard film to watch, there are some truly disturbing scenes, but that’s part of what makes this such a powerful documentary, and the way it covers the other strands, from the big industry-government collusion, the media buying unquestioningly into the much-peddled lies (“they are vermin and need to be exterminated”, “upsetting the natural balance”), the clearly dodgy “science” government agencies use to “prove” animal numbers (which don’t stand up to even basic logical scrutiny) and the public health threat is well handled and gives a rounded picture, rather than simply dwelling on the hideously huge slaughter. The fact much of this is beautifully shot, taking in that astonishing Australian outback and the gorgeous, iconic animals themselves adds a powerful contrast to the more disturbing scenes, while the film itself lays bare not just the monstrous slaughter (millions of animals a year) and the inhumanity of it, but asks upsetting questions about just how humans, as a species, see the natural world as a resource to be used and consumed.

This review was originally penned for Live For Film

Edinburgh International Book Festival 2018

I’ve just been enjoying a couple of weeks at the world’s largest literary festival, the Edinburgh International Book Festival, seeing a number of fascinating author events and also being fortunate enough to chair several comics and science fiction events too, from Young Adult science fiction and graphic novels to graphic non-fiction covering science, gender and history, as well as taking in two very famous, gifted but different artists, Mr Alan Lee, and Scotland’s own Frank Quitely.

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The comics folks were out in force on the first day of the book festival, with the Edinburgh Comic Art Festival gang organising a free comics fair for small press and Indy creators in the hotel right across the road from the main festival in Charlotte Square, which was a very nice touch, giving the small press comickers a chance to shine at such a huge lit fest, in the middle of a city buzzing as the Fringe and International Festival were also going on and it feels like half the planet has packed into our ancient volcanic city to enjoy the biggest arts and culture bash in the world, a terrific place for our fellow comickers to strut their funky stuff.

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The opening day also saw the regular lovely old Spiegeltent being used for more events, with a talk involving BHP Comics’ Sha Nazir and Heather Palmer and 404 Ink’s Laura Jones discussing We Shall Fight Until We Win, an all-woman creator anthology celebrating the centenary year of (some) women in the UK getting the vote, with a female figure from each decade of that century explored by the different writers and artists. Both Indy Scottish presses, BHP and 404 Ink, had collaborated on this, and in a remarkably brief timescale – much of the writing, drawing and editing was achieved within a couple of months. Larger publishers would probably still be going over contracts at that point, but small publishers can be swifter and more nimble on this kind of turnaround, as the panel explained. The audience was pleasingly mixed, as far as I could see, comics readers but also a lot of regular book festival goers who had come along partly out of interest in the subject and also perhaps to help support local publishers.

I had the most people I’ve ever had on stage at any event I’ve chaired at the festival for a SelfMadeHero evening, which included John Harris Dunning and Michael Kennedy talking about the amazing Tumult and Javi Rey discussing his beautiful graphic adaptation of Jesus Carassco’s Out in the Open. Javi’s English was fine for one on one chats but on stage we had an interpreter, Carolina, so all in all there were five of us packed onto the small stage (Carolina is also an Indy publisher as well as interpreter, and she brought that to the proceedings too).

Both books were very different, but there was a lot of common ground too, especially in the way the two different artists had used light and colour, and rather nicely it ended up being one of those events where instead of just me asking questions the comickers all started commenting on each other’s answers and asking each other questions too. There was a lovely flow between Michael’s art and John’s writing in Tumult, the art achieving the difficult task of showing the same woman but hinting at the different personalities which manifest in her, while Javi chose to adapt the novel into comics by dropping most of the words, letting the art – including some stunning, Sergio Leone-esque landscapes – carry the story, more an interpretation than adaptation. Interestingly he told us the publisher in Spain approached him and asked him to adapt the hugely successful novel into comics form. At the post-event signing Javi produced his watercolours box and proceeded to paint colour art for every person who signed. I can’t recommend Tumult and Out in the Open highly enough, two of the most fascinating and beautifully crafted graphic novels I’ve read this year.

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I was delighted to see Darryl Cunningham, returning to the book festival (he was here previously for Supercrash), bringing his quite excellent Graphic Science from Myriad Editions (reviewed here) to the festival. He had been put on with computer scientist Ursula Martin, who had written on one of the woman pioneers of computer science, the great Ada Lovelace, which proved a good match as Darryl’s graphic work explores several scientists who are less well known and respected than they should be because of gender, class, income or colour, and it was a good reminder of the power of intellect and learning, for the individual of any kind, and the positive effects their work, if they are given the chance, can have on a wider society. I was also cheered when Darryl was introduced as writing graphic non fiction but in his talk he said some of the terms like that applied to creators were clumsy, and he said he simply thinks of himself as a cartoonist. I was very proud to hear him use the “C” word.

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Frank Quitely gave a great late night talk at the festival, taking his recent Drawings + Sketches art book published by Glasgow-based BHP Comics as the basis of the evening. Frank had pages of his work from the Drawings book on screen, and he and chairperson Stuart Kelly used those as a good way to explore not just Frank’s impressive body of work, from Broons parody The Greens in Electric Soup many years ago in Glasgow to major works from US publishers such as We3 with Grant Morrison and Jupiter’s Legacy with Mark Millar. The fact this covered everything, from the roughest doodles and sketches to variations in ideas for characters, costumes, layouts, all the way to the finished works, gave the large audience a terrific insight into the creative process.

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Frank was also generous with his praise for others, such as the writers he has worked with, the importance of work largely unseen by readers proved by editors and others behind the scenes, and discussing some of the other creators whose work he hugely admires. Dave Gibbons was one artist Frank singled out for praise, mentioning how every so often he likes to take out Watchmen and have a look at some specific scenes, to see just how Dave planned and drew them, except, he added with a smile, the story is so well done that he soon finds himself reading away, lost in it, before remembering he was meant to be studying Dave’s art and layouts from a technical point of view. Despite it being a late evening event the turnout was good and there was a solid line for the signing session afterwards (props to the bloke who arrived clutching a branded bag from the sadly now defunct Plan B Books in Glasgow).

I was very pleased to see Jean-Pierre Filiu returning to the festival this year. Jean-Pierre, a former French diplomat, now writer, lecturer and historian, wrote the absorbing trilogy of graphic history/politics books The Best of Enemies, a history of US-Middle East relations from the very creation of the American Republic in the late 1700s to the modern era. The series offers a fascinating insight into this complex history of competing influences and alliances, wrapped up in some truly astonishing artwork by one of France’s greatest comickers, David B.

Last time he was here Jean-Pierre explained there would be a gap between book two and three as the demands of the complex artwork had exhausted David B, and he required a break. The third volume was published in English by SelfMadeHero earlier this year (see my review here), and was one I was eagerly awaiting. Jean-Pierre commented how the third volume, covering the most recent years, was in many ways the hardest to do, principally because this was a period he had personally experienced (he was actually in Baghdad one evening as Allied airstrikes hit it, a planned outing to a classical concert changed to a cellar after the venue was hit by a Tomahawk missile), and how much harder it was to maintain balance and not become too emotionally entangled.

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He also explained the final pages, wordless images of a wide selection of men and women from across the Middle East, Arab, Israeli, young, old, all just looking out of the page at us, looking directly at us as if to say “what will you do? How will you help make this better? We’re just people like you and want to live with our families in safety and prosperity”. Fascinating and extremely compelling, and not a little emotional too.

I had the pleasure of chairing some events in the Children’s Programme this year too; I’ve chaired author events many times before at the festival, but this was the first time I worked on the kid’s programme events, and it really was fun. I had a terrific chat about YA science fiction with Barbados writer Karen Lord (who has one of the brightest and bestest smiles I’ve ever seen) about The Galaxy Game, a follow-up to The Best of All Possible Worlds, and Paul Magrs (who many of you will know for his Doctor Who and Big Finish tales) who was there with the third part of his Lora Trilogy, The Heart of Mars, following a young teenage girl’s journey to save her family and friends across a future, terraformed Mars.

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While both books were very different they had a lot in common, both with complex and well-realised societies with rich traditions and customs, and both, I found as I read, avoided the “omniscient narrator” and gave the reader only the same information as the main characters, which had the effect of placing us right there in the journey with them, learning right alongside them, this process immersing us more into the book and cultures and also empathising more with the characters.

The theme of this year’s book festival was freedom, and Gutter Magazine had produced The Freedom Papers, a collection of personal essays on what freedom means to different people, by over fifty writers from around the world, including Karen and Paul, and instead of reading from their own books they both read their essays. Given some dozen important authors (many from African and Middle Eastern countries) were blocked by the incompetent, Kafka-esque Home Office from obtaining their visas to visit the book festival, this discussion on freedom was all too relevant to those of us at the festival – freedom of movement is important, denying it can be, in effect, a form of censorship, and for a government to stop so many lauded writers from entering the UK to its largest celebration of the written word was utterly shameful and hardly does much to enhance the UK’s reputation of being open to the world.

Also on the children’s programme I got to work not only with a pair of Nobrow/Flying Eye creators, Alexis Deacon, there with the first two volumes of his beautifully illustrated YA fantasy graphic novels Geis (pronounced Gesh, as in the old Gaelic term for a form of curse or enchantment), and Joe Todd-Stanton with the second of his Brownstone’s Mythical Collection tales, Marcy and the Riddle of the Sphinx, and The Secret of Black Rock. Joe’s work mixed elements of the classic children’s picture book format with elements of comics to create a delightful hybrid, and boasted some quite gorgeous scenes – in fact Alexis drew attention to a two-page spread by Joe depicting the Egyptian god Ra’s sunboat traversing the sky, all shown in a cutaway fashion, like those lovely Dorling Kindersely books, and the audience of youngsters all agreed with him how beautiful some of those scenes were. It’s always nice when instead of just you as chair asking the authors questions, they interact with each other and discuss each other’s work and processes on stage too, and it becomes more of a natural conversation rather than interview.

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With so many young readers in the audience both Alexis and Joe were happy to discuss how they got into illustration and comics (in Alexis’ case this was his first proper comics works, his previous, award-winning works being picture books, but he had long harboured a desire to do longform comics), and how they create their works, from ideas for a story and little doodles to the finished page. Unsurprisingly many of the youngsters there liked the idea of making their own stories and comics, and they seemed to especially enjoy hearing Joe and Alexis explaining to them about how they go about making their tales and their art.

As part of the Scottish Government’s Year of Young People a group of schoolchildren – calling themselves Codename F – worked with the festival programmers on choosing events, and in fact Alexis and Joe were authors they had specifically asked to have at the festival (you can imagine how delighted they were to learn that!). Three of these youngsters took part in the event with us, talking to us beforehand in the Author’s Yurt, they then introduced the three of us at the start of the event (unusual experience for me, normally I am introducing the author, this time I was being introduced with them!) and they had lined up questions for the audience Q&A segment after our on-stage chat. The kids were so enthused at being part of the book festival, and over the moon at meeting some of the authors they had loved reading, getting to talk to them, getting their books signed (both Alexis and Joe did them lovely wee sketches too), they were absolutely beaming, one youngster telling us that this was the best day of his life. It was wonderfully sweet, even to a cynical old bookseller like me, and quite wonderful to see the children so involved and happy at book events. I think that was one of the nicest events I’ve ever done…

On the last day of the festival on the holiday Monday I had my last event, and boy, what an event to finish on: illustration royalty in the form of the great Alan Lee. HarperCollins are publishing the final JRR Tolkien tale, The Fall of Gondolin, this week and this was the first proper event in the world to celebrate that landmark. Ironically this final publication is the earliest Middle Earth tale – Tolkien himself noted in a letter to a friend that this was the first proper tale in his world that he ever started – begun during a break from the horror of the trenches in the Great War. Tolkien, as he often did, rewrote and changed his story over the years, so much so that although parts have appeared before, the full tale, as seen in this book, was thought unlikely to ever see the light of day. His son Christopher Tolkien painstakingly, forensically reconstructed the full tale from multiple versions and drafts (including one saved from destruction by his mother), and the book comes with copious notes on how he put it together and explaining how it fits into Middle Earth history, which is as compelling as the actual tale.

Who else could illustrate this almost lost tale of the First Age of Middle Earth, millennia before the time of Lord of the Rings, but already setting up ideas and sowing seeds that would come to fruition so much later chronologically, in the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings and Silmarillion except Alan Lee. An impeccable pedigree of world-class illustration in pencils, inks, charcoals, oil and watercolours and awards from the Kate Greenaway Medal to an Academy Award, he is one of the artists most responsible for how legions of readers worldwide visualise the rich tapestry of Tolkien’s Middle Earth (and of course that is why Peter Jackson asked him to work on the films with him).

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Instead of the usual Q&A session format, Alan had explained he had put together an illustrated talk, and I was happy to forego the time for the Q&A to hear it alongside the packed audience. Alan took us through his work in chronological order, from early works with the great Brian Froud in Faeries to illustrations for Rosemary Sutcliff’s acclaimed children’s takes on the Iliad and Odyssey, the glorious illustrated Mabinogion tales (I still have a copy of that edition, those rich, ancient Celtic myths, source material for much Arthurian lore, married to Alan’s paintings, just enchanting) and of course his many Tolkien works, sharing with us sketches and finished paintings from Lord of the Rings to the Fall of Gondolin, and also his works for the film adaptations with Peter Jackson.

Alan showed us a sequence of works depicting the great city of Gondor, explaining how as well as showing the city from the plains he would then make multiple sketches, effectively tools for himself, taking himself through the streets and buildings so he had a full understanding of how it all connected and worked and looked, inside and out. Part of this found him drawing the different levels and streets as Gandalf rides up to the summit of the city; flicking through these sketches quickly was reminiscent of an animatic used by film-makers to plan a sequence, and indeed Alan added that this eventually went on to be used in the film itself. Alan was also kind enough to include a plethora of sketches and other works which he hasn’t published or shared before, save showing to family or friends, including works from notebooks and sketchbooks he carried with him, and a number of landscapes which he liked to capture in a sketch then would often use later for inspiration for book illustrations, noting Tolkien would have approved given the landscape was such a huge inspiration to him and his writing.

The turnout for this event was huge – sadly we ran out of time and didn’t have space to do the usual audience Q&A session, but everyone agreed it was worth sacrificing those moments to let Alan finish his illustrated talk, and the round of applause for this master wizard of the brushes was enormous and heartfelt. The audience did get a chance to ask him questions at the signing session afterwards, and ye gods, what a line! The queue snaked out of the signing tent, down the walkway then doubled back on itself – by the time I had to leave, a full hour and a half after the end of our event, Alan was still signing for a line of people! Rather nicely I noted that he avoided the chair behind the table provided for the signing, and instead chose to stand in front of it to chat to each reader in turn, right next to them, then sign and sketch for them.

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Book Festival After Dark 03

We all know the “Roads go ever ever on, Over rock and under tree”, but here we were, at the end of our journey through Middle Earth, returned to the very beginning, a long journey Alan has also taken with his achingly beautiful art. Although we didn’t get time for a Q&A on stage I did get to chat to him beforehand as we were getting ready, and I asked him if it had been a bit emotional for him, as an artist, to have followed this long journey through Middle Earth, to end up on the final book and going back to the First Age, and yes, of course it had been. A remarkable journey, made all the better for Alan’s artwork keeping us company along the long road.

And now it’s all over for another year, the Book Festival village will be folded away, the Fringe and International Festival have finished, the thronged streets are suddenly passable once more, and the posters for the multitude of events hang slowly fading from walls and railings like ghosts. Always a peculiar feeling just after the festivals finish, a mixture of relief at reclaiming the city and an ennui at the party being over. Until next year, of course…

Judas: a tale of betrayal but also of hope, forgiveness and love

Judas,

Jeff Loveness, Jakub Rebelka, Colin Bell,

Boom! Studios


No… Not here. I don’t belong here. But the voice comes… And whispers the truth:

‘Yes. This was always the end. This was always your story‘”

The most famous betrayal in history; two friends, inseparable then sundered in a violent, bloody scene. No, not friends, more, one a saviour, a messiah, even, the other his devout disciple turned betrayer. Judas Iscariot, condemned for all eternity for betraying Christ to the Romans. In the Inferno Dante condemns him to the ninth circle, the lowest level of Hell, a frozen wasteland where Lucifer is trapped in ice, eternally chewing on the body of Judas, perpetual torment, one betrayer to another.

Or so we’re often taught – certainly the interminably dull Bible studies I was forced to go to on a Sunday as a child only ever gave out the simple, black and white, good and bad version of Judas and Jesus, and discussion or even questions about the more complex issues of morality, predestination and free will were not encouraged there. Not so in fiction, of course, where this tale has been retold and re-examined from many different angles, from Amos Oz and Tosca Lee to, more recently, Maxwell Prince and John Amor’s fascinating Judas: the Last Days (reviewed here).

It’s not hard to see why, it is a tale rich with moral conflict and drama and questions which are hard to answer. Did Judas betray his friend because of an evil streak? Or because Christ had to be sacrificed, and that required him to be the one to hand his friend over to the authorities? And if the latter, did he betray Christ because he was asked by his friend to do it because it had to be done to facilitate that sacrifice (and don’t most of humanity’s gods just love a good sacrifice?), and he was the only one he could trust enough to do the deed, even though he knew he would be vilified forever by his actions?

Or what if it was all God’s will, all pre-ordained that this was the role he was always destined to play? If so then how can he be held responsible for his decisions and actions, if he had only ever been a mere puppet on a string? Loveness and Rebelka’s Judas ponder these moral quandaries, and more, it delves into the personal relationship, humanises these two figures, especially Judas.

The initial set-up is handled with deft economy – the bag of silver coins, the kiss (such intimacy laced with betrayal), the scourging of Jesus. This is a well-known tale and they realise they don’t have to tell all of that, it is signified by a mere three panels on the opening page, then the fate of Judas on the next page, bereft, guilt-ridden, the tree, the rope, all handled in only five landscape-format panels, each one successively narrower, suggesting a rush to the end, the walls of his world collapsing in on him, the colours suffused a blood-red by the setting sun. Those two pages are a wonderful example of the way in which the comics medium can use visual shorthand, just a handful of images and panels, to convey so much meaning, the reader filling in the rest, it’s a splendid use of the medium.

But the final panel, hanging from that tree, silhouetted by the setting sun, a dangling black figure against the dying of the light of day, is not the end of Judas’ story. He opens his eyes again, but now he is in the most wretched place of all, the Pit. And another betrayer – perhaps the very first betrayer – the Fallen one who was once the Bringer of Light, Lucifer, is waiting on him. All his life there has been a second voice in his head, alongside the compelling voice of Jesus asking that he follow him, there was another, which sowed doubt like a farmer sows seed, and now Judas is face to face with him.

He is outraged, he rails against his fate, being so condemned to Hell for eternity, he blames Lucifer, but Lucifer talks to him in a persuasive tone. I didn’t put you here, your God did, your best friend, your Saviour. He compares the life of Judas to his own, how neither of them every really had a choice or chance, that these were the roles God always intended for them in His unfolding story. And if they had no choice then how fair is it that they suffer for those actions for all eternity? And the wider question of the world and humanity, what of them in this story, because, Lucifer explains, the story is broken. And Judas can see his point, he had already wondered when alive, if my friend can raise the dead then why do so many of us grieve for lost loved ones, if he can feed the poor then why do so many starve?

And then they are joined by Jesus, his mortal body dead, his spirit ascends not to Paradise but descends into Hell, weighed down by all the sins of the world he claimed to take upon himself. And here he has no power, he is just a dead man, and, Lucifer tells him, his father cannot hear him, or perhaps he can and simply does not care, it is just another part of this broken plan. And below the higher moral and theological questions, the personal: the damned Judas looks his friend in the face. “Did you know?” he asks. Was I always meant to play this role? How could you do that to someone who loved you? Why would you also then leave them in Hell, when you preach forgiveness, why not forgive him?

For me it is that personal aspect of Loveness and Rebelka’s take that is the heart of it – the moral questions are fascinating (and ultimately, I suspect not ones any of us can truly answer with certainty), but the personal aspect between these two friends turned enemies is not just the dramatic meat of the story, it is the emotional heart, and it is indeed very emotional as they face each other in Damnation. And I will not risk spoiling anything by saying anymore on that subject…

Rebelka’s art is perfectly suited to Loveness’s tale here – those aforementioned first two pages, the masterful economic but powerful few opening panels, the flashbacks to his mortal life as he becomes a disciple, often cast in warm, sepia and red tones, in contrast to the black and blue desolation of the Pit he finds himself in after death. There are some clever little detailed touches too – the old tradition, still practised in the likes of the Eastern Orthodox Church, of showing a saint’s halo like a golden disc behind their head is taken here, except the damned Judas has a black halo-disc.

The darkness of it hints at his eternal damnation, and yet the fact he still has a sort of halo also possibly infers a spark of the divine exists in him, the spark that made him a disciple when he was alive, and that in turn hints at hope, and hope may be the one force that can fix the broken story Lucifer told him of so bitterly. Colin Bell’s lettering is perfect, the speech bubbles from Jesus in a red ink, hinting at the compelling power of his voice (shades of Preacher?), and this is also used to fine effect in Hell where the lettering changes mid-sentence from red to a regular black as his power fades in Hell and he is just another dead human soul.

This is a fascinating story, delving into deep moral and theological questions about our freedom of will versus the possibility of all of our supposed choices being pre-ordained, that we are just actors in a story laid down before we were born, and it that is the case then the Creator who decided that surely must be flawed… But at the deepest level it is a story about friendship, about betrayal, yes, but not just the obvious one of Judas (did Jesus, in effect, betray his friend, condemning him into this hateful role?), and ultimately about three of those most delicate and yet desperately-needed aspects of our lives, three qualities that are so closely related: forgiveness, hope and love.