Traces of the Great War

Traces of the Great War,
Image Comics

(cover artwork by Dave McKean)

In the approach to the 1914 centenary I was fortunate enough to be one of the contributors for To End All Wars, edited by Jonathan Clode and John Clark (aka the cartoonist Brick), a graphic anthology timed for the start of the centenary of the Great War. One of our aims was to tell stories from all sides, using an international group of writers and artists, to avoid the poison of jingoism, to instead go behind the horrible litany of statistics of casualties and tell stories about the actual people. If truth is indeed the first casualty of war then perhaps individuality is the second – too easy to lose those who endured those times in vast legions.

Seeing individual people, people like us, people we can recognise, empathise with, humanises those events at a level we can comprehend emotionally as well as intellectually, and in Traces of the Great War, which draws on an international array of writers and artists, and quite a diverse crew at that, from bestselling novelist Ian Rankin working with the excellent Sean Phillips to Juan Díaz Canales (co-creator of the magnificent Blacksad, for my money one of the finest comics creations of the last couple of decades) to the brilliant Dave McKean collaborating with the poet Simon Armitage, Mary and Bryan Talbot, I Kill Giants co-creators Joe Kelly and Ken Niimura, to Marguerite Abouet (author of the wonderful Aya graphic novels) and Ergün Gündüz.

As with any anthology it always feels a bit unfair to single out some stories over others, but I can’t really go through every individual story here, and of course it is in the nature of collections that some elements will stand out to different readers, so not disrespect is intended to those I didn’t single out here – in truth I don’t think there was a weak link in this chain of tales, they all had something to commend them, and all took different aspects of that century ago war and the people who took part, and played them out with interesting hooks to capture the modern reader’s attention and take them not only back to that time, but to see how linked Then and Now actually are, that we today are all part of the same great tapestry that those earlier people were already woven onto, and to do so with much emotional honesty.

The collection starts with Robbie Morrison and Charlie Adlard’s “Without a Trace”, which manages the neat trick of being a century-later epilogue of sorts to the pair’s earlier WWI graphic novel White Death, but which can be read by anyone with no knowledge of that earlier work perfectly well. White Death dealt with one of the often overlooked arenas of this global devastation – the Italian-Austrian front in the Alps, where men had to combat the mighty peaks, snow and ice as well as the enemy shells and bullets. As with the better-known Western Front, even a hundred years on remains are still uncovered from time to time. In France and Belgium it is known as part of the “iron harvest” when the plough turns up old bullets, shell casings, helmets and often bodily remains of the fallen.

(Without a Trace, by Robbie Morrison and Charlie Adlard)

As with Flanders Fields so too in the remote, sublime beauty of the mountains; Morrison and Adlard have a carefree group of teens on an Alpine walk finding the remains of an Italian soldier of the Great War. Their shock quickly gives way to an all-too-modern reaction, the urge to take photos on their mobile phones. Their brief horror is replaced with larking about, until one youngster points out that this could have been their grandad’s father, that this was a person and that someone, somewhere was waiting for him to come home and never learned what happened to him or even had the small mercy of burying their fallen loved one. It’s short but packs in a huge emotional punch, and it’s a reminder of why, as we now move out of the range of living memory of those days, that each generation has to be taught about them.

Rif Reb takes an unlikely protagonist, a young punk anarchist in Paris, at a rich friend’s party, bored, escaping the crowd to explore the house’s library, finding (and stealing) a book of WWI poems written in a Haiku form, that speaks to this rebellious teen in a way the history books had not, leaving an indelible mark. Jean-David Morvan, Scie -Tronc and Hiroyuki Ooshima’s “Mines for the Miner” took the war under the tortured earth of the Western Front, with a young Welshman, a miner in civvy street like so many back then (most of those pits, like the war itself, are now history) finds himself once more pressed into digging dangerously below the land, but this time to “undermine” the enemy positions, a centuries old tactic used from the days of besieging castles before cannon existed, except here the miners and sappers would then leave an enormous explosive charge under the enemy lines.

(Unfathomable Imprints by Riff Reb)

My grandfather was a miner, severely injured by his time in the pits in the days when Health and Safety rules didn’t exist and working men were expendable cogs in the machine. This story captures that feeling of the civilian miner, a dirty, dangerous job that took so many of their lives, then adds in the complexity of war on top of it. Aurélien Ducoudray and Efa’s “Body to Body” sees an older Lady of the Night and a mutilated soldier in the bordello behind the lines, but instead of sex for sale the pair find some sort of comfort in comparing and explaining their respective war wounds, his bayonet scar, her Cesarean scar and so on. It’s a fascinating and unusual angle to take on emotional and physical trauma, drawn in a way that is intimate without being sexualised, despite the setting.

When did war become entertainment?

Ian Rankin is best known for his international best-selling crime novels, but he has penned a couple of comics before, and I know he is a voracious reader of comics, so I was interested in seeing what he did in collaboration with veteran comics artist Sean Phillips and Peter Doherty. The result, “War Games” (from whence the above quote comes from), has a man who lost his mother young, and was largely raised by his grandparents. After losing them and then his own father he has to perform that heart-breaking duty we all have to at some point – clearing out the belongings of a loved one who has gone, and in the process finds relics from his grandfather’s service in the Great War. Right away his memory takes him back to being a wee boy, out with his granddad, being taken to visit Edinburgh Castle, where his grandfather shows him a book of remembrance in the National War Memorial there, with the names of some of his old comrades. It didn’t mean much to the wee boy, as he says he remembered the ice-cream granddad bought him afterwards more vividly. But now he is a grown man with life experiences, he thinks back to what his grandfather was trying to tell him, to pass on to him a piece of living memory. He starts to explore this past, intertwined with his work running a modern-day computer games company, with perhaps a view to using some of the settings in a new video war game.

(War Games by Ian Rankin and Sean Phillips)

“War Games” works cleverly on several levels – there’s that reminder that the elderly, frail veteran you see was not always old, once he was young and strong, and he went through experiences that thankfully most of us today never will when he was that young man. It’s easy, especially with the cockiness of youth at times, to forget that older people were once our age, once younger. The story also works on that regret at not understanding that when young, when those people were still around. I’m sure I am not alone in wishing that I could, as an adult, speak again to old family members and family friends, to try and draw from them those stories to preserve them and pass them on. But we can’t go back; I was too young to ask and write down those stories before those I knew faded away and it is an eternal regret. I suspect many of us feel that way in later life. Of course, if you do get the luxury of exploring some of that past, it may lead you to down pathways you never thought it would, to see that now-gone loved one in a very different way – could that gentle old grandfather really once have shoved a bayonet into the body of another young man and twisted it? It’s a horrible thought, but we all have a past and for those who served that often means a past they couldn’t talk about, taking their stories with them to the tomb, lost to us forever.

Space doesn’t permit me to go into detail on every story, but before I conclude I have to make special mention of the collaboration between the great Dave McKean and the acclaimed poet Simon Armitage, with “Sea Sketch” and “Memorial”. November 2018 marked not only the centenary of the Armistice which ended the War to End All Wars (while sowing the bitter seeds of the next war), it also marked a hundred years since the war poet Wilfred Owen fell, only days before the Armistice. The poetry of Owen and others is one of the ways that we still experience the visceral, emotional impact of that war; those who served are now all gone from us, but their experiences, in their own words, are still with us. I’ve always thought poetry has a certain power that even the most lyrical prose can’t quite match; verse has an ability to engage with our higher thinking but also bypass it to deliver a shot directly into our emotional core, it can speak in metaphor and magic in a way that conjures feelings and imagery. With so many now revered pieces of poetry coming from that horrendous time it strikes me as very appropriate to involve one of our better contemporary poets, and putting him together with McKean is a touch of genius, the verse combined with Dave’s artwork has such strong, symbolic, raw, emotional power.

(Sea Sketch by Simon Armitage and Dave McKean)

The ranks of those who survived the slaughter of the War to End All Wars have thinned across the long decades, until finally the last veteran has departed to join his old comrades in whatever comes after this life. A full century has passed since the guns fell silent. But the echoes of those events still follow each generation down the decades – they shaped the events which came after them, which in turn shaped the events of the world our parents grew up in, that shaped our own and in turn will shape the world we pass on to the next generation. History is never truly about the past because history is never truly over, it’s all part of that same grand tapestry I mentioned earlier, and we are part of it, shaped by it and shaping it in turn.

It’s why it is important to understand those events and to comprehend their continuing influence on our own times. It’s important to remember that the Big Events of history were made by many people, all individuals, and we should not, cannot turn them into ranks of numbers and statistics but should recall them as people, like us, because many of them were us, they were our own families. And that simply we should always Remember. Traces of the Great War brings out that history but weaves it with the present, the consequences political, geographical, economic, that we still live with, but most of all it reminds us of the living, breathing people who once thought and dreamed and loved and were taken from us. But we Remember.

You can read my own story, Memorial to the Mothers, illustrated by Kate Charlesworth, from the earlier WWI collection To End All Wars, for free here on my blog.

Moonrise Kingdom

Watched the Moon rising over McEwan Hall the other evening, from the roof terrace of the National Museum of Scotland (one of the best spots for looking out over the roofs, spires and domes of Edinburgh – and like the museum it’s free):

Winter Moonrise 01

And while I had that elevated vantage point and dusk was falling, I thought I would try to zoom in a bit and see if I could get a Moon shot too:

Winter Moonrise 02

Then as night fell properly I went for a stroll with camera and tripod, over to Bristo Square and Edinburgh University to take a pic of the Teviot, which is the oldest purpose-built student union in the world (and resembles what Hogwart’s student union would look like if they served booze). Used to enjoy the regular CeilidhPartyDisco nights there when I was an undergrad (live band Ceilidh for first half of night, then late night disco, we had fun), still a hugely popular venue:

Bristo Square at night 02

And then the recently refurbished and enhanced McEwan Hall at night – this is just half an hour or so after the shot at the top of the dome with the Moon rising above it, already full darkness fallen. This is where my graduation ceremony took place, we all stood in this square afterwards taking photos with our families, feels like a lifetime ago now:

Bristo Square at night 04

“I was always a mad comet…”

I was always a mad comet, a dark star...”

Phillip Hoare’s short film about the poet Wilfred Owen has a sad beauty to it:

Owen died on this day, one hundred years ago, killed just days before the 1918 Armistice would silence the guns of the Great War, into whose dark maw so many legions marched, never to return. I think of Owen often at this time of year, not just for his powerful poetry from the trenches, but because of his local connection to me. Recuperating from Shell Shock he was sent to Craiglockhart, just a short walk from my flat in Edinburgh (enlisted men were rarely so fortunate, they were told they were “cowards” if they showed Shell Shock, or if treated were given brutal regimes like ECT. Not so the officers, of course).

It was there Owen was encouraged by a pioneering doctor to use his dreams and nightmares from the trenches in his writing, and meets fellow poet Siegfried Sassoon, both of these changing his writing style, increasing the power he pours into his verse. While recuperating there he would sometimes guest as a literature teacher at the school around the corner from my home; he probably strolled right past my street. Edinburgh is like that, it has as many layers of literary history and connections as it has complex volcanic geology. Here the road Sassoon and Owen walked on their way into town, arm in arm, discussing poetry. There where Stevenson ducked out of university classes in his velvet coat, to head to the pub around the corner from my old work. There where Conan Doyle met Bell, who would become his model for Holmes, here, behind rows of tenements and houses, the school where Muriel Spark studied, where a teacher would become part of her notion for Miss Brodie. Here’s where Robert Burns stayed, there is the grave of his beloved Clarinda, in the same kirkyard as his poetic muse, Fergusson.

Edinburgh it still like that – there’s the literary salon, the regular book clubs, the book festival, there are the cafes Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter book in because it was cheaper than trying to heat her home when she had no money, there’s the pub where the fictional Inspector Rebus drinks, and his creator, Ian Rankin too. As a lifelong reader and as a bookseller it’s one of the aspects of Edinburgh that makes me love living here; the written word here is written into the cityscape…

Memorial to the Mothers

Several years ago Jonathan Clode and John Stuart Clark (who has long cartooned under his pen-name of Brick, his graphic memoir Depresso made my best of the year list in 2011) were trying to put together an interesting project, an anthology of stories to mark the centenary of the start of the First World War, To End All Wars, to be published by the fine Indy UK publisher Soaring Penguin Press. Along with others in the comics community I put out a signal boost (on the sadly now defunct Forbidden Planet Blog) for the call for contributors, with a desire to avoid jingoism and nationalism, to include writers and artists from different countries who would tell tales (often inspired by real people and events) taking in the different sides in that dreadful conflict, the many arenas, from the hell of the Western Front to the frozen slaughter in the Alps, beneath the waves, in the air.

To End All Wars 01
(cover for To End All Wars by Elizabeth Waterhouse)

As 2014 approached there were many plans to mark the centenary, more than a few in very respectful and emotional ways. But, as ever, there were those who (usually for political, ideological reasons) who tried to argue this was not an occasion for reflection but tried to claim the more “glorious” side of war (yes, Michael Gove, we’re looking at you and your ilk). Above all else none of us involved wanted that, if anything we stood by Wilfred Owen’s line about “the old lie; Dulce et Decorum est Pro Patria Mori”, how sweet it is to die for one’s country. We had no time for those who would hide horror in some imagined glory, we wanted to tell stories about actual people caught up in this vast conflagration, the people behind those awful lists of statistics of dead and wounded and missing.

In the end more than fifty writers and artists would take part, from thirteen different countries, including Brick and Jonathan who also created stories as well as herding the cats by bringing together and editing all the stories from those different creators in different countries. No-one felt comfortable with earning anything from this, we decided that monies instead would go to Medecins Sans Frontieres, the medical charity that has and continues to help  victims of wars. I’m told that overall we raised some £3, 500 pounds for that cause. The anthology got some nice coverage on the BBC site, and at the annual Eisner Awards, the major comics gongs, given out at the huge San Diego Comic Con, we found ourselves with two nominations. We didn’t win, but for an anthology like this from a small Brit publisher to get to that level of recognition from fellow comickers was wonderful (I am still happy to tell people I was in a double Eisner nominated book!).

Garden of Remembrance 04
(one of the personal crosses in the Garden of Remembrance which has just opened in Princes Street Gardens)

There were some people I knew taking part, such as Brick himself, Selina Lock, my old pals Andy Luke and Sean Michael Wilson. So many I hadn’t heard of before, some of whom would create stories here that have remained in my head ever since, such as Stuart Richards’ Il Gatto (a wordless tale following a real-life event of a cat who went between the lines in the war in the Alpine peaks), Ian Douglas and Stjepan Mihaljevic’s Dead in the Water had haunting imagery from the U-Boat war, both the sailors above and those in their steel coffins below.

Near my home in Edinburgh there is an old cemetery, the centre deliberately allowed to overgrow to offer a mini wildlife refuge in an urban area. As with many such places it contains Commonwealth War Graves. One in particular has always captured my attention as, unusually, it is a double memorial a father, Private James Allan, and his son, Pipe Major James Allan, both from the famous Royal Scots, the father killed at the end of The War to End All Wars, his son killed in the war that came after that one, during the fall of France. Eerily both were the same age when they lost their lives. I often wondered if the father had comforted himself during his battle that at least his young son would grow up safe, because who would ever be foolish enough to start another war after this one?

Dalry boneyard 05

I had shown a photo of their gravestone to Brick, who commented that there was a story in there, and perhaps I should consider trying to pen one myself. I thought about it, and the first ideas seemed too cliched. I let it sit in the back of my head until an idea just came to me – two names on there, father, son. But there was a third casualty, whose name didn’t appear there, the wife, the mother. And as I thought of that I realised by extension that all of the many war memorials, from the smallest wooden tablet in an old church hall to large stone obelisks in city centres, also lacked the name of those other casualties, the mothers, the wives, the sisters. Women who had loved those men only to see them ripped away violently from them, left with a wretched wound that went down to their very souls, the walking wounded whose names were never etched on any monument.

I had my way into the story; I wasn’t satisfied unless I could find an emotional key to it, I felt it had to have that emotional weight, partly for the reader, but also partly from respect for what those mothers had gone through. I think I channeled a lot of my own grief from the sudden loss of my own mother into the writing. I write every week, but since we lost mum I hadn’t penned a story, reviews, interviews, articles, yes, but the spark for narrative was dampened, but I had a strong urge to do this one, and wrote it in a few hours without stopping, stream of consciousness style, then did a little pruning and editing. I thought perhaps I put too much into it, took some out, but Brick and Jonathan told me not to hold back, put it all in.

Kate Charlesworth, veteran comicker, fresh from creating the art with Mary and Bryan Talbot for the superb Sally Heathcote, Suffragette, kindly agreed to do the art. The rest of the collection is in comics format, but our story, which would close the book, was prose by me with illustration by Kate. My few visual ideas weren’t terribly insightful, but as Grant Morrison once said, writers should trust their artists on the art – they know more about it than scribes. And Kate came up with some beautiful ideas I’d not have thought of, such as the little mementoes like baby boots or locks of hair that mothers keep, or the bookending of the pages with a group of women from all walks of society (because this conflict crossed all lines) seeing their men off to war with a similar image of mothers from different cultures and countries clutching pictures of their lost loved ones from all the too many damned wars we’ve had since then. It was beautiful, emotional, worked so well with the words, and I admired that Kate carefully avoided using any military or combat imagery.

Four years on and the book is almost out of print – you can’t find it on online bookstores like Amazon (except second hand), but Soaring Penguin still has a very few left, so you can buy it from there (and two pounds from each book sale still goes to MSF). We started this journey to coincide with the 1914-2014 centenary. As this November sees the centenary of the Armistice in 1918 I wanted to do something, and after seeing the Garden of Remembrance opening in Princes Street Gardens a few days ago I thought perhaps I could post the pages of my and Kate’s story online for anyone to read, and take from it what they will. I asked Brick and Jonathan and Kate, and they all were supportive of the idea, as were Tim and John at Soaring Penguin.

So here we are, from To End All Wars, prose by me, art by Kate Charlesworth, “Memorial to the Mothers” as our little but heartfelt addition to this centenary year, and, hopefully, a reminder to always, always hold those who would lead us into violent conflict to account, because it is those in power who make those decisions, but it is rarely them who pay the price in blood and broken bodies and heartbreak.

Deliciously disturbing Brit folk-horror in Lip Hook

Lip Hook,
David Hine and Mark Stafford,
SelfMadeHero

Arriving just at the right time of year, as the light retreats in the face of the long, dark, dark nights, Hine and Stafford’s Lip Hook promises a deep, deliciously disturbing read right from the front cover onwards. In fact I sometimes get a vibe on some books, before even starting them, a sixth sense (caused by a papercut by a radioactive book page) that steers me to a book that I just know I am going to love. I’ve learned to trust that instinct over the years, and Lip Hook was radiating that vibe to me before I even started it – once more I was glad I listened to my reading instincts, because it was a delectably creepy and disturbing read, awash in rich symbology, riffing on folklore twisted like a wind-gnarled coastal tree to suit the story’s own particular ends, and with a strong gender element.

Lip Hook revels in that rich tradition of British folk-horror; The Wicker Man and, more recently, Richard Rowntree’s Dogged (reviewed here earlier this year) came to my mind as I read, and in more than a few scenes that creepy short musical riff from Blood on Satan’s Claw would play in my head (horror film fans, you know that piece of music I mean), and classic Pertwee-era Who, The Daemons, also popped into my head several times while reading, and it is no bad thing when a horror tale evokes those predecessors for me.

Vincent and Sophia are on the run, high-tailing it from some unspecified crime, pursued by some group we never see but whose threat drives them to veer off the main road to Lip Hook, one of those small, all but forgotten villages that seems as if it is not only at the edge of the world, but a place caught in its own, little, twisted reality, regardless of the big world outside. Everything here is off – some things only slightly odd, others, increasingly as the narrative unfolds, are frighteningly wrong and twisted, and that feeling of unease grows and swells in the reader’s mind as they are drawn into this isolated village, surrounded by threatening marshes and the omnipresent (and apparently dangerous) fog.

Even the characters are visually disturbing – Vincent reminded me (in the good way) just a little of Marc Hempel’s interesting take on Loki in the Sandman: the Kindly Ones in terms of looks, while our first glimpse of Sophia, headscarf on as she drives, sunglasses like pilot’s goggles, long coat, made me think of a meaner, nastier version of Penelope Pitstop. In fact pretty much all of the characters here have something visually wrong and off-putting about them, including other main players that you actually like, such as local youngsters Falcon and Cal, with others among the locals looking even more unusual and unsettling.

Lip Hook is full of grotesques. It made me think of some of the odd-looking secondary characters Sergio Leone often used in his films, with strange features that he would let the camera dwell on, creating a strange mix of fascination (we can’t look away) and revulsion in the viewer. Here Stafford deploys that device to great effect – it isn’t just the crumbling village or the mist and marsh environment around it that look wrong, even the people do, and it feeds that sense of unease, that something here is simply, deeply, wrong.

In my view good horror requires an effective atmosphere as much as it does a solid, compelling narrative, and Hine and Stafford pay attention to both, allowing them to weave between each other to build a superbly creepy atmosphere; you could almost be in a crumbling old ruin in a Poe tale or wondering what lies round the corner in Innsmouth…. From larger scenes – Sophia being entirely engulfed at one early point by strange butterflies in the mist – to small details – an old portrait on the pub wall depicts a couple in Victorian finery, but closer inspection shows the well-dressed woman wearing a form of Scold’s Bride – Hine and Stafford build that sense of wrongness and unease until you are bursting for some form of release.

It’s just that what Rosie and Margot said to you… it made it sound like men mess everything up.”

Men run things. Things are messed up. Ergo men mess things up. There’s a neat logic to it.”

Traditional and folkloric elements abound, from cricket on the village green (which alters very quickly to something rather less wholesome) to the masks the locals wear to protect from the mists (some recall those horrifying protective masks worn by Plague doctors). The gender element of folklore is especially strong here, from two local women (and lovers) who still practise a feminine form of natural magic (like Wicca a type that celebrates kindness and goodwill and abhors the bad) to legends of a “hag” burned like a Guy Fawkes dummy, a perverted form of an older, female-centric belief system stamped on by previous generations of men in the area (shades of Witchfinder General and others, the men terrified of the thought of empowered women and seeing them as a threat to against their own power, to be contained).

A couple on the run, a strange, isolated, all but forgotten village wreathed in mysterious, dangerous fogs, people who have disappeared, a vile local nobleman who controls the village (or he thinks he does), hidden secrets coming out (literally and metaphorically), astonishingly grotesque characters and locations permeated with an unsettling atmosphere and a narrative that builds extremely satisfyingly towards a climax, pulling you along with it, lost in the mist with the characters and needing that resolution, whatever it may be, good or ill or both. A superbly atmospheric and deliciously disturbing slice of British folk horror. Read by firelight on the long, long nights while you wonder what lies just outside the comforting, warm glow of light from your windows…

“These are the days of our lives…” – Bohemian Rhapsody

Bohemian Rhapsody,
Directed by Bryan Singer and Dexter Fletcher,
Starring Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Joseph Mazzello, Ben Hardy, Gwilym Lee, Tom Hollander, Aiden Gillen, Allen Leech, Aaron McCusker

Alright, before I start I should hold up my hand and say I am a massive Queen fan. Always have been, so much so that I had to restrain myself from standing up and joining in the actions for some of the musical numbers on offer in Bohemian Rhapsody (nobody needs to see that in public and besides, save it for the special sing-a-long screening). I’m not sure if that means I was likely to be more critical of any film about Freddie and the boys or more easily accepting though. The film, as many of you will know, arrives with a somewhat troubled production history, not least the departure (willing or forced, gossip still circles) of Bryan Singer and a pause on filming, before Dexter Fletcher came on board to finish it. That’s the sort of signs that a movie may be a turkey; I’m glad to say that I didn’t find this the case here.

We open with the band about to get ready to appear on stage at one of the great music events of history – the global-audience of Live Aid, now a legendary gig, with, many would argue, Queen’s electrifying performance being the boost the massive live show needed – before looping back to the early 70s. Young Farrokh Bulsara (Mr Robot’s Rami Malek) is working a low-end job at Heathrow Airport and subject to racial slurs from his colleagues. At home he’s restless, chafing at elements of his Zanzibar and religious upbringing and eager to embrace music culture, escaping at night to watch gigs. It’s there he sees Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) and Bryan May (Gwilym Lee) playing with their three-piece band Smile.

When their singer leaves the band, commenting it is going nowhere, Farrokh – now calling himself Freddie – introduces himself to the band and charms his way into joining them through a mixture of self-confidence and bravado, the embryonic elements that Freddie, when he adopted the Mercury surname, would later channel to such fantastic effect on stage to capture live audiences with some huge success. With bass player John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) joining, and the band changing its name to the grander (and outrageous, as Freddie said) Queen, the classic quartet is set to take on the world, with the film taking in chunks of their career in short bites, recording that first album, the iconic Night at the Opera, the eponymous Bohemian Rhapsody epic track itself, through to the mid 80s and the triumphant Live Aid appearance.

Of course there are flaws, some I would argue are pretty much unavoidable – this is a feature film, not a documentary, so some elements are a little different from parts you may have read in biographies or seen in documentaries, and there is simply no way to do justice to every part of the Queen story, they had a twenty year career at the top of the charts, and you can’t cover everything that happened (for instance we don’t see anything about those post Live Aid albums made as Freddie was dying), you can’t even cover the making of every album and still have a watchable feature film, that’s more for a multi-part documentary. You may argue at some of the moments they decided to include over others, but that would be the case whichever periods of their story they put in or left out.

The film picks out some moments from that career and tries to keep a balance between the show-business moments and the personal lives, including Freddie’s growing realisation that he was gay or bisexual (although it also makes clear how that never changed his lifelong love for Mary Austin, played by Lucy Boynton, including his touching dedication to her of the song “love of my life”), the arguments between the band members, management, labels, the press. But it also includes the good personal moments, most notably the friendship of the four band members that survives fame, success, ego trips, drugs, manipulative hangers-on and more, and remained the core of their identity right to the end of Freddie’s life. We get snapshots of their albums being worked on or their tours, including that amazing moment in Rio (then the largest audience for a live show) where the huge audience sang back to the band, a wonderful moment when they realise how much their fans have taken them to their hearts, with the lion’s share of time given to the Live Aid performance. And it includes nice touches such as Freddie’s beloved cats.

While Hardy, Lee and Mazzello do sterling work essaying Taylor, May and Deacon very well, the film concentrates unashamedly on Freddie, understandably given the wonderfully flamboyant front-man’s theatrical persona and his personal life. And whatever you think of which parts of the band’s career that they chose to show or any other aspects of the film, it is hard to deny just how damned good Rami Malek is as Freddie. It isn’t just the strong physical resemblance (aided by some prosthetics such as the extra teeth Freddie had which gave his mouth that unusual shape), or adopting Freddie’s unique voice, it is right in the core of Malek’s performance, he channels his inner Freddie, the mannerisms, expressions, movements, to a remarkable degree. I’ve read that Malek was determined to do justice to such an amazing performer and was aware how important he was emotionally to a massive number of fans, and by god that determination is there in every frame. It is an astonishing piece of acting, and as with his powerful work in Mr Robot is marks Malek as a young actor we should all be keeping an eye on. He looks as if he could command an audience just like the real Freddie could.

And yes, I did manage to restrain myself to the end, I didn’t stand up and join in the actions for We Will Rock You or Radio Ga Ga. But I think if there is a sing-a-long screening (and I am sure a number of places will do that, somehow!) then I may have to go along and join in unashamedly.

Smile-inducing Brit horror-comedy with The Snarling

The Snarling,
Directed by Pablo Raybould,
Starring Julia Deakin, Joel Beckett, Chris Simmons), Laurence Saunders, Ste Johnson, Albert Moses

Ferocious killings and stroppy actors, who knows which is worse?!? A small village is hosting a movie crew, currently shooting a zombie film, with the star, Greg Lupeen (Laurence Sanders) driving the director and producer mad as they strive to remain calm with a forced “okay, luv at each of his self-obsessed, self-important “I’m the star rants and screaming bouts. Meanwhile in the local pub Mike (Chris Simmons), Bob (Ben Manning) and village idiot Les (Sanders pulling double duty) are discussing the film shoot in their not exactly busy boozer (which is also being used as one of the movie’s locations), and are excited at the thought of playing extras in the film, a wee bit of unusual fun in their quiet small town. And they’re all amused to find that Les looks remarkably like the movie’s star, Greg.

But there’s more going on than the excitement of a movie shoot in a wee village – there’s the little matter of the grisly murders. In fact they don’t look so much like murders as wild animal attacks, the victims ripped apart. Except this is Britain and there aren’t exactly a lot of wolves or bears running around to cause that kind of death, so it must be a murderer, right? And the fact they happened during the full moon and seems similar to other incidents which happened in Wales when the same film crew was working there, that’s just coincidence too, isn’t it?? And the fact the leading man was bitten by a wild animal while filming a scene in a zoo in Wales, and now sufferers strange headaches and more mood swings than usual?

This is an absolute hoot of a Brit comedy-horror, and it clearly knows its audience and plays to it. The puns and jokes are mostly the so-bad-they-are-good variety (deliberately), and like a Carry On movie you can pretty much see the punchline coming, and it doesn’t matter a jot, because you want that punchline, heck you’re probably joining in with it and then laughing happily anyway. The Snarling mines a treasure trove of puns and clichés, such as the hapless, always stuffing his face detective (played by director Raybould) or the lead actor’s name Lupeen (sounding like “lupine”, leading Les to conclude he must be the werewolf, only for his pal to remark yeah, but my dad’s called Leonard, change a letter in his name does that make his a leopard?). This would make a grand night’s fun entertainment as a double bill with Carry On Screaming or Shaun of the Dead.

It’s low-budget and clearly they can’t afford top of the line CG effects for a werewolf, or a Rick Baker practical effects lycanthrope, but they get around, using what they do have, humour, clever editing and cross-cutting, and the dark (one scene involving cyclists being attacked is lit by their bike’s strobing light, which was a clever way to give only glimpses of the monster and also give us another bit of humour at the same time). There’s some really nice attention to detail too, always a good sign of a film crew really trying to go that extra mile – for example, after one of the elderly pub regulars is attacked by the mystery beast you can see a collection tin for him on the bar, and for all the glorying in obvious puns (which I have to say I loved, I mean they had me at that punning title, to be honest) this is also a clever tale, wonderfully threaded with good-natured humour throughout and paying homage to the greats (including American Werewolf) but with its own irreverent yet loving approach. A perfect Saturday night slice of horror-comedy to watch with a bunch of friends.

The Snarling is available on DVD and Digital from November 5th from Left Films

My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies

My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies,
Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips, Jacob Phillips,
Image

What if drugs help you to find the thing that makes you special?

Ellie and Skip meet in the group therapy sessions at the addiction clinic they’ve been committed to, one of those “circle of truth” approaches many therapists seem to love and pretty much everyone else hates. And like many such groups, the “true” stories the patients are made to share are frequently less true than the therapists would like to think – addicts and their ability to lie to suit their circumstances are an integral part of this tale; you really can’t trust what they say about themselves, their past, their motivations.

Which offers up the reader a pretty interesting dilemma – we’re presented with these oh-so-young characters, and we can’t entirely trust what we learn about them. While that is quite a clever device for generating suspense and intrigue for the reader (no godlike narrator who tells the reader everything, we have to take bits and pieces and try and decide which are true), it could also have been a problem. After all, if you can’t be sure what the characters are really like, how can you start to buy into them, empathise with them? It’s an approach which could alienate the readers, but this is Brubaker and Phillips we’re talking about, and they take that potentially double-edged approach and use it quite brilliantly; despite, or perhaps even because we can’t trust their accounts of themselves I found these characters utterly irresistible.

To begin with this feels like the classic star-crossed lovers, a young woman, a young man, pushed together by unusual circumstances, bonding not just through their shared youth but the confinement and the rules of the sanatorium, chafing at them, leaving them eager to strike out against those rules and authority figures. Romeo and Juliet by way of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Those rebellions start small – stealing the head doctor’s cigarettes while she is being lectured (a nice touch, the person telling her how to beat her addiction and how wrong it is to indulge thinks nothing of puffing away on her own addictive thrill while doing so), sneaking out of the building at night to smoke, talk, to make out. Romance and an up-yours to the authority figures at the same time.

This is beautifully handled – Phillips brings just perfect little touches to the visuals, such as a close up on Ellie’s face during the group therapy, her inner dialogue contrasting with what is being openly said in the group session, her gaze catching Skip’s as someone else talks, the expression just perfectly rendered, an elfish, knowing smirk that captures in a single panel how she’s feeling at that moment (as she admits to being a bad influence and having no plans to change), then the following visual interchange between them as the group and therapist continue unaware.

That rebellion will grow, however – sure these are young lovers, full of screw-you attitude, and it is easy to go along with their joie-de-vivre, to hell with the consequences approach. There’s always something intoxicating about that youthful rebellion and we-know-better-than-everyone pose. Except we know there are consequences, and, as noted earlier, these are addicts, we can’t entirely trust their motivations or their life stories. Not everything or everyone is what they seem here, and there will be some revelations, some may not be what you might imagine, although I shall say no more on that front for fear of spoilers.

I guess Billie Holiday is where it started.”

Threaded through all of this is a love of music, of how important music is in many of our lives, how sometimes it feels like a singer has written those lyrics just for us, the soundtrack to moments of our lives. And particularly here so much of the music Ellie loves was created by performers who struggled with addiction. There is a morbid sort of glamour to that, and come on, any of us who love music know that, we’ve felt it – actually we’ve felt it not just with music but with poetry, prose, pretty much every artform humans have crafted has been touched by those who have indulged, many argue for the better.

There are shades of the late, great Bill Hicks here on his stand-up diatribe on the War On Drugs, where he acknowledges the damage drugs can do but also notes how nobody picks up on the other side of it, like the stunning music that came out of some of that psycho-chemical experimentation, the old kicking open the Doors to Perception. There’s a fascination, even a sort of sick romance about all of that, especially tied to that spirit of youthful rock’n’roll rebellion, most of us have felt it, maybe even flirted with it even if just in imagination while blissing out to that music. Ellie tells the therapist as much when it is her turn to talk in the group sessions.

Like Welsh’s Trainspotting though, this book doesn’t glamourise drug use, it shows the mess it can and does make of lives, but it also, like Trainspotting, shows the highs and why they are so attractive – addictive. My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies doesn’t get on the soap-box to preach condemnation, nor does it paint that lifestyle as overly romantic, it mixes both, showing that just like everything else in our lives the positive and negative aren’t always clearly separated, they can be messy, intertwined. That theme is in itself attractive and compelling, but here it is just the garnish to an engrossing story, with shifting sands beneath the changing characters that draw you in deep. It’s simply brilliant. And you’re really, really going to want to make a good playlist to go along with your second reading. I’m starting with some Billie…

Modern Slorance: the Finland Issue

Modern Slorance: the Finland Issue,
Neil Slorance

Saunas, Moomins, Food, Romance and more!

A wee disclaimer before I start: I love Neil Slorance’s comics. I first came across them in the (sadly now defunct) Plan B Books down by the Tron in Glasgow several years ago, and have been following them ever since, and then the all-conquering, award-winning Dungeon Fun with Colin Bell, and now Pirate Fun too (highly recommend those latter two for those of you with kids, they are a delight for adults and even better for young readers, some of the little girls in my own family adore them). I’ve been especially fond of Neil’s travel mini comics such as Seven Days in Berlin, or Nine Lines of Metro. I had heard from his Twitter feed that Neil had been offered a place on a comics art residency in Finland, and had been looking forward to seeing that trip filter its way into his comics, especially as Finland has been making a bit of a name for itself in the last few years with a blooming Indy comics scene (similarly it has been building a rep with the SF&F readers and writers too).

While there are may elements here you’d expect (and indeed would want to see) in one of Neil’s work – some self reflection, the influence of friends, food, exploring, romance and, naturally, the odd tortoise reference – one of the most obvious differences here is the use of full colour for the Finland Issue, a change funded through the use of Kickstarter; this comic comes with lovely, watercolour painted art, and it is a very pleasing addition to Neil’s previous travelogues – even an opening page set in a deeply snowbound forest shines with glorious colour, the greens of the trees and clear, blue skies contrasting with the bright whiteness of the snow, and the use of full colour also allows for some utterly gorgeous scenes, such as single panel depicting the colours of the sunset viewed through the wintery forest. It’s only one panel, but it is one that stops you for a moment, reminds you again that it is worth pausing now and then to raise your head, as that great philosopher Ferris Beuller once told us, to take in little moments of life like the deepening colours of the sky at sunset, the shadows stretching across the land. That is a common thing in Neil’s travel works, I’ve found, and I think it is one of the reasons why they make me smile so much…

It’s a trip which nearly never happened, and in his normal honest way Neil records how he was elated at being offered a place, only to then suffer a lack of self-confidence, stacking up the problems rather than thinking of the opportunities. It’s another facet of Neil’s work that I’d admired in previous comics too, and I suspect his emotional honesty and the way he deals with such problems (often with the help of his friends) is part of why many readers enjoy his work – it’s very open, very human, very empathic. Of course he does get talked around into taking the chance offered (otherwise there would be no comic!) and sets off for the artist’s retreat in a small town outside Tampere, meeting his fellow creators on the residency who, I was pleased to see, were a diverse bunch from various countries.

We follow Neil making friends at the retreat, occasionally “flumping” into a deeper than expected snow patch during forest walks, meeting some friends who come over for a Finnish visit, exploring the local area and customs, such as the famous saunas of Finland, enjoying the dark skies and bright stars over the forest, the Moomins museum (Neil depicts Moomins-esque tortoises, he says to avoid copyright violations, but I suspect also because he just wanted some tortoises in there), and as always, the local food. I recall one of his previous works, I think it was the Berlin Issue, where Neil noted that he had lost weight and I was left wondering how he managed this as each of his travelogues are full of the joys of local food!

And, as advertised, there is romance – after the end of one relationship time had passed and Neil had met someone new, Ashley. Rather nicely he shows how they met when she came in to visit the shop below his studio and saw his comics, it’s beautifully handled, sweet but never too saccharine, just the right, warm balance. Naturally he is missing Ashley, but she’s arranged to meet him towards the end of his Finnish trip and… Well, let’s not spoil everything, other than to say that’s just a lovely sequence, and like so much of Neil’s work it left me with a lovely warm feeling and a huge smile.

You can purchase the Finland Issue and Neil’s other works from his website here, and follow him on Twitter here.

House of Salem

House of Salem,
Directed by James Crow,
Starring Liam Kelly, Jack Brett Anderson, Jessica Arterton, Leslie Mills

First debuting at FrightFest’s New Blood strand in 2016, James Crow’s Brit-horror House of Salem finally gets a DVD release. Josh (Liam Kelly) is a young child with special needs, being left in the care of a teenage babysitter while his parents go for an evening out. As she puts him to bed she teases him that he is getting a bit old for taking a cuddly toy to sleep with – a cuddly lamb – but he is adamant that he needs it and she acquiesces, leaving him to sleep and returning down stairs to indulge in the grand babysitter tradition of chatting on the phone. The peace of a domestic slumbering evening is about to be broken, however, as a group of creepily masked intruders make their way into the home, intent on snatching the boy. So far it’s not that different from any number of other home intrusion thrillers we’ve seen, except Josh hears a spectral warning just before the attack, and attempts to hide and evade his pursuers while his babysitter bravely tries to defend him, but it’s no use, and he is soon in the bag.

Taken to a large but isolated old country house the masked gang, Josh is locked into one of the bedrooms while the gang’s leader Jacob (Leslie Mills) awaits more instructions from their mysterious employers, who will only get in touch via an old, vintage Bakelite landline phone. It is when they settle in for the long wait that the first cracks start to appear, as the different personalities in the gang assert themselves – the belligerent one who thinks nothing of violence or even murder, the cooler headed-one, the solitary women in the group, Nancy (Jessica Arterton), who seems least happy with the whole thing and is clearly protective of the child, despite having taken part in his kidnapping. Mills’ Jacob plays the hard-man leader, the sort who rarely shouts but is all the more threatening and scary for his seeming reserve – you just know this is a man who has done bad things and will do so again in a split second if anyone crosses him, and his authority forces the arguing individuals of his team to try and get along as they wait the night out.

But this is no kidnapping for ransom, this child and this location have been chosen by their mysterious employers quite carefully and carry an awful history of previous, similar events, and it is a history Josh can see and hear. Josh lost a sibling years before and this closeness to death has left him sensitive – he hears noises and voices, then sees figures, usually other children his age, dressed in white sleepwear like him (his hooded onesie recalls Where the Wild Things Are) and bloodied. Are these trapped spirits of other children who had been brought here, and if so, what were they brought for. As with most heist/crime stories they are at their most compelling when it all goes wrong, and between the bickering gang members and then changing plans from their distant employers, then the external threat of someone else being around this supposedly safe house (creepily leaving a dead game animal hanging from a garden tree). No, this is no ransom for money at all, this has a darker – a satanic – element to it and Josh is part of that ritual, and it may be that Jacob knows more about the real reasons behind it all than he is letting on.

While House of Salem has flaws, I’m not going to dwell on them as I think they were mostly down to the perennial problem for all Indy film-makers, lack of budget and shooting time. And while their resources may be slender (Primeval’s Andrew Lee Potts is billed as a star but in truth is only in it for a short time), Crow makes the most of what he has. It’s remarkable how much creepiness you can get just from figures in masks, both the kidnappers, then the Satanic cult members, both groups using very simple masks, nothing elaborate or complex here, but quite chilling in the way they dehumanise the figures and make them quite terrifying.

The mix of 70s style hidden Satanic cult and the crime gone wrong bickering gang works well, and while most of the gang are stereotypes, Arterton’s Nancy is fleshed out more, her backstory slowly emerging (and her relation to leader Jacob, a sort of surrogate father figure), which gives more reason for her defence of Josh. Liam Kelly is quite outstanding as Josh, this young lad gives a superb performance in a complex emotional role as a traumatised child with psychological and emotional problems already, then dealing with the kidnapping, the voices and the visions, it’s quite a performance from one so young.

The film also works in some nice symbology too, notably the image of the lamb and blood which recurs and becomes increasingly creepy as it builds to a climax in the third reel. An intersting, inventive and frequently creepy Brit-horror, ideal for some late Saturday night viewing.

House of Salem is released on DVD and Digital by Left Films from October 1st

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.