Reviews: climbing the tower – Senlin Ascends

Senlin Ascends,

Josiah Bancroft,

Orbit Books


Sometimes I’m waiting eagerly for a new book by an author I admire, always a happy moment. And then some other times a book from an author you haven’t encountered before arrives on your desk, and you have an even happier moment of a new literary journey, a walk onto a new area of the fantasy map you’ve not explored before. And for me that was the case here when an advance copy of Senlin Ascends appeared in the Blogcave; the first in the “Books of Babel”. That caught my attention, the name of that great structure – real? Mythical? More likely a fusion of later myth overlaid over some actual historical root like one of the great ziggurats of the ancient world. Babel. The tower to the heavens, a combination of humanity’s ambition, ingenuity and unbridled hubris, it’s a symbol that has cast a long shadow over human storytelling for centuries, there is something irresistible about it, and when a writer has a new angle on this ancient symbol it’s always going to be intriguing. My bookselling Spidey-sense was tingling, and it rarely points me wrong.

Meet Thomas Senlin, headmaster of a small coastal town, until recently a bachelor and a rather upright chap, something of a fuddy duddy, perhaps, and a man who is, as you’d expect for a teacher, well-educated. At least in terms of what he has read, but he is about to learn that the wider world doesn’t always conform to what you may have read, no matter how eminent the source book supposedly is. And Senlin has surprised his local village by finally taking not just a wife, but Marya, not only a very beautiful lady, but one with an impish and playful, adventurous  streak, almost the polar opposite of the fairly austere Senlin. And yet Marya has seen something in Senlin the other villagers never suspected, and she has awoken something in him. And for their honeymoon Marya and Senlin have taken the train to the Tower of Babel, the famous site he has told his students all about in school, but never visited.

The base  of the vast Tower is surrounded by the huge and teeming market, which right away pitches our newly weds into an exotic casserole of merchants from all over the world and goods from every corner, bustling, vibrant, overwhelming to a couple from a small, distant town, especially to Senlin, while Marya, resplendent in her new bright-red Pith helmet (so he can always spot her in a busy crowd, she tells him with a smile) seems to revel in it all.  A wonderful wife, a honeymoon in an astonishing location he’s dreamed of, what could go wrong? Well, of course things do go wrong, I mean there wouldn’t be much drama if they just had a nice holiday and went home with some postcards. There are little warning signs – Senlin, from his history and guide books, expects a land of wonders, cultured, the pinnacle of civilisation, and instead their first impressions are more like a wild and disreputable souk, the sort of place where you tread carefully and watch your belongings. Or your wife…

Because just like that, a few pages in, barely arrived at their destination – in fact not even in the Tower itself yet – Marya vanishes. And this teeming place seems to have no real authority, no police to turn to (there are some security types, but most are thugs posing in uniform to take advantage of the unwary). When he realises he has lost her he searches, but the market surrounds the base of the Tower, so it is massive, and he has no chance. Eventually Senlin concludes all he can do is proceed up the Tower to the Baths, two levels up, where they intended to stay at one of the hotels – Marya is a capable and independent woman, chances are after realising she may never locate him in the busy market she’s decided to go there already and wait for him.

This is, of course, assuming she is merely lost. But soon Senlin starts to hear stories from others that they too have lost loved ones, and in fact the base of the Tower – the Skirts – is festooned with notes from those desperately seeking missing family members, a scene with disturbing similarities to those posters placed around the 9-11 site as people urgently tried to find what happened to their loved ones. Senlin, a man who lives a very conventional, straightforward life is totally unprepared for  the world he is about to enter when he first moves into the Tower, and into the Basement. Each level of the Tower is a world unto itself, each different, but related, each stage is a “ringdom”, and like any good quest, any hero’s journey, Senlin will need to traverse each of them and meet their individual challenges.

(a glimpse into the lower levels of the Tower of Babel, borrowed from the Books of Babel site)

Except Senlin is as far from anyone’s idea of a capable hero as you can imagine. Trusting in his guidebook soon proves to be a mistake – this is no reliable Baedeker, beloved of Victorian adventurers in exotic lands, it seems like an act of total fiction. Senlin is going to have to learn how to adapt if he is to survive. He’s the proverbial fish out of water, in fact he is often so damned wet you almost feel the urge to slap him and tell him to get with the programme, he’s the blundering idiot abroad, totally unprepared, no idea what he is getting into, no idea what the local customs are, how things work here and it doesn’t look like he has what it takes. The unlikely hero is not a new idea in fantasy, but here Bancroft handles that trope extremely skilfully. Senlin meets people, has encounters, and they slowly start to change him through the hardest of lessons. But he doesn’t transform into some great hero, he’s still Tom Senlin, the village school teacher. But he’s learning. And even from the raw beginning, even at his weakest, Senlin does show one spark of backbone – he will not walk away without his new wife, no matter what.

And I’m not going any further into this narrative because I don’t want to risk spoilers – this is a journey, literally and metaphorically, and the reader needs to undertake those discoveries and challenges as much as Senlin does. The idea of the “ringdoms” is a great one, allowing for totally different worlds within worlds, and many different scenarios to test Senlin. And it also allows Bancroft much scope for some fabulous world-building and some lovely descriptions. It’s a world that feels like a mix of different parts of our own history – nice little details like people visiting from Ur, for example – and myth, and yet it is also so clearly not our world, and again this allows much scope for metaphor.

And then there is the style of writing – Bancroft has a remarkable way with words; workers in their faded finery for a night out have “collars the colour of cigar smoke”, while dancers have “mouths lurid as mashed cherries.” It put me in mind of those wonderfully evocative descriptive phrases in the Philip Marlowe novels, making Bancroft the fantasy equivalent of Raymond Chandler; I was not surprised to find out after finishing the book that he is also a poet.

An engrossing, intoxicating delight – I can’t wait to climb higher…

Senlin Ascends will be published by Orbit Books on January 18th, 2018; check out The Books of Babel site for more glimpses into this fascinating world, and you can read an excerpt from the book here on the Orbit blog.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

The blue fortress of winter…

One from my photo archives, taken on this day in 2010, during the very heavy winter and snowfall we had that year, and reposted here to mark 30th November, Saint Andrew’s Day:

Edinburgh Castle, Saint Andrew's Night

I came out of my book group that evening, Edinburgh was covered in snow. And the Castle atop its great rock above the city was illuminated Saltire-blue to mark the day of our nation’s patron saint. The skyline of my gorgeous city is remarkable at any time, but on this winter’s night, the Castle in blue, the city draped in snow, it was magical, and I just stood there in the cold taking it in. These are the sorts of sights you just come across living in Edinburgh, no wonder I love it so much. As I was out at my book group I wasn’t carrying a tripod, I improvised by jamming the camera between railings overlooking the Gardens to steady it, and with so much streetlight being reflected by the snow it was enough to get a clear night shot. I didn’t expect it to come out so clearly, being an improvised shot, but it’s digital so not wasting film, may as well try, because sometimes they don’t work, other times you capture a moment like this forever…

After dark

Had a nice photo walk around The Shore, the Water of Leith and near the Port of Leith recently, around dusk and then night. With the sun setting so early now it’s pretty easy to take some nocturnal shots without having to wander the streets late at night with the camera and tripod. I’m rarely down this part of town so this was a chance to take some night shots of an area I’ve not covered much of with the camera. Good, long walk, took a bunch of pics, got some exercise but man, damnably cold – okay when you are walking about, but very chilly when standing still to take a long exposure shot.

This is Commercial Quay at “blue hour” (when it’s dark but there is still a slight bit of pale light in the sky from the now vanished sun, one of my favourite times for taking night shots. This was a long series of old warehouse buildings – you can still see the attachment at the top floors for the pulley to lift up loads) for the nearby docks at Leith. They were very run down for a long time, but have, like the waterfront areas in many formerly industrial or commercial areas in many cities, been regenerated, which is preferable to tearing down those fine, old stone buildings, and it’s now a busy area of bars, cafes and restaurants:

Commercial Quay, winter night 01

Commercial Quay, winter night 03

Nearby is Teuchter’s Landing, which is the same company that has Teuchter’s in the West End of the New Town, which is slightly pricey but still a favourite pub of mine (also dog friendly, which is handy if I am meeting my chum and his hounds). This one is right on the waterfront, where the Water of Leith starts to meet the Port of Leith, and then the mighty Firth of Forth. In fact the back of the pub not only sits over the edge of a spur off the river by the docks, it even has its own floating outside beer garden moored on the water! Although understandably nobody was using it on a cold evening in November (although a couple of smokers were sitting outside the front of the pub, heavily wrapped up.

Teuchters Landing at night 01

Teuchters Landing at night 03

It wasn’t quite full dark as I walked back over to the Water of Leith, although it was darker than it appears here where the camera sat drinking in much more light on a long exposure. This is down at the very end of the Water of Leith, which winds its way through the city (it runs near my flat and offers a “countryside” walk to the National Gallery of Modern Art rather than walking through town) and eventually makes it down to Leith and the busy Shore area of bars and restaurants. This is by the Malmaison, and after this spot is just the old swing bridge and then it opens into the actual docks.

The Shore, winter night 02

Only a few moments walk later and by now, even though it was probably only about half past five, it was fully dark, allowing for some nice reflections of the lights and buildings in the now dark waters. For some reason this part of town often reminds me of parts of Belgium and the Netherlands:

The Shore, winter night 03

The Shore, winter night 010

The Shore, winter night 09

The Shore, winter night 06

The Shore, winter night 07

And this is Mimi’s Bakehouse, a family-run cafe, where I thawed out with some really nice hot chocolate and a delicious raspberry Nutella cake:

The Shore, winter night 011

Music of the spheres

Michael Hann in the Guardian considers the Sonar electronic music festival in Barcelona marking its twenty-fifth anniversary by beaming music segments to a star some twelve light years distant. He then goes on to ruminate on humans taking music into space, from Gemini astronauts in the 60s playing a mouth organ to Chris Hadfield playing music in the International Space Station. And, of course, the famous golden discs on the two Voyager probes, now moving faster than any human-made objects in history, out of our solar system (in fact one has now passed the boundary which marks the edge of our solar system, and is the first human craft in interstellar space).

And his thoughts on this? He thinks it is mostly hubris that drove the science team to include these musical representations of human culture on these probes, on records that could, theoretically, last until long after the Earth itself is gone and the sun burned dim (unless it is found by intelligent aliens and played). Those discs could, in fact, one distant day be all that remains of human culture in the far, far future, preserved forever in the cold of deep space, with music and sounds and languages from around the globe and across the centuries.

That wasn’t hubris. It was something far, far better: it was hope, it was optimism, it was reaching out for a hoped-for better future for an expanded humanity and perhaps, just perhaps, a shared future with who knows what other new friends we might find out there. Who hopefully dig our music. An infinitesimally small chance of ever being found, a message in a bottle on a cosmic ocean; probably never be found or played or even if it is, understood. But it could be, it’s improbably, not impossible. No, not hubris: hope. And wonder. And joy. Far too easy to be cynical and critical, as this journalist has been, at such artistic and cultural reaching out beyond. We need to look with better eyes than that.

How to Survive in the North

How to Survive in the North,

Luke Healy,

Nobrow Press

First off, apologies for the tardiness of this piece; I read How To Survive in the North a while ago, put it to one side when busy, intending to get right back to it and writing it up. And promptly buried it under several other books, only to rediscover it when I was tidying a pile of recent books. Still, surge of guilt aside, this did give me a chance to re-read it to refresh my memory, and I found myself enjoying it even more the second time around.

The book follows two early twentieth century Arctic expeditions, with a contemporary strand in which troubled academic Sully Barnaby, recently put on an enforced sabbatical, inspired by finding the name of a much earlier lecturer who once used his office, starts using his newly freed time to start digging into the college library’s records on Vilhjalmur Stefansson. As he examines boxes of letters, journals and other documents in the Stefansson collection he also comes across mentions of Wrangel Island, which leads him to another expedition, on which a young Iñupiat woman, Ada Blackjack, was retained as cook and seamstress. The Stefansson organised expedition to Wrangel Island in 1921 also included Fred Maurer, who had survived the shipwrecking of a previous expedition on the Karluk which had left him and other survivors trying to survive for months on Wrangel Island.

With his suddenly enforced bounty of free time Sully begins piecing together the stories of the two expeditions, of surly, bad-tempered Captain Bartlett (who may be a tough and rough, prickly old salt, but he is also a very experienced captain and proves quite heroic in his determination to try and protect his crew in the face of disaster), of Stefansson, out to make a name for himself in Arctic exploration, and Ada, a woman struggling on the poverty line and with a seriously ill young son, driven into this dangerous mission by the simple need to earn money to pay for her son’s treatment. All are caught in a battle for survival on their trips, when things go wrong, and the Arctic is brutally unforgiving of mistakes.

Healy nicely captures something of the atmosphere of that last blossoming of a bygone age of great exploration, of adventurers and scientists (and indeed sometimes the scientists were adventurers) and sailors pushing into the last parts of the globe that weren’t fully mapped and understood (or claimed for one flag or the other – nationalism too plays a large part in these expeditions of this era). It’s an era that was as remarkable for its stoic heroism in the face of adversity (some of that adversity caused by their own lack of knowledge or preparation). Mostly told in pages of sequences of small panels, which keeps the narrative moving along, while the art is full of atmospheric little touches, like the frozen breath in the Arctic air – just a tiny detail, but it shows the attention Healy is paying to crafting his scene, to trying to induce a feeling for that great, frigid wilderness and the sort of people who challenged it for survival (some triumph, many do not).

The use of the troubled (fictional) Sully to piece these real historical events together is a clever one, not just as a mechanism to allow us into the twin narratives of the expedition, but also as a nice contrast. The middle-aged, pleasantly plump Sully has some personal problems (the cause of his current enforced sabbatical), but despite this his has mostly been a comfortable, sheltered, academic life in our modern age of conveniences, in stark contrast to the pushing the edge of survival of that age of hardy explorers and what they endured. It’s an absorbing, atmospheric melding of real history with a dash of the fictional tying it together, and a reminder of an era, only a century ago, when the edges of the world were still rough, dangerous and often unknown, a world vanished in our modern day when we can look at any spot on the globe from the comfort of our armchair.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Reviews: Places in the Darkness

Places in the Darkness,

Chris Brookmyre,

Orbit Books

(cover artwork by Steve Stone)

Welcome to Ciudad de Cielo, or CdC, a city in the sky, orbiting high above planet Earth, a shining beacon to the blue world below. Home to the Quadriga, a consortium of four mega corporations and the brightest minds humanity has to offer, working on the most advanced research on – well, near – the planet, with the ultimate aim of preparing a generational starship. This is technology not just to better life on Earth, but to prepare the human race to expand out into the stars. An orbital city of thousands, a crime-free utopia of brilliant minds high above the Earth, bringing knowledge and technology to the world below, like some modern Prometheus, while the other foot is readying the long walk to deep space. The pinnacle of human civilisation’s evolution.

Or so the brochures and corporate PR would have it. As anyone who has ever studied utopias knows, they are rarely perfect, human nature just doesn’t allow for it. And human nature is at the core of Places in the Darkness. Brookmyre is a long-established member of the “Tartan Noir”, the brace of internationally bestselling Scottish crime writers (along with the likes of Ian Rankin, Denise Mina and more), but here he’s going science fiction, although for lovers of his more Earthbound crime novels, there’s still much here they too can enjoy.

CdC started as a floating lab facility, with the “wheels” at either end being added as it grew, that central shaft offering micro gravity facilities for some advanced research and manufacture, the wheel sections simulating gravity. And “ideal society” claim or not, like every other human city in history it is stratified and with a hierarchy from the corporate suits and top scientists at the peak, down to mass of regular workers low down. The people who do the actual work – cleaners, joiners, electricians, medics, cops (well, private corporation cops), and where you have all of this population there will be a dark economy – bootleg booze, underground clubs, prostitution, and most regualr folks working two or three jobs just to make ends meet. The side of life the CdC like to pretend they left below on Earth; this is more Babylon 5’s Down Below than Star Trek’s shiny Federation.

And it’s into this Alice Blake is sent, a representative of the federated world governments, who keep a close eye on the CdC, the corporations forever wary of too much oversight, or intrusion into how they run things. Alice, adopted child of high flying government types, has been raised and schooled to fit perfectly into her niche and she actually believes the PR blurb about this idealised society and the selfless work leading to the stars and humanity’s destiny. But she is also enough of a political animal to realise her boss is sending her to take over the security gig so she can get a close look at how the corporations are running things. But the myth of the crime-free orbital society is about to be brutally shattered – the low level crimes the CdC can hide, but murder? An especially cruel murder and mutilation? No, that’s going to leak out. Hell of a first day for Alice, paired with the security team’s Nikki Freeman, a former homicide detective and only one on the private security force with the experience to work such a case.

But Nikki is also known as “Nikki Fixx”, a go-to, a fixer, a grifter, working both sides of her badge. Everything Alice despises; Alice, in turn is looked down on by Nikki as a privileged and rule-bound type who has no real idea how things work. In the best mismatched cop-buddy tradition they’re going to be flung together and find themselves spiraling down a far deeper rabbit hole than either could have anticipated, an investigation that will snake around itself, from conspiracy theories and power politics at the highest echelons down to the dive bars and hidden underground elements of society, from criminal smugglers to secretive elite scientists and everything in between, Alice is going to get a first-hand view of the reality of the society on this orbiting citadel of humanity.

I’m not going to go too much into the murder investigation and where it leads, far too easy to blow some spoilers that way, but for anyone who has read Brookmyre’s crime novels, you’ll already know that you are in very fine hands here regarding a good murder mystery, with plenty of twists and turns. But as with his terrestrial novels, Brookmyre delights as much in the details and the way these details and the events around them can reveal human nature in all of its many facets, and that is compelling, from the highest, elite segments to the lowest, and the elements of life that connect them all, one way or the other.

It’s a story which also questions the nature of humanity, from Alice, brought up in a very different setting from the likes of Nikki, with her by the rules, idealised view of how it should all be, to Nikki, who has seen how much of it really works, the dirty, oily engine under the gleaming bonnet of the car, and then those in positions of power, from crime gangs to the corporate and scientific leadership, and what they want their orbiting society – and eventual starship colony crew – to be. And it questions if you can really make people into moulds or if human nature will always assert itself – and if that is a good or bad thing, while also, like much of science fiction, using that future society as a mirror to observe aspects of our own contemporary world, from the haves and have-nots, the corporations straining to be free of government oversight, the bulk of people waiting for the “trickle down” effect, the role of technology in society (for good and ill) and more. It’s a rich brew, giving a real feeling of a near-future society you can believe in, humanity in a warts and all way, allied to a compelling and twisting narrative of murder and conspiracy.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

“You are here…”

Taken on this day in 1967, from the unmanned test of Apollo 4 on November 9th, paving the way for the soon-to-follow manned lunar Apollo missions which would put a human being on the moon by 1969, a view of our world that until that point no human eyes had ever seen in all of history, taken at an altitude of 9, 544 miles above our world.

This was taken not long before I was born. By the following Christmas of 1968 Apollo 8 would take the remarkable “Earthrise” photograph as they came around from the dark side of the Moon, the farthest any human being had ever been from home, the very first to see the entire globe of our world, and see it rising above the Lunar horizon. The following year Armstrong and Aldrin would land on the Moon’s surface. I was born into the height of the Space Age and as a boy I dreamed of being an astronaut when I grew up.

Sometimes looking at these images I still dream

Reviews: Grandville comes to a magnificent finale with Force Majeure

Grandville: Force Majeure,

Bryan Talbot,

Jonathan Cape (UK) Dark Horse (N America)

To say I’ve been looking forward to this book for some time is an understatement – Bryan was kind enough to show me a few pages on his iPad when he was at the Edinburgh Book Fest last year, knowing how much I’ve enjoyed the preceding volumes (they’ve all made my annual Best of the Year lists). But I’ve also been a little reticent as well because, well, it’s the final Grandville album – as Bryan points out himself in an afterword, the art style here is very labour intensive, taking three to four days of ten working hours each to complete (not counting the original idea and scripting). And he’s given us five of these volumes now, a huge investment in time and effort and love. And my god, all of that effort, that meticulous, perfectionist attention to details, it’s all up there in the art and the storytelling and the characters, each volume building, each volume better, a trend which continues right through to this, the grand finale, and what a finish it is…

We start with high society, a very posh seafood restaurant, elegant rich diners, the snooty-looking waiters (in a nice touch most are piscine characters dining on the seafood, with the exception of a table full of cats clearly relishing a little fishy in their little dishy). The society fine dining is suddenly shattered by the steampunk version of a drive-by; this seafood restaurant is part of a ganglord’s legitimate front, the Crays (a double pun). A crime family LeBrock has a very personal grudge against, a factor which should mean this case is off limits to the redoubtable detective, and yet he has been assigned the investigation, a strange bending of the usual rules. Then there’s the fact that the regular beat coppers were all called away from the area on a command from Scotland Yard moments before the attack. It’s all rather fishy (sorry, another pun), and indicative of a more deep-seated problem than a turf war between the gangs of London.

This is the beginning of a major power play by the “Napoleon of Crime”, Parisian gang lord Tiberius Koenig (another cunning pun on his appearance – he’s a rather unique specimen in this world of anthropomorphised animals), and in his deviously thought-out plan to expand into London now he has conquered the Parisian underworld, and of course there’s the matter of revenge on LeBrock from an earlier encounter. And Koenig isn’t the kind to just bump off an enemy, oh no, he’s vicious and fiercely intelligent, and strong-willed, a seriously dangerous combination, as much Keyser Soze as he is Professor Moriarty. It’s the start of a cascading series of events aimed at giving Koening more power while utterly destroying LeBrock. Not just LeBrock’s life, but his reputation, his friends, his family, and ideally make sure he remains alive just long enough to see it all collapse before his eyes, a final twist of the knife. It will take in Paris and London underground criminal empires, political games in Scotland Yard, and a new badger, a huge Italian sailor called Tasso, but is he there to aid or thwart LeBrock?

And I really don’t want to get any further into the plot here, because this is a doozy, this is something that has been building to a head over the previous volumes, and I don’t want to ruin it. The complex plot aside, there is a huge amount more to enjoy here, to relish, not least that astonishing visual feast of the art. Not just from the large-scale, set-pieces, but in smaller scenes – something as simple as a spy making a call from a street phone is rendered beautifully, the colouring and focus from foreground to background giving a real three-dimensional sense of depth. This is one of our best comics veterans at the absolute top of his game, those long, laborious, painstakingly rendered pages that take days bearing rich fruit for the reader to delight in, the sort of art that you stop frequently, mid-narrative, to luxuriate in it, and like previous volumes it demands revisits (in fact after reading it I had to go back and re-read it more slowly before writing this).

And we’re in the hands of a master of the medium here, this is glorious, rich art but not merely for adornment or show, this is all in the service of the story and the characters. And like the sense of the world of Grandville, and the narrative thread connecting the volumes, the characters too have developed and grown through the series. The romance between LeBrock and Billie is touching, but never saccharine, while Billie herself, caught up this web, is no shrinking violet, no helpless lady waiting to be rescued by her knight errant, she’s a strong, capable and brave woman who isn’t going to just be a plot device.

We learn more about LeBrock’s origins, from a moving flashback of him as a child with hid dad, fishing in the Lake District (a moment of peace in a relentlessly building story) to his early days as a copper, his desire to become a detective (even though that branch is almost exclusively reserved for the public school types who obtain it by connections, not merit) and being trained by the great Hawksmoor, a homage to the great consulting detective, Sherlock Holmes and his methods – our badger may use his impressive strength and courage, but he combines this with keen observation, deduction and intelligence, qualities he shares with another character Bryan has drawn, the Batman. Koenig, the “Napoleon of Crime” of Grandville may be more dangerous an adversary than even LeBrock has faced before, but the flipside of that is that Koenig, who normally knows nout but triump in his schemes, has never come up against a foe a intelligent, powerful and determined and LeBrock. Fur will fly, and with this being the final volume it’s all up in the air as to who will come out on top, and what sacrifices they may endure in this struggle.

Glorious visuals, a compelling story building beautifully on what’s gone before to reach a hugely satisfying climax, characters you really care about, plus action, daring-do, romance and humour, not to mention many references layered into the story, from nods to Dr Seuss to a tribute to Leo Baxendale, what more can you ask for in a book? This is simply British comics at their very finest.

You can read an interview with Bryan hereThis review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog.

Complex relationships in Batman: White Knight

Batman: White Knight #1 & #2,

Sean Murphy, Matt Hollingsworth,

DC Comics

I somehow missed spotting the first issue of White Knight last month. Fortunately we had a copy still on the racks, so when issue #2 came out this week I could grab both for a catch-up. I’ve admired Sean Murphy since the blistering Punk Rock Jesus – I think that marked him out as a writer and artist to watch out for, so I was intrigued to see what he was going to do with one of the iconic relationships in all of comics history, that of the Joker and the Batman. A word of warning, since I am catching up two issues here there may be spoilers…

The title White Knight hints at subverting the normal Gotham set up, and the opening pages of the first issue begin with what appears to be a fairly normal (for Gotham) scene of the Batmobile (a design reminiscent of the Burton movies era) pulling up to the infamous Arkham Asyum, the guards welcoming the occupant, who replies dryily that he knows his way around Arkham. It’s only on the third page that we see that the visitor who stepped from the Batmobile is “Mr Napier” – the Joker without his make-up and psychotic persona, almost unrecognisable – and the inmate he is there to visit in Arkham is the chained-up Batman. This isn’t just subversion, this is inversion.

We flash back a year to a more regular Gotham scenario – a clinically insane Joker on the rampage, fleeing Batman, Batgirl and Nightwing. Along the way the Joker invites them to play a hit-list of Bat-stereotype moments: jumping a raising bridge, pursuing (in the car!) over rooftops and so on, until the Joker is finally cornered in a warehous full od secret drugs. Batman chases him in, roughly pushing a security guard out of the way, but is not content with capturing the Joker, as the Joker starts explaining his theory about their relationship to him, an angry Dark Knight beats him repeatedly, before finally grabbing some of the warehouse drugs and forcing them down the Joker’s throat as a horrified Batgirl and Nightwing watch, and Commissioner Gordon and the police stand by but do not intervene.

We’re a team, Bats. Admit it! That’s our dynamic, all that’s missing is the make-up sex. I don’t expect you to acknowledge it. You are, after all, the distancer, I’m the overly complicated one.”

The Joker carries on telling Batman that they are part of the same system, and that far from fighting crime, his vigilante approach has made Gotham a crime hell, a form of therapy for him, perhaps, but victimising the very city he claims to protect. Or at least he does until the beating and forced drugs almost kill him, in a horrific, brutal sequence, drenched in red. Unfortunately for Batman and the GPCD this is all caught on camera, and it doesn’t make either of them look good. And when the Joker recovers after hospital treatment, the secret drug seems to have restored his brain to a normal balance. He is Mr Napier now, not the Joker any longer, and he soon turns his fierce intelligence to the law books, suing the city for the vigilante treatment and expanding on his argument that the Batman is actually a force for evil in Gotham.

These first two issues are absolutely fascinting. I’d go so far as to say this is the most compelling psychological exploration of the dynamic between the Joker and Batman since Moore and Bolland’s The Killing Joke. The thing is, the newly reminted Napier does actually conjure up some compelling arguments against the Batman (and the GCPD’s complicity) – even Batgirl at one point yells at Bruce during the earlier pursuit as they roar over an apartment block roof “there are people living in these buildings, Bruce! How do you know they won’t crumble?” Even his friends and allies are deeply concerned about Batman and how he is fighting his war on crime. All of which makes Napier’s arguments all the more convincing.

The inverted roles continue: Bruce Wayne continues to spiral more out of control as both the Batman and as Bruce, while Napier, now freed, is becoming something of a folk hero (pointing out most of Batman’s fights take place in the poorest parts of town, and afterwards those areas are worse off so predatory capitalists move in and buy cheap, a practise confirmed later by a wealthy associate of Wayne’s, that the crime fighting spree is good for buying cheap real estate).

And Napier himself, returning home to find Harley waiting for him but Harley as mad as ever and not too happy about this sane version of her “puddin'” and convinced at first it is a trick. Only to be confronted by a second Harley, this one in the original jester’s costume. It appears when insane as the Joker he had the real Harley walk out on him, fed up with competing with Batman for his attention, and this replacement in sexy cut-offs took her place (none of which he can now recall). Ohhh, but this is juicy stuff, girls and boys and other intelligent lifeforms, it wades deeply into the messy lives and psychologies of the main characters, and it is hugely compelling, while happily riffing on previous Batman tales like Killing Joke or the media and pop-psych evaluations of the Joker and Batman in Dark Knight Returns.

It’s well versed in Bat-history, with obvious love for these characters, with wonderfully appropriately moody artwork by Murphy (and very complimentary colouring by Hollingsworth, right down to lovely fine details like flickering flames coming out the side of the revving Batmobile), crumbling cityscapes of Gotham that look like something from Kelley’s Elseworlds Batman art crossed with Will Eisner, and some scenes which just encapsulate the inner turmoil of the characters perfectly (a splash page of Harley waking in their bedroom to see the Joker has left her side and instead kneels in a nearby room which is a shrine to all things Batman is powerful).

And of course you are left wondering – how much of this is true? Is the Joker really gone for good, is Napier a reformed man reclaiming his place in society? Or is it part of a greater scheme to destroy his old nemesis? Even if this is all true, will Napier stay as Napier, or will the dark Clown Prince of Crime reassert himself in the end? So many murky shades here, no Dark Knight, no White Knight, endless combinations of grey. And red….

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Ceci n’est pas une graphic novel – Magritte

Magritte: This is not a Biography,

Vincent Zabus, Thomas Campi,

SelfMadeHero

SelfMadeHero’s exellent Art Masters series continues with this look at one of the great kings of Surrealism, Rene Magritte, and appropriately enough this does not take the regular biographical format. Which is, I think, quite the correct approach – an artist with a body of work like Magritte is not best served by the traditional biographical means, this is more a voyage through his life and his work, and an acknowldgement that the two can’t really be separated, and also that the experience of the viewer is vital, even if we can’t always explain quite why a piece touches us so.

Rather than following a chronological narrative of Magritte’s life and work we meet a very ordinary man, Charles Singulier. Charles seems very mundane, boring even, perhaps, with little or no knowledge of Magritte or art, almost a mirror image of Magritte himself, who often looked like the most ordinary of suburbanites – the suit, the bowler hat, the house in the burbs rather than a city centre studio in the hurly-burly of the capital’s cultural life, he looked like a bank manager or accountant, yet within this Surrealist artistic genius was boiling away. Charles, who really is a boring suburbanite is just what he seems, but when he celebrates a promotion by splashing out on a second hand bowler hat – an uncharacteristic move – his inner life is about to be changed. The hat belonged to Magritte, and once donned Charles may look rather dapper, but he starts to see odd things. And he can’t take the hat off.

This is the start of any odyssey through Magritte’s career, from Charles’ perspective – with this hat stuck on his head, his perspective starts to change, his life becomes like a reality version of one of those short movies the Surrealists liked to play with. His visions take the form of Magritte’s paintings, both famous and the less well-known, starting off small (getting home, admiring his new hat in the mirror but seeing only the back of his head reflected in the looking glass), or exploring a gallery of Margitte’s work, affording some comedic relief as one painting begs him to spend more time regarding it, as it isn’t as famous as his other works and visitors normally walk past it quickly. This quickly escalates until Charles is essentially walking through Magritte’s works, his entire world is becoming that of the Surrealist genius.

He’s told the only way to remove the hat and end this is to reach an understanding of Magritte and his work, to fathom some the secrets from his often bizarre imagery. Fortunately he has help – the unnamed Mademoiselle, a gallery curator and expert in Magritte who advises him, the artist’s official biographer, who arrives on a locomotive driving out of a fireplace (affording more comedy – the train is the size of a child’s model railway, so when the biographer speaks from his tiny-scaled body his speech bubble is minute and Charles cannot hear him). Charles finds himself moving through different artworks from different phases of Magritte’s life, attempting to form some understanding, but this is an artist who was never fond of easy explanations, his work, frequently using everyday items but in peculiar ways, challenges perceptions, that even the mundane may conceal weird wonders, depending on how we see it, or how we can learn to see it from different perspectives. And dull, ordinary Charles is having his perspectives challenged in a pretty radical way…

This is an approach that wouldn’t really work in a prose biography, but the comics medium can do beautifully; the Ninth Art exploring the world of the fine arts visually, as Charles literally finds himself in the artist’s work. Yes, perhaps cinema could do this visually too, but in comics form we can pause, a still image, just like the paintings, lingering over some panels, allowing ideas and notions to spark against one another in our head as we take it in. This is the sort of work which the comics medium can do better than any other, and here Zabus and Campi clearly understand that, and use it to wonderful effect to explore Magritte’s ouevre.

As with the likes of the recent Reinhard Kleist graphic biography on Nick Cave (also published SelfMadeHero – reviewed here), this avoids the normal life story of a standard biography and instead mixes that real life with the artist’s work, more interested in giving us a flavour of that work than a mere repetition of facts and dates and happenings, and it is all the better for it. A gorgeous, delightful walk through the mind and work of one of the great artists of the 20th century, laced with gentle humour and observations, it will leave you wanting to spend more time in galleries, which is never a bad thing.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Creepy tales for the dark nights: Ghost Stories of an Antiquary Volume 2

Ghost Stories of an Antiquary Volume 2,
M.R. James, adapted by Leah Moore, John Reppion, Al Davison, George Kambadais, Abigail Larson, Meghan Hetrick
SelfMadeHero

Autumn winds blow, shaking the remaining leaves off the trees, the temperature drops, and the nights stretch out towards the direction of winter, darkness falling earlier every night – the ideal time to curl up indoors, preferably by the fireside, and read a damned good ghost story. And few ghost stories are more classic than those of Montague Rhodes James a medievalist scholar of some academic renown, but best remembered today as one of the all-time great tellers of ghostly tales, many originally designed for him to read to friends and students by candlelight on Christmas Eve. They’ve been enormously influential, and adapted to other media across the last century, including two rather fine volumes adapted by Leah Moore and John Reppion, the second of which has just arrived from SelfMadeHero.

There are four tales here, each illustrated by a different artist. Number 13 by George Kambadais, Count Magnus by Abigail Larson, Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come To You, My Lad, by Al Davison and The Treasure of Abbot Thomas by Meghan Hetrick. M R James was a master of crafting short, unsettling stories, and these are just the right length to establish the story and, just as important for a James tale, the atmosphere. Because James, as with Poe, it’s as much about that atmosphere, from the seemingly mundane to the first inkling that something isn’t quite right, then that slow building sense of unease that grows into dread then fear as those hints of movement in the shadows manifest.

The Number 13 plays on the Western tradition of that number being considered unlucky – many hotels, for example, will avoid naming a room or floor with it and go from 12 to 14, and that’s the case here, where our visitor, exploring some local Scandinavian history returns to his hotel room one evening, and find it odd that he hadn’t noticed room 13 just next to his own when he had passed it during the day. Gazing idly out of the room window as he smokes, he notices the room light casting the shadow of himself and his window on the nearby building – and that of his neighbour, in room 13, also standing at his window. Except next morning, there is no room 13… Kambadais’ art does a terrific job of slowly stretching the everyday normality of a regular hotel into something…other…wrong… threatening, nice and subtle to begin with (astonishing how uneasy just a door can make you…) and then changes in shadows and colour and… Well, read it to find out, I’m not going to blow it here!

And that is the down side of short horror tales – personally I think the shortform story particularly suits horror, but in a review it does present certain problems, most pointedly that you can’t say too much without risking a spoiler. So I’m trying to be very careful here, and talk more about the art and the atmosphere than the narrative of the four tales here. Larson’s Count Magnus (one of James’ more famous creations) has a more stylised art, the depiction of the eponymous count glimpsed in an oil painting long, angular, distinctive, the panels set in an ancient Swedish churchyard and crypts conjures up a feeling of confinement and claustraphobia, while the colouring by Al Davison is simply gorgeous, adding much to Larson’s art on the Count (a scene with the multiple colours from the sunlight streaming through a stained glass window into the church is beautifully done, or a single beam of light into an old tomb).

Davison takes on the main art duties in the next story, an old, old favourite of mine, Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come To You, My Lad, which I’m sure is a favourite with many others too, not least for the classic 1960s TV adaptation of this superbly creepy story. Again we go from the mundane, almost boringly normal – starting with a bunch of middle-aged Oxbridge dons chatting over dinner about their holiday plans – to the slowly building sense of unease, the art style and the colour palette shifting from a well-lit, realistic depiction to a cold, icy blue, night-time view of shifting shadows and strange, distorted figures and that horrible feeling that there is something there, right there, in your room close to you, something that should not be there.

Red Thorn artist Meghan Hetrick completes this volume with The Treasure of Abbot Thomas. This starts out like a conventional adventure story, our protagonist following a well-worn path of those before him who have tried to find the secret key that reveals where a fabled treasure has been hidden, a treasure most now consider to be just an old folk tale. And like any great adventure hero our clever chap stumbles across a clue no-one else has, that puts them on the trail. And that’s where this starts to diverge from an Indiana Jones or National Treasure type adventure of clues and hidden doorways and secrets concealed and uncovered, because, after all, this is an M R James story, and this rapidly goes from high adventure to something far more disturbing, almost Lovecraftian-level disturbing. The scenes of preparation and discovery take in bright, sunlit villages, grand houses with beautiful stained-glass windows, in stark contrast to the scenes where they start to uncover secret areas, panels depicting them descending spiral stones of an old well, lit only by the flickering lamp, linger in the mind after the story is finished.

In fact all of these stories linger in the mind, especially if, as I did, you read them as they – and the originals – should best be read: on a dark, autumn night, by the fireside, happily lost in the slowly-building atmosphere of fear and dread each tale crafts so perfectly, until you suddenly start back to yourself when the wind howls down your chimney and for just a moment you feel a stab of fear, the creeping fingers of the stories still stirring your perceptions, until you realise that sound in the chimney was just the wind, that the blinds only rattled because you forgot to close the window and the breeze is shaking them. Or wait, you did close that window earlier, didn’t you, and it was just a sudden breeze that blew out the candle, wasn’t it?….

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

After Dark

As we move deep into autumn and winter knocks at the door, that means it is getting darker earlier and earlier each evening. This isn’t all bad, of course, because that means I get to take night shots just by walking home from work of an evening. This was the world’s largest memorial to a writer, the great Gothic rocket of the Scott Monument, last night, at “Blue Hour”, that brief, magical twilight moment when the sun has set, the eastern sky is dark but the western sky still has a pale, blue light to it from the vanished sun below the horizon, one of my favourite times of day during autumn and winter, especially as that light quality in the sky silhouettes Edinburgh’s old buildings:

Scott Monument at dusk 02

This is looking west from Waverley Bridge, across the now-dark Princes Street Gardens towards the Mound, where the National Gallery of Scotland (on the left) and the Royal Scottish Academy (on the right) can be seen, with the western sky just fading into darkness, the last burst of colours before full nightfall:

The Mound - Blue Hour

Zooming in a bit more from the previous picture, the large, plate-glass, brightly-lit windows you can see below the Royal Academy are part of the Playfair extension which lies under the plaza on the Mound between the two galleries. It was completed a few years ago and connects both structures underground with more exhibition and work spaces, plus a cafe and restaurant by these windows, looking out into Princes Street Gardens:

darkening skies, bright windows

Last night on my way home from work, the iconic old Bank of Scotland building which stands at the top of the Mound by the road which curves up from the Georgian-era New Town to the medieval Old Town above on its volcanic ridge. There was a large crescent Moon rising in the early evening sky, and from this perspective it looked as it it were right above the dome on the bank building, so I had to get a shot of it. These are the sorts of things you just get to see walking home from work when you live in Edinburgh. Not a bad commute, is it?

Edinburgh Moonrise