Nick Hayes’ gorgeously emotional silent graphic novel: Cormorance

Cormorance,

Nick Hayes,

Jonathan Cape

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Oh where to start with this remarkable read? I was deeply impressed with Nick Hayes’ debut, The Rime of the Modern Mariner (here’s a guest commentary by Nick on that book), then a couple of years ago his engrossing Woody Guthrie totally drew me in, the man and his music, his approach to life, the gorgeous artwork (reviewed here), and both also with strong ecological themes. And after that one I had the pleasure of chairing a talk with Nick about that bookat the Edinburgh International Book Festival. So fair to say that despite knowing little about his new work, Cormorance, I was very keen to read it. Actually I read it several times – it’s one of those works you have to really immerse yourself in. And it is beautifully moving and emotional – and does so totally silently, no speech balloons, no thought bubbles, not even any dialogue boxes. This is carried entirely by the art, the layouts, the expressions.

This fairly substantial book is split into three chapters; the first two following to different children who are about to undergo the worst thing that can happen to any of us, let alone a child, losing a parent, while the third gently brings their individual stories together. Without words the art has to carry everything here, it has to imply a narrative, a sequence of events, of emotions with no supporting language. It’s a brave choice, especially for quite a long work such as this, but Nick is up for the challenge, with his stylised artwork varying from multiple small, rapid sequences of panels to suggest events to shorter sequences of close ups to let the expressions of the characters and their body language carry the meaning, both narrative and, crucially, emotional, as well as some quite wonderful full splash pages, and an utterly stunning four-page fold-out.

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In the first chapter we meet a young boy, he and his mother and father packing up to move house, both an exciting adventure for the youngster but also daunting – leaving the home he’s known, moving to a new one, a new area, a new school. But he’s got that solid bedrock any child needs, loving parents, and Nick’s art makes the affection and love clear, you can almost feel the warmth coming off the page, especially in scenes with the wee boy and his mum. And similarly in the second chapter as we meet a young girl and her mum and dad, a wee girl who loves swimming, especially because it was something her mum was so good at, winning medals and trophies, and she wants to be like her mum.

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The warmth and bonding between child and parents in both chapters is quite wonderful, and it’s easy to find your own mind wandering back to hazy memories of your own childhood days, how perfect it was when you felt loved, protected, and there was no problem so big in your world that your mum and dad couldn’t take care of. Except illness doesn’t care about love, about family bonds or what age you are, and both the boy and the girl are going to face the slow deterioration of a loved one, then their loss, and then, just as hard, trying to find a way of coming to terms with that loss, which both do, although at first perhaps they aren’t really seeing it that way, it is more that they  have something they both need to do, something that will overlap with one another as it happens, but really they’re also finding their way through the emotional abyss of loss, a way to keep going, a way that will involve challenge, the inspiration of the natural world and shared experience and friendship.

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There are so many gorgeous touches here – nice foreshadowing as we see the wee boy make his way into his new classroom, we glimpse the girl, except we don’t know it is her then, that only becomes clear as her story unfolds in the second chapter – little touches like that woven into this larger tapestry are another reason why I felt compelled to re-read the book again a couple of times, and it really does reward that attention. With it being wordless there is an onus here also on the reader as well as the author; of course there always is in any sort of reading, it isn’t a passive experience, the author summons up certain ideas and emotions, but the reader also takes those and creates a mental image and map based on the book but also their own thoughts, feelings, experiences. And in a silent work like this it is clear that the author is trusting his readers to be instrumental in creating the meaning and feeling here from the images and sequences, it’s a partnership, and a satisfying one at that.

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It’s a clever and beautifully crafted work, both the overall story it is creating with those wordless panels and the smaller, intimate, moving scenes of family life and love, the little moments that mean so much. And it is deeply, deeply emotional, especially if you’ve suffered the loss of a parent. I had to stop several times, it was just too much for me at certain points and I imagine more than a few readers will find themselves blinking away tears reading some scenes and remembering their own loss, but it’s not a depressing read, rather a hopeful one about how the love we so depend on still remains inside us, even after losing the people who gave us that love, a final, remarkable, wonderful gift they leave us. An utterly gorgeous, beautifully executed and warmly emotional book.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Boldly Go…

Star Trek: Boldly Go #1,

Mike Johnson, Tony Shasteen,

IDW

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I’ve been a Trek fan since I was knee-high to a Tribble, but I must confess I rarely dabble in the novels and comics spun off from the various incarnations of Trek, but every now and then one comes along that tractor beams in my attention. And right off the bat I will admit that this cracking cover artwork by George Caltsoudas was a part of that, I couldn’t resist picking it up for a wee peek, and once I did Johnson and Shasteen did a fine job of keeping my attention for the whole read.

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Set soon after the events of the recent Into Darkness movie, with the Enterprise destroyed our crew have been displaced – Scotty is lecturing at Starfleet Academy (and having to use put-downs on some snotty cadets in his class), Spock is on sabbatical on New Vulcan with his father (Uhura has decided to accompany him and learn about Vulcan culture as well as spend time with him), Sulu is now promoted to Commander is First Officer on the USS Concord (under the command of a young captain called Terrell – yes, as in Star Trek Wrath of Khan’s Paul Winfield) in a remote part of the galaxy. Meanwhile James T Kirk is the interim captain on the USS Endeavour, another Constitution-class starship.

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There’s a nice scene of the over-excited bridge officers of the Endeavour discussing their new temporary captain before he arrives. It’s a nice scene, reminding us that highly trained Starfleet officers or not, people are people and they love a wee gossip, especially about each other. And let’s face it, Kirk must have a hell of a reputation in the fleet by this point, some good, some bad, some true, some pure fantasy and it’s pretty understandable his new crew would be nattering about it, until his Federation-born Romulan First Officer, Commander Valas snaps their attention back to duty with a crisp “Captain on the bridge!”, followed by a wry “at ease, I promise I didn’t hear anything” from an amused Kirk.

All of these groups are about to have their new paths altered however – the Concord encounters a strange vessel approaching them at high speed, emitting an odd signal they can’t quite decipher. And then things cut off – on the Endeavour a garbled distress call is intercepted, and with both ships being so far out Kirk opts not to wait for orders from HQ (naturally, this is Kirk, after all), as they are the closest to the Concord, and they make haste to rescue their comrades, while Kirk has the strange message forwarded to Uhura to see if she can tease some meaning from it.

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As I said, I only occasionally read Trek novels or comics, despite years of following all the shows and films. Not sure why, I think perhaps while I liked some over the year there were some where the characters didn’t match the way I thought they were and it put me off. No such problem here, Shasteen does a fine job of creating some fine, sharp comic art and carries the likenesses of the modern Trek film characters very well (and adds in some nice visual references to Trek history – Uhura’s Vulcan garb being strongly reminiscent of Spock’s wife-to-be in the classic Amok Time episode, Spock’s attire also similar references some Nimoy-era movie costumes, little touches but they work and they also let you know the creators here are clearly familiar with Trek history and lore, which I’m sure fans appreciate).

The duo also really nail the characters – Kirk’s wry amusement at his own legend preceding him onto his new bridge is very in character, for instance, a young Sulu knowing he is experienced through his Enterprise days, despite his lack of years, but still pondering if he is really up to being a First Officer yet, Scotty’s smart smack-down of a cheeky cadet in his lectures, Uhura more than holding her own on Vulcan, it all rings very true and authentic, and that appealed greatly to me, as much as the actual story did (and let’s be honest, we love these characters, they are family to us and we love Trek as much for them as we do the stories).

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And there are numerous references to Trek history (great to see this timeline’s version of Terrell, also good to see a Romulan officer, given The Next Generation once pondered the fairness of anyone of Romulan descent being barred from serving). Add in this mystery vessel, as yet unseen but there are hints you will recognise (and no, I won’t spoil them by mentioning them here), and you’ve got a terrific first issue, establishing the post-movie scene for our various crew members nicely and setting their new adventures into place and leaving us with an intriguing situation and hook – pretty good going for a single issue.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Art versus reality – The Electric Sublime #1

The Electric Sublime #1,

W. Maxwell Prince, Martin Morazzo, Mat Lopes,

IDW

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I really enjoyed W Maxwell Prince’s unusual, thoughtful and intriguing Judas: the Last Days back in early 2015 (reviewed here), and Morazzo I was familiar with from the fascinating Great Pacific (first volume reviewed here), so I’ve been looking forward to this. We open with a guide conducting a tour through the Louvre in Paris, leading them towards that great museum and gallery’s crowning glory, La Jaconde – da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, and vainly trying to persuade the flocks of tourists to put away their cameras and phones and instead actually look at all this art with their eyes, and, please, no flash photography, it isn’t good for the art (a long-lost war, I fear, tourists from every nation stand right in front of priceless paintings flashing away without a care in their heads, sadly).

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But their tour ends abruptly – something is wrong, very, very wrong. La Joconde still has her enigmatic smile on her small painting (it’s remarkable when you see it in person just how small this most famous artwork actually is), but now, somehow, she is winking at her admirers. The art guide runs, shocked, from the scene shouting “we’re going to need the Dreampainter! We’re going to need Art Brut!” The latter turns out to be an actual painter – in an asylum – called Arthur Brut, a nice little bit of word-play on an artistic term. Director Margot Breslin of the Bureau of Artistic Integrity has come to see this strange man, “dreampainting” in his padded cell. On various medications and art therapy, he seems to be out of touch with reality, mind warped by artistic excesses, unanchored in the real world, drifting, sifting, exploring the imaginary (some especially nice touches by Morazzo here, the way the asylum is almost monochrome, the colours so subdued, except for the vibrant art Brut is creating).

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But Breslin is desperate and even this seemingly wrecked psyche could be of some help, he may, in his fractured, kaleidoscope lensed view of the world have more understanding of what is going on than her team. Because it isn’t just that the most famous painting in history has suddenly, inexplicably altered to depict a winking Mona Lisa, there have been numerous other incidents around the entire globe, suicides, bombings, in one memorably horrific incident a couple who cast their own children in bronze, literally, killing them as well as transforming them into art, “claiming Neo-Dada conventions as their only defence.” And in each case a very simple image was found, the same image at each scene, in different nations, continents, a very simple line drawing of a human face, winking… Meanwhile we are also introduced to a young woman with a troubled child, Dylan, taking him to a new therapy home where art is used to help youngsters with mental health issues. There may be a connection growing here to what is happening in the wider world.

I really don’t want to say too much more about this first issue because I’m trying to tapdance around any potential spoiler landmines. And also because this is one of those stories that while I can summarise it a bit for review purposes to give you a rough idea, it is only the very roughest, this is really one of those works that you simply need to experience. It is only a first issue, so we’re only getting the briefest glimpse into what promises to be an unusual tale, but already it is pretty darned compelling – the idea of taking notions of what constitutes art, how we make it, how we react to it, the power it has, are all fascinating (as is the idea of using an artform – here the comic – to explore other ideas of art), and it reminded me in the good way of Doom Patrol-era Grant Morrison. Art has always been connected with ideas of power and even magic – even our oldest artworks, cave paintings some thirty to forty millennia old evoke not just our visual senses and our emotional states, they whisper of magic, of somehow capturing and conveying the power or essence of something else. And there’s also the sense of life within some art, or sometimes whole vistas of alternative realities.

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It is strange how sometimes the universe throws up variations on closely related themes around the same time, occasionally. In recent months I’ve been reading Shaun Simon and Mike Allred’s Art Ops for Vertigo (first issue reviewed here), and just in the last few days I have been lucky enough to be reading an advance copy of China Mieville’s next novel, The Last Days of Paris (out from Picador in February, James and I will be doing a joint review/discussion of it in the near future), in which resistance fighters in occupied Paris also interact with and use Surrealist art manifested into the real world in the desperate fight, the Surrealist art and manifesto being invoked like magical summonings almost. And then this first issue of Electric Sublime arrived on my desk… Of course all three would have been created by those different creators around the same time, without knowledge of the others, and by coincidence they would appear within a year or so of one another. Perhaps the art world is tapping on our window and trying to tell us something…

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This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

One Hundred Nights of Hero – Isabel Greenberg’s wonderful new book

One Hundred Nights of Hero,

Isabel Greenberg,

Jonathan Cape

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Is it a true story?

It could be.

I’m tardy with this review, I meant to have it up a couple of weeks ago or more, but book, work, life and task juggling got in the way and I was quite adamant that I was not going to rush through One Hundred Nights of Hero. No, this is a book to be taken slowly, enjoyed, savoured, pause frequently to think about the ideas, memories and thoughts it stirs up before returning to the next part. This is a book to take your time with and it’s perhaps a good idea that it is published as the longer nights draw in over autumn, perfect time for drawing the curtains, turning on the reading lamp, curling up in the comfy chair by the fire (and a nice drink to hand, of course) and lose yourself in the pages…

After Isabel’s wonderful (and Eisner nominated) Encyclopedia of Early Earth (reviewed here by Richard) I think it is fair to say many of us had high expectations – no doubt the praise heaped upon that book and its success was welcome to the author, but it is also a burden, a high bar to set on a creator. Fortunately Isabel has taken that challenge and surpassed it admirably. I think I fell in love with this book almost instantly, within the first few pages – it’s hard not to love a book which commences with a page showing the globe and the legend “in the beginning was the world”, then you turn over the page to reveal the very Early Earth, depicted in a lovely faux-primitive style, somewhere between pictogram and Lascaux-like cave painting,s and the words “and it was weird.”

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We meet the god Birdman and his children, the boy Kid and his sister Kiddo. And while Kiddo and Kid are also gods it is clear, as it usually is in most pantheons, that there is a chief god – in this case Birdman. And again as with many ancient pantheons deities, especially the ones at the top of the heap, are jealous, capricious, insecure and over-controlling creatures (Birdman is mostly depicted with his beak wide open – always something to declare, usually over the top of anyone else; he’s a bit of a blowhard and egomaniac, not to mention a Champion Mansplainer). And after fiddling around with the rest of the universe of creation, he takes notes of a smaller creation – a world, the Early Earth – that Kiddo has crafted and peopled with beings she calls “human”. She’s fascinated by these small beings who live and love and eat and sleep and grow and die, and is content to watch over them. Birdman, however, considers this an affront – he wants changes and principally he wants these small being to worship him as he effectively co-opts Kiddo’s creation.

But while the nature of religion, Birdman, Kiddo and the history Early Earth recur through the stories (not least in the horrible Beaked Brothers, the religious fanatics from Birdman’s church who enforce dogma and societal norms), the main part of this quite substantial tome (it is a pretty impressively large work, and it comes in a very handsome hardback with cloth-bound spine and metallic, embossed lettering) is, as you may guess from the title, inspired by the classic Tale of a Thousand and One Nights. In the place of clever Scheherazade we have Hero and her friend and lover Cherry. Heroes across the millennia may sometimes rely on a strong sword arm, but the smartest ones rely more on their intelligence and wit (Achilles and Ajax may have been the strongest warriors in the Iliad, but it was crafty Odysseus who outlived them, despite his diverting problems). And what of women, kept “in their place” in a rigid society, little say in who they will be married off to, forbidden from learning to read (because we know from history when you let people read they get all sorts of ideas for themselves, and that would never do). Those heroes really must rely on instinct and wit and intellect, not brute strength and a sharp sword. And compassion and understanding. And friendship.

And stories. Especially stories…

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A foul wager by two very, very silly men (who sadly, despite being fools and bigots hold power over the lives of their womenfolk), Manfred and Jerome discuss women, Manfred in particular proving to be especially loathsome, one of those men who sees all the faults in everyone else (especially women) but not his own myriad of failings. And their discussion of “worthless” women sees them lay this aforementioned wager – Jerome is so sure of the virtue and fidelity of his young wife (who seems more like a possession to him than a partner) he bets that the vile Manfred cannot seduce her while Jerome is off on business for a hundred days and nights. The art here is fabulous, most especially the way Isabel depicts the expressions of these two men – a scene showing Manfred leering (for all his ranting about how no woman is worthy, he is clearly obsessed with them, not an uncommon pairing of characteristics) had me laughing out loud.

While the wretched and loathsome Manfred sets forth cockily to win his bet (and it matters little to either man about the woman they so cavalierly use for their sport with one another) it is the key to the spinning of a quite wonderful series of tales. Cherry, the demure, chaste and obedient wife he is to try and seduce is actually far smarter than her husband (and Manfred) and she gets her passion elsewhere – from the eponymous Hero, her friend who poses as her maid but is really her lover, both struggling to have a loving relationship and to also nurture their intellect and learning in a society which would condemn them for both. And it is Hero who determines to stave off Manfred’s unwanted advances through that tried and tested method of the spinning of enticing tales, stories that captivate and compel. Stories that stop at break of day but oh, Manfred needs to hear the end, so he keeps pausing his lustful advances to hear more. And more. And, well, you get the idea.

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It’s a lovely way to frame these stories, and no, I am not going to go into each of the tales Hero spins over the hundred nights to save her lover from Manfred, there isn’t space enough and besides, I’m not going to ruin it for you. But take it from me, they are enticing, lovely and often oh so emotional tales, taking in both love and loss, death and life, finding but also losing, and mostly with a very feminine perspective, for many of these are the stories of women, women forbidden to read and write, to touch books, so some of them take it upon themselves to acquire stories which they learn by heart and pass on, both by word and by the craft of tapestry. An all but invisible web of stories being shared in secret telling stories of love and romance and triumph and betrayal and bigotry and hatred. Of moons falling in love with humans, of sisters parted by duplicitous lovers, of princesses and the mirror fantasy worlds they escape to from a controlling king and father.

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It’s a beautiful kaleidoscope of stories, each building atop the others for a satisfying cumulative effect, each enhancing the others. There are terrific touches in both story and art – little background scenes such as the guards set to watch over Hero and Cherry becoming totally besotted with the stories they overhear them telling (which of course they tell their friends and wives and children, who then tell them to others, because stories are contagious, in the nicest way). Or simple but hugely effective techniques, such as a new wife, her expression rapt and loving as she gazes at her new husband, but while his face points towards her we can see Isabel has his eyes roving, already looking away from his adoring wife for another conquest. It’s just one tiny touch in one panel, but it’s indicative of the care and craft in this work.

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There is a serious subtext here about the way men and women see and treat one another (especially the way many men have treated women, sadly something that is, yet again, in the news for all the worst reasons – some men, it seems, are incapable of growing up and evolving, and boy could a lot of them benefit from these stories, if they were open to them, that is). But it’s also a book of adventures and wonders and romances and hopes and regrets and humour (and sassiness!) , all wrapped in some lovely, lovely artwork. It’s a collection of stories which come together to form a larger narrative and set of shared ideas and themes in a quite magical way, and it is one of those books you just know you are going to find yourself revisiting again and again (always the mark of a truly good book). I think come December this will be a very strong contender for one of my Best of the Year selections, an utterly wonderful book that I cannot recommend enough.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

The dark side of Tinseltown – Angel City

Angel City #1,

Janet Harvey, Megan Levens, Nick Filardi,

Oni Press

angel_city_1_harvey_levens_onipress_coverHollywood. Tinseltown. The land of glamour and possibility. Show up on the bus. Get a soda at Schwab’s. Become a star. That’s the dream of a thousand pretty girls across America. A lot of them have bus fare. Frances Faye was a good kid. She had lousy taste in guy, sure. But in this town that can be an asset. We were friends, a log time ago. I always wondered what happened to her. Now? I wish I didn’t know.”

That opening dialogue takes place over the first three pages of Harvey and Levens’ first issue of Angel City, and, lover of Film Noir and classic-era Hollywood that I am, I imagine it delivered in a world-weary voice of someone who once aimed for the stars and was hit repeatedly by how low down and dirty the reality behind the screen magic actually was. A perfect Film Noir opening voice over, really, overlaying image of Grauman’s famous Chinese Theatre, but here silhouetted against an ominous bloody-red sky and long shadow, a hint of the gruesome scene we’re about to find just yards from where those oh-so-famous and glamorous film star hand prints are in the sidewalk by the cinema. the 30s/40s newsmen in their Fedora hats, flashbulbs (remember those?) popping brilliantly in the dark alley behind the movie palace, where a young, battered woman’s body lies among the garbage of the dumpster.

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It’s a chilling opening, within two pages establishing that Golden Age Hollywood setting and glamour then tearing back the curtain to show behind the scenes and the way so many young would-be starlets were eaten up by Tinseltown. One of the newspapermen, Joe, develops the photos in his dark room (a nice dramatic scene, the slow reveal of the image appearing on the paper under the red light, something you don’t get with digital, that pause, that reveal). And realises as he looks more closely that battered face in the press photo is someone he knows. Or rather now someone he knew… He goes to call on Dot – now re-branded as Dolores (identity is plastic in La-La Land), who at first appears to be living the film star life – big house, palm trees, pool, lounging around in her swimsuit and oh-so-chic turban sipping a cocktail in the sun. And he tells her their friend is dead, brutally, dumped like yesterday’s old trash. She affects not to care – it was a long time ago they came out here to California seeking fame and fortune like so many others – and he leaves her angrily, informing her the funeral is tomorrow, as he departs.

All those hopes. All those dreams… It hits too close to hime. Frances Hallmeyer. Faye was her middle name… We came in together on the goddamned Greyhound bus… We ran out of money in a week.

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But Dolores – who was Dot when she and Frances Faye arrived on a Greyhound bus with their cheap suitcases and no money but a pocket full of dreams of making it in this town – can’t stop the memories. In sepia-tinged flashbacks (in contrast to the colour-drenched present day scenes, nicely crafted by Levens and Filardi’s artwork and colouring) we see them trying for everything – the cattle-calls of an open audition (let’s see those legs, toots!) to all the creeps and lechers in bars and clubs, full of promises of connections to famous producers and directors, in exchange for some companionship, in a city where pretty young flesh is the cheapest and most readily available commodity of all (and all some have to trade). And eventually Dot, before she becomes Dolores, in her bunny costume as the cigarette girl in the clubs. Except when one guy gets too fresh with her, Dot doesn’t take that pat on her bum, oh no, she turns around and clocks the guy with her tray. Catching the eye of the gangster who runs the club and who can use a feisty dame like her (although to be fair he does seem to develop genuine feelings for her too).

No that first impression isn’t right, Dolores as he now calls herself is no movie star in her luxury home and pool, she’s working for a gangster. It’s a clever bluff and reveal by Harvey and Levens and given how closely the gangsters and the film set were often intertwined abck then in LA (and Vegas, come to that) it’s pretty appropriate to see her seemingly glamorous lifestyle comes from violence and crime hidden behind a veneer of respectable, wealthy living, a mask, just like those the directors and actors and producer who live in neighbouring big homes all wear too.

This opening issue is dripping in nods to Golden Age Hollywood, right down to the presence of Eddie Mannix, the famous/infamous “fixer” for the old studio system (which could mean anything from hushing up and paying off old, undesirable boyfriends or an abortion for studio starlets to much darker and heavier actions to protect the carefully managed public persona of those stars), and it also oozes that Noir mixture of style and disturbance. The reveal of poor Frances in the dumpster recalls the horrid, wretched fate of poor Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia, one of the most infamous and macabre unsolved murders in Hollywood history (later immortalised by the great crime writer James Ellroy as part of his LA Quartet).

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And that’s no accident as is revealed by the creators in an afterword, the Dahlia’s gruesome fate was an inspiration, along with the always-hushed-up but well-known knowledge of the systematic abuse of young starlets to be for the promise of a chance at silver screen fame (terrifying how many of those rumours were actually true, creatures like Trump would have been in their element back then). And that theme of the use and abuse of women – especially young, impressionable and desperate ladies – and the lingering threat and often actuality of the violence men hold over them pervades the story. And as recent events remind us – as if we needed reminding – that’s not something that vanished with the Hollywood of the 30s an 40s, it still lingers, it is still there, from the vile misogynistic rantings of someone like Trump to the internet trolls who try to silence women who dare to voice opinions with the threat of sexual violence. No, it’s still here, sickeningly here in 2016 when we should know better, and that makes Angel City not just an atmospheric period crime thriller, it makes it disturbingly pertinent to the modern day.

If you enjoyed Brubaker and Phillips’ superb The Fade Out (reviewed here) or enjoy classic Film Noir then this is an ideal companion to read. And if you love that intoxicating and now vanished Hollywood of the period with its mix of glamour and sleaze I’d also recommend the quite excellent You Must Remember This Podcast by Karina Longworth.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Reviews: how the future used to look – Tom Gauld’s delightful Mooncop

Mooncop,

Tom Gauld,

Drawn & Quarterly

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We’ve been huge fans of Tom Gauld’s work for ages here on the blog, so it’s always a pleasure to have a new book from him, and in my own case I also had the added pleasure of getting to meet and chat to Tom about Mooncop at the Edinburgh International Book Festival a few weeks ago (report here). In his weekly Guardian cartoons Tom has often referenced science fiction and also a sort of retro-futurism which somehow manages to combine humour and amusement along with nostalgia and a gentle melancholy. Think, for an example closely related to his new book, of his cartoon of three panels, one showing the Moon from billions of years ago to 1969, an unchanging vacuum desert, then a panel showing the brief visits of Apollo, then the last showing the Moon from 1973 onwards, back once more to the empty, unchanging desert, empty of people, the bright moment of optimistic future exploration has been and gone.

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(revisiting some of Tom’s earlier work before our Edinburgh Book Festival chat I saw this strip in a different light now, perhaps an early ancestor of what would become some elements of Mooncop. Collected in the You’re All Jealous of My Jetpack by Tom Gauld, published Drawn & Quarterly)

Mooncop takes that feeling and that older, optimistic belief in the future, one many of us of a certain age grew up, that by the 21st century we would be living on the Moon, holidays in space, jet packs for all (an old children’s guide to the future proudly proclaiming all of this as if it were fact was one of Tom’s inspirations for the book), and delivers a story that celebrates the wonders of the stark Lunar landscape while also questioning why we thought we would want to live there in the first place. “Living on the Moon, whatever were we thinking? It seems rather silly now” comments one older lady, one of the original colony designers, to the Mooncop, who replies “Not to me. I think what you did was wonderful”.

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Our cop zooms around that astonishing landscape in his hover-car, but with little to do – zero crimes, means actually his efficiency rating is high, but that low crime is mostly because there are fewer and fewer people still living on the colony. Helping an old lady find her missing dog (off for a Lunar walk in his pressurised “hamster ball”, which makes for some smile-inducing visuals), or retrieving the faulty robotic automaton of Neil Armstrong (a clever way to give him a sort-of cameo and pay homage to that first human on the Moon) is about the worst he has to deal with in his police duties. And as he returns to his apartments each evening (a relative term on the Moon) he experiences an ennui, that this place he always wanted to come to and finds beautiful is slowly dying as people give up and move back to Earth.

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Perhaps he should too? What’s the point in being the only cop on the Moon if there are almost no people for him to serve and protect? Every day there are fewer and fewer. He feels like he arrived at a great party after it had started to break up, and starts to consider the other may be right and he should request a move back to Earth too. And yet… And yet, it’s the Moon, it’s that stark, otherworldly beauty and the image of the Earth rising above the horizon, a homage to that remarkable photo, Earthrise, taken by the crew of Apollo 8 as they came out of the shadow of the dark side of the Moon on Christmas Eve, 1968, the first time any human being had ever had a view of the whole globe hanging in space.

He loves it, and as the book continues, as the 60s-style optimistic, shiny Big Future fades in the face of everyday necessity and reality Mooncop becomes less about the science fiction or the humour (although both remain present, I should add) and more about that personal journey, not the physical one to the Moon but the inner one we all have to take at some point, about getting to a place, both physically and emotionally, where we don’t judge our place by what others say but how we feel about it. Our slightly-lost Lunar policeman needs to figure out where he is happiest, what makes him feel right. It’s a lovely, gentle tale of how the future used to look on one level, while on another level it’s about how it isn’t the discoveries and new locations and technologies which make a good future, it’s us ourselves and our understanding of where we want to fit into it all.

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The art is gorgeous throughout, Tom’s minimalist approach paying dividends on the largely barren Lunar landscape, while the colony itself is quite different from many other Moonbases I’ve seen in science fiction. Rather than a huge, domed city sprawling across the plains or a large underground base as in 2001, here it’s individual buildings – apartments, small houses, trees, coffee shops (even a Mooncop needs coffee and donuts, which of course come packed in their own little pressurised containers), with their own little domes, spread out across the landscape, reminiscent of a small town in one of the great deserts of the USA, and there are some nice little references in the art to visual inspirations from the real-world (once futuristic, now run-down cube apartments in Japan) and from science fiction (from Duncan Jones’ Moon to 2001 and Silent Running). It’s a lovely, smile-inducing work, presented in a lovely, well-designed small flexible hardback with metallic finish (a nice addition to your shelves)

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(Tom Gauld at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, photo from my Flickr)

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Reviews: dark goings on in the Arctic night in Hellboy & the BPRD 1954

Hellboy & the BPRD 1954 #1,

Mike Mignola, Chris Roberson, Stephen Green, Dave Stewart

Dark Horse

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It’s always a good thing when the New Comic Book Day releases include Mignola and his merry group of collaborators bringing us fresh Hellboy stories. Although the main Hellboy narrative arc has finally finished with the Hellboy in Hell series, over the last couple of years we’ve been treated to these “young Hellboy” stories, starting with Hellboy and the BPRD 1952, which filled in some back history and gave us a view of Big Red’s very first time out as a field agent (1952 reviewed here, and you can read the 1953 review here). This week the latest mini-series kicked off with the 1954 installment, and, rather appropriately given the era it is set in Mignola et al have happily – gleefully, I am sure – raided some of the science fiction of the period, notably the 1951 classic film The Thing From Another World, adapted from Campbell’s Who Goes There novella and decades later the inspiration for Carpenter’s iconic The Thing.

As you will have guess from that, this tale is set in the frozen wastes, a great frozen ice-island in the Arctic, with a small scientific base on it. When one of their number is attacked in the almost-perpetual night of the Arctic winter the BPRD sent out Hellboy and Woodrow Farrier, a doctor specialising in cryptozoology. The ingredients are all here – remote location, small group under stress and threat, the fear of whatever the unknown “it” is, the claustrophobia of the small Arctic base. The men argue – some insist it was just a very large polar bear which tore apart their missing colleague, others, experienced in this climate, say no, a polar bear doesn’t reach that size. And then there was the awful stench which came with the creature…

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There’s only so much information Hellboy and Farrier can glean from the men’s descriptions though – it happened suddenly, in the dark and snow and of course they were also attempting to escape with their lives, so they’re not really going to give any conclusive eyewitness accounts of just what attacked them (and one in particular seems inclined to be uncooperative, mostly because he doesn’t like the fact Farrier is black. Even with death circling them some still cling to bigotry and racism, although he seems less concerned with the fact that Hellboy is red and non-human than he does with the dark tone of Farrier’s skin, which makes him seem even more ridiculous, which I imagine was the effect the creators intended). And so with only one volunteer willing to go back outside with them, Hellboy and Ferrier embark on a creature hunt…

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There’s a good bit more going on here, including some revelations a good bit later into this first issue, but there’s no way to talk about those without also blowing some (very cool and fun) plot points to anyone who hasn’t had a chance to pick this up yet, so much as I enjoyed those elements I will restrain myself. The approach and setting here, homaging those older sci-fi/horror tales is a geek pleasure – I’d guess most of us who love Hellboy would also love those tales, so seeing something in that period vein but starring HB is going to make us smile. Farrier is all wonder and excitement – an academic, he doesn’t get out into the field too much and he is so excited at the thought of a possible unknown species that he’s almost like a kid, oblivious to the danger, while Hellboy, for all he’s only been a field agent for a couple of years by this point, is already experienced and a bit more jaded (probably just a mutation, he tells the over-excited Farrier). And there are later elements which nod both to more sci-fi of the era and also to some old Hellboy opponents too, but again I will keep my big mouth shut on those for fear of spoilers.

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It’s never easy for any artist to approach Hellboy – Mignola’s visuals over the first couple of decades of the character’s life are pretty much iconic in style and palette, and it cannot be easy for any other artist to come in and draw the character in their own way but also maintain a visual cohesion to the years of previous art. Green, however, pulls it off nicely, right from the opening of the Dakota rumbling into a frozen airstrip and Hellboy jumping casually out and lighting up, to the bursts of action and then (well, then those other parts that I am not going to mention for fear of ruining the surprise).

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This is an absolute pleasure, especially for those of us with a love for some of those old pulp sci-fi tales and films of that era, and it seems clear to me the creators are also having fun, and that always comes across to the reader.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog

A fairer world: The Red Virgin and the Vision of Utopia

The Red Virgin and the Vision of Utopia,

Mary and Bryan Talbot,

Jonathan Cape

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I’ve been eagerly awaiting this new work from the Costa Award-winning Mary and Bryan Talbot for month, and Mary and Bryan’s recent guest Commentary post whet my appetite even further. Was it worth the wait? Well let’s put it this way, I read it last week then found myself re-reading it twice over the weekend on a train trip back home; it’s one of those books that very much deserves another pass because there is so much going on here, between the history, the politics, the biography and, of course, the detailed art, that it rewards you handsomely for re-reading.

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The Gare de Lyon, Paris, January 1905; our first glimpse of Louise Michel, political agitator, feminist, revolutionary, fighter for equality and a dreamer of a better, fairer world. And it is her funeral, a full-page, appropriately with a black border, mostly black, white and grey tones, save for the deep red of the funeral flowers and the red of revolutionary flags. Thousands have turned out for the final journey of Louise, and caught up in the busy procession and arriving American writer, herself no stranger to the ideas of Utopias or the fight for more equality, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, arriving at the station to be met by young Monique. Gilman is in the middle of a European lecture tour, and while they wait for the procession to pass Monique explains that the funeral is for Louise Michel “She spoke out for the people. We loved her.” Gilman recognises the name – the two had met on a previous lecture tour and spent a pleasant evening discussing Utopian fiction. Monique offers to tell her more about Louise, and this is the clever framing device which leads the reader into the story of this remarkable, revolutionary woman.

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It’s snowing heavily in the run-down streets of Montmarte on a December evening, 1870. Montmartre today still has a slightly different look and feel to it from much of the rest of central Paris, but back then it was more like a tumbledown village. A full page gives a wonderful impression of the place, a caped figure shivering through the snow, you can almost imagine the soft runch-runch-runch of footsteps in the snow and the quiet, damped sound that comes with the snow. Inside a group, mostly women share what little food they have, huddled around a lantern, its glow uplighting their faces, including the face of Louise, a face that combines compassion, intelligence and strength. These are people in a poor district who have little at the best of time, but as the Franco-Prussian War and then the siege of Paris drags on (these are events which would lead to the creation of modern Germany after France’s defeat).

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But despite the biting winter outside, the lack of food and heat, the war, the poverty, this is a warm scene, these are people who are friends and neighbours, people who help and support one another. And while this helps introduce Louise and the conditions which helped drive her desire to change the world, it also provides some beautiful little details – a cat happily snoozing on a woman’s lap, and its indignant expression when she leaps up – which brings the scene to life, makes these not just characters in a tale but real people, people we can recognise and empathise with. And that makes this more emotional, personal, relatable, not a remote moment of history, but events involving real people, and that enriches everything which follows.

And what follows… Ye gods, what an amazing life. I knew of the Franco-Prussian War, of the changes it lead to in French government and had heard a little about the Paris Commune. But I hadn’t heard of Louise Michel. And after reading (and re-reading) this book I’m wondering why I’ve not come across her story before. Perhaps it’s one not widely known outside Francophone histories. However that just added to the pleasures of this work; that wonderful, warm feeling that comes from having both an engrossing story and learning something new and fascinating. Our modern society is still hideously unfair and unbalanced – we need look only at protests in recent years over the ever-increasing gap between rich and poor and the influence and control the former accrue to themselves, or the way people – even in supposedly “advanced” cultures are mistreated because of the colour of their skin, their gender, denied opportunities for not having gone to the “right” school… And here’s this woman in a poor arrondissement of Paris in the 1870s fighting – quite often literally – for education for all (and girls to be taught the same as boys), proper political power from the people, ensuring resources of nations are used for the betterment of their people, not just a few at the top…

The Talbots take us through the heady days of the Commune, moments of brief triumph before the brutal re-imposition of Almighty Power (a government and army that couldn’t defeat the invading Prussians but was able to turn its guns on its own citizens). Thousands are killed, many survivors imprisoned or transported to the distant colonies. And still Louise Michel doesn’t stop fighting, she doesn’t stop studying and arguing and dreaming. Even exiled to the far side of the world she takes it as an opportunity to learn more, to expand her horizons. In a period of high imperialism she instead talks to the natives, learns their ways, language, culture and in turn teaches their children just as she teaches the children of the French exiles in her makeshift school, seeing in the colonial mastery over others the same blind, greedy power which she fought in the streets of Paris.

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Having young Monique, then later her elderly mother (a friend of Louise Michel’s, and one who stood alongside her) telling Gilman their account of this remarkable, revolutionary woman is a wonderful way to frame Louise’s story, leading us in easily to the events, adding human depth and emotion to these events, and it is little surprise given Mary’s academic background that the work comes across as well-researched and boasts an appendix of notes and sources which are also quite fascinating. The artwork throughout is beautiful, as you would expect from one of our masters of the medium, from subtle use of colouring around the pages (jet-black for the funeral and opening, a much lighter page tone for the scenes in distant New Caledonia, intimating the brighter light quality.

There are some memorable images – a line of soldiers marching but with their loaves impaled on the bayonets of their hoisted rifles (something thrown up by research but which makes such a lovely visual image), to the revolutionaries ripping up the street cobbles to erect barricades, in true, traditional Parisian fashion, sudden “terrible beauty” amidst the horror as erupting cannon fire causes the spring blossoms to rain from the trees, a ghastly set of double-page spreads showing the bloody aftermath of the brutal suppression of the Commune, dark, dark, dark pages of bodies and the suffering of the survivors, seen as if through falling soot and smoke from gunfire, the bright red normally reserved in the book for the flags and Louise Michel’s scarf here given to blood of ordinary citizens pooling in the Parisian streets. Coming almost midway through the book those pages are sombre, shocking and a reminder of the bloody cost that has been paid time and again by those trying to change the world.

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This is an utterly fascinating book, a beautiful meshing of history, story and art, telling the story of an inspiring woman and of causes that are still far, far too relevant in our own modern, troubled world. There’s a lovely mixing of the Utopian science fiction of the period, of that dream that all of this marvelous new technology coming out of that period, and what will come later, will be used to finally free all of humanity from drudgery and suffering, to essentially create something not unlike the Federation in Star Trek, and a number of references are made to the SF literature of the period and how it helped inspire those dreamers wanting to change the world (as many tales today still do, and thank goodness for them, because what would we do without those dreamers pushing the rest of us to try and make things a bit better, even if we never quite get there, but we keep stepping closer at least). And this also allowed Bryan to indulge in a nice scene showing one of those imagined Victorian SF futures, a little visual treat.

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In a lovely touch I was moved to see that Mary and Bryan had dedicated this book to another writer of Utopian science fiction, the late Iain M Banks, who I imagine would have heartily enjoyed discussing Louise Michel with the Talbots over a good dram. Powerful, moving, thought-provoking and fascinating. It’s only May and I already know this will be going straight onto my Best of the Year list come December.

You can read a guest Commentary post by Mary and Bryan Talbot talking about how they came to write the Red Virgin here on the Forbidden Planet blog

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog. Mary and Bryan Talbot will be at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on the 27th of August

Masked wrestlers! Monsters! Tequila! Hellboy in Mexico!

Hellboy in Mexico,

Mike Mignola, Richard Corben, Mick McMahon, Fabio Moon, Gabriel Ba, Dave Stewart,

Dark Horse

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We’re still partway through the Hellboy in Hell story arc at the moment in the main, ongoing HB series, but Mike Mignola has been leavening those tales of poor old Red being dead and wandering the afterlife with some stories set in Hellboy’s early career with the likes of the Hellboy and the BPRD 1953 (see here for review) and now this enormously fun Hellboy in Mexico collection of short stories, which sees Mignola collaborating with some fantastic talent – Gabriel Ba, Fabio Moon, Richard Corben and Mick McMahon (with the redoubtable Dave Stewart on colouring duties once more). I think many of us would consider those names alone worthy of the price of admittance.

Here we have a young Hellboy in the year 1956, and a lost period in his life, which as Mignola notes in his introduction (as with most of the other Hellboy short story collections Mike does introductions to each of the stories which I’ve always found almost as much fun as the stories themselves), started almost by accident when a few years ago he drew a sketch of Hellboy with some masked wrestlers and the caption “Palenque, Mexico, June 2, 1956”. This left an enticing door open for Mignola to return at some point to his creation and a “forgotten” era in his history, when Hellboy and a couple of other BPRD operatives were sent to Mexico to investigate a rash of supernatural disturbances and monsters. In fact there’s such a mess of monstrous events that his companions can’t take it and leave, but Hellboy stays behind. But the events take a toll on this young, rasher, less experienced Hellboy and he essentially vanished from the BPRD’s radar for five months (slight shades of Ambrose Bierce). He himself claims not to recall much of what happened – traumatic events mixed with far too much drinking. Or perhaps he simply doesn’t want to remember it…

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(Richard Corben’s excellent art illustrates Hellboy and his trio of masked wrestling monster hunters)

One event in particular is a painful memory for Hellboy, introduced by a later BPRD mission to Mexico in the 1980s with Abe Sapien. Awaiting pick up they find some shelter from the sun in a small, ruined, lonely church. On one wall, among the ruined religious artefacts Abe spots old photographs tacked to the wall – one curling picture is indeed that one of Hellboy with the masked wrestlers, and naturally he asks HB about it, and so we start on these five “lost” months of his younger life. The three masked wrestlers in the 1950s photograph were three brothers, travelling the small town wrestling circuit until they are granted a vision in a church, that they are to help fight this plague of supernatural monsters. Hellboy teams up with them, fighting monsters by day, drinking tequila, singing and dancing in tavernas by night, until inevitably this catches up with them. After one night’s post beast-hunting drinking session, their luck turns sour, and in this world of damned creatures spewed up by the Pit and ancient Mesoamerican mythological monsters there are worse things than being killed…

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(The Coffin Man – complete with demonic donkey! – art by Fabio Moon)

As this is a collection of short stories (as many of the best Hellboy books have been over the years), I don’t want to get into the actual stories too much as it is way to easy to accidentally let slip a potential spoiler. But I will say this whole collection has a terrific atmosphere to it, partly reflective – a glimpse of a younger, less seasoned Hellboy learning both adventure but also consequences the hard way – partly though it is just a terrific excuse for a series of adventurous romps, filling in a part of Hellboy’s life we’ve not seen before. And of course there is a huge amount of fun in seeing Hellboy teamed up with masked Mexican wrestlers battling vampiric beings, old Aztec gods and others, with many nods to the local mythology and also to the rich pop-cultural seam of horror films from the region.

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(“Hellboy Gets Married” – too much drink, some music, a pretty face and it’s easy for a young lad to go astray… Art by the brilliant Mick McMahon)

It’s an absolute delight, and with Richard Corben, Gabriel Ba, Fabio Moon and Mick McMahon as artistic collaborators it’s as great a visual as it is a narrative pleasure, while Mignola’s trademark introductions before each story add nicely to the appreciation of them.

Chester Brown returns with Jesus Wept Over the Feet of Jesus

Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus,

Chester Brown,

Drawn & Quarterly

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Chester Brown has to be one of our more uniquely interesting comickers, tackling sensitive – indeed even controversial for some – subject matter with a deft hand, an open mind and a strong element of respect and sensitivity. And tackling Biblical topics is an area likely to generate debate and, I would imagine, controversy, especially when the subtitle is “Prostitution and Religious Obedience in the Bible” (some people just can’t deal with those concepts, and sadly those are the sort of people who could most benefit from reading and thinking about some of the issues raised). Those of us who have enjoyed Chester’s frank and thoughtful work such as Paying For It, which looked at the world of sex workers and those who go to them, will not be at all surprised to find that here he is considering elements of sexuality and gender issues and perception and where they fit into the general human condition.

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And again Brown tackles what could very easily be exploitative material in lesser hands with his customary dexterity and thoughtfulness. Indeed throughout this entire book there is a genuine impression of Brown looking at some of the issues he raises and considering them, not just taking the standard interpretations of Gospel material, but presenting a selection of example tales – Cain and Abel, the Talents, Job Bathsheba, Ruth and more – allowing the reader to absorb them and start forming their own impressions, then, in an expansive Notes section going into far more detail about why he selected those tales and what his own reading has lead him to think about what lesson they really are trying to convey. And I have to say that I often found this latter part even more fascinating than the comic adaptation of the Biblical stories.

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That is no slight on Brown’s comicking ability, by the way – I love his style; the deceptively simple, mostly four-panel layout and the way he retains a cartoonish look but still packs a huge amount of expression into his characters’ face, making them much more relatable and believable and human. And of course those fascinating Notes wouldn’t make much sense without the context he prepares first with the actual comic strips. But it is clear from the Notes how much thought and study has gone into which tales Brown has chosen here to illuminate his chosen topics of obedience, morality, responsibility, gender roles, sex and prostitution. The Notes have extensive bibliographic references to the source books he has drawn from for inspiration, including, to his credit, some that he doesn’t necessarily agree with, but includes their reasoning and argument, which adds balance but also again prompts the reader to think more about their own assumptions, which is never a bad thing.

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(the parable of the Talents)

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I’ve little time for religion myself – my interest in it isn’t theological or a matter of faith, but  pretty much the same as the interest I’ve always had in the stories of the Olympian gods, or Norse pantheon, or the gods of the Mayans or Aztecs.  I’m more fascinated by what the worship of these beings and the stories constructed around them to explain what they are and why they do what they do says about human nature and our attempts to explain the world around us, and also to try and codify a coherent shared structure of beliefs and rules that can help shape and bind a society (for both good and ill). And of course quite often some of these are also just pretty interesting stories – the best of them, like many other good stories of all types, still holding relevance to today. The gender issues raised here are especially still of much relevance to our modern society, and you’d think by 2016 it shouldn’t be (come on, two thousand years later!), but sadly yes, it is and so it’s a good thing authors like Brown are highlighting them again, reminding us we’ve still a long way to go in improving ourselves and how we deal with others. Going back to a time when women were almost just property, where they had to rely on “a good match”, it’s not that far off from some of what you pick up on millennia later in the likes of Jane Austen (not so much the stories, but the position of women, the restricted choices they have to make in a hugely paternalistic society) and other writing from the Modern age.

I often disagreed with both the mainstream and Brown’s own conclusions about the meanings behind some of the stories – as with a lot of religious discussion it is easy to get tied into mental knots attempting to explain the reasoning behind the actions of some (to me totally imaginary) sky-daddy figure, when to me it seemed that, as with the likes of the Olympians, it’s better to just never trust the reasoning by any god because deities seem to change their fickle minds rather too often and then blame poor mortals for any mistakes. But cynical as I am I was still deeply fascinated by the reasoning Brown showed here, and the underlying theme of compassion he clearly has, and found that after reading his fascinating Notes section that I had to go back over each of the strips again several times, feeling as if I was looking at them from a slightly different angle, and that, my friends, is a real gift to a reader, not to convert you to the author’s point of view (and to be fair I doubt that was his intent anyway), but to share with the reader various viewpoints and competing ideas and allowing them to open different perspectives in the reader.

The Last Man on the Moon

The Last Man on the Moon,

Directed by Mark Craig,

Featuring Eugene Cernan, Alan Bean, Dick Gordon, Jim Lovell

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That whole time, that’s the time I call ‘sitting on God’s front porch.”

Those are the words of Gene Cernan, naval aviator, engineer and NASA astronaut, on his three days on the Moon as commander of Apollo 17. The last of the spectacular lunar Apollo missions. Gene was, quite literally, the last man on the Moon. Astronauts, cosmonauts, taikonauts, they’re a select cadre, a group who even now, more than fifty years after the first manned space flight by Gagarin, are composed of only a tiny group of people, the few who have flown above the clouds, above the very air we breathe, to enter space, to float around our glowingly blue world and see it as no-one else in the history of the world could have before space flight.

But among that select group the trailblazers of that first era of manned space flight stand out – Gagarin, Glenn, Shepherd, Leonov. These men really did go where no-one has gone before. Spaceflight is incredibly dangerous – you ride into orbit at vast velocity atop what is basically a carefully controlled series of explosions with a thousand things that can go wrong, to enter an environment Earthbound life was never meant to survive in, where a small mistake or fault can lead to death. And in the first years it was all entirely new – nobody even knew for sure if humans could live in space, could you even eat and digest while weightless in your orbiting capsule? Would cosmic rays kill you or fry your electronics leaving you adrift before you could do anything? Could you survive re-entry?

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(Above: Cernan poses for an official portrait in his spacesuit; below: Cerna in a less formal pose with his young daughter)

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Cernan was there right in the earliest days, one of those elite pilots recruited for the astronaut corps, starting with the Gemini programme, and this film draws principally on his autobiography. Cernan starts as the reserve crewmember but after an awful flying accident to the main crew he is moved up to  the mission – rather mixed feelings, to say the least, getting his dream tickets, a chance to soar into space, but getting that first chance because his friend and fellow flyer died tragically. And that part covering the early years of Cernan’s life at NASA , sets the tone for this entire film – this isn’t just about those first astronauts, about the setbacks and the triumphs. Those have been documented many times – deservedly – but here we have a much more personal and importantly a much more emotional film. This is still about those gloriously heady days, pushing to be the first to reach the Moon, but it is just as much about the emotional and psychological cost for the astronauts and their families.

If you think going to the Moon is hard, you ought to try staying home” – Cernan’s wife on hearing of a flight mishap during Apollo 10.

Cernan, to his credit, does not try to paint himself or his fellow Apollo astronauts who take part in this film as the simple, heroic figures history likes to portray. Which is not to downplay in any way the risks they faced, the amazing science and engineering it involved, the boundaries they pushed, the new frontier they charted. It was heroic. And like most things heroic it is too easy to forget behind those stories there is just a normal person – doing the extraordinary, to be sure, but still a person, like any of us. A person with loved ones around them who have to share that dream with them, who also have to sacrifice, who suffer emotionally. Not just the obvious worry over whether husband/dad/brother will come home safely. We’ve all seen those prim, seemingly serene NASA wives of the period watching the mission on TV with their kids and projecting the expected image of pride and confidence when really they were terrified of what could happen, but would never show it in front of the camera.

Cernan pulls no punches on that front – he comments that in many ways the astronauts were quite simply selfish; oriented totally on their goal, the mission, the training. Meanwhile real life was rolling on and it was the wives who had to make sure the kids were looked after, got to school on time, the bills were paid, household chores and repairs were done. Wives essentially had largely absentee husbands, children absentee fathers; they couldn’t stop training or being focused on the mission, there were only a few flight slots and only the best of the best would get that chance. And so they sacrificed – on the job, Cernan paying his dues flying Gemini then Apollo 10, the last flight before Armstrong’s historic landing, so close he could almost touch the Moon but knowing that first landing was not to be his (his respect for Neil shines through any disappointment at that). And it was a vital part of proving they could get men there and fly home, critical to the success of Apollo 11. As Cernan notes of those preparatory missions – “Not many people remember Apollo 10, but I do. And I’ll tell you someone else who did – Neil Armstrong.”

The Last Man on the Moon -Trailer from Mark Stewart Productions on Vimeo.

And later he gets his ultimate reward – and what a reward, what the calls his “personal moment of reckoning”, command of Apollo 17. With cutbacks looming after several successive lunar missions, it will be the final one leaving some who trained and were ready for their mission to never reach that goal. Where Armstrong and Aldarin have a short time on the surface the later missions had several days and the remarkable Lunar Rover, a hi-tech, Space-Age dune buddy for the Moon, so they could travel further and explore more, pick up more diverse samples to study back on Earth. And in an incredibly touching moment Cernan recounts how he parked the Lunar Rover for the last time, a little away from the landing module (LEM) so it could remotely film their take off.

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(Cernan on the Moon, by the Lunar Rover, the red commander’s stripes marking this out as his suit; below, the view from the trip round the Moon, the Apollo missions the very first time any human being had been far enough away to see the entire disc of our world, and to to share that image with all of us. We’ve grown up knowing what our entire globe looks like hanging in space, something all the thousands of generations before the late 60s never got to see)

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And as he dismounted to walk back to the ship for the final time he paused. And there in the ancient, dusty surface of the Moon he wrote his young daughter’s initials. Which, like Armstrong’s footprints will, in that airless vacuum, essentially remain there forever. As far from home as any humans have ever been, sacrificed so much home and family life to be there, to land on the Moon, and suddenly all he can think of is home and his wee girl. It’s beautifully touching. If any future mission – and who knew back then that almost four decades on we’d still not have returned – lands and visit the Rover, those initials will still be there.

Walking up the ladder was probably one of the most memorable moments for me, because I looked down at my footprints and I knew I wasn’t coming this way again. Why were we here, what did it mean? I looked over my shoulder: there’s the Earth, there’s reality, there’s home. I wanted to press the freeze button, I wanted to stop time, I really wanted to reach out, take it in my hand, stick it in my spacesuit and bring it home to show to everybody, this is what it looks like, this is what it feels like.”

And the last man to walk on a surface not of our Earth climbed the ladder to the LEM and Apollo 17 headed home. But it still wasn’t over, not really. Hard to recall now, but the early astronauts were global figures, international celebrities in a way the preening media darlings of today could never dream of, with tens of thousands lining routes to wave to them on visit. From Gagarin through to the Apollo crews, they travelled the world – presidents, celebrities, scientists, millions of ordinary people, all wanted to see them, to hear them speak, the glare of media followed them, and as Cernan’s then wife notes it becomes too much. They sacrificed for years for his training and the mission, and now it is over, but still they are in the spotlight – when do they get to be a regular family, have an ordinary life again? Too much for many – some sixty percent of the Apollo astronauts, including Cernan, would end up divorced due to the stresses and strains. The physical return to Plane Earth was relatively gentle, a splashdown in the ocean, but the emotional and psychological effects of having to come back to Planet Earth, to real, daily life, was far bumpier.

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(tired and covered in Lunar dust – making history can be dirty)

This emotional core is absolutely central to director Craig’s film here, and it gives a much more satisfyingly rounded and human insight into some of the most remarkable moments in recent human history, and those who made them happen. He doesn’t stint on the astonishing nature of the Moon missions or the glories of Apollo – period film, both NASA and family home movies and photos, all create visuals for both the missions and the families dealing with the effects of training for those historic flights, while some very well-done CG effects are added to the visuals, giving us a view we otherwise simply couldn’t have. But he balances this constantly with what it cost in terms of emotional and family life to do what they did.

And there are some wonderfully emotional scenes from the present day – Cernan returning to the Cape, to the old Apollo launch pad. It looks like the sort of thing any good film-maker would shoot – the subject returning to the scene of their greatest triumphs, where it all happened, where the roar of the awesomely powerful Saturn V rockets lifted men not just into space but all the way to the Moon and back. Except towards the end it is clear Cernan has not entirely enjoyed this stroll down memory lane, looking at the now empty, unused Apollo launch areas and thinking that he really doesn’t like seeing it like this, that perhaps he should not have come back to see it this way.

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(Cernan as he is today, re-visiting the Apollo launch pad, where world-changing history was made, now all silent – a bittersweet moment for the astronaut)

And in another immensely touching scene we see Cernan visit the Johnson Space Center, Houston. And there is the capsule from Apollo 17, from that defining, historic mission, the peak of his astronaut career. And it’s a museum piece, viewed by school children not born until decades after he flew in it. He looks at the capsule, still showing the raging fires of re-entry on the shell, and the dummy astronauts inside. Did we really do it, he muses, did we really reach out and do what humans have dreamed of forever, to touch the Moon? What was it all about? How do young people today see this item in a museum and the old man standing by it, looking just like anyone’s grandfather (and indeed he is). Was it all a dream? Did he really once fly in that small spaceship? What will people in another forty years or a hundred or a thousand think looking back at the Apollo days?

I’ve been in love with the idea of spaceflight since I was a very small boy, born at the height of the Space Age; I’ve read and watched so much of the history of those times and those world-changing events. Despite all the documentaries I’ve watched, the books I’ve read, this film still stood out, largely because of that very emotional core, giving a hugely satisfying new insight into those remarkable Apollo days, the human side to the heroic giants who rode fire into the heavens. For fellow space geeks like me this is essential viewing, but for those who just enjoy seeing epic history being presented at a very human level, this is also a remarkable film.

The Last Man on the Moon opens in the UK on April 8th, and there is a special screening with live link up for a Q&A with Gene Cernan on April 11th in many cinemas around the country.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Reviews: the Imitation Game explores the life of the astonishing Alan Turing

The Imitation Game: Alan Turing Decoded,

Jim Ottaviani, Leland Purvis,

Abrams Comicarts

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I’ve long been fascinated with the life and work of Alan Turing, the remarkable British mathematician and boffin (and if anyone deserves the affectionate old British label “boffin”, surely it’s Turing), the ideas, far ahead of his time and the technology available to him, spilling out of that unusual mind like a brilliant river of thought that most of us would struggle to stay afloat in, let alone navigate that river. Ideas which changed the world, although for many long decades some of that astonishing work would be concealed under the Official Secrets Act, wartime work not to be discussed. And it wasn’t; from the eccentric academics with their erratic, lateral-thinking brains tackling seemingly impossible problems to the legions of women who sweated over the operations at Bletchley Park, they kept their mouths closed. Some, like Turing, would go to their graves long before the nature of their work was revealed, the role it played in saving the nation – and arguably the free world – from the dark tyranny of the Nazi onslaught.

And as if helping save the world was not enough, also using those desperate times to push the envelope, advancing ideas and new technologies which would otherwise have taken years or decades more, birthing the proper digital programmable computer (in hastily erected sheds in wartime Britain of all places). Birthing the technological creations which would take us from the Industrial Age into the Information Age, a revolution we’re all mostly still running to catch up with, an idea which, like Gutenberg’s movable type printing press before it was an idea which would branch off into so many other areas, influencing every aspect of our lives, from everyday things like train travel or making a phone call to the exotic, like launching satellites or creating new ways of peering into our bodies to create new treatments. And some of those first ideas come from a young, eccentric and awkward, but brilliant, lad, ideas which may have remained only theories and academic papers and perhaps the odd bit of mechanical or electronic tinkering, if the budget allowed, until the war came.

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Ottaviani (who previously brought us a wonderful biography on the great Feynman) and Purvis break this look at Turing’s life and mind into three main parts, starting with his youth – school and college days, home life – then answering the call of duty during the dark days of the Second World War for secret work at the (now rightly famous) Bletchley Park, the desperate, frantic attempts to find ways into the supposedly unbreakable Enigma codes, and then his post-war life, able to show his OBE for services to “king and country” but not to ever tell what that remarkable work actually was. And of course, for those of us already familiar with Turing (I’ve admired him since I sat programming my first home computers, way back in the days when you had to learn programming to make them do anything, long, long before apps and swipes) that last act is a tragic one (potential spoiler alert for those not familiar with that history).

It would have been very easy to focus entirely on those Bletchley Park years, and indeed the material from that period would easily have filled the book. But to Ottaviani Purvis’ great credit they want to show the person, not just the historical figure, and it greatly enriches the book by taking in his younger years first. The awkward lad with a brilliant brain that seems to grasp hugely complex problems easily and solve most of them just in his head (where the rest of us would fill entire journals working on the problem for years and still be scratching our heads), and yet to whom many of the normal everyday social interactional skills were a mystery (these days it’s hard not to imagine Jim Parsons’ wonderful portrayal of Dr Sheldon Cooper when noticing these quirks).

But there are still warm, social connections there despite his awkwardness, from family, from a few select friends, including Chris Morcom, a young, intelligent friend who accepts him as he is, and who other biographers have speculated about – was he perhaps young Turing’s first crush as he realised he preferred men to women? Here that isn’t exactly downplayed, but neither is it highlighted, instead, rather nicely focusing on their friendship and shared interests, sadly doomed to end all to early as Morcom died very young (the scenes following that are both sad and very touching, showing Turing the man, not just a brilliant brain, but a person with feelings).

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Some of the book follows Turing himself, showing him at school, college, being invited to America to Princeton where he is in the company of the likes of Von Neumman, Alonzo Church (even Einstein was there during this period), then into the wartime work and realising some of his ideas about “universal machines” could be used to help crack these Nazi cyphers, first by mechanical means (the famous “bombes” rotating and clacking away by the hundred, staffed by service woman often working in their undies due to the heat of the machinery) then (with the brilliant electronic engineering of the GPO’s Tommy Flowers) an actual electronic, digital computer, the first such in world history (although as it was a state secret for decades afterwards textbooks would give that honour to American scientists. Again those who worked on it kept their lips sealed about their much earlier efforts).

At many other points the book deviates from this approach, instead bringing in people who knew him, friends, colleagues, his mother, even his wartime fiance (who accepted even though she knew he was homosexual, because he liked her time with him), taking their turns in the interview chair, introducing parts of Turing’s life that they were involved in, as if in a documentary film. Again this very much helps personalise this story – it isn’t just about an odd but brilliant mind, it’s a person and the people who were around them. I also very much approved of the many nods to others from Bletchley, such as Dilly Knox or the “golden geese” (the servicewomen who worked there – as Churchill called the vital Bletchley decrypts, it was the goose which laid the golden eggs but never cackled. This was an era where one did one’s duties, all in it together, and did not talk about it. Most maintained that silence for decades until their work was declassified). The Bletchley segment is also something of a celebration of the “backroom boys”, the great British Boffin, the sort of chap with a brilliant mind solving amazing problems in time of need, and yet the sort who often forgets to tie his own shoelaces.

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And then there is that final act, the tragic act (again spoiler for those who are not familiar with this history and don’t want to know in advance of reading the book). The postwar work, struggling to get resources like they had during the war to continue his early computing work, and the nature of his homosexuality also coming out, no real, continuing romantic relationship, just the odd fling, giving an impression of sadness and loneliness, also of frustration at work he can’t advance as much as he wants. And finally the fling which lands him before the judicial system, because this was 1950s Britain and homosexuality wasn’t just frowned upon, it was actually illegal. His status and service saved him from prison, but cruelly he was put on a probation that included taking female hormones to “cure” him, causing him illness, weight gain and even developing breasts, provoking despair and depression and more isolation. Until this brilliant man, whose work had been absolutely pivotal to the survival of the entire nation, takes his own life with a poisoned apple (beautifully foreshadowed much earlier in the book as he and a college chum go to see the new Disney film, Snow White).

The disgrace of a man who had rendered such service to his country, to be treated so is shocking still, and the question that can never be answered echoes heavily over this last chapter – what else could have come from that brilliant mind? What other innovations would Turing have given to the fledgling computer industry? But despite this terribly sad ending this is not downbeat, this is a celebration of a remarkable man and an astonishing life. Purvis uses some wonderful visual tricks to convey the processes of Turing’s mind – a scene showing the ticker tape for an early thought experiment machine flowing past him as he effortlessly walks on and his friends struggle to keep up with him was rather wonderful, likewise a fantasy scene with Turing talking with the brilliant Ada Lovelace – another innovator of the world we now live in – is beautifully depicted, and there are lovely little cameos, including a young officer from Naval Intelligence, Commander Ian Fleming (later to create the James Bond novels).

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It’s a beautifully told story, both for those of us with some familiarity with Turing and that historical period, and to those who are new to it, a reminder also of the enormous debt the present and future always owe to the past and those who came before us, and what they achieved, often in the face of adversity; it celebrates an amazing man and the people he worked with. In 2009 the British Prime Minister issued a posthumous apology to Turing for his judicial treatment, in 2013 the Queen officially granted a royal pardon. Computer scientists, cognitive psychologists and philosophers are still debating Turing’s thought experiments on advanced computing technology actually being able to develop into artificial intelligence, his importance and work are still taught in academia around the globe.

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog