The Peripheral – William Gibson’s superb return to science fiction

The Peripheral,

William Gibson,

Viking

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Inside, the trailer was the colour of Vaseline...”

I’ve been reading Bill Gibson’s work since my teens (which now feel like a lifetime ago, back in a former century); Neuromancer remains a firm personal favourite as well as being generally held not just to be a classic of modern science fiction but one of the most iconic and influential. In the last decade and a half though Gibson has moved away from science fiction to a fair extent, but his writing has remained fascinating, his technique sharper each time but his ability to craft a wonderfully descriptive line (such as the quote above) in one sentence where other writers may take half a paragraph of descriptive text remains, and he remains laser-sharp in tapping into elements of today’s society, morals and tech. Now with his return to full-on science fiction I am delighted to say those skills has sharpened in the likes of his less-SF works like the Blue Ant series remain pin-sharp, an intriguing story, beautifully paced, mixed with his laconic descriptive style and superbly accurate observations of problems we are facing today and tomorrow in the real world, transposed into his future setting. Of course commenting on today’s problems using a futuristic setting is something good science fiction has done forever, but Gibson does it so much better (and with so much style) that most.

Set across two time periods, the near-future, around the early 2020s, and we meet a young woman in a trailer park in the South of America, Flynne. In this not too distant version of the future there’s a lot to be recognised from our own present day, an economy that simply doesn’t work anymore, out-competed by fresh international rivals, wearied by endless wars (Flynne’s brother Burton is a veteran, still suffering sometimes from the tech implants – ‘haptics’ the Marines use in this era), few jobs, even fewer that pay a wage you can live on, what’s left of the economy and the local and national government run far more by corrupt politicians in the pay of corporations and a wealthy elite who have hung on to their wealth and increased their influence as the mass of population grows poorer – democracy is pretty much a fig leaf now. Sounds terribly familiar, doesn’t it?

Flynne, like most of the population, has to be on the look our for ways to make a living – sure there is a military pension for her brother but the cost of living keeps going up and keeping food on the table and a roof over the head is increasingly expensive, while employment opportunities grow scarcer, their small town drying up, shops closing, only a few chain conglomerates still in business, apart from a few local enterprises which operate frequently in the grey area between the legitimate economy (if you can call it that in this corrupt future) and the dark economy. Flynne never served herself, having to look after their mother (and earn money for her medications), but she has some formidable combat skills, albeit virtual ones – so good she’s made money as a virtual mercenary for rich gamers, helping them look good. Burton, with his tech enhanced skills from his Marines days also makes some extra money on the side checking out beta versions of new software and games for corporate clients. When he needs to be elsewhere (basically heading to nearby towns to tussle with a religious-political group he can’t stand) he asks Flynne to stand in for him and run his shift on what both think is testing out parts of a new game. And it is while remotely operating a flying drone in this virtual city online that Flynne (logged in as Burton) witnesses what looks very much like a real murder, realistic enough to be disturbing (especially for Flynne, who after some too-realistic war gaming for a rich client is sickened of this kind of thing, even if it is virtual).

But was it just a test of a beta version of a new game in development? Or was it something more…

And this is where the second main element of Peripheral comes in, almost a century further down the timeline from Flynne’s era, in a sparsely populated world following an event, an odd version of London, parts of it new but parts of it recognisable to us, but somehow different. This is the world after an event known as The Jackpot, the human race hugely reduced in number after this event – or really a series of events, a rapidly accelerating downward spiral of various disasters, some natural, many problems we are all to aware of right now, problems of our own making, allowed to run rampant, no one single event or disaster, just one after the other, like a war of attrition oh humanity. This sparsely populated future London was recreated mostly by nano assemblers and the main humans left are descendants of the hugely rich oligarchs, like the Russian billionaires who buy up huge sections of the wealthiest parts of London today then extend their properties underground, Gibson again taking a far future but lacing it with elements of the way things are already recognisably going in our own day and age.

Among this rich elite we meet Wilf, not rich himself, nor especially important, but he has some influence, a mover and shaker of media (we first meet him as his carefully orchestrated media piece on his artist client – who periodically flays her own skin from her body and displays it as art before growing a new one – ends up in a total mess witnessed by all). And this is where it becomes even more interesting, as we find out Wilf’s rich oligarch friend has been playing a new game. Not exactly the game Flynne thought she was testing – in fact his new hobby is like a strategy game, building your own world of resources and planning, a Civilisation style game, perhaps. Except this isn’t a virtual reality, this is history – this is Flynne’s time. A mysterious server – perhaps in China – somehow allows a few of the rich elite in this future to dabble in the past, the ultimate in gaming, actually getting to play with real people. Gibson neatly avoids this causing any causality problems by the fact that whenever a new game is started it cannot actually be the past of the player’s time, rather it causes a splitting off, a splinter, a different timeline, which they can interact with in the future knowing if they cause any changes it will not affect their own present. It’s a nice spin on a hypothesis about possible time travel which has been used before in both science fiction and theoretical science as a way around the the causality problem (how could you go back and change the past, as any change would alter your own future so that your future would now be different from the one where you decided to change the past… Yes, very confusing conundrum, time travel really can induce headaches) by automatically having these ‘stubs’ become their own timeline, linked by the mysterious server but not part of the timeline of the gamer, so it cannot effect their time. In effect a parallel reality, something that has been theorised for many years in science, a multiverse where each different course of action leads to its own distinct timeline where each plays out.

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But while this stub timeline Flynne inhabits may not directly effect events in Wilf’s time, his time has serious effects on her era – not least that some of the other shady operators from Wilf’s time, others playing in this timeline as if the people there were game pieces (which to these bored, rich oligarchs they effectively are) see her – or Burton – as a possible threat to their own plans and decide they need to be removed, necessitating direct contact with Flynne and her timeline. a contact Wilf is chosen to be the frontman for. There is no actual time travel here, but it is possible to exchange data between the different times, and Flynne ‘visits’ their future via a remote android body, the eponymous peripheral, still in her own time but able to use it to physically interact in Wilf’s future period. A tense race soon develops, which draws in an enigmatic London detective, who is clearly much more than a police officer, and while the timelines may be separate, they are parallel and it’s not hard for those in each period to see events of their own timelines being mirrored in the other, but must everything play out one way or can they determine their own possible future?

I’m not going to go into deep details here for fear of spoilers – this is a large novel (especially by Gibson standards) but it flies past at a cracking pace, with the intensity slowly ratchetting up as the events start to spiral ever faster, cutting back and forth between the two futures. Despite the length of the book Gibson keeps it never less than engrossing, and it isn’t long before you get drawn into the lives of the characters, especially those of Flynne’s era and the way her family and neighbours band together in the face of threat, be it from the other shadowy future operatives playing with their time, or from their own corrupt local politicians and businessmen – when the world is going to hell there is something warmly human about this small group of the have-nots circling the waggons and looking after each other, in stark contrast to the predatory super-rich, the politicians and the corporations, the latter with huge amounts of money and all the resources they can buy, the former relying on their own personal bonds and ingenuity, classic Us versus Them. The story riffs on a number of hot topic subjects from our own era’s concerns – virus outbreaks, terrorism, economic collapse, the ever growing chasm between those at the top, entrenching their positions while the mass of the population has to get by with less and less, an environment we’ve pushed beyond breaking but still don’t do much to repair, not to mention the metaphor of these future rich kids in a post Jackpot event world playing with real lives in alternate timelines as if it was a game (which to them it is), and the allusions that casts to the way so much of our own world seems to be run beyond our own control by elite groups who answer to no-one but themselves.

Through this gripping story and the social-historical-political-economic observations Gibson so deftly weaves (into the background, giving these futures a realistic texture and context but without slowing the main narrative) we’re also treated to more of those superb brief but oh so evocative descriptive lines Gibson is the king of, such as one character boarding an armoured Zil limousine, noticing “it had no rear window whatever, which gave him the sense that it had turned up its collar.” And through it there is the nature of morality in both timelines, one older character reminding a younger that those plotting against them may have evil intent, but they’re not monsters, they’re “all too human, dear, and the moment we forget it, we’re lost,” the implication being that every single one of us has the potential to be that selfish, banal evil person, and we need to remember, because that’s what keeps us different, keeps us on the right side. Absolutely compelling return to science fiction by Gibson, I already know this will be one of my Best of the Year picks.

“This machine kills fascists”: Nick Hayes’ Woody Guthrie, the Dustbowl Ballads

Woody Guthrie and the Dust Bowl Ballads Hardcover,

Nick Hayes,

Jonathan Cape

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This land was his land as much as the next man’s. Like the folk songs he sang, it belonged to everyone, so it belonged to no-one…”

Guardian cartoonist Nick Hayes made his graphic novel debut a couple of years ago with the intriguing – not to mention large – Rime of the Modern Mariner, an interesting contemporary riff on the classic Coleridge poem with a strong ecological message and some amazing artwork and use of pacing and rhythm. This, his second full-length work, follows Woody Guthrie, arguably one of the most famous and influential folk musicians of the last century, and a lasting influence on many later artists (not least Bob Dylan), but this is no straightforward biography told in comics form. No, what Hayes does here is more interesting than a straight biographical narrative – this is about the man, yes, but it is even more about the events and times that made him and shaped the music he sang throughout the land, criss-crossing the vast landscape of America, riding the box-cars with hoboes and with men seeking any place that had work and the promise of a better life during the heart of the Depression.

The art is mostly in a mixture of browns and coppers and beiges, recalling an old sepia photograph, and very stylised, sometimes Woody and other characters looking fairly cartoony, in other scenes the artwork looks almost like an old woodcut, and it ranges from depicting the miserable suffering of the twin economic and ecological disaster of the Dust Bowl and Depression, or the desperation of the shanty towns in and around most large American cities full of the poor looking for work that just wasn’t there, in their ‘Hoovertowns’, named after the president on whose watch these disasters happened (the shanty towns contrasting with the new gleaming skyscrapers making their early appearance on the skyline).

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It’s scenes we know from Steinbeck and the Grapes of Wrath and a thousand photographs, but here Hayes works it directly into how Woody is shaped, passing through all of this, seeing men like his father go from respected, well-off successful businessman to menial work just to hold his head above water, and knowing that was better than millions could manage. No work, mass unemployment, homes and farms being foreclosed on by banks which themselves had overstretched and failed helping to create the crisis in the first place then blaming their customers for not being able to repay those mortgages and loans. It all has far too much resonance to our own troubled times since the global financial meltdown, caused, ironically, in part by a lifting of the regulations on banks and finance that were brought in after this Great Depression to stop it happening again.

But this isn’t just a walk through the horribly dust-blown suffering of those who lost everything, who tried to believe in the American Dream, that they could always move on, start again, make something of themselves then, by the million, often through no fault of their own, because of powers beyond them that could ruin their lives from afar, finding themselves destitute. While Hayes does show this suffering and desperation and how it fuels Woody’s lifelong rage at social inequality and injustice, he shows hope, he shows traditions, many brought over from the old countries, this being the early part of the 20th century when many Americans were only a generation or two off the immigration boat.

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And among these traditions, songs: the shared common folk-songs, rarely written down, passed along, known by all, the communal cultural heritage of the many, telling of their own times and those of their predecessors. Woody takes these, fascinated by the stories they told, the way the songs gave voice to a poor mass of the population that would otherwise be silent, preserving their sense of identity and culture in the face of all disasters (a history for those who don’t usually get to write their own histories, preserved instead in ballads shared among the community, generation to generation) and offering little moments of joy in the misery, all singing and dancing in a local hall, troubles forgotten for a night.

Son, down here we own the land like a hand owns its body. It don’t belong to us. We belong to it. The land was here long before we came and will be here long after we’re gone…”

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Into this political-financial-ecological time of disaster Hayes also weaves a much more fantastical element, contrasting the lines closing off tracts of that vast continent, both the physical lines of fences (no trespassing, private property, keep out) or the ones on paper (bank records, congratulations, you’ve bought all this land and can do what you want, eject who you want). Hayes contrasts this with that great Westward Expansion dream that powered the previous century in the US, the seemingly endless land to be exploited (until it is over-exploited, as with the Great Plains, ancient ecology ruined without thought leading to Biblical levels of disaster) and the horizon forever free, and those astonishing landscapes, from the Great Plains to the stunning deserts. He shows the ‘patriotic’ songs of the period, which strangely enough tend to be popular with those who have done well out of the system, grasping at everything to make it turn a dollar, the 1920s and 30s version of the “1%”, even the land commodified. And out of those he starts to fashion his most famous song, “this land is your land, this land is my land…”, both song and book contrasting the promise, the dream of that astonishing, vast, continent with all its resources and space, everyone on a seemingly equal footing, except of course they’re not, there are always the smaller groups who control it all, but the dream of that freedom to be and do what you want and to make something of yourself is still there.

It’s about history, it’s about the exploitation of the many by the small elite, it’s about financial and ecological disasters and how the two are often entwined, but it is also about the music and the people, and how you can’t separate the two, how the music is made by the people but it is also a part of them and shapes them, their sense of who they are, where they came from, giving them strength to struggle on, inspire them, keep them going, tell their story. A beautiful work, beautifully executed, with enormous relevance to our own very troubled times. Stick on a best of Woody Guthrie CD then sit back and read it.

Reviews: Zenith, Phase One

Zenith Phase One Hardcover,

Grant Morrison, Steve Yeowell,

Rebellion/2000 AD

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I hadn’t realised the scale of their plans… Millions of worlds, moving towards alignment… The war that never ends… The Omnihedron… Oh, we’re so small… so…

Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell’s Zenith – a rare superhero outing for UK science fiction stalwart 2000 AD – must be one of the most requested reprint titles we’ve been asked for over the years. When will it be reprinted and collected? Finally after a lot of behind the scenes problems (which we won’t go into here, it could fill a whole article on its own) the first of a much-anticipated series of reprints arrives, in a nice hardback edition that resembles the quality bande dessinee of the Franco-Belgian comics market. 2000 AD has a proud history of nurturing new comics talent, and in the mid 1980s they were making a point of giving new series and creators more space, with one of those series turning out to be Zenith. Morrison, of course, has been working away for several years by this point (starting with work in Near Myths in the mid 70s, a collaborative comics work which included early Bryan Talbot work and which came out of the old Edinburgh Science Fiction Bookshop, which would later become Forbidden Planet), but this was one of his major breaks and proved to be a huge hit with the readers.

We open with a flashback to the closing days of World War Two, but this is an alternate history, the final battles taking place in 1944, not ‘45. The Nazis have developed their ‘ubermensch’, a superpowered being, Masterman, but the British, with the help of German scientists who defected to the Allies, develop their own version, Maximan, and the story begins with these two colossally powerful beings in a fight to the death in the bombed-out ruins of Berlin. A fight Maximan is losing to the Nazi creature, who is, it is hinted, more than just a product of science, he is part of a greater scheme involving the ‘Many-Angled Ones’, beings of vast, cold intellect that live among other dimensions and, like Lovecraft’s elder gods, seek to seep into our world, influence and then rule it. But before he can deliver the coup de grace an American bomber, carrying the first operational atomic bomb, delivers its deadly cargo, obliterating the city and both superbeings…

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In the 1980s we meet Zenith, one of the few superpowered beings in the world after an international ban on superbeing research – he is the offspring of parents who were part of Cloud 9, a British superteam of the 1960s, developed using the original wartime research, designed to be heroic, patriotic, unquestioning super-soldiers like Maximan. But this was the 60s and like many young people of the time Cloud 9 rebelled, tuned in, dropped out, refused to wear uniforms, to follow any order they didn’t agree with. By the 80s most are gone, some killed, some vanished mysteriously (including Zenith’s own parents) and the remainder have lost their powers over the years. Zenith is no heroic figure either, using his abilities in a purely selfish manner, a very 1980s creature, out for number one, only interested in himself and his pop career and celebrity status.

Until Ruby Fox enters his life; one of the Cloud 9 survivors, now working as a journalist, seemingly now without her powers. But when a secret society resurrects a stored twin of the Nazi Masterman and he attacks her, she finds in extremis that she can still use her powers (allowing her to direct electricity) to fight him long enough to escape and seek Zenith. The petulant, spoiled 80s brat doesn’t really believe her, much less want to help her, but is persuaded when she offers to tell him what happened to his parents if he does. Together they seek out The Red Dragon, a Welsh member of Cloud 9, but the Red Dragon is now plain Siadwell, and he is constantly pickled, and Mandala, a Cloud 9 survivor with powerful mental abilities, who became a 60s transcendental hippy, but has now gone in the other direction and become a golden boy of Thatcher’s Tory government as MP Peter St John. St John refuses to believe them or help, but events may force him to change his mind, as the new Masterman appears on the streets of London…

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And I won’t go any further on the plot for fear of ruining it – I know a lot of readers will have encountered this story many years ago, but it will still be new to quite a few and I don’t want to spoil it. It is fascinating to look back at this decades on, especially in the light of later work as Morrison moved from fan-favourite at 2000 AD to being an international comics god. Many of the approaches and ideas behind Zenith would be developed and mutated into even more compellingly weird and wonderful shapes for his later work – with that handy beast Hindsight it is particularly interesting to look at Zenith again in light of what Morrison would do with series like the remarkable The Invisibles, for instance.

Not content to simply serve up superheroes even at that early stage in his career, Morrison creates alternate timelines and dimensions, hidden histories, Lovecraftian multi-dimensional beings (who are behind the whole creation of superbeings for their own dark agenda), a serious questioning of accepting authority unquestioningly (see where that dutiful approach got poor Maximan, after all) or taking it as read that the world is at it appears but instead delving behind the curtains of reality to show there is far more (shades of both Lovecraft and Moorcock and more), all ably assisted by Steve Yeowell who crafts some lovely, clear black and white art (although Brendan McCarthy worked on the early designs for the series), rendering a wide variety of scenes, from WWII battlefields to 1980s London to the innards of a hideous dimensional being with equal grace and style.

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In some ways this has remained a timeless tale of a young, hungry writer getting to let loose with some of the ideas that had been fermenting in his brain, getting to stretch himself and his concepts of not just what storytelling could be but what you could so with the comics medium, something Morrison has pretty much continued to do throughout his career, frequently altering, changing, mutating both his approach and what you can do with the paper-based artificial reality of a world of comics, and it is a pure pleasure to see him again here at that early phase of his career, letting loose with those ideas and developing them.

In other ways though there are a number of elements which remain very much of their time, remain very 1980s, from the spoiled, selfish me-me-me generation epitomised by Zenith to some serious digs not just at the age-old British establishment but specifically at Thatcher and her government (one of the returned Many-Angled Ones seeing the former hippy turned right-wing Tory MP Peter St John remarks to him casually oh yes, we have many allies among you, inferring just how far some on the right would go for power). Those elements are still amusing to those of us old enough to remember the era, they probably don’t mean as much to younger readers encountering this for the first time. But those are only minor elements of the tale, and all tales will have some reflection of the era that shaped them, after all.

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But the main story and concepts remain powerful and compelling, and while superbeings behaving badly or the idea of WWII era super-soldiers is not new, Morrison created a very British, cynical, take on superheroes and what it would be like if they actually existed, and fused this superhero and science fiction approach with horror elements to create something remarkable and magnificent (and sometimes some nice humorous observations – such as how do you get from A to B when you fly? Just having the power to fly doesn’t mean you know where you are going in the air, something I’d never thought of about superheroes till Morrison cheekily worked it in, and when you see it you think of course, why didn’t I think of that before??). A fascinating work in its own right, a ‘lost’ classic of Brit comics now finally available again and an essential part of Morrison’s considerable oeuvre that you have to have on your shelves. Welcome home, Zenith.

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog

Maddy Kettle: the Adventure of the Thimblewitch – a gorgeous all-ages tale

Maddy Kettle: the Adventure of the Thimblewitch,
Eric Orchard,
Top Shelf

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I have been looking forward to this first Maddy Kettle book for months – Eric Orchard regularly posts and tweets some of his work in progress and the Maddy work has been drawing me in with its lovely, luscious art. The book opens with young Maddy on a train at night (a gorgeous scene, a steam loco running under a bright, starlit sky), accompanied by her special floating toad Ralph and her parents, who are now mice. Maddy is arguing with them about the best way to have the spell on her parents reversed – she is all for the adventure, anything to save her mum and dad, but her mum and dad, now mice or not, are still her parents and they tell her in no uncertain terms that she can’t, that it would be too dangerous, she is “just a little girl.”

Back then our lives were all about books.”

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From there we flashback from the night-time train to the bright light of day, Maddy’s home with her parents in the Kettle’s own bookshop, her father just returning from a book-buying trip and Maddy is delighted at the thought of her dad being home and of them being surrounded by even more wonderful books. But there is more – her dad has brought her a special gift, a rare floating spadefoot toad – Ralph – who, as he floats, will need to be kept on a piece of string. This unusual companion takes a bit of getting used to (sleeping floating upside down in the air outside the window!) but he’s such delightful company he’s soon beloved by the whole family and Maddy’s school friends.

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And then came that “terrible night”…Maddy and Ralph awoken by banging and crashing in the house in the middle of the night – she discovers her mother and father turned by magic into mice and glimpses Thimblewitch flying away and some terrifying Spider Goblins, all dark-featured and glowing-eyed menace. And just like that Maddy’s happy family bookstore home life is turned upside down. She’s determined to find a way to restore her mum and dad, even if they forbid it, but when a second intrusion by the Spider Goblins takes them from her altogether she finds she simply has to try now, and embarks on a quest to find the Thimblewitch, face her somehow and get her parents back.

Along the way she will meet all sorts of wonderful characters, such as Harry and Silvio, who fly in their balloon to do ‘cloud cartography’. They’re shocked to find the Thimblewitch has done this to Maddy’s parents as she used to be known as a good person and a protector of the Cloudscape, a first clue that not all is, perhaps, not as it seems. Harry and Silvio kindly offer to help Maddy on her quest and Maddy sets off with them into a remarkable cloudscape.

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I’m not going to go any further into the plot for fear of spoiling this utter delight of a story – suffice to say that Maddy only knows the little she has glimpsed of events, but there is much going on here that she has no knowledge of yet, and we find out alongside her on her quest, a journey which, as all quests and journeys should, changes Maddy a little as she meets new people and learns along the way. There are some beautiful scenes that take you off on lovely flights of imagination (in the case of Silvio and Harry’s balloon, almost literally) and Orchard suffuses the entire book – even the darker, scarier parts like the Spider Goblins raid – with a magical feel, going from charming whimsy to outright wonders, and there are lessons to be learned (never a bad thing in a book for young readers – or older readers come to that), about judging others, about making up your mind before you know all sides, the value of good friends and family, all filtered carefully through the story so those messages aren’t hammered into young readers but will sink in naturally through the narrative and leave a lasting impression on them.

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The artwork is simply gorgeous throughout, from the cosy warmth of the Kettle family in their bookstore to those star-bright, deep indigo night skies, or the dark menace of Spider Goblins, red eyes glowing in the dark, or the wonder of the Cloudscape Harry and Silvio share with Maddy. This is a truly wonderful book for the young reader, and those of us who still nourish our inner child and who never lost that sense of wonder. Adventure, friends, family, both scares and wondrous delights await, and you will find yourself frequently just stopping to admire the artwork; all of this and a nice lesson in consequences and morality too, as well as a brave and resourceful young female lead character. Maddy Kettle is a pure delight, one to share with your younger family members, or better still, read it alongside them. Then go back, wallow in that gorgeous artwork and know this is one of those books you will come back to repeatedly. Simply wonderful.

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this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Review: Wild’s End #1 – Wind in the Willows meets War of the Worlds

Wild’s End #1
Dan Abnett, Ian Culbard
Boom! Studios

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When I see Dan Abnett and Ian Culbard’s names on a new comic, frankly even before I know what it is about, that’s sufficient to make me want to take a look. Add in the fact that we have an anthropomorphic fantasy take on one of the first great classics of science fiction, HG Wells’ War of the Worlds (with a touch of the Archers thrown in for good measure) and you have my undivided reading attention!

We open under a clear night sky in the countryside, away from street lights, a great glowing, indigo firmament specked with sparking stars and a great moon, whose silvery glow lights the way home for Fawkes (a fox person) and his drouthy companion Bodie (a weasel), good naturedly arguing over their bottle of booze as, from the looks of it, they are walking home from a good evening’s poaching. Until they are stopped in their tracks by the sight of an astonishingly bright shooting star describing a great, flaming arc across that wonderful fairy tale night sky. Before they can even wish upon that falling star – still marvelling at how bright it was – the sound of its impact reaches them and they realise it didn’t just burn across the nocturnal heavens, it’s crashed to earth, not far from their quaint little village. Excitedly Fawkes starts out for the site, followed grudgingly by Bodie.

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The clear day after the night before and all is peaceful and as it should be in Lower Crowchurch; Mr Slipway (a dog) is very carefully painting his new home, a very traditional thatched cottage, about as picture postcard rural England as you can imagine, having just moved to the village, retiring from a life in the Navy. Two of his new neighbours, Gilbert Arrant and Peter Minks, stop to greet him in a friendly manner, although it is also clear that covertly Arrant (a pillar of the village and, one suspects, the type who likes to know the inside scoop on everyone else’s business) and Minks (a local journalist) are trying to pick away and see what they can find out about Slipway’s past. They invite him to join them in the pub later as the village fete is coming up and a group are meeting to discuss who will do what (although it is fairly apparent this is almost a formality as the same people do the same things each year in this little hamlet – tradition, charming or stultifying, delete as is your taste for such things).

And it’s during this rural chat that Fawkes makes his re-appearance, dishevelled and rambling and ranting about a dangerous light they found in the woods, a light which is deadly. But as a known drunk and poacher none believe him, except Slipway who comments “I’ve seen enough young men gripped in terror to know what genuine fear looks like” and he decides to investigate. But they may be late in checking the veracity of the errant Fawkes’ tale, someone, or something may be starting to investigate their little, peaceful domicile too…

This is a charming piece of work, a sort of blending of Wind in the Willows with HG Wells, and I found the idyllic, rural setting was enhanced by having anthropomorphic animal-people as the characters – they combine, with Culbard’s beautiful artwork, to create that fantasy, picture-postcard view of the idealised countryside English village that probably never really existed quite like that even before the modern world rudely pushed its way in, and yet it’s an image we all know and frequently have great affection for (perhaps not where many of us would choose to live, but certainly to take a peaceful sojourn in). This is only a first issue (of six), but already we’re introduced to several main characters and between Abnett’s dialogue and Culbard’s artwork their characteristics are pretty well established in the reader’s mind.

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I found Culbard’s approach to depicting Slipway especially effective, not just the way he delineates the facial features, but the angle and pose of the character speaks silently of his mysterious past that Arrant would like to tease out of him, a man who has seen much, done much, some of it, one suspects, the sort of tasks he doesn’t want to dwell on, while his depiction of Arrant is again wonderfully spot-on, the oh so friendly, fine chap who is actually the village gossip and always using his bonhomie to dig out everyone’s secrets and ensure his own place in the local society. Naturally they bring to mind other prominent anthropomorphic characters, such as Bryan Talbot’s Grandville cast, but these creations stand on their own and any comparisons I might make from Wild’s End to Grandville are entirely complimentary. That so much of their character comes through simply from the art is a testament to Culbard’s ability. Matching that with Abnett’s script and dialogue and you have something wonderful. Much recommended.

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(I can’t resist including this image of Culbard’s map of the village and surrounding countryside – as a friend commented during the recent Edinburgh Book Festival, there’s always something delightful about a map with your fantasy tales, and he’s right, there is)

This review was originally posted on the Forbidden Planet Blog

Review: Kleist’s The Boxer

The Boxer,

Reinhard Kleist,

SelfMadeHero

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One day, I’ll tell you everything.

Hertzko (later anglicised to ‘Harry’) Haft tells his son these words in the bright Florida sunshine of Miami in 1963. But it would be decades before his son actually found out why his father insisted he accompany him on this Florida road trip and what it was he wanted to tell him but simply couldn’t. That promise to tell his son everything circles The Boxer, the latest work by Reinhard Kleist, one of the brightest stars on the German comics scene. Kleist first came to our attention with his remarkable graphic biography of Johnny Cash, which was the first European comics work SelfMadeHero translated and republished in English (thankfully the first of a number of excellent foreign language works they have brought to English language readers). If, like me, you really dislike boxing, don’t be put off by the title and the pugilistic pose on the cover – yes, there is boxing in here, but in truth that sport isn’t really what the book is about, despite the title. This is a story about survival against the odds, from wartime, Nazi-occupied Poland to the nightmare of the death camps to reaching America after the war and finding that yes, you can make it there, but it too is full of tricksters and scammers and people out to make a buck out of you.

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Part of what makes The Boxer so fascinating is that Kleist, bravely in my opinion, has chosen a pretty unsympathetic subject for his later graphical biography. Harry is really not a very likeable character, even as a young lad in Poland, he’s aggressive, loud, quick to anger, quick to resort to force. Sure, life is tough in their village, especially for Jews (even before the Nazi occupation, as Maus documented years ago, there was a lot of anti-Semitism there already), but although it is tough going Harry seems to take it worse than his siblings, the chip on his shoulder is large, right from the start, and in truth he never really shakes it, even when he settles in America years later, beating all the odds that saw so many millions die horribly, reduced to ash and leftover personal effects.

But this nature is also part of what drives Harry, that makes him survive – of course there is luck in this too, why one man is picked and not others for one detail or another in the camps, but he works hard, and he hardens himself still further to endure what will come because it is the only way he can even hope to make it out the other end of this hell. And for a while he is in hell, a hell even Satan would have shaken his head in despair over, a hell made by men who had become worse than any demons. Shave-headed, in the striped, thin prisoner uniform, he and others chosen for work rather than immeadite extermination are marched to the building housing the ovens to clear them out. It’s one of the most horrific scenes in the book, executed in very heavy sweeps of black ink as the horrified prisoners are shown the ovens, and what it is burning there, exiting the chimney as nothing more than black soot now – human beings. Even stoic Harry breaks at this point:

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We were lead to the building with the chimney that darkened the sky… I regretted being alive…”

But he does make it through – an SS guard takes a shine to him, and uses Harry’s natural talents to his own ends. Before being caught he and his brothers regularly smuggled black market goods and in exchange for better treatment and food this SS officer uses his services and makes himself a good bit of money on the side. And then comes the boxing match. Seen as a fighter Harry is supposed to fight a guard, a spectacle to entertain the SS men at the concentration camps. Except it isn’t a guard, it is an other prisoner, half-starved – a mirror of him if he hadn’t entered into this deal. And if he doesn’t fight the poor man he knows both can expect a pistol shot to the head, so he fights, and he hates himself for it, but he fights, he wins, he lives, he has to do it again and again… What will we do to survive, what price will we pay? This is no easy choice, no coward’s way out, this is another horror he has to endure.

After the war finding little sign of his family or the girl he was hoping to marry before the war he manages to flee to America by himself, to start a new life, and his boxing seems, as it has to generations of working class lads, to be a way out of the bottom of society, to make something of himself, stand out, be a man, earn both money and respect. But even here there are goons with guns and muscle and Harry, struggling to make a rep for himself and get those big fights that can make his career, finds it is all run by gangsters are cruel and lethal as those SS guards cheering the boxing in the camps. You take a dive when they say or your body will be found floating in the Hudson. Make a stand, make that name for yourself. But maybe also end up dead very quickly too… After enduring and surviving so much Harry has to ask himself what’s more important, making that career or making sure he lives…

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It’s a hard read – not just because of the subject matter like the death camps, which is horrific enough, but, as I said, with Harry not being terribly sympathetic as a character. But with what he goes through you still root for him. You wish he would open up a bit more, lose those rough edges which are surely holding him back from enjoying life more once he is free, but then again those are the parts of him which helped him survive… It’s also about a father’s inability to talk emotionally with his son – men historically not the best at that emotional truth thing, even with their own flesh and blood, and of course in that era it was even more unusual for a man to open up like that, even to his oldest son, not just because what he has to say is awful but because it simply wasn’t what men did. And the mystery of that Miami trip with his son? That you have to read for yourself, but suffice to say it offers up a serious emotional punch. Yes, it’s a hard read, but a very powerful and deeply moving one too, a remarkable work from one of the finest young talents coming out of the European comics scene right now.

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Reviews: art swallowed by the ice – Glacial Period

Glacial Period,

Nicolas De Crécy ,

NBM/Louvre Editions

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Nicolas De Crécy is one of the more fascinating – not to mention gifted – creators to emerge from the great Franco-Belgian comics scene in the last couple of decades, able to switch his styles seemingly effortlessly to suit different subjects, from biting satire in the trilogy which started with Léon la Came (in collaboration with the equally brilliant Sylvian Chomet, who would go on to become the acclaimed animation director of Belleville Rendezvous and The Illusionist) to end-of-the-world science fiction as we have here in Glacial Period, part of a series created in conjunction with the Louvre Museum in Paris.  First published in Europe back in 2005 it has recently been reprinted in English by NBM, and a very welcome return to print it is, with this single album (presented here in a slim hardback similar to many French bande-dessinee volumes) allowing De Crécy to express adventure, comedy and action all in one tale, accompanied by some beautiful and varied artwork.

The world is frozen, the snow and ice hold dominion over the sleeping land below, as they did several thousand years ago during the last Ice Age (which still leaves its marks on our landscape today). A party crosses the often featureless expanse of white – they are researchers from an enclave of surviving humans somewhere far to the south, exploring, seeking out a fabled lost metropolis, the humans accompanied by some rotund creatures who look like tubby dogs but can speak. In fact these are genetically modified dogs (with a little pig thrown in, hence the rotund appearance) and their sense of smell is  an invaluable tool for the expedition. One, Hulk (they are all named for what the researchers think are the names of ancient gods), has very refined nasal receptors (as he likes to tell everyone) which he can even use, via a Carbon-14 augmentation, to detect some of the history of found objects.

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The thing is, this earnest party of researchers on their noble quest knows almost nothing about the world before the great freeze. We see them discussing a venerated object to be taken back for serious scientific study, a mysterious logo of interlocking letters – hieroglyphs they want to learn the meaning of, little knowing it is merely the logo of a long-gone French football team… When a collapsing fissure reveals the mighty Louvre museum, emerging from beneath the snow, they enter and are astonished at the size of the place and the sheer volume of paintings. Except they don’t know what paintings are, much less why anyone would create them and hang them on walls. Or how a flat image can still convey a sense of depth. Shorn of all knowledge of pre-ice civilisation they attempt to understand our world through these pieces of art, swiftly coming to the conclusion we must have been illiterate but skilled at image making, hence all the paintings, and also, judging by the number of nudes, a rather salacious bunch of erotomaniacs, not to mention having some odd notions about femininity…

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I don’t understand … More images. And More lewd ones! And as if lewdness was always feminine. A lewdness in enslavement to men,” muses Juliette, the only woman on the team, observing large numbers of nude paintings and wondering about gender in that long-ago society.

In many ways this is broad comedy, as we watch the serious historian attempting to place some paintings into what he thinks is a chronological order so they can give them a rough history, of course getting it hopelessly wrong. Even the concept of an art gallery and museum is unknown to these researchers, able to find these remains of the previous human civilisation, but totally unequipped to comprehend the social, cultural and historical meanings contained within those works. Of course there is a serious point here, partly riffing on the old “I am Ozymandias, King of Kings, look upon my works ye mighty and despair” theme of how even the greatest grandeur will be lost in the face of the eternal march of time, but partly a comment, as much good SF is, on our own present era. We have spent centuries, especially since the 1700s, piecing together this history and customs and beliefs of those civilisations which predate us – ancient Greeks, Egypt, Babylon, Ur, Angkor Wat – from similar pieces of art, paintings on walls, sculpture, lost languages. And with great respect to generations of historians and archaeologists who spend careers painstakingly putting those clues together, there must be whole swathes where a person from that era would find our conclusions laughable. I found this especially intriguing, having just recently read Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book where a historian goes back in time to the 1300s and finds out how many solid conclusions they had reached on life back then were false. It’s a reminder to all seekers of knowledge to remember humility and the fact that, lacking important context, we may easily and often get it wrong.

Hulk, separated from the group, is the first to enter and finds himself by great walls within walls which any visitor to the great museum will recognise as the original walls when the Louvre was a fortress-palace, now buried inside the great gallery. A visual reminder of the passings of civilisations, as is a later, more comic sequence where some of the artefacts, now possessed of a sort of life (a la Night at the Museum) tell Hurk of the days when earnest, slim scholars came to gaze upon then, then much later (in our own time) the obese, jolly tourists gawking. Again satire from De Crécy, painfully on the nose, and once more riffing on how time changes everything. His art changes from delicately drawn scenes with the main characters to an almost cartoonish style for Hulk and the other modified, intelligent dogs, to a gloriously detailed, painted approach to depict those millennia of artworks gathered in the Louvre.

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At one point De Crécy touches on the war years and the evacuation of these treasures to the countryside to protect them from Nazi bombers, as if, one character comments, they were more important than people. Again De Crécy uses a double-edged sword, on the one hand berating the way we have been conditioned to place certain artworks on a pedestal for veneration, a value which is purely in our head, product of our culture (a culture, which the book reminds us, can vanish taking all the contextual meaning of that object with it), when it is people who are more important.

And yet at the same time those works of art are people, our collective soul of aesthetics, beauty and wonder without which any human society is dreadfully impoverished. We’ve made art for as long as we’ve been human, from paintings etched on cave walls by flickering firelight to these massive oil paintings dominating entire walls of the Louvre. Perhaps De Crécy is trying to remind us with his satirical approach not that these works lack importance, but it is we who give them that importance, so we shouldn’t simply accept being told by some authority this is a masterpiece to be worshipped, we choose, we think, consider, and in doing so we make the art part of us, as it should be. It’s a delightful satire on human civilisation, knowledge and art, both lacerating and venerating it, using the genre of science fiction and a future-set tale to comment on the present (and the way the present sees the past, which of course is what today’s present becomes in time too), and even veers into some highly enjoyable fantasy when Hulk comes in contact with some of those artistic treasures, who have their own opinions. Beautiful comics work and art talking about the importance and place of art, what’s not to love here?

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This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

When the nightmares leak out into the streets: Lauren Beukes’ Broken Monsters

Broken Monsters,
Lauren Beukes,
HarperCollins

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There’s a short version of this review which runs something along the lines of South African writer Lauren Beukes has been sent personally by the Dark Forces from the Infernal City to scar the mind’s inner eye with a scalpel of sharpened words. Although if Lauren is sent by demonic forces she’s very personable and has excellent taste in footwear. And besides, joking aside, from me saying a writer can scar your inner eye is a compliment. In Zoo City then more particularly with her last novel, the intensely brutal and powerful The Shining Girls (which made by 2013 best of the year list), she has displayed an uncanny knack for not just being able to conjure up images and scenes which stick in the reader’s mind long after finishing the book, they really get under your mental skin. In Broken Monsters she develops this skill to peel back the reader’s cognitive functions with a fine blade: the compelling main narrative flows over the cognitive components of the brain but the imagery leaks beneath the foundations of that logical faculty and seeps into the parts of our mind where imagination and it’s twin offspring Wonder and Terror live. This is a book which works as much on the logical strength of a powerful detective tale narrative but simultaneously works by engaging the darkest parts of our imagination; the combined effect is devastatingly powerful.

It seems pretty much everything in Broken Monsters is a struggle. The lead detective, Gabrielle Versado, has had to struggle against macho misconceptions about gender roles in the homicide department, as well as racial ones, while also struggling with a broken marriage and trying to be a single parent (her clever, determined but impulsive daughter Layla is also struggling, to come to terms with no longer being a happy family, with her mother often being dragged away by work pressures and the usual coming of age problems any teen in any city has). She and the entire department are in an eternal struggle, not just against crime in a city riddled with violent acts but with trying to bring order to a city that itself is struggling to hold together – Detroit. And then into this comes Clayton Broom, a man who has failed at relationships, at fatherhood, work and art, a man struggling to try and make sense of his life but lacking the ability to really understand and fit in. Until a car accident changes his perspective and he begins to start using his ‘art’ to reshape the world to how he thinks it should be. It’s not long after this that the first murder victim is found, his first attempt to bring his ‘message’ to the world and try and change it.

A body of a young boy.

Or, more accurately, half a body. The lower half is gone, replaced with those of a young deer, fused to the boy’s torso, then left posed to be found.

The scene is described in terms that really bring home the horror of this, not just of the deliberate, wanton taking of a life – a child’s life at that – but desecrating the corpse in this manner. Beukes captures the mindset of a group of big city detective battling to develop any possible clues into something they can work with, to take the monstrous but categorise it into areas of logical enquiry they can use, at emotional arms-length, to focus on the case and start working out why the killer did this, what it tells them, how they can use this to hunt him. Serial killer? Twisted trophy hunter fed up stalking animals, now turning to people? Is it race-driven? Sexual? Could it be some sort of ritualistic thing – a Satanic cult, Voodoo? You can almost hear the mental clicking of gears as the detectives take a situation that should never happen and try to apply their tried and tested methods on it to make sense of something that may be beyond sense, to categorise it, analyse it and follow those clues. But what if it is something else altogether?

What starts as a brutally compelling police-procedural story soon starts to morph – it will surprise no-one who has read Beuekes’ other books to learn that no single genre label can contain her work, and this is as much a horror story and a dark fantasy novel (reminding me sometimes of the dark horrors the likes of Tim Lebbon can conjure) as it is a detective story. When we see some of the events from Clayton’s increasingly disintegrating point of view we see that to him his horrific murders and bodily mutilations and alterations are not killing – they start as a sort of art, but not just art, this is primal art, art as a form of magic, as it was in the earliest days, when painting a deer on a cave wall was not just art but sympathetic magic, trying to capture something of the essence of that creature being depicted and to use it for understanding, shaping the world and power. The writing is deliciously dark – these are nightmares leaking out of the darkest places of a twisted, delusional mind of a man turned murderer, but as we are drawn deep into this heart of darkness it becomes increasingly difficult to tell nightmare fantasy from hard, cold reality in the semi ruined streets of Detroit. How much of this is the warped imagination of a sociopathic killer trying to somehow justify what he is doing to himself? And could it be real? What if others start to feel the awful, dark presence of what he is doing and how it can change the world around him and his ‘art’? It this shared delusions? Is there something else here? Psychotropics? Or something far worse, darker and unnatural…


(Lauren Beukes with artist Inaki Miranda at the 2013 Edinburgh International Book Festival, pic from my own Flickr)

I won’t delve any deeper into that, save to say Beukes manages to both have her cake and eat it in the very satisfying manner in which she explores the escalating situation and offers up different aspects for the readers to draw conclusions (and doubtless to argue with one another over aspects of what was what). Running through this main narrative thrust there are other elements – a sexual predator her daughter and friend bait with the aim of publicly shaming, her daughter’s friend in her seemingly perfect family but nursing her own dark secret, the burned out, failed journalist Jonno, come to the decaying city of Detroit and trying to reinvent himself as a new media guru, feeding off the increasingly bizarre murders. The scenes where Beuekes depicts various forms of new media and social media circling these events, exploiting them (and traditional media trying to feed off it like carrion) are bitingly realistic – the instant rush to judgement on comments online posted by people who don’t know what really happened but straight away have to shout loudly about their opinions (often in banal, badly spelled ways, frequently in vile, violent form) are sadly far too realistic. But those elements aren’t just added for a bit of detail or verisimilitude, oh no, Beukes is too good for that, she also starts weaving these new and social medias into the story in an unusual form that contributes to the main narrative, and how those changing media and technologies alter our view of the world around us, and our morality.

Even for an old hand at horror like me (happily raised in the pre-legislation era of the Video Nasties where you could watch anything) this is a deeply disturbing read. Somehow Beukes manages to craft not just the awful horrors of the brutal world big city detectives have to deal with on a daily basis (and she depicts the toll it takes on them) but then make this worse with an almost Lovecraftian atmosphere of some unspeakable, un-knowable, un-nameable horror that is leaking out from realms that should not exist except in our collective nightmares, bleeding into the real world on an artist’s palette that uses blood and body parts instead of oils and brushes. And it is utterly, utterly compelling while making parts of your brain twitch, you simply can’t pull away from it.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

That’s Because You’re a Robot – Quantick & Kane’s fun, colourful ride

That’s Because You’re a Robot,

David Quantick, Shaky Kane

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I was intrigued to pick up this one-shot, partly because of the involvement of David Quantick, best known in the UK for his music and comedy writing, but I must be honest, mostly because of the art of Shaky Kane. The story in this one-off is light and simple, but fun – Jeff and Matt, two gung-ho American cops are partners, all ready to rock the world of law enforcement, except the pair of them keep making cock-up after cock-up. Then, right at the start, on the first page no less, their sergeant drops a bombshell on them – one of the duo is a robot. Unfortunately he doesn’t know which of them is robotic and which is the real human cop…

This leads to endless wrangling between the pair as they get assigned to different tasks (and make a mess of them), arguing between themselves over which is the real person, which the robotic fake, constantly pointing out behaviour that might prove robotic origins, until they get taken off their case and put on a stakeout. Which they then proceed to bungle as well. Or do they? Was there more going on here than they realised, were they – human and/or robot – really part of some larger scheme?

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To be honest it really doesn’t matter – the story is fairly silly, although I mean that in a positive way; it’s enjoyably silly stuff, gleefully taking common tropes from American cop shows and parodying them (and a bit of enjoyably silly is good for you as part of your reading diet). What really keeps your eyes moving over the pages is Kane’s artwork. I’ve loved Shaky Kane’s art since the Deadline and 2000 AD days, Looking at it here it is a wonderfully clear-edged display of movement and bright, primary colours, taking in, for my money, anyway, all sorts of elements, from 60s Marvel comics to parts that remind me (in the good way, not derivative way) of Brett Ewins and Brendan McCarthy, mixed with a vibrant Pop Art sensibility. It’s gorgeous, it’s pure fun, especially some of the larger splash pages or a cool double-page spread. Light, fast, fun and oh so damned good looking! Smile-inducing stuff.

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Velvet: Brubaker and Epting’s superb take on the superspy genre

Velvet Volume 1 : Before the Living End
Ed Brubaker, Steve Epting,
Image Comics

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There are some genres that never truly go out of style, and the superspy tale is one. When the Cold War was over many thought the genre would fade away, but it’s adapted to an ever-changing world and new creators have come along to put their own unique twist on it. And when those creators come in the shape of Captain America team Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting, you know you should be paying attention. And you should, because with Velvet Templeton, Brubaker and Epting have crafted a superb, edgy, sexy, intriguing superspy tale with real 60s/70s style and swagger, not to mention a powerful, assured, intriguing female central character.

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There are the tropes we expect in the genre – the oh-so-cool car (rather familiar looking model, of course with “all the usual refinements”), the glamorous locations, swish parties in Paris, New York, chilled champagne on ice, impeccable evening wear, superbly capable, ruthless but charming secret agents, conspiracies to investigate, sudden death and, naturally, sex. And the coolly reserved secretary to the chief, efficient, calm, flirting with the boyish secret agents, perhaps even falling for them, the eternal Moneypenny type…

Except Velvet is far, far more than a secretary to the chief of the agency, and yes, while she’d had her head turned by some of those charming, suave secret agents who risk life and limb for democracy, queen and country (and the thrill of it), while they think she has fallen for them they don’t realise she’s arranged the trysts and the sex on her terms. And each of them thinks they are the only one she has fallen for. These agents may be at the top of their spy game, but they have the emotional depth of a petulant schoolboy… And they have no idea that before taking her desk job Velvet did the same job they did, but she did it better, equally able to use a knife or gun or her sexual appeal as a weapon to get the job done (on the latter she can’t help but comment “men are so easy” as she uses her charms rather than gadgets or violence to find out what she needs for her mission. Take notes, boys, the female of the species is often deadlier than the male!). The opening skillfully sets up a James Bond style male spy hero only to bring him crashing down shortly afterwards – it is not a story about him – it is Velvet’s story.

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Those secret action days are behind her now, and almost no-one knows about them, but when the agency’s top spy is killed on a mission she is suspicious. Doing a little digging into the records she starts to come to the conclusion there may be a connection between his death and someone high up in the agency – a mole, a traitor? Before she can take it further she finds that for her troubles she has been framed for just that role, set up as the Oswald to take the fall.

Forced on the run, Velvet’s old training kicks in, and an entire team of younger agents finds themselves hopelessly outclassed by this mature woman with the streak of grey, a woman who sat calmly at her desk for years while they undertook dangerous missions, and here she is showing them what a real superspy is. And Velvet is going to need those old skills and connections if she is to find out the truth behind the murder and clear her own name – assuming her own side don’t kill her first.

Velvet is a superbly stylish, well-paced, tight tale of spies, conspiracies, betrayals, action, sex and death – everything you want from that Bond-style 60s/70s superspy story. But here very much from the female perspective, and for a genre which has so often treated women as disposable (literally) eye-candy characters for the main chauvinistic hero it is refreshing to see not just a female lead, but such an elegant, powerful lead. She’s simply better than the boys, faster, better reflexes, she know all the tricks they do but she did them before they ever started in the business, and she did them better. Determined, resourceful, beautiful, lethally efficient.

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Velvet has its cake and eats it, gleefully enjoying using those 60s superspy tropes – the gadget filled car, public school bully boy yet charming secret agent, even the chilled ’45 Rothschild on the balcony bar, the glamorous locations and action – but at the same time acknowledging the strong streak of misogyny that ran through many of them and giving it a damned good kicking from Velvet, who can easily stand alongside Black Widow or Emma Peel. Epting’s art is, as always, superb, and he is as deft in depicting glorious aerial night shots of Paris, or swanky rooftop bars in Manhattan as he is dark, close, intimate scenes, lit only by the slatted light coming in the blinds as spies trade theories in darkened rooms. Velvet herself he depicts as elegant, physically attractive but not overly sexualised; fit and toned to be sure, but still realistic, not the unbelievable physiques often used for superheroines (and superheroes, come to that).

Like Emma Peel she’s confident and powerful and while attractive she’s no mere object for the Male Gaze – you’re likely to find Velvet staring right back at you (and more than likely calculating how she can use your attentions and desires to her own ends. She is in charge here.). All of this plus the always-fun convoluted conspiracy to unravel, the action, sex, travel and a genuinely cool heroine you’ll warm to quickly – no wonder the first few issues of this made my Best of the Year back in December. If you missed those issues here’s your chance to catch up with the first collected volume.

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Reviews: Barricade – superb science fiction debut from Jon Wallace

Barricade,
Jon Wallace,
Gollancz

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Meet Kenstibec, a ‘taxi driver’ in a ruined, near-future Britain. But in this post-apocalyptic world taxi driving doesn’t quite mean what it does to us today. This ruined, irradiated, polluted land is now split into rural and urban, both utterly wrecked, the rural areas held by the Reals (natural human survivors) while the pulverised cities are in the hands of the Ficials, at first glance human-looking, but a closer inspection shows them to be that bit taller, better built, more perfect. They are engineered beings, a sort of biological version of an android, somewhat like the Replicants of Blade Runner, and like those Replicants usually stronger and more capable than mere humans, originally designed to serve, with different models optimised for various specific purposes. Kenstibec started as a Power 9 engineering model, very strong and optimised for engineering and construction – not so much call for that after all the wars and destruction of course, so now he has adapted to his taxi role, one of the few who are skilled enough to take a passenger across the Real-infested wasteland that had been the British countryside from one Ficial urban stronghold – or Barricade – to another.

Fortunately as well as being strong, Ficials are also built to last, unlike mere humans, loaded with clever nano technology which can repair even devastating injuries (early on we encounter Kentsibec in a flashback to before the wars, hanging upside down in the recovery shed, missing a limb after a horrendous construction accident, but unlike us, he can heal from such an injury – it takes a lot to really terminate a Ficial, and if course this means they are very difficult for humans to stop, let alone kill). Currently resident in a ruined Edinburgh, Kentsibec gets the call for a driving run and makes his way to the underground garage where his ride is being prepared for a fare he has to take, a former pleasure model (and one time media celeb) now working on a Ficial news channel that broadcasts out of an underground chamber near one of the city’s old breweries. He is to take this female Ficial, who calls herself Starvie, to Control in the London barricade, a hell of a run, extremely difficult to do – even just getting out of town is hard enough let alone traversing the distance from the Scottish to English former capitals with hundreds of miles of diseased, violent, hate-filled Real tribes trying to kill them all the way.

There’s much more going on here than a simple Mad Max style road warrior fight across a ruined landscape though (fun though that is when done well – and it is done very, very well here). Wallace presents the journey but intersperses it with more flashbacks to the pre-war world, a world where political and economic struggles between nations have pushed humanity beyond the planet’s ability to cope (not exactly far fetched idea, sadly). Our sceptred isle is one of the few places where life is still relatively good, and, in a UKIP supporter’s worst nightmare, there are legions of political, climate and economic refugees desperately working across the Continent trying to aim for Britain (imagine the Daily Mail headlines). And into this come the Ficials, invented as servants and workers it isn’t long before they are also adapted for combat, with soldier models (complete with eerily glowing green eyes that let them see in low light), sold to the human population as the only resource we have to help us manage in this collapsing world and to keep out the ravening foreign hordes desperate to enter Britain. In true Frankenstein tradition though, humanity makes its own monster, which turns on it…

There are other strands coming together here too between the troubled journey south from Edinburgh and the flashbacks showing slowly how the world came to be the horrible mess it now is – for example, why does Control want a former pleasure model turned news presenter transported such a distance? And more to the point why is it most Ficials don’t hear the commands of Control these days? While some things are exactly as they seem other elements of this mission may be other than Kentsibec has been lead to believe, but I’m not going to risk any spoilers by going into the plot in any more detail, because Wallace has constructed a powerful, fast-paced, gripping, sci-fi actioneer and I don’t want to ruin it for you.

The advance copy I had contained an introduction from Gollancz associate publisher Simon Spanton, saying one of the reasons he was so keen to take on this book (Wallace has a solid track record with short stories in excellent SF journals like the venerable Interzone – and I consider being published in Interzone to always be a high recommendation for a writer’s ability – but I think this is his debut novel) was because it reminded him of Richard Morgan’s powerhouse debut, Altered Carbon. Since Richard is fantastic writer and his Altered Carbon was one of the best débuts I had read (it was also the first novel my long-running Edinburgh SF Book Group read, a decade ago), that got my attention – of course that sort of comparison could be a double-edged sword. Yes, it’s terrific for a new novelist to get such a comparison, but on the other hand it also places a fairly hefty expectation on you! Back in the days of The Alien Online (some of you may recall that early SF and comics site) we really raved about Altered Carbon, so when I say I think the comparisons are more than fair, that’s a bloody big compliment. Wallace creates a very believable post-war society (and without resorting to some padded-out 500 page brick – this is a slim but muscular read) and a compelling, page-turner of a narrative, and steeps it with sufficient details and characters to make it all very believable and real to the reader, but not overloading it with too much detail that would slow down the well-paced narrative.

And this is a wretched future, not just the remains of the Reals fighting the Ficials for survival, but the ruined landscape, destroyed between chemical pollution, fighting and a nuclear exchange (it is hinted with Bible-thumping remnants of what had been the USA, who see creating Ficials as creating soulless demons). Yes, there are some nods to Richard Morgan’s Takeshi Kovacs, but while the tweaked abilities and healing powers of the Ficials may remind the reader of Kovacs’ custom-made ‘sleeves’ (engineered bodies to download into), Kovacs was still human and the Ficials really are not, despite being built in our image. No real emotions, no particular drive other than to do what they were optimised for, this leads to what a human would see as a dreadfully cruel amorality, although the Ficials don’t see what the fuss is about. And the contrast between them, with their self-repairing bodies, and the miserable human Reals, half-starved, ridden with diseases in a world where even the air and water is toxic and damaging (unless you are a hardy Ficial) is quite disturbing, as disturbing as the contrast between one of us and a desperate refugee in Africa. Just as JF Sebastien observed of Roy and Pris in Blade Runner, they’re so perfect, and the Ficials seems inhumanly perfect, especially in this wrecked world. Blade Runner and Altered Carbon are obvious influences here, but Wallace draws on other elements, from other science fiction (the toxic environment and engineering beings reminds me of 2000 AD’s classic Rogue Trooper, for example) but also from real world concerns – mass immigration of economic and environmental refugees, an environment and resources being pushed beyond what the planet can handle by short-sighted humans, even the ruined future draws on parts of recent events such as conflicts that include children as soldiers, all adding to the grim, hard-edged atmosphere of Barricade, he even manages to slip in references to our pop cultural obsession with celebrities.

Perhaps his greatest trick here is that the Ficials like Kentsibec, amoral, inhuman beings who ‘cull’ humans on sight, man, woman or child, without a twinge of moral pain or guilt (human traits they care little for, along with compassion or love or nostalgia), still come across as more likeable than most of the wretched humans we meet here, both in the pre and post-war segments, which is a tribute to how well he crafts his characters, I think. A superb, powerful, perfectly-paced debut that I found myself galloping through – clearly a writer we should be keeping an eye on. Hugely recommended. You can follow Jon on Twitter and there’s another Twitter for Kenstibec here, and you can get a taster with a short extract to read online here.

this was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Reviews: Ordinary #1

Ordinary #1

Rob Williams, D’Israeli

Titan Comics

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We’ve mentioned Rob Williams and D’Israeli’s Ordinary on here a couple of times in the last few months, just before it started its run in the creator-owned slot the good folks at the Judge Dredd Megazine have (a very good thing to include) and then again more recently when Richard had to be secured with duct tape to stop him falling off his chair laughing while reading it in the Megazine. Now for those who didn’t get to see it in the Megazine there is a new format from Titan collecting Ordinary in the US style comics format, the first issue being out this week. And that’s a good thing, because this is clever, satirical and often so funny the sanctity of your pants may be in jeopardy (go to the loo before reading. And wash your hands afterwards).

Meet Michael Fisher, real two-time loser, a plumber living in Queens, NYC. He’s rubbish in his real life (estranged partner and child, often absent at work) and just a pathetic even in his own dreams. In fact we open with him telling us about his dream of dating Scarlet Johansson and how even in his own dreamscape she turns him down and he just accepts it. Waking to find he has already slept in late for his first job, Michael is about to ind his day escalating on the bad to worse scale. Barely out the house, running to his job, late already and he runs into the enormous local thugs he owes money to. And then as they ‘chat’ there’s a loud noise and something seems to be happening to an airliner overhead.

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Getting free and finally reaching his first job of the day, his partner is unhappy because while waiting on Michael he has had to endure listening to the life story of the old granny whose apartment they are working in. Exasperated, Brian stomps off to begin the plumbing work. And then, as Michael watches, the elderly lady stands up and suddenly she is younger. Then even younger – marvelling she glances down her own cleavage “how high they are!” she cries, delighted. Except she keeps getting younger and, well, there’s only so far you can go if your body suddenly ages backwards… Rushing through to Brian working on the toilet plumbing to tell him what happened he finds his workmate is now – how to put it? – a little different. Okay, a lot different. In fact Brian is now a giant bear.

It’s more than Michael can take, and when he runs out into the street and finds the entire world seems to be going crazy he does the only sane thing he can and goes into a bar for a stiff drink and fumbles some cigarettes from his pocket. When the barman tells him there is no smoking allowed inside, Michael points out the world is apparently ending, and the barman tacitly agrees that lighting up inside is probably not high on the list of world problems, not on this day. This also sets up the next scene where Brian has followed Michael to the pub, still in his bear form and sits down, orders a pint then asks him matter of fact “I’m a bear, aren’t I?” When Michael tells him he looks like an American Black Bear Brian tells him not to be so racist. Then looking at Michael’s ciggy he decides to bum a smoke, leading to what has to be one of the best lines I have read in any book or comic all week:

I would like to see a bear smoke a cigarette, I have to admit. Maybe that makes me a bad person.”

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Then when the news comes onto the bar’s TV it becomes rapidly clear that this isn’t a local NYC problem, this is global – everyone, everywhere, child, adult, saint or sinner, has suddenly found themselves gifted with some form of superpower or ability. And predictably the world goes nuts – imagine the entire population suddenly able to do something they want to using vast powers, imagine the chaos. Imagine the petty arguments that can now develop into shattered buildings and bodycounts. Or the simple shock and horror at finding yourself changed into something totally different. Some powers are awesome in their potential, others are wonderfully ironic (imagine the usual two-faced Janus of a political leader suddenly finding that his power is manifesting comics-style thought bubbles by his head, showing everyone what he is really thinking while he says something else in his speech. Brilliant and one of those conceits that could really only work so perfectly in the comics medium).

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Michael though? Nope, only person not to develop superpowers. So in real life and in his dream life he is a loser, now even in the new tomorrow of superpowers, still a loser. Except of course that may make him vital to working out what happened to everyone…

It’s a cracking read – clever story and some great characterisation between Rob’s script and D’Israeli’ artwork. And on the latter it probably won’t surprise any regular 2000 AD readers to know that D’Israeli has been reworking his style yet again, something he does quite often, finding a new style, palette and approach for different story subjects (and it is this quality that I think is one reason why he is one of our best artists, he has an almost Talbot-like quality to change styles to suit different characters and stories). The nature of the story allows him to go from doing realistic city street scenes to the surreal, from a bear fixing the toilet to a dragon flying over New York, or a giant stomping over the city with the characteristic NYC “Hey, I’m walking here!” refrain. He’s obviously having fun with this.

And there is some lovely attention to detail – right back in that early scene I mentioned at the start, as Michael leaves home but runs int0 the local loan sharks? There’s a kid in the background playing with a toy plane, just a little background detail. I noticed his plane seemed a different colour in the next panel but put that down to a change in lighting perspective or simply a colouring mistake. But nope, much later on we’ll see this kid interact with Michael and realise that tiny background details was one of the first bits of foreshadowing of what was about to happen. It’s just a small details, wouldn’t change the story really if you never noticed, but to me it shows the care and attention D’Israeli puts into his art and the pair have for shaping their narrative.

Clever, inventive, bloody funny and it is creator-owned, so do yourself a favour and enjoy a good read and at the same time support a couple of our top-flight creators with their own work. Win-win situation. Roll on, issue #2.

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog