Climate Changed – science goes graphic

Climate Changed: a Personal Journey Through the Science,
Philippe Squarzoni,
Abrams Comicarts

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Climate change – it’s rarely been far from ours news reports over the last couple of decades, and increasingly so in recent years (freak once in century storms happen repeatedly, is it the climate changing and did we alter it?) and just this week we’ve seen a major UN report on expected climate change and the colossal cost to our civilisation if we don’t actually take action. And that action requires a lot more than people in Western nations changing to energy-saving lightbulbs and doing their recycling more – important though those are. And this month also sees Philippe Squarzoni’s approach to this huge scientific-political-ideological-cultural problem in comics form. In pretty weighty comics form, actually – this graphic science work weighs in at well over four hundred pages. This is not a quick read, nor should it be. We’ve seen an increasing number of graphic works tackling heavyweight subjects in recent years and making them very understandable and accessible to pretty much any reader, in the case of books like this even those with only their basic high school level of science learning.

This is not exactly jumping on the bandwagon though – for starters the book first came out in French from Delcourt a couple of years back, and secondly it is quite clear not just from the length but the detail Squarzoni goes into that this is something he has been working on for years. In fact early one we see that this large, complex work actually grew out of a previous bande dessinee Squarzoni had been working on, a book on French politics. As he researched and drew a section on the environment the author suddenly finds himself coming to a halt. When his partner asks him why, he replies it is because he is using phrases like ‘carbon neutral’ and ‘greenhouse gases’. Common phrases these days, we’re all familiar with those terms, right? His partner points this out. Yes, he responds, but what do they actually mean? I’m using these phrases lifted from bits of research and re-using them in my work but I don’t really know what they actually mean, what they involve and what they portend for the future.

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And that is, perhaps, the crux of Climate Changed – many of us know these terms, we even use them sometimes in earnest pub discussions. But how much do most of us really know about the subjects these terms cover (Darryl Cunningham, you are excused this, we know you’ve researched it!)? I mean really understand, not just a vague knowledge assembled from the BBC website articles of the Guardian, but know the various aspects of climate change and how they relate to one another – and there is not just one topic here to get to grips with, this is a real multi-headed monster, a hydra of our own making, and we need, badly need, to understand the problems, and how they interact with one another, before we can even start to consider our response to them. Assuming, of course, we have the luxury of time to formulate a response. And also assuming humanity is wise enough to decide to take relevant action. And let’s be honest, recent events where agreed restrictions on targets like emissions being missed (after already being set fairly low to begin with) or even simply ignored by some nations, that latter part is not looking good right now.

Squarzoni, as you would expect, looks at the science behind climate studies and draws on numerous experts to discuss the observed changes, relating them to historical data gleaned painstakingly from sources such as deep ice cores and tree rings, to give centuries and even millennia of historical context. Because we know the Earth’s environment is always changing – it always has, it probably always will, ours is an incredibly dynamic bio system of overlapping, interacting elements: amount of sunlight reaching the surface, various gases at different altitudes in the atmosphere, currents in the air and the great oceans, the amount of ice at the poles or on glaciers, the amount of vegetation, venting from natural sources such as volcanoes… It’s a massively complex system with each component having effects on the other, which in turn cause further effects, from increased flooding to drought, even to the fabled “mini ice ages” (think of those pictures depicting the ‘frost fairs’ on a solidly frozen Thames). And this is before you factor in human activity…

We’ve started things we cannot control…

Despite the nay-sayers (and there are still many out there, often those with a large financial stake in the status quo of consume more, make more, want more) too many of these scientific studies clearly show large increases in output from human causes which are interacting with this incredibly complex environment’s variables – the charts leap following the industrial revolution really getting going in the 1800s and the post-WWII boom accelerates this at an astonishing speed. And it isn’t just as simple as more power stations pumping out CO2, or too many cars belching exhaust gases into the air – Squarzoni also draws on economic, social and cultural elements to this debate. Advertising imagery crops up numerous times, symbolic of our modern, Western, post-WWII urge to increasingly consume, tied to the cultural ethos of a capitalism that assumes we can endlessly consume, expand, consume more, expand – more production, more buying.

But we live in a finite system, there are only so many resources, and we are using them at an alarming rate. Not just the obvious resources such as fossil fuels being depleted (and increasingly so, with developing nations industrialising) but the simple, everyday items we all take for granted. Shiny new smartphone to replace the previous one – hey, it’s tiny, it’s just me, how much difference does that make? But multiply by the number being marketed and sold across the globe, the resources used to create them (rare minerals, metals), and the energy of mining those resources then that of the factory… And you get the picture. And don’t even get started on people who drive massive SUVs around city centres, the dirty looks Squarzoni gives repeatedly to a large Land Rover parked in the middle of Lyons speaks volumes!

We continue to act like it’s nothing. And the worst thing is … it feels pretty good…”

But this isn’t some anti-capitalist diatribe – as Squarzoni points out neither he or any other person in the West has any desire to cut their use of resources from energy to affordable, plentiful food (and industrial scale agriculture is a major emitter of greenhouse gasses), losing our comfortable lifestyle where we have electricity on tap, central heating, easy transport, affordable range of clothing… He doesn’t really fancy cutting his environmental imprint to that of someone living a malnourished life in an underdeveloped nation without clean water, heating, power… And obviously none of us do. But if we can’t believe the lie of endless expansion and ever increasing consumption how do we square that circle of lowering our impact on greenhouse gases and resource scarcity with maintaining a decent standard of living? Especially as, increasingly from the 1980s on a small cadre of oligarchs and super-rich live a publicly indulgent, opulent lifestyle we’re all encouraged to want to emulate (work hard enough and anyone could be a billionaire in a mansion and yacht!). Plus why, he asks, should we ordinary folk decide to cut down on things like flights to cut pollution if the super-rich are swanning around in a Rolls Royce or a giant yacht?

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And then there is the developing world – how do rich nations who created much of the pollution and resource consumption problem tell developing nations, no, sorry, you can’t come up to our standards, the planet won’t take it? He has to wrestle with this personal responsibility when offered a dream post, several months artist in residence in Thailand. But as he is in the middle of working on this book and researching the impact of things such as flying how can he in good conscience accept travelling there? He’d love to, but isn’t that hypocritical of him? But if he doesn’t go, but the guy down the street continues to run round town in his gas-guzzling SUV, what different has his personal sacrifice made? And, as his partner asks him, does that mean that he will never fly again? Does that mean the places they’d love to see together will be off-limits for them? What about green technologies? Are some good or just a bandwagon that some big companies (who have given more than their share of pollutants) a new, image-friendly ‘green’ marketplace to exploit? From large corporate installations to the personal, such as solar panels or wind turbines on the roof of our homes, which are actually effective, which will help do a bit to reduce our impact, and which are really just a salve to our conscience?

It’s one of the aspects of this book that makes it so accessible and easily understandable – for all the expert talking heads (which are frequent, but while slightly repetitive as a method, it is nonetheless a good way of getting information from expert sources across to the reader) talking about the Big Picture – what government, massive corporations and trans-global organisations such as the UN are trying to do (or frequently failing to do, depressingly), the sheer array of different experts required to make sense of it all (climatologists, industrial experts, meteorologists, geologists, disaster relief experts, economic experts and more) he continually comes back to the personal level, both from the personal responsibility side of things (what can we do individually? How do we encourage others to do the same so small change become large differences? Why should we if others don’t?) but it also reminds you constantly that the author himself is not a scientist, that he’s coming to this subject himself as an individual and realising from his research that, just as some of the experts are arguing, this is a subject that requires individual responses and changes in lifestyle, but also collective – this is a global problem and no nation will escape effects.

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Even if you are lucky enough to live in a country where, say, temperature rises from greenhouse gases are mitigated because actually it makes your region a bit nicer to live in during winter months, you will still suffer because resources from oil to container vessels full of food come in from all around the world. And some of those areas may suddenly stop being so productive. Or may even be under rising waters. And then there are those rising waters – with a huge chunk of our global population (including massive Western cities of millions) right by the coast there will be problems. Perhaps catastrophes (imagine millions being displaced as environmental refugees, both in the developing world and even in the rich, Western nations – consider the thousands of poorer citizens left behind to face the waters in New Orleans after Katrina, but on an even larger scale).

On the art front there are, as you might expect perhaps for a thick tome dealing with science, a lot of graphs, and a lot of ‘talking heads’ as a series of experts from different fields – climatologists, energy experts, economists and more – to deliver large sections of information. But to stop these being too repetitive he also uses a variety of other visual tricks – his obvious love of cinema comes in handy, with frequent visual references to the iconography of film, for instance, and advertising imagery is used regularly, while he keeps grounding this vast subject in the personal with scenes from his own life with his partner and dog, as well as flashbacks to childhood (comparing his journey through life to the relentless change of the world). This also leads to a touching scene further in, as the years go past and their trusted old dog passes away we see later scenes where Squarzoni goes walking in the snow, accompanied by a ‘ghost’ dog, just the outline of his old pal by his side, not actually drawn in detail, the memory of his dog by his side. His walks through the French countryside include some quite lovely large scenes – we may be doing something bad to our environment, but it is still a quite beautiful world, he is pointing out. And in a book where there are many small, close up panels of people talking or detailed charts and graphs it’s nice to be able to breathe in the fresh air of a large, beautifully rendered scene of lakes and mountains.

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It can be quite overwhelming reading – to be honest, despite finding it utterly fascinating and compelling I found it best to limit myself and read it in chunks (the layout of sections actually made this quite a suitable way to approach the book), partly not to simply overload my brain with concepts and figures and arguments, but partly also so I could allow myself time to stop and consider what I was reading. And despite what you may think, it isn’t entirely negative or doom-laden (although there is a strong pessimistic bent) – Squarzoni doesn’t restrict himself to covering everything we’re doing wrong as a species, he marshals many of those same ‘talking heads’ of his expert panel to discuss possible changes. All are adamant we have to change, and the science backs this up – despite some very shoddy media reports – as he points out when some opponents used media claims of dissent between scientists to fuel doubt about climate change a study of a decade of appropriate peer-reviewed scientific journals revealed no such disagreement, compared to about half of articles written by journalists which tried to convey there was doubt about human-made climate change – draw your own conclusions from that. And all point out that such changes are best managed incrementally – none of them want to tip the world back into economic chaos by suddenly imposing major changes without planning viable alternatives, and the quicker we start changing and adapting then the less severe those changes have to be (as opposed to head in the sand, wait till last minute then have to take radical surgery instead of holistic long term treatment approach). And all agree that such change can’t simply be forced, the democratic principle has to be used, people engaged in the debate, informed and give consent (and indeed to pressure) to their political leadership for changes.

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It’s a fascinating, thought-provoking work, well-researched (coming with a good bibliography and list of various experts quoted and other resources for learning more), and the graphical approach makes the task of assimilating the mass of complex material much simpler for the reader. Squarzoni is also to be commended for taking in the large range of industrial, economic, social and cultural aspects to climate change and relating them to one another, in addition to the perhaps more obvious issues of just what sorts of waste we’ve pumped out relentlessly into our own biosphere without thinking about what it was doing. This isn’t a single problem, it’s a series of multiple but interconnected problems, some exacerbated by natural causes, but most from human causes which many simply don’t think about much, beyond the afore-mentioned changing to energy efficient bulbs. But as one expert points out in the book, the Earth has it’s own timetable – change is happening and most consider we’ve gone beyond the point where we can stop even more change coming. But we can adapt to it, we can limit the changes, manage them better, if we’re informed and able to make those decisions (and the drive to see them through – actual action, not just fine speeches from politicians or ads telling us how much giant oil companies care about the environment). And as with many problems, reading about them is a fairly good place to start… Don’t be put off by the size of the book or the heavyweight subject matter – as I said Squarzoni does a remarkable job in putting across the subject and also personalising it (it also arrives bearing plaudits and awards from the European scene), and let’s face it, as arguments erupt already over this new UN climate report out this week, we could all do with being more informed on a subject that affects every single person on the planet.

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Jarmusch goes vamp: Only Lovers Left Alive

Only Lovers Left Alive,

Dir: Jim Jarmusch,

Starring: Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, Mia Wasikowska, John Hurt

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Adam (Hiddlestone) and Eve are vampires, husband and wife, lovers for centuries, but sometimes spending long periods apart, she currently living in Tangiers, walking the night-time streets of North Africa and paying visits on a very old friend (John Hurt), who happens to be the playwright Marlowe. Adam, a gifted musician, has a touch of the Byronic about him, now living in a decaying mansion on a deserted street of an abandoned neighbourhood of Detroit, surrounded by his instruments and his music, but slipping into a brooding melancholia, withdrawing from the world, refusing to even release any of the new music he’s created, hiding from fans who try to seek out his hiding place. His depression at the world after centuries, of the masses of humanity (who he refers to as “the zombies”) who seem oblivious to the wonders they could create and instead seem hell-bent on poisoning both themselves and their world. His ennui has driven him to consider a possible method of suicide before Eve, sensing his depression and need crosses the world to be with him (no small thing when you can only risk travelling on planes which fly and arrive during the hours of darkness).

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But this is a Jim Jarmusch film, and as such the narrative really isn’t the most important element; like the Coens movies Jarmusch creates films where a synopsis of plot (like the first paragraph here) only tell you a tiny bit about the film – as with the Coens these are films to be experienced, not just watched. There’re some beautifully crafted scenes and shots, the cinematography is, as usual for Jarmusch, beautiful, often luscious, some scenes posed almost like an old oil painting, beautifully composed, others employ unusual angles and tracking shots (such as slow, close up following the characters as they drink blood and sink backwards in pleasure, the camera moving with them), the nocturnal streets of Tangiers lit by streetlights are intoxicating, promising exotic wonder but also danger, even the abandoned streets of whole deserted neighbourhoods around Adam’s home in Detroit have a sad crumbling beauty as he drives through them in his vintage Jaguar XJS by night.

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The pace is relaxed, languid even, frequently moving like a slow, hashish-inspired dream (again not unusual for Jarmusch of course). What’s the rush when you have centuries? Art and culture and the importance they play in making life (even long, immortal life) not just bearable but worthwhile play a major part – for Adam it’s his music, Marlowe, unsurprisingly writing (there’s some nice dark humour about his mutterings about Shakespeare), Eve seems to soak up everything around her in the most sensual manner, Swinton evincing almost childlike delight at all manner of things, from the howls of feral dogs in abandoned Detroit streets to Adam’s old instruments (she has an uncanny ability to date them just by their touch) or soaking in literature (a beautiful scene sees her devouring pages of books at rapid speed, hand tracing down the lines rapidly as her vampire senses take in a page in a couple of seconds, the fingers moving left to right, then on to Arabic and Chinese, reading the other way, the expression of pleasure on her face and in her eyes). Her home in Tangiers is littered with books everywhere (reminds me of my own home on that score…).

This could have been a gloomy, brooding piece – something that’s perhaps been done too often in vamp fiction in recent decades, the oh so weary immortal tired of it all – but actually it’s romantic and frequently touching. Adam and Eve’s centuries-long romance is rather lovely; she senses his depression and knows she needs him, as she explores his current home she notices a very early photograph of the pair of them from the 1860s, a wedding photo – their third wedding, she comments with a smile, and the scenes of them wrapped around each other slumbering through the daylight hours is very romantic (both preternaturally slender and pale – good use of Swinton’s ethereal presence and quality). There’s also a seam of gentle, playful humour – he shows her a vintage guitar he purchased, she runs her hands lovingly, slowly, over it – a 1905 LePaul, Eve tells him. Oh, she’s an old one, Adam comments. Darling, your dressing gown is a century older… And there’s a nice scene where Eve, to cheer up Adam, freezes some Type O blood he got from the hospital on sticks to eat like ice lollies.

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And for all their immortality it’s clear that really they are as vulnerable as mere mortals, rarely sinking their fangs into victims anymore, partly because unlike a few centuries ago you can’t just drain someone and throw the body away in the street or river, it will be investigated, partly because of that poisoning Adam so despises, the contamination also in the blood of many, which makes them ill. They rely on specialised medical sources who can provide pure blood for a price, anything which might reveal them to authorities or threaten their food source and turns out they’re as vulnerable as anyone else… It’s a lovely, soft, slow, languid, sensual piece – if you’re not a Jarmusch fan then it won’t convert you, but you’re missing out on a lovely film from one of our consistently interesting directors, not to mention some luscious visuals and an intriguing soundtrack that stays in your head long after the film finishes.

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Ragnarok was never so much fun – Joanne Harris revisits Norse myth with the Gospel of Loki

The Gospel of Loki,
Joanne M Harris,
Gollancz

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Ah, Loki, for millennia known as the Trickster of the gods. Not the mightiest, not the wisest, not the most heroic or noble. Nor is he one of the Aesir, the deities lead by one-eyed Odin, the Allfather, or the Vanir, the other early gods Odin managed to bring into his fold (or bribed, cajoled or tricked into partnership, depending on which version of the Norse sagas and myths you read – Loki is not the only one capable of cunning and trickery…). He’s the schemer, the inventive trickster, impetuous and although invited into Asgard as Odin’s sworn blood-brother he knows and the other gods know (and he knows they know and is acutely aware of it) that he’s simply not one of them. And it rankles and festers inside him, driving him to various plots to undermine some of the gods, to settle scores and slights, which, of course, gets him into more trouble, makes him more distrusted, which in turn makes him even more irritated with his situation and so he thinks up more plans to trip them up…

…And you can see how that’s a situation that pretty much powers itself on upwards, forever escalating and you know it’s not going to end well, not for anyone, Loki included. And if you couldn’t guess that this endless spiral would lead to disaster (and you had no familiarity with the Norse legends) you would still know, because Loki tells you as you go along. This is his story, some of the great tales of Norse myth retold by Harris but from the perspective of the god who most often gets the blame for everything which goes wrong, by the other gods, by the Folk (humans), the Rock People, the dwarves… Well, pretty much everyone in creation. And he’s not happy with this situation, so this is his version of events, his justification for why he did what he did, how it all went down (as he sees it, anyway), from his first meeting with Odin to the slippery road that leads to Rangarok and the end of Worlds.

If you have read some of the great Norse myths, many rather handily preserved by Icelander’s centuries-long love of practising their calligraphy and vocabulary by painstakingly copying the sagas so even when original fragments have been lost there have been copies to maintain the stories, then you will recognise many of the tales Harris weaves into The Gospel of Loki. There’s the stealing of Sif’s beautiful tresses after a bit of hanky panky, which doesn’t exactly make her husband Thor very happy (and it doesn’t take much to get Thor roused to violent behaviour), leading Loki on a mission to the dwarves, those underground dwelling (and rather ugly) masters of the forge and crafts to flatter and cajole them into creating a temporary replacement for Sif’s hair, created from incredibly detailed, jointed strips of gold, woven with runes so it becomes like her hair and grows with it as it returns. To sweeten things after his faux-pas he also manages to make the dwarves create some other artefacts, all run-inscribed, magical devices (such as Odin’s spear) but being Loki he can’t stop there and it isn’t long before, blinded with the idea of more magical gifts, he schemes to get rival dwarves to try and outdo the others for craftsmanship (part of which leads to the forging on Mjolnir, the fabled battle-hammer of Thor) and, of course, he gets himself tied into knots with his head literally on the line…

Many of these tales from the myths occur in The Gospel of Loki, but now from the perspective of Loki, casting a different light on events even if you are fairly familiar with the original tales already, and if you aren’t then they function as a very accessible (and highly enjoyable) introduction for modern readers to some of the great myths and legends of Norse culture (also if you aren’t familiar with them I’d recommend following this with a read of The Prose Edda – there’s a lovely recent Penguin Classics edition which is a perfect primer). In lesser hands that’s what this might have been – a version of the great tales told in a way modern readers would find more palatable, and really that would still have been an interesting read. But Harris is too good to simply do that, she breathes life into all of the characters, from Chaos incarnate to dwarves to gods in a way that the sagas often don’t – the sagas spin great yarns but this is a novel and Harris takes those tales as a framework then fleshes out her characters and makes them, well, more human (sorry, gods of Asgard, it’s just a phrase), which gives another dimension to the events. Telling a great epic of the gods and heroes is fine (and has historically been one the drivers of the human urge for storytelling) but a novel lets you experience not just the big events but to get inside the characters, and that means some emotional investment, as well as perhaps framing those ancient stories in a way more suitable for some modern readers (a trick Ashok Banker also handled well with his Ramayana cycle).

And that, in turn, means you’re much more emotionally involved as the various events push ever forward to the seemingly inevitable ending of Ragnarok, twilight of the gods, Wagner playing in the background (metaphorically) as the Bi-frost crumbles, the walls of Asgard shatter and the gods fall in a final battle as the great wolf eats the sun and the moon; the end of the Worlds… Everything which begins has an ending, and in myths from many lands that doom is usually long foretold and seemingly inevitable, no matter how the gods and heroes may struggle to deflect fate. And is it all truly inevitable? Are prophecies always going to come to pass, or does the knowledge of the future – or a possible future – shape events, leading to decisions which will eventually lead to the conditions that bring prophecies to reality? Are they in effect self-fulfilling? And how much can you trust prophecies which come from a disembodied head kept in a well (separation of Mimir’s head from his body caused by one of Odin’s schemes, so really, as Loki says, should you trust him? Actually Loki says you should never trust an oracle, but then throughout there are many people Loki says you should never trust…). There’s a school of thought that argues Norse storytellers were well aware of Classical tales and that these influence some elements of the Norse tales, and if you’ve read any Classical Greek tales involving oracles you’ll doubtless see echoes of how double edged future knowledge can be, even to a god.

Loki himself is, appropriately enough given this is his tale, the most vibrantly realised of the characters here, and Harris has him down to a T; cheeky, quick to take offence, just as swift to plot some revenge scheme which will dig him even further into trouble, then take further umbrage at being vilified for his misdeeds (even when he knows he did actually do that naughty thing, he resents being blamed for it), never taking responsibility for his actions (just look at his monstrous children he pays little attention to after his dalliances, who will eventually play major roles in Ragnarok), always blaming others for his own faults (although in his defence, as he points out, he is Wildfire, born of Chaos, and Odin knew that when he brought him into Asgard. It is his nature, after all). But he’s also charming, quick-witted, silver-tongued, funny and frankly it’s hard to dislike him even when he is cooking up another revenge scheme or even plotting the downfall of Asgard.

And it isn’t as if Loki is the only one with selfish motiviations or who find using others for his own schemes comes to easily to him – it’s quite clear throughout that the other gods are just as shifty and duplicitous, happy to bask in glory (earned or otherwise), to take tribute from others, worship from the Folk, to lay out their own long-term plans that involve manipulating others (not least Odin, a crafty old bugger if ever there was, and quite ruthless). The difference is Loki know this is his character, it is his very nature as Wildfire, but he never really pretends to be anything else, while the gods like to present a veneer of honour over all their deeds. Never trust a god, as Loki would no doubt comment – you don’t get to be a god, especially the top god, the Allfather, without being a sneaky, ruthless character…


(Joanne Harris signing copies of the Gospel of Loki after a reading in Blackwell’s, Edinburgh)

It’s not all sneaking and subterfuge and plots within plots though – there are moment, just a few here and there, where briefly Loki feels content. A fishing trip with Odin, camping out, just the boys, drinking, travelling, hunting together away from all the god concerns for a while, he even becomes friendly, briefly, with Thor. And that makes the oncoming betrayals and Ragnarok all the more bitter, because while he plans vengeance with his dark allies (and is he using them or is he being used – in fact is everyone from gods down to chaos demons and giants all being played?) there’s that emotional barb, the moments when he did like being in shining Asgard, the fleeting moments where he and his blood brother Odin just hung out like old pals… And again its the emotional depth Harris puts into these ancient characters that takes this beyond just a great set of yarns and makes you actually care.

On her own site the author commented of the book that ”It’s not quite a retelling of the Norse myths, although I have drawn extensively from them. Instead it’s more like a version of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, in which Stoppard takes the story of Hamlet and retells it from behind the scenes, from another point of view,” and I think that’s also a good way of looking at this different perspective on some classic myths. Loki has been busy popping up in different media in the last few years – most obviously in the big-budget splendour of the Thor and Avengers movies, but he’s also been reborn in the Marvel comics and been brought to rather selfish and nasty life in the excellent Kiwi fantasy series The Almighty Johnsons. And here is that lovable rogue again grabbing a slice of the limelight, and again showing that actually in many ways, despite not being the most noble, strongest or wisest, he’s far more interesting than most of the other gods, and Harris gives us a Loki, full of obvious faults, but one who is never less than charming and fascinating. And, it has to be said, a hell of a lot of fun!

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

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Review: Royals – Masters of War, intriguing new alt-history series

The Royals: Masters of War #1
Rob Williams, Simon Coleby,
DC/Vertigo

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I’ve been looking forward to this new Vertigo series from Rob Williams and Simon Coleby for a wee while now – I chatted to Rob a few weeks ago about it (see here) and that just whetted my appetite. First issue hit racks with this week’s new releases and obviously it went straight onto my reading pile.

As you may know if you read the interview with Rob, this is an alternate history tale, mixing superpowered beings with the real events of World War Two. Of course superbeings in WW2 isn’t new – even during the war the Golden Age comics frequently had their characters like Captain America, Sub-Mariner, Superman etc fighting the Axis, more recently Ian Tregillis penned his fascinating Milkweed Triptych, a trio of novels involving an alternate WW2 where British spies fight against a secret Nazi Übermensch, scientifically created beings with powers (much recommended). What Rob and Simon bring to the mix is the eponymous royalty – in this reality there are superbeings, but they are all aristocrats, blue bloods, with the higher ranking, more pure breed being more powerful (so a prince or king for instance, is enormously powerful).

This opening issue takes place in 1940, as the Blitz is devastating British cities, the badly outnumbered RAF, ‘the few’, struggling to hold the might of the Luftwaffe at bay as they try to destroy Britain’s defences from the air as a prelude to the invasion everyone is sure will soon come. Could a few of the Royals use their powers to stop the Nazis in their tracks? Yes. But it isn’t that simple – superweapons rarely are, are they? Whether they take the form of splitting the atom or a superpowered being, there are always consequences, and in the case of the Royals there is an international treaty between ruling houses not to become involved on the battlefields of their nations. Because if one nation’s royals use their powers in a fight, others will join in and an already bloody situation will escalate rapidly to even more dangerous dimensions. Not hard to consider parallels with WMDs like nuclear weapons – used to end one years-long conflict that took vast numbers of lives and caused global destruction, but ushered in an era of ever escalating, finger on the trigger of Armageddon for decades, the promise of an even worse war born from that new power, which we narrowly avoided.

And some royals genuinely don’t care – the eldest son, Arthur, Prince of Wales, is a dissolute prig, happy to not be allowed to become involved (despite his huge powers), content to live a life of drink, women, comfort and who cares if the masses are being burned to death or buried beneath rubble in their own homes as the bombs fall. A prince who wouldn’t have been out of place in Blackadder III, more concerned for the luxuries his station confers than any sense of national duty and responsibility. But some of the young royals take their duty to their country more seriously:

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The East End’s burning, apparently. Although no-one will tell me the full extent of the damage. And there’s always so many more of their planes than the RAF boy… People are dying, Rose. Lots of people are dying, and we can’t do anything… We’re powerless…”

The troubled young Prince Henry borrows an idea from his royal namesake, Henry V, and changes clothes to go incognito among his people. He and his beloved Rose go into the Eest End, he carrying her as he flies over wartime London, a charming scene of two young people drifting through the air, Rose in his arms,  “like Peter Pan” she remarks. But the fairy tale allusions end brutally in grim, blood reality that confronts them as they land. Bombed out ruins that were once homes, fire raging, bodies of the dead burning in the street, exhausted ARP wardens, screaming children… People in agony and despair. Their people. His people. ..

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It’s all handled across a couple of pages, a montage of the horrors of the Blitz, with only two speech balloons throughout; most of it comes through from Coleby’s powerful visions of a burning, devastating London (all the more powerful, because we know this scenario isn’t fantasy, it’s drawn from the real history), until the young royals are left in tears at the sheer suffering they witness.

And enough is enough; Prince Harry’s rage and his desire to do his duty over-ride the royal pact not to become involved, and when the next flight of Luftwaffe bombers appears overhead and the RAF rise tiredly to meet them once more, he is at their head, flying right into them, a wrathful superbeing smashing through planes in righteous fury, blasting them from the skies. The papers rejoice at the royal family joining the war effort finally, but the king realises his hot-headed young son may, albeit for the finest reasons, have condemned the world to a much darker, bloodier, more costly battle…

It’s a gripping first issue, introducing the concept of this alternate 1940s and the idea of superpowered royals and the fragile accord that has kept their powers off the international board for years. Coleby’s art is terrific, with a nice eye for period details (those of us who grew up on Commando Books, Warlord, Victor, Battle etc always appreciate an artist who takes the trouble to get details like uniforms or aircraft from the period correct) and moody – the change in visual tone from the Palace to the hellish inferno of the East End is a kick to the senses (as it should be), while the moral dilemma of the patriotic young prince grabs your attention. I mean what would you do if you had those powers and knew you could defend your people from awful harm? But if you intervene then people with other powers in enemy nations will then join the fray, up the stakes…

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Damned if you do, damned if you don’t, and we all know what paves the road to hell… Each issue will take place in a different year and pivotal moment for the war, and I’m looking forward to seeing where this goes, not least because this first issue opened with a glimpse of 1945 before flashing back to 1940’s beleaguered Britain. There’s often something very compelling about an alt-history story, and this is a cracker. Plus we get a superhero story, a good war tale and a touch of alt-history science fiction all in one tale. Bargain!

March Book One

March, Book One,

John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell,

Top Shelf

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A cold January day in 2009, Washington DC, and a venerable politician goes about his morning routine before heading to his congressional office, preparing for inauguration day – a new president is about to be sworn in. Always an important day, but this particular occasion is more remarkable than most – Obama is about to take the oath of office, the first black president of the United States of America. The veteran old politician we see preparing for the day is congressman John Lewis, not just a man who has served his constituents for decades, but a veteran of the Civil Rights movement, a campaigner who stood there during the famous March on Washington in 1963, giving an important speech alongside Doctor Martin Luther King’s iconic “I have a dream” speech, surely one of the most moving and inspirational political speeches of the 20th century.

In a way I found this quite a daunting book to review – not, I hasten to add, because of anything wrong with the book. It’s beautifully put together, open, accessible. It was more a worry that anything I might say wouldn’t really do justice to the events recorded here, from eyewitness testimony of someone who was there, who stood up for rights for himself and others and had to struggle terribly for it against vile, brutal, racist thuggery that it is hard to credit was ever allowed to happen in a free and democratic society. And so I delayed it, kept rethinking it, rewriting it and eventually just had to decide to post it, warts and all. I’m not sure any review can do justice to someone’s memories of events like these that helped shape the world (and are still shaping it, Lewis is still fighting the good fight), but at the very least I can commend it as a book very worthy of your reading (and hopefully the sort of book you will want to pass around friends), and also one of those stand-out works which again emphasises how well the comics medium is suited to tackling any subject.

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But, as I said this first book of John Lewis’ memories of the long march for Civil Rights is, quite deliberately I would think, made as open and inviting as possible to the reader, regardless of prior knowledge on the part of that reader – if you’ve read the history of the period or if much of it is new to you, this will still welcome you in gently. In a way it reminds me of Walter Scott’s approach to retelling Scottish history, the “Tales of a Grandfather”, and it did feel like that to me, as if a much-loved, warm-hearted older relative, a grandfather or favourite uncle, were telling a tale. And what a tale it is…

Through the framing device of a lady bringing in her young boys to meet Lewis and learn a little about the history of the struggle for equality we are taken back to his earliest days, as a young boy on the family farm in Alabama, his love of the animals, especially the chickens (although, as he points out wryly, there is a bit of a pitfall to becoming emotionally attached to your animals on a farm, since eventually they end up in the pot…), an early desire to become a preacher prompted by the gift of a Bible which he read and re-read and then school – especially school: “But school was important to me, and it was ultimately the reason I got involved in the Civil Rights movement.” In a simple but moving scene he also highlights the roles of educators, librarians and books in creating awareness, an enthusiastic school librarian telling the children “read everything.”

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But how does a young lad in a rural county start to learn about the movement, much less get involved? Especially when much of the advice he is given is to keep his head down, not to attract the attention of “white folk”. A favourite uncle clearly sees something in the young boy, something he himself is probably not yet aware of, and he takes him on a road trip to expand his world a bit. This isn’t the usual road trip we’d think of today though, the freedom of the open road, seeing new places – as the book explains the trip took careful planning, such as carrying their own food because there are no roadside restaurants ‘coloured’ folk will be allowed in, some places they just can’t risk stopping in. It’s a simple part of the tale, but like many simple examples it illustrates a complex and distasteful truth, that a century after the end of the Civil War some citizens of a democratic country couldn’t fill up the tank or eat at a roadside diner in the Southern states simply because of the colour of their skin. And that was simply the accepted norm. Until some very brave people started to challenge it.

The early episodes where young Lewis is introduced to those creating the Civil Rights movement are fascinating and horrifying in equal measure – on the one hand to see a young man realising that he and others can make a difference, can work with others to make their society a better place, it is uplifting, inspiring, empowering, even; you feel, perhaps, just a little of that excitement he and his friends must have felt that they could make things better (and isn’t that something any of us in our societies should always aim to do?). And the determination to follow that model of Ghandi and remain resolutely non-violent is admirable in the extreme. Turning back on violence and hate with more violence and hate in response only fuels an endless cycle, trapping both parties. In some very upsetting, harrowing scenes we see activists (black and white) subjecting each other to harassment, derogatory remarks, pushing and more, to train themselves not to react with violence. I’m not sure I could bite my tongue or remain still in the face of that sort of provocation, and yet here are these young people disciplining themselves to do just that. To be better than those who want to ‘keep them in their place.’. It’s remarkable.

And it is at the same time horrifying in exposing the virulent face of unreasoning bigotry and pure hatred based on nothing more than seeing an entire group as ‘different’, and that difference justifying Jim Crow laws of discrimination, actually using institutions of state to repress and control black people, something you would have thought unthinkable in a free, democratic society, that it would do this against a section of it’s own citizens. And of course there is the raw hatred, indoctrinated into each generation to generation which justifies this control and repression, and which all too often leads to outright acts of sickening violence, with the perpetrators rarely held to account in any hall of justice, because those who are supposed to administer justice are as swollen with the same hatred – or indeed sometimes the acts of violence are perpetrated by those such a policemen who are supposed to ‘protect and serve’.

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Throughout Nate Powell, whose work I have admired greatly since his powerful  and atmospherically drawn Swallow Me Whole, brings this to life with quiet, un-showy monochrome artwork, clearly striving not to let the art become more important than the story here, but also still ensuring these moments of memory are brought vividly to life. It’s obviously quite an emotional story, and Nate’s art captures this essence and enhances it, most notably, for me anyway, in the expressions, from the haunted, worried look as some of the black characters traverse a mostly white area to the hideous, contorted expressions of unreasoning hate as police lay into peaceful protestors, or the opposite, the gentle, loving expression of friends helping one another, that simple expression on a friend or loved one’s face that can be enough to get us back up the floor and make us keep going because we know they’re lending us their strength.

This is a slice of recent history, but it is also a personal tale, a beautiful reminder that all historical events were enacted by people. Actual people, not remote historical figures, real people with families, loved ones, hopes, dreams and fears and that to make that history they had to embrace the dreams and overcome the fears. And this is history that remains painfully relevant to modern society – just a few days ago a UK politicians tried to claim that recent extreme winter storms were God’s wrath because of Parliament allowing gay marriage; there is always someone, for whatever reason, prepared to justify treating others in an unfair manner because they are ‘different’, and March reminds us how hard the road to equality for all is and that we’re not at the end of that road yet, but perhaps we can see it, and we can all keep marching towards it. March made it into my top three graphic novels from 2013 in my Best of the Year.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

The End of the World – Signal to Noise

Signal to Noise Hardcover (New Edition),
Neil Gaiman, Dave McKean,
Dark Horse

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This is a story about the end of the world, but it’s not a science fiction apocalypse. This is a tale of a dying man, a great director, who is diagnosed with a terminal illness just as he is planning his next film, a story about the End of Days as the Millennium approaches, but not the year 2000, this is 999 AD, and a group of simple villagers are gathering on a mountainside to await the end of the world and God’s judgement on them all.

It’s a film he now knows he will not live to make.

But as he comes to terms with the horror of his own situation, the knowledge that he is facing his own personal apocalypse, he begins to plan his film anyway, in his head, writing lines, blocking scenes, borrowing the faces of people he sees in the street for the cast in his head. To these simple, religious people they know for a fact – just as he now does – that the world is going to end, and they fear it and the wrath of their god for all their sins. Some embrace a late burst of piety, some give away all their possessions, partly because they believe they will soon have no earthly needs any longer, but partly hoping these acts will be seen as selfless and charitable come the Last Judgement, desperately hoping a sudden access of charity in the last days will help them slink into Paradise. Of course, the director knows there is no bargain he can strike with his own disease, no change he can make to his life or offer he can make to appease it.

We know the world didn’t end as 999 became 1000 AD any more than it did come 2000 AD, despite all the millennial doomsayers (who despite being wrong go right back to predicting a new end of the world and someone is always ready to believe it…). But individual worlds… Those, sadly, are always ending. There isn’t a day when some individual and some family somewhere, will not be touched by the spectre of personal extinction. The numb horror of his prognosis is handled with great sensitivity by McKean and Gaiman, and anyone who has experienced loved ones going through the same will recognise the emotional surges and tides that such news brings, and the slow gnawing of disease reducing the person (until at one point he looks into a mirror and seeing his weakened, prematurely older state feels for a moment he is looking not at himself but his old father). We’re in his head with him and his final story and it’s hard not to feel as he does.

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I’m, fifty. That isn’t so old. And I’m thinking about the pain in my chest. And I’m thinking about the end of the world. And I’m thinking… That’s all I see to do. In ten years time I’ll be… (dead) .. sixty.

But this isn’t just about death, about the end of the self. Nor is it really taking the opposite road and “raging against the dying of the light”. Our director may not be happy about his impending end, but he slowly comes to make his peace with it, and his work helps, as he plots out this film no-one will ever see, a film which will only be projected in the private cinema of his own imagination. And that story of the end of the world isn’t really about the End of Days either, not really – it’s about life, and the fact that even in what seems the bleakest times there will always be some sort of life, that the world will keep turning, day will follow night; we go but life, that stays, stubbornly clinging to the surface of our world and defying the cold cosmos with its simple existence. And so he begins to think about his film and how, perhaps, he will not live to make it, but he can still write it, leave it behind him, a last burst of creation before his own end, a gift to his friends he has worked with so often before. Perhaps it may live on after he is gone.

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It’s been three months, now. Today I did something strange. I started to write. There can be no purpose in this. Still, I am writing.”

It’s a beautiful, haunting tale, originally serialised in the late 1980s for the old Face magazine (remember that?) during that sudden burst of media enthusiasm for more mature comics work around that time. It’s a remarkable piece considering it is such an early work by McKean and Gaiman. Not just in storytelling, but also in the artwork and layout – McKean has always been keen to explore and push what he can do with his art, and even in this early work that is clear. There are some pages which take drawn art, photographs and more collaged into unusual layouts – it looks like the sort of thing you’d see when Desk Top Publishing made it much simpler to manipulate elements on your page, but this is pre-DTP, using printers, cameras and scanners to painstakingly build up those layers. It’s far ahead of its time in terms of art and design, and even now with this fine new edition it still stands up as an unusual and beautiful looking piece of work by two now very (and justly) famous Brit creators right at the start of their careers. A beautiful, emotional tale, well told, and one you will only appreciate more as the years pass.

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

The World Has Gone to the Dogs – Rover Red Charlie

Rover Red Charlie #1

Garth Ennis, Michael Dipascale

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It’s the end of the world – but from the perspective of Man’s Best Friend. Everything has suddenly, irrevocably gone wrong with the human world, and like the canine protagonists in this tale we have no idea why, but it has and the people are turning on each other and on themselves, while the poor dogs look on, terrified, upset, uncomprehending as the world falls apart all around them, blood, violence, fire, as their former “feeders” (as the dogs refer to the humans) go insane and destroy themselves.

Ennis and Dipascale drop us right into this, with Charlie, a Collie and a Guide Dog (or Seeing Eye Dog as they call them in America), desperately trying to free himself – his former owner is now a burning corpse on a smashed underground station, others are in a similar conditions nearby, and he is still attached by his lead to the hand of his now dead owner. “I’m a dog! I’m a dog! I’m a dog!” he howls in despair – yes, the dogs here ‘talk’, although it seems only they understand one another (and obviously we understand their speech bubbles). Charlie’s shrieks of “I’m a dog!” are clearly, to any human in the story, barks, not words. Once you understand that the rhythm of the dog’s ‘speech’ becomes quite clear to anyone who’s spent time around our four legged friends.

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Suddenly through the flames comes Red, perhaps not the brightest canine in the pack (as his friend notes later, he sometimes has to sit and let this ‘thinks’ fill up a bit first) but loyal in that wonderful way that so many dogs are, charging in, leading his friends Rover and Max to help Charlie. Max, a rather up-himself pedigree German Shepherd decides Charlie is doomed and runs off to save himself, while Red and Rover strain with Charlie to bite through the lead and rescue their friend. Fleeing the burning remains of the station the dogs pause on their flight to safety as Red is very worried about his bottom and absolutely has to stop for a few seconds while a reluctant Charlie has to sniff it and make sure it is okay.

This piece of doggy etiquette out of the way they emerge onto the city streets, wondering what is going on, only to find the big picture is worse than they thought, the entire city aflame, humans everywhere going mad (save one who in a desperate last act tries to save the dogs, knowing he himself is as doomed as the other humans). A human confronted with this sudden destructive madness wouldn’t comprehend what was going on, so imagine the mind of a dog trying to grasp what’s going on… The poor animals are desperate to find a friendly ‘feeder’ who hasn’t gone mad, they will look after them, tell them what to do…

This could be a very cheesy, schmaltzy tale, but actually, given it focuses on ‘talking’ animals (well, we understand their ‘speech’, as I said it’s clear they aren’t actually talking in English) and has a buddy-movie feel to it, it is actually fairly light on the cheese. This is not one of those Disney ‘incredible journey’ stories. The decision to let us understand the dogs’ growls and barks via speech bubbles works well, allowing us to share their point of view of events, but it also works because Ennis nails the rhythms and structure so well, not to mention focusing on what you expect would be a domestic dog’s concerns (friendly owner to look after them, feed them, pet them, tell them when it is time to go somewhere) that you find yourself thinking yep, this is pretty much how I’d expect a dog to be thinking.

Of course that reminds me of the talking dog in Morrison and Quitely’s superb We3 (“bad dog, bad dog…”) but there the comparison ends with that story.  This is an unusual take on the end of the world, seen from the perspective of three dogs who are best friends – a buddy movie at the end of the world, but with canines (and what better friends can anyone, human or dog, have than a good dog?). The three main dogs are all clearly defined with their own characteristics, while Dipascale’s art manages the tricky combination of having to show human violence and mass destruction on city streets with believable dog poses and movements, and he manages this very well. The animals comes across very believably – the movements, the little stances with the eyes opened up big and head titled just so are familiar to anyone who has been around dogs, and of course to any animal lover it evokes that response that just makes you want to take care of them, and this digs us further into the story emotionally – the scene where a mad human attacks another dog is especially heartbreaking, somehow more shocking and sadder than the human on human violence, especially as Charlie barks “Feeders don’t hurt dogs! Feeders don’t hurt dogs!” as it happens, unable to understand how their friendly feeders have become suddenly crazed and violent.

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In some ways it is like a child’s perspective if the adult population went into destructive madness like this but young children didn’t, what would they make of it, how could they begin to comprehend what would confuse and terrify a full adult mind? They seem so vulnerable having to suddenly cope not only on their own but in a world gone so dangerously insane, and again this ties us even more emotionally to the story and characters. Non animal lovers probably won’t get the same levels of emotional investment in it, but those sorts of people clearly need to go out and stroke more warm, furry tummies anyway. I really didn’t know what to expect from this at all when I picked it up and here I found a rather charming, engaging read. One of the more unusual new comics releases.

Review: Winter’s Tales

Winter’s Tales.

Metaphrog

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Here’s a lovely little piece from Metaphrog, a couple of graphic short tales with a distinctive fairy tale feel about them (indeed the second story, The Little Match Girl, is inspired by the story by the immortal Hans Christian Andersen). The Glass Case takes place only a few moments from where I am sitting as I write, in Edinburgh’s Old Town, where we see a school outing to the Museum of Childhood on the Royal Mile (well worth a visit). Each of the kids is instructed by their teacher to pick something from one of the displays and draw a sketch of it.

For some reason young Sam feels compelled to sketch an old toy doll called Molly; predictably enough some of the other boys make fun of him for being a ‘sissy’ and picking a ‘girl’s doll’ as his subject. Sam doesn’t seem to care though, he clearly feels drawn to this small toy figure in her museum case. Home life is far from happy and Sam soon finds he is drawn back to the museum to see Molly again, and a strange sort of relationship begins to form.

Given the brevity of the story I won’t ruin it by revealing anything more, save to say it is rather lovely – if also tinged with sadness – and, quite rightly I think, Metaphrog never make it clear what is real, what is fantasy here. Are some of the events actually happening or just the imagination of a lonely young boy’s mind desperately seeking escape to somewhere better? It’s up to the reader to decide when they finish the tale, and that’s how it should be. There are also some lovely scenes – a view of the ancient city from the rooftops captures that magical feel of this old place wonderfully, so much so I will forgive them for getting the geography of the city slightly wrong!

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In the Little Match Girl the eponymous lassie is on a bitterly cold winter street, shivering in the snow; dusk is falling, she is cold and hungry but frightened to go home as she’s not made a single sale all day and she knows her father will be angry. She desperately wishes for light and warmth, not just the physical attributes of those qualities but the emotional light and warmth which none of us can really do without, least of all a child. It’s one of those stories that is beautifully sad, if that isn’t a contradiction in terms, and the art cleverly manages to convey that 19th century Victorian cruel street and the hapless waif upon it while also inferring that actually this isn’t the Bad Old Days when children were left to suffer cold and alone on the uncaring city streets, it may well be today. And given how many children do go hungry or sleep with a pavement for a pillow around the world (an abomination in this century for which the adult world should forever be ashamed) I suspect this is a deliberate device.

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Winter’s Tales is a lovely little item – a small, landscape format limited edition Metaphrog are selling this month. At only £3.50 it would make for a lovely and unique little Yuletide gift for someone, but there are only a couple of hundred, so you better be quick!

Time to Shine,

Metaphrog

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Richard has already blogged a bit about this – it’s an interesting project Metaphrog have done in conjunction with Creative Scotland, as part of a government scheme to encourage younger Scots in the creative arts. I know how busy a schedule Metaphrog’s duo maintains when it comes to library and school visits and workshops where they never fail to get the kids excited about creating their own stories, so I think they were a perfect choice for this subject.

The story follows kids at Greenvale high school, an everyday secondary school where the kids have the usual problems any teen deals with, about discovering who you are, where you fit in (especially when sometimes it feels like you don’t), what you want to do and how to articulate what you feel as all these changes and pressures on your young life build up (and we do put some much weight on young shoulder – hey, you, 13 year old kid, get those grades, pick the correct courses to follow so you can get the correct college course later and then the right career, decide now how the whole rest of your life is meant to be! What a thing we do to kids, sometimes…).

It’s a fairly compact tale but we’re still introduced to the school and a range of characters, teachers and students alike, recognisable types to anyone, the quiet, shy one, the loud annoying older sibling, the ‘bad boys’ who act big and menacing to hide their own worries and insecurities. This isn’t stereotyping though, more, I think, making sure in a short work that these are characters the target audience – secondary school age students – can recognise and empathise with (and that’s no easy task, given secondary covers from around 11 or 12 through to 17 or 18 years of age).

When an idealistic new teacher proposes a school talent show (to the usual sighs from older, more cynical teachers) the kids find themselves being inspired, suddenly realising that they all have talents they can nurture and express, be it on the stage performing or using other skills behind the scenes to make it all happen. Even the ‘bad boys’ get drawn into it eventually when the teacher shows them that their spraycan wizardry can be put to more artistic uses than defacing school buildings.

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The artwork has a very manga feel to it, appropriate enough given that’s a style many younger readers are more familiar with in their comics reading. I took part in a lot of various school shows (some by choice, more than a few I was ‘volunteered’ into doing) and I thought the story caught that atmosphere of excitement mixed with nerves that goes along with doing anything like that, but also that feeling of triumph when it all works and the way that builds confidence in young hearts and minds that they will need as they go on. And that’s really what Metaphrog and this arts project from Creative Scotland are trying to do, to encourage kids to explore their artistic side, to be creative.

I’m sure some old cynics will make the usual chorus of “waste of money” at this project, but they can go and eat their family sized bag of Bah Humbug because not only does engaging younger people’s imaginations and creative sides make them happier and more productive students (a bonus in education) it also, if we want to be pragmatic about it, contributes considerably to our economy – think on the writers, singers, game creators, artists and more we produce who go on to bestride a global stage (and you never know when one kid who is inspired by this may grow up to be a new JK Rowling-like success, do you?). And we know from first hand experience how comics can engage with young minds so successfully, so I am delighted at Creative Scotland asking Metaphrog to use the medium to help inspire a new generation – perhaps in a few years we may even be reviewing some comics from some youngster who picked this up. I do hope so.

The graphic novel is being distributed to school students and is also available through various government agencies, or you can read the online version for free right here.

This was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Dungeon Fun!

Dungeon Fun Book One,

Colin Bell & Neil Slorance,

Dogooder Comics

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This is the story of a girl and her sword.”

We open on a pretty standard scene for Dungeons and Dragons influenced fantasy – a lovely, big splash page of a large, multi-turreted castle, surrounded by an incredibly deep moat and a single bridge spanning the gap. Before it stands a proud knight errant, ready for the quest. There are Great Deeds to be Done, Monsters to be Vanquished, Princesses (presumably lovely, of course) to be Rescued! Our shining knight presents himself, a great speech prepared to announce his virtue and bravery… And that’s right when Colin and Neil, with what I suspect was great delight, pull the rug out on the generic tropes of fantasy tales. For starters out poor knight is cut off in the middle of his impressive announcement speech by a rather irate bridge troll, who is less than happy to be addressed as “bridge troll”, pointing out he does, in fact, have a name (and a nametag). Going through a pretend ‘metal detector’ he is asked if he has anything metallic on him – well, er, armour, sword… Sorry, have to leave those behind, bridge security!

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And this farcical encounter soon directs us to the world of Deepmoat – yes, there is an entire village living down in the very deep and muddy moat which circles around the castle. And those pesky bridge trolls, messy pups that they are, have a dirty habit of throwing anything and everything down there, sometimes right on top of the unfortunate inhabitants. Our knight’s sword among them…

And that takes us into the world of Deepmoat where we find not just objects but even people get chucked in the pit by the trolls above, including a very young girl. Fortunately for her she is adopted by a nice couple of creatures who live in Deepmoat and they raise her as their own, Fun Mudlifter. But when more falling junk from the trolls kills them Fun decides it is time things changed and that the trolls above were taught a lesson. Of course she isn’t sure how to do this, or even how to get up there, but needless to say in this kind of genre it will involve a lot of adventuring, dungeons, monsters, trials and more.

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I’ve got to confess I absolutely loved this; in fact I sat with the largest grin on my face throughout, laughing repeatedly. Colin and Neil have taken all sorts of elements and references from the fantasy genre, from games like Zelda to well-worn tropes familiar to any of us who have sat up to 4am battling through Dungeons and Dragons or Tunnels and Trolls. And they they have clearly had a lot of fun taking many of those generic elements and playing with them and twisting them around. There is a good adventure story here, but it is also a delightful romp served up with lashings of wickedly funny humour. And it looks fantastic too.

Regular readers will know I loved Neil’s previous solo, semi biographical works (reviewed here) and while I can see some of his other art style in the characters here it is much lighter and with the fantasy rather than real-world setting he can indulge himself in flights of fancy (although still with a lovely cartoony style). And there are lovely touches – the lettering, too often an afterthought for some creators, is cleverly done in many places, using different sized speech bubbles appended to main ones and changes in font sizes to denote changes in volume and pitch of speech, and these are matched nicely with the expressions drawn on the character’s faces as they speak, the elements all work together beautifully. There are other nice touches like the simple device of inserting an arrow into an early dialogue box then again to a much later one to help tie different events together and show how connected they actually are.

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It’s an absolutely wonderful read, inventive, funny, warm, charming and so funny I am still smiling just at the thought of it. Dungeons, moats, monsters, wicked queens, castle, knights, quests, brave girl on a mission, prophecies, I mean really, it has it all. And Sandwiches. Can’t wait to see the next book. Meantime go give Colin and Neil some money for this, you will love it.

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Manifest Destiny

Manifest Destiny #1

Chris Dingess, Matthew Roberts, Owen Gieni

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It is 1804, and the United States of America is still a new, young nation, striving to create it’s own identity, expand and find its “manifest destiny”. When President Thomas Jefferson (one of the Founding Fathers of the nation) commissions the new Corps of Discovery he is already looking westward, as so many Americans and the great waves of immigrants who would pour into the new nation in the 1800s would do. Lewis and Clark have instructions to cross the vast, largely unknown continent from the new Louisiana purchase lands westwards, to explore for evidence of rivers which may offer effective transport routes across to the Pacific coast, map the territories, establish relations with native tribes, gather scientific measurements and specimens of animals and geology as they travel and, the more secretive but to Jefferson vital part of the mission, to help establish US claims to these lands in the west in the face of other powers such as Spain or the British Empire.

Manifest Destiny, however, is not a simple retelling of that expedition – one of the great voyages of exploration of an era of great explorations, and certainly the most famous of American expeditions. This is a slightly different history from what we are used to, there is a hidden aspect to all of this, and not just Jefferson’s geo-political shenanigans and schemes. In Jefferson’s vast library on previous explorations of the continent are not only records – and sometimes misleading rumours or exaggerations – of previous voyages, but also myths, stories and legends of darker things, hidden places, strange creatures, monsters…

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This Lewis and Clark are embarking on the same historical trip we know, but with the added element that they have been secretly tasked to locate and eliminate these monsters, if they truly exist, as Jefferson believes they do, to clear the way for the young nation to expand from one shining sea to the other. This aspect of their mission is known only to the two officers, however, not the soldiers who have volunteered to join the Corps and certainly not the extra hands in the form of condemned criminals promised a presidential pardon if they protect the expedition to its conclusion…

In this first issue though nothing unusual has been spotted and Lewis is confiding in his journal that he is relieved they never told the men, because after sighting nothing untoward they would have assumed they were madmen, and notes so far the only real problem has been the boredom encouraging a lack of discipline among the criminal mercenaries, which Clark deals with, but which you know is going to figure again later in the story. Of course by the end of the first issue things start to take a more peculiar turn, as a great arch of greenery – an obvious nod to the famous Gateway Arch memorial to Westward Expansion which has towered over St Louis since the mid 1960s – is spotted by the river and the Corps disembark to investigate. Is this some weird natural structure? Man made? If it is artificial then who made it? Surely, they muse, not the ‘savages’? And why such an odd structure… Who put it there, what use did they intend and… where are whoever, or whatever, those who constructed it…

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The idea of having a secret, hidden history to our own real-world historical events is not new, of course – science fiction has an entire and often intriguing sub genre of alt-history tales, from Neal Stephenson’s enormous and richly detailed works to slimmer but fascinating classics like Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee. But it is always an area ripe for further harvesting since it offers such juicy potential, taking already interesting historical events and people then adding a fictional spin to them, in the case of Manifest Destiny a supernatural take.

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That also works well for this particular tale, given the real expedition did indeed have covert purposes as well as the publicly stated aims (we see Lewis writing two journals, one secret for the president, the other a public one for Congress), so adding another secret aspect to their mission sits quite well within the real history. And of course to many in the new nation, most of the citizens of European descent, the lands beyond the original colonies were in some ways full of mysteries and monsters, a deep, dark, unknown land full of who knew what amid vast forests, great rivers and fast-flowing, mighty rivers not yet mapped. The artwork is executed in a nice, clear style, showing off these almost untouched, vast landscapes but also taking care to give each of the characters’ faces distinctive looks, helping the reader to learn who is who in the first issue, but it also deals with a sudden action scene towards the end rather well too, switching from widescreen landscape to close up, darker, more full of sudden movement and menace.  And I appreciated how Roberts made the mysterious structure no only a nod to the modern Gateway Arch memorial but also infers a gigantic tentacle like appendage, hinting at Lovecraftian monsters lurking in wait for the expedition. It’s an intriguing concept and while this first issue is a fairly sedate introduction it is a nice set-up for what looks to be a series worth following.

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Gravity

Gravity
Directed Alfonso Cuarón
Starring Sandra Bullock, George Clooney

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I’ve been eager to see Gravity for some time – Alfonso Cuarón’s take on PD James novel The Children of Men was a remarkable and powerful movie. This, originally, was to be his ‘quick’ movie after that long slog, but ended up taking several years instead, not least because they had to invent whole new ways of shooting to create the remarkable visual effects. Creating the effect that a person or a ship is in space is not new, of course, it’s been done with varying degrees of success for decades on the big screen, from the realistic approach of 2001 to the scientifically silly but visually wonderful style of Star Wars. Gravity follows more in the realistic mode of 2001 – no deep bass rumbles of mighty ships in the void (where there isn’t any atmosphere to transmit sound) and no sudden and graceful movements of winged craft that fly like planes (even though that is not how you maneuver in space), instead the only sound is inside your helmet or radio, movement is in line with Newton’s laws and the way a body travels in a gravity free, airless environment.

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What it does differently from 2001 and other films which tried to portray space exploration as it really is though, is the depiction of being in a zero-gee environment. Cuarón and his team had to really battle to come up with filming systems to allow them to make their actors look like they truly are in a gravity free environment, and ye celluloid gods but it paid off. In fact, and I say this as someone who has been fascinated by space exploration since he was a very small boy, studied it, read about, imagined it, this paid off so well that you could be forgiven for thinking it was actually shot on location in Earth orbit. Yes, it really is that realistic looking. And it is also utterly ravishing, visually, right from an opening shot of a glowing Earth below a team of astronauts from a Shuttle working on the Hubble Space Telescope. Bullock’s specialist, a scientist brought into NASA to work on this particular upgrade because of her technical skills but not really an astronaut (apart from basic training), while Clooney’s veteran astronaut on his final flight is happily trying out a new design of MMU (Maned Maneuvering Unit – a jetpack for space, effectively) and flitting around the team. The glowing Earth below them fills the cinema screen and is simply beautiful, awesome in the proper use of the word.

But while the visual aspect of Gravity is remarkable and stunning (even the 3D, something I generally dislike in live action films, is excellent and worth the usual eye strain and headache) this isn’t just an effect fest, there is a story here and it is one which is incredibly tense and indeed intense, seriously gripping the arms of your chair stuff, right the way through. When Mission Control calls a warning to the team that a satellite has been destroyed and the debris is sweeping around the orbit towards them events rapidly spiral out of control into a desperate, against the odds attempt at survival.

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And survival in an environment no human – no creature on our planet at all – evolved to survive in. It’s a deadly environment that we’ve somehow pushed ourselves and our technology to allow us to live and work in over the last half decade (and it’s worth remembering that in thousands of years of human history it is only a few dozen people over the last sixty years who have gone into space). And it anything goes wrong it can be fatal so very, horribly quickly. Even tiny pieces of debris, even just a bolt, travelling at twenty thousand miles and hour will have such kinetic force it can tear through a ship or a space station like an anti-tank round. And all of a sudden an intricate ship or station, assembled from so many precise components and painstakingly engineered and constructed to be just right to support human life in this environment is turned into Swiss cheese…

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I won’t ruin it for you by expanding any further on how it develops from this accident. Suffice to say it is edge of the seat stuff, beautifully depicted, while the interaction between Bullock’s damaged scientist and Clooney’s veteran of the space programme, even in desperate straits, is perfectly handled (Clooney projects that image most of us have of the calm, unflappable NASA old school astronaut who takes the most catastrophic failures in his stride). This may be vast scale, big-screen, effects-laden storytelling, but it does not neglect either story or character and I found it profoundly satisfying on the emotional level as well as the spectacle. There are some nice nods to other iconic moments from space films tucked away in among the tense moments – a scene where Bullock floats in an airlock, shimmying out of her space suit recalls Barbarella, Bullock in vest and shorts in the space station reminds me of Ripley in the shuttle at the end of Alien, Bullock again floating, exhausted, in an airlock, the sunrise from space glowing through the window port as he floats in zero gee, curling up almost foetal after surviving one part of her ordeal, the cords around her like an umbilical coil, making her seem at the same time both childlike, a newborn and at the same time recalls the ‘star child’ from 2001 and the transformational power of such experiences and travel. It’s gripping right to the very last and as I said the visuals are simply breath-taking – this is one you want to see on the big screen, not on DVD later on, watch it on a big cinema screen and let yourself be drawn into it until you feel you’re there, floating above the world. An utterly remarkable piece of film-making.

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And I have to add, on a personal note, those visuals played right into my life-long fascination with space travel; that screen-filling vista of the Earth revolving made my pulse race, just as it always has since I was a kid, at the thought of going into space. I had the same feeling watching In the Shadow of the Moon a few years ago; those Saturn V rockets lit up and my pulse went with them, the same excitement and longing I’ve had since I was five years old, in my little astronaut playsuit and helmet, sitting in an empty box for a spaceship, with an imagination as big as the universe. And even after watching a film like this showing the dangers I know that if I were offered the chance I would go in a heartbeat, that it’s the trip I have always wanted to make since I was that wee boy in his astronaut suit, playing and dreaming; I’m literally a child of the space age, born at the peak of the Apollo programme, and I’m forever disappointed that I’ll almost certainly never get to experience it first hand…

5 – 4 -3 -2 -1 – Thunderbirds Are Go!!!

Thunderbirds: the Comic Collection Hardcover

Frank Bellamy, John Cooper,Graham Bleathman et al,

Egmont

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Ah, Thunderbirds, perhaps the most loved of all of the late, great Gerry Anderson’s ground-breaking science fiction shows, one of those shows that continues to capture the imagination of new generations time and again. I’ve always loved Gerry’s shows, they were pivotal in shaping the imagination of so many of us growing up, and his groundbreaking, superbly detailed Supermarionation creations like Stingray, Joe 90 and Captain Scarlet offered us high adventures and beautifully realised science fiction futures. Probably fair to say none more so than Thunderbirds, with a whole family dedicated to saving lives in disasters with International Rescue, using the most astonishing fleet of craft, all their own creations, all intricately crafted by Gerry’s team, so much so that kids (and us big kids) still lust after the toy versions today.

Gerry Anderson was determined to widen the access to and appeal of his shows and TV Century 21 – later simply TV21 – would become a fondly remembered part of a now largely vanished era of British comics history, when every single week kids, literally by the million, picked up their new comics, read them swapped with siblings and friends for other comics – we devoured them. Anderson being Anderson though he was not content to have anything less than the best, so TV21 used superior (for the time) printing techniques and top-flight artwork to showcase his creations in comics form (remember this is the man whose model work was so good Kubrick wanted him to do effects work on 2001; Anderson turned him down, too busy with his own shows).

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And it shows that higher production value in this lovely hardback volume from Egmont, which is a total must-have for anyone who grew up on Gerry Anderson shows, or indeed who just admire some very fine British comics. The fact this was aimed at a young audience didn’t mean they skimped on quality, so in came one of the most legendary artists in Brit comics, the great Frank Bellamy. The technical aspects of the superb quality of Bellamy’s art has been discussed by those far more qualified than me, but suffice to say it is simply beautiful, beautiful work. Freed of the constraints of 60s television effects and budgets Bellamy’s imagination could run free and create scenarios for International Rescue that simply couldn’t have been executed on the small screen at the time, even with Anderson’s skilled team – this is Thunderbirds unlimited, the comics form freeing the imagination of the creators so we can go from giant earthquake machines and shattering cities to deep jungles in South America, crashing spacecraft, giant aliens running amok, we soar through space, underwater, and Bellamy’s strength is not just in the artwork itself but also in his experimentation with how to lay out the panels on a page to increase the atmosphere and vibe of a story (something some modern artists like JH WIlliams III do so well too), and that experimentation is all the more impressive looking back and thinking this was the mid 60s and in a kid’s comic!

This is what science fiction adventure is all about for a young reader (and those of us who never quite lost that quality as we got older) – the sheer sense of wonder and excitement, but also carrying a message, just like the television shows. That there are good people, heroes we can look up to, who do the right thing for no other reason than it needs to be done. Yes, that may be a bit of a naive, even simplistic approach to a hero figure to today’s more cynical, media-aware eyes, but, dammit, sometimes you just want that simpler hero, the firm-jawed, Dan Dare inspired British hero, uncomplicated, resolute, determined… And I don’t think there is anything wrong in yearning for that sometimes – and, simpler or not, those sorts of characters are, I think, good for young readers especially; it’s perhaps not who they can ever be, real life, they will find, is more complicated, but it gives them something to admire, to aim for, an ideal standard, and that’s not a bad thing. And along the way they enjoy hugely inventive tales of great daring and adventure.

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Bellamy’s glorious work is joined later on by John Cooper, different from Bellamy but still terrific stuff, especially remarkable for a kid’s comic of the period. And as an added bonus Graham Bleathman’s wonderfully intricate and detailed cutaways of the Thunderbirds are included, lovely double page spreads showing inner details of those magnificent machines. I’ve loved those cutaway illustrations since I was a boy and they still draw my eye today. In addition to the main Thunderbirds strips from the 60s and 70s this handsome collection also includes the Lady Penelope series too.

In some ways these comics, like the show which inspired them, is very much of its time. An era when humans were just starting on the road to the stars, the dawn of the Space Age, that huge optimism that after the Second World War now we would turn our inventive minds to using our rapidly growing scientific knowledge for good, that new technology and science could – and would – cure all problems, feed the world, heal the sick, deal with disasters and reach out to take us to the stars themselves. We’re more cynical today, we live in an age far more technological than even those 60s dreamers could have imagined, where most of us have a phone in our pocket with more computing power than the Apollo programme had, but although we use it every day we are far more wary of the pitfalls of technology and we have seen that science, like any human activity, can be used for ill as well as good.

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In some ways though that adds to the nostalgic, warm glow of this collection, the desire to enjoy again that simpler time and simpler heroes who used their incredible inventions to save lives. It is so very easy to let yourself be lost in that world again for a few enjoyable hours. And let’s face it, when our 24 hours news brings reports of some awful disaster, earthquakes, fires, floods, is there any of those of us who grew up on these tales wish, deep down, that there was really a Thunderbirds cadre of craft who would ride out to the rescue? Impossible for some of us to hear that distinctive Thunderbirds theme and not want to be with those heroes, doing great deeds. It still works on the inner kid in the adult reader, and I think it will still work that most special of things, the sense of wonder and adventure, for the younger readers, just as the show still captures the imagination of new kids today. And even leaving that warm nostalgia aside these are simply terrific adventures for all ages, executed with some amazing artwork.

And as we’ve noted on here before, we’ve seen a lot of classic American comics given the deluxe treatment with handsome hardback archives, but sadly not so much for our rich British comics heritage, so that makes this a special treat, a handsome collection of some wonderful, classic Brit comics. On a related note Egmont have also released some more classic Brit comics fun at the same time, the three boxsets of postcards drawing from Brit comics, with a set from Battle, a set from 70s Girls’ Comics and yes, of course, there’s a set of Thunderbirds postcards as well. As with the book all looking rather good for the gift idea for a certain big seasonal event in a couple of months…

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog