Jeff Brown’s A Matter Of Life

A Matter of Life,

Jeffrey Brown,

Top Shelf

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American cartoonist Jeff Brown has been a bit of a favourite with many of us here for several years. In recent years he’s expanded his audience with some delightful all-ages Star Wars parodies imagining Darth Vader actually trying to be a dad to Luke and Leia, but he remains best known (and loved) for his bittersweet autobiographic works. Yes, I know, Indy cartoonist doing autobiographic comics is almost a cliché these days, but for me Brown always stands out with his simple but elegant and effective style and voice – he’s one of those creators that the minute a new book is announced you know you’re going to have to read it.

In this recent book he turns his attention to family matters, mostly the men of the Brown family – himself, of course, but also his father and his own wee boy. Eschewing the regular chronological approach, instead A Matter of Life (I’m guessing the title is a nod to the classic Brit fantasy A Matter of Life and Death) offers up several snapshots of life in the Brown household – we can go from a very young Jeff at school or church (lot of church scenes, his dad being a minister) to adult Jeff with wife and child of his own, or back to high school or college age Jeff. The theme that ties these short scenes together is little glimpses into formative moments – all those little things (and the odd Big Thing, good or bad) that makes up this funny old thing called Life that we all deal with.

Brown is always quite honest, rarely trying to revise his personal history to make himself look better – instead he offers it up, warts and all. There he is as a kid in Bible study class or church youth group holding forth about the meaning of events in the Bible or God’s intentions, but in the commentary present day Jeff is noting that he wasn’t really that clever and most of this was stuff he had heard from his dad and his fellow ministers or read somewhere, repeated now as if he’d thought it up himself. Or a bit older and now at college and realising that an old school friend who writes to him a lot isn’t just being friendly but is actually gay and in love with him, and the cold way he responds, not from homophobia as such, just from being socially awkward and too young to know better. Some elements will be familiar to many readers – being young and curious about sex but not having a clue, and this being pre-internet youth no real way to find out. One sheltered girl in class is teased for asking what a condom is during a sexual health class, while teenaged Jeff sits at the back thinking “what’s this oral sex thing they’re talking about?” Or there are those awkward moments when shared aspects of family life you took for granted as a kid simply fade as you get older and become your own person – in his case religion becoming increasingly remote to him, failing to make sense any more, while his parents are still firm church-goers (and indeed his dad is a preacher) but he stops going and eventually decides he doesn’t believe anymore (leading to a delightfully surreal moment about feeling Jesus in your heart – taken literally with a tiny wee Jesus standing in his heart calling out “Jeff?”).

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Like all of life there are happy moments and sad moments – his dad becoming ill, so slowly, gradually that they don’t realise the seriousness of his ailment at first and that horrible dawning that a loved one is going to die and there is nothing you can do about it. Then being a dad himself and having to explain to his wee boy about it all, that one day he and mummy will be gone, that one day, hopefully when he is very old, he too will go. It’s pretty emotional, suddenly brightened as his wee lad, understandably upset, suddenly declares I know, I’ll fight Death, daddy! And suddenly the now sombre dad is grinning again because of his wee boy.

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Or simple little things like his mum telling him that music he listens to is just a noise and he’ll never listen to it when he is older – young Jeff adamant he will love that music forever, the way you do with your music when you are a teen. And then admitting years later as an adult that his mum was right… Or warnings by some in his church that heavy metal music and science fiction books would lead to the Dark Side – quite why reading Douglas Adams would lead you to Satan’s service is beyond me (may lead one to the Evil Demon of Missed Deadlines, of course), and Jeff takes a shot at this narrow minded view in fairly gentle yet effective fashion with his younger self thinking “I guess I shouldn’t let them know I play Dungeons & Dragons...”

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And that’s the way it rolls, little vignettes from different parts of Brown’s life and his family’s, the little mysteries when you are a child, wondering, the bigger mysteries that puzzle you as an adult, the stupid things you did from awkwardness, or things you said without thinking when younger and brasher and look back at now and wince. Lots of little moments and then the odd bigger ones, but each leaving a mark, each shaping the person you will become. Then being a parent himself and thinking how on Earth did my mum and dad manage, this is the hardest thing in the world?! And there’s more of that Life stuff just starting out again with the new little Brown, all told in his quite gentle, honest manner. Jeff Brown is one of those comics creators that any decent collection requires on its shelves, and this 2013 slice of life is a perfect way in for those new to his work and a welcome addition to his previous work for the established fans.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Sally Heathcote, Suffragette

Sally Heathcote, Suffragette

Mary Talbot, Bryan Talbot, Kate Charlesworth

Jonathan Cape

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I’ve been eagerly awaiting this work for many months; Bryan and Mary talked about it at last spring’s Dundee Comics Expo then again at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. And with the huge success of their previous Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes (scooping the Costa literary award, first time ever for a comics work) I suspect there’s a wide range of readers, including many who are not normally comics readers, waiting to read it too. This time Mary has collaborated with artist Kate Charlesworth – Bryan worked on layouts, Kate on the finished artwork – and the result? Oh yes, my friends, well worth waiting for.

Manchester is the moral conscience of England.”

Turn of the century Britain and orphan Sally Heathcote has escaped the workhouse to a job, ‘in service’ to a household headed by the formidable Mrs Pankhurst. Both Pankhurst and her daughters are already busy with others coming and going, their house in Manchester a busy meeting place, and right away the creators show us this is going to be a more nuanced story – this isn’t just about equal voting rights (important though that is), the suffragette movement was born also from people (some men as well as the legions of women) who were sick of the vast inequalities in Britain. Heart of a vast empire and yet while many made large amounts of money and earned titles from those imperial efforts huge swathes of the population lived in abject poverty, going hungry, living in slums, little education, no healthcare. Unions in the vast factories of the industrial north of England, such as in and around Manchester, were forming and were one of the places where women started to come together collectively to wield influence and have their voices heard, and the quest for equal suffrage for women went hand in hand with many other noble concepts – eliminating poverty, care for the sick, rights for workers. The Talbots and Charlesworth are at great pains to show the interconnected nature of the movement, that it was socially driven by many blights in society.

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Servants overhear many things in the grand houses of course, and Sally picks up on a lot of what is going on. She’s well treated (it’s inferred Pankhurst took her from the workhouse and gave her respectable employment) and she’s learning of a much wider world. So when the Pankhursts decide the fight needs them to be in London and not in the union heartlands of the north, where the embryonic Labour Party (partly funded by some of those women’s unions) is starting to gather strength, she’s heartbroken. She finds new employment with some help, but suffers horrible sexual innuendoes and attempted abuse from the men of the house, both the master and some of the other male servants. Horrid though this is though, it gives her the drive to leave and head to London, and it is while searching for work their that she find the headquarters of the movement and some of her old employers, and it isn’t long before she’s happily working among the women there, and becoming increasingly active in the protest movement.

It’s quite something to watch Sally – and the movement – grow. She becomes more confident, from the first timid,  shy attempt to raise a question about votes for women at a local Liberal party meeting (she is thrown out almost at once) to the determined woman not just marching in the streets but a confident, powerful young woman who will eventually stand there in public making speeches herself, not to mention carrying out more daring acts. As the body politic (including, to their eternal shame, a Liberal government that included supposed Liberal heroes like Lloyd George) simply ignores the growing demands of the suffragettes and legal, peaceful demonstrations get rough treatment from police and from crowds of angry men, the movement starts to become increasingly militant, and here we see it all from the inside view of Sally, from breaking windows to setting fires and more. The jails begin to fill up, opinion is divided, some say the militant action loses them public sympathy, others, like Pankhurst call for “deeds, not words”. Splits appear within the movement and tensions rise. Then the hunger strikes begin…

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Demanding to be treated as political, not criminal prisoners, the suffragettes arrested and imprisoned begin a series of hunger strikes. At first it seems to be winning them ground – weakened woman are released from prison by a government reluctant to be seen as essentially killing women in prison. Until the forced feedings begin. In a turbulent tale full of both uplifting moments and terrifying ones, this scene is among the most awful to read, and it’s probably no coincidence that as Sally’s prison time begins the sepia tinged look of the other pages gives way to heavy black borders, ominous, threatening. The security and confidence that comes with acting in concert with comrades sharing the same goal is suddenly wavering – now she is on her own, isolated, in a dank cell.

The true test – when alone, surrounded by those who despise you, imprisoned, do you hold to your moral stance or break? Sally is not one to break, but again this subtle story doesn’t try to give us some ridiculous super-heroine, fearlessly facing her foes regardless of odds. No, Sally is scared. She should be, anyone would be, and she is – it’s very realistic and beautifully managed and it makes the reader believe in the character all the more, makes her more real, more vulnerable, more human. It also put me in mind of the prison scene with Evey in V For Vendetta (a scene I always consider the emotional heart of V): terrified, alone, but clinging to that belief not to give them that “final inch” of themselves; where Evey had the letter sneaked into her cell Sally has one uplifting moment where she hears others in nearby cells singing suffragette songs and a note scrawled on the wall “courage, brave heart”.

And when the forced feedings begin you feel utter shock and horror. There’s no other term for them but a violation of the body, a form of rape – brutal invasion of the body against its will. And like rape this is very much about power – here pretending to be about caring for the women and stopping them from starving, which makes it all the more horrendous. But it is a violation and a demonstration of power, the authorities showing their will over the imprisoned women. It is barbaric and truly horrific to watch the scene, the more so because while Sally may be fictional we really care about her by this point and, worse still, we know this is based on real accounts, that this was done, often repeatedly, to many women who simply had the temerity to be considered equal citizens. It gets worse with the infamous ‘cat and mouse’ act, allowing the authorities to release suffragettes who were becoming too weak, wait for them to recover a little on the outside then re-arrest them without trial and take them right back in and start it all again. And again.

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The book doesn’t present absolutes in terms of wrong and right, however – right from the start we see that certain personalities, such as Mrs Pankhurst, could be hugely divisive. In many ways remarkable and implacable in resolve, standing in the face of all against her, but like many sometimes so concerned with ‘the good fight’ that they become blind to everything else and will use anyone and anything in the service of that fight, even if it hurts and alienates good allies and friends. We also see that despite the union movement that a huge chunk of working men are as hostile to women’s rights as the ruling class males are, and indeed a large number of women, who consider the suffrage demands to be very ‘unwomanly’. We also see our determined Sally carry out all sorts of activities but eventually wondering at some of the methods Pankhurst is demanding they now use – it’s another way in which Sally becomes so very human to us, she had her ideals but she also has her doubts and worries, she isn’t relentlessly singe-minded, her time among so many activists has taught her to question and think for herself, and that includes thinking about the movement. No whitewash here presenting nothing but good, noble women against an evil tyranny, there are nuanced levels, there are good and bad men and women on both sides, and there are some who are so determined to do ‘right’ that they will use any ends (again on both sides).

It’s an absolutely fascinating and compelling look at a very important piece of recent history (consider most of this took place only a century ago – seems unbelievable to modern eyes, but yes, only a hundred years ago this was happening, many of us had grandmothers who remember a time when women weren’t allowed to vote). And like last year’s astonishing March Book One (detailing a personal history of the US Civil Rights movement – see review here) this isn’t static history, this is living history; this is history that is never done and dusted, it permeates the present and influences the maps of the future. It isn’t only about one goal really, about equal voting rights for all, irrespective of class and gender, it’s about equality and fairness across all of society, it’s about our rights to legally protest, to be heard, to demand change and to be listened to, to participate in the democratic decision making, to demand that the laws of the land not be used to enshrine discrimination against one section of society (a fight still going on, think of how we have only just created equal marriage rights for gay people). And like all good histories it echoes with resonance to the here and now – police being used to stifle peaceful, legal demonstrations in our major cities? We’ve seen a sad series of such events in recent years with the notorious use of ‘kettling’ and the like. Those in power, frightened at losing some of that power, stooping to creating reprehensible legislation to ‘legally’ commit immoral acts against protesters, or covert police surveillance of members of the movement, all sadly familiar to today as well (at one point Sally comments on the police having new cameras they use to take pictures of your from a distance to keep an eye on you – the distant ancestor of our current wall-to-wall CCTV Big Brother state).

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But this isn’t just a story of the movement and struggle against the odds, hardships to overcome. This is a personal story too, this is Sally’s story, and that’s our way into this Britain of a century ago, and as a mechanism for engaging the reader and making these historic events more personal, more emotional, it works brilliantly. Most of the pages use a pretty subdued colour palette, with a sepia type dominating, but one colour that always stands out is the copper-red of Sally’s hair. Be it an intimate, close up scene or a sweeping view of a huge crowd of protesters marching the street, our Sally is always visible with that hair, she’s our anchor in the turbulent tides of the period. It’s also a tale of the ways being exposed to new ideas and new people changes us, helps us grow, it’s a story about friendship and even love. As the civil rights demands for women escalate the same tired, frightened old men who govern also find themselves facing the First World War (and coping about as successfully with that as they did with women’s suffrage). The two collide, causing more friction between elements of the movement, but also becoming part of that tumultuous time that would, ultimately change British society forever.

And don’t think it just changed the lot of women, proper, universal suffrage for all men (not just the well off and property owners) emerged out of fear of the women’s movement, a transparent attempt by the government to recruit more allies -somewhat similar to the South African government in the dying days of the loathsome Apartheid regime expanding voting to select non-whites (such as those of Indian descent), as a desperate way of trying to fortify their own position, make new allies to hold off the perceived threat. Ultimately it would lead to more equal rights for all, something I’m sure many of those in the suffrage movement would have been proud of. The story is framed by a very old Sally, now with her grown daughter, and her daughter’s daughter, decades later, another nice, emotional touch, but also a way of reminding us that the fight for civil rights and equality for all never actually stops. It was once said the price of liberty is eternal vigilance. So too with our rights – hard-won rights, literally fought for and then defended in both fine, stirring rhetoric and, when needed, with blood. Because there’s always some idiot who thinks you can draw a line around one group in society – women, immigrants, people of a different religion, gays – and treat them differently.

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This is a beautifully constructed tale – unsurprisingly well-researched given Mary’s academic background, but so much more than just an accessible way of learning of a hugely important piece of our history. No, Sally Heathcote is much more than an impressive slice of social and political history, it’s a beautifully done human tale. If you’re not emotionally invested in Sally by the end of it then there’s something wrong with you; to be honest you’ll probably fall in love a little with her, it’s hard not to. The artwork is lovely, Charlesworth teases some terrific ‘performances’ from her cast; you can visually see Sally’s growth from shy young housemaid one step from the poorhouse to confident, determined woman in her expression and her stance. Kate also captures that resolute look on the face of Mrs Pankhurst, as determined and terrifying as staring down one of the terrible dreadnoughts of the era (contrast with Sally’s young, eager, open face and smile), while the backgrounds behind those characters is lovely, from the grand neo-classical meeting halls of those Edwardian big cities to fine small period details, like the iconic shape of an old Thames sailing barge going past Parliament. Or serious scenes executed with a light touch, such as a pair of Suffragettes trying to knock on the door of Ten Downing Street, to be told angrily “no, you can’t see the Prime Minister” (those of us of a certain age can doubtless recall when you literally could walk right up to Number Ten’s door, seems unbelievable in today’s post 9-11 society, but we could…).

Without a doubt one of the most compelling, emotional, vital reads you will have this spring. It has funny moments, touching moments, it has moments that will make your blood boil at the injustice of it, and moments of tenderness that are heartwarming. Pleasingly the book also comes with extensive footnotes to explain more of the socio-historical context of some scenes, a timeline and suggested further reading sources – ideal for anyone wishing to use it for educational purposes. It’s only April and I already know this will be on my Best of the Year list come December. I found it so fascinating I read it twice in one week, and I think this is one of those wonderful books that you know you will come back to again over the years. Simply wonderful, uplifting work.

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

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

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

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

SHIELD by the great Steranko

SHIELD by Steranko: the Complete Collection

Stan Lee, Jim Steranko, Jack Kirby et al

Marvel

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Don’t Yield! Back SHIELD!

Nick Fury. SHIELD. Steranko. Three words that are sufficient to give goosebumps to many a comics geek. Starting life as Sgt Fury, fighting the good fight in WWII, the Swinging 60s and the era of such uber-cool superspy productions like James Bond and the Man From UNCLE saw him become Colonel Fury, the eye-patch wearing, cigar-chomping comics king of the superspy genre. There are wonderfully – sometimes ludicrously to modern eyes – over the top plots, conspiracies, crazy supervillain agencies – notably the green-clad HYDRA (“Hail, HYDRA!!”) – amazing action, sardonic wisecracks, sexy, deadly femme fatales and of course, this being the 60s superspy era, the gadgets.

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Oh, the gadgets! From rocket packs to the massive SHIELD Heli-Carrier, oxygen pills concealed inside shirt buttons, wrist video communicators, impeccably sharp 60s suits a Tarantino gangster would kill for and which have bullet-proof linings sewn into them, weapons even concealed inside Fury’s trademark cigars, the list is as long as it is fantastically inventive. Sometimes those gadgets even prefigured something we now have for real today – take a big splash opening page with Fury diving through the sky in a suit with wing membranes between the arms and legs, just like the ‘squirrel’ suits some skydivers use today (of course Fury still holds a lit cigar in one hand while skydiving in this suit).

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To modern, adult eyes some of these stories – often quite short, rapid-fire, all-tension and action throughout – may seem a bit on the simple side, but it has to be remembered that when these were penned in the mid-60s they were, like many mainstream comics, aimed at a far younger audience than reads these sorts of titles today. We’ve effectively grown up with these. But you make allowances for this and then simply let yourself go and just enjoy the sheer pleasure and adrenalin rush of these madcap tales of daring-do and international espionage and world saving the same as you do for a classic Bond flick. It was a different era and it sometimes shows – Fury’s cry to his team of “We got us a female to rescue!” may seem sexist to modern eyes, but this was the 60s, and it was the superspy genre…

In other spots though it tackles this sexism of the age, when an irate, wounded Fury shoves a shapely female agent away declaring he doesn’t need any care or help from a dame she sharply tells him just for that he can address her as “Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine”. It may be the sexist 60s, but as with TV’s The Avengers and Mrs Peel there were some female characters who may be sexy and alluring (Steranko’s depiction of the Countess’ rather pert bottom drew the ire of the Comic Code Authority) but they were also quite certainly strong and independent, the equal and often better at some tasks than the male superspies. Long before Xena or Ripley we had attractive but powerful – not to mention ass-kicking – women characters setting the stage for the strong action heroines who would emerge in their wake.

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The real joy of this collection though isn’t those crazy 60s superspy stories and mad villain superweapons to destroy the world, or even the relentless action and constant wisecracking comments from Fury. It’s Steranko’s art. This is some of the most influential work in comics, and rightly so. The layouts, the splash pages, the double splash pages, hell Steranko creates a four-page splash scene! Kinetic, colourful, full of dynamic energy, not to mention Steranko gleefully pulling in influences from all around him, from comics influences like Wally Wood to the Pop Art of the 60s, psychedelia, Surrealism, anything which caught his imaginative eye and he thought would work on a page. Steranko doesn’t sit back and think, hey this is a young readership, I should make it simple, he treats the readers in a more mature fashion, trusting them to follow and luxuriate in his art, even if they were too young at the time to get all the references (I wonder how many had their first exposure to a wider art world through Steranko’s references?).

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And oh ye four colour comics gods, that art is simply fabulous, from a simple, wordless (save for a few lines in a dialogue box in the first panel) sequence in a cool 60s bachelor pad, man, woman, music on turntable, a rose, romance (it looks like it could have come from Jim Lawrence-era Bond strips) to glowing, colourful, psychedelic effects, montages, and more, astonishing sets for bases that look like Ken Adam’s amazing Bond sets on acid, fabulous aircraft and cars (ohhh, that grand prix racing sequence… incredible bit of comic art) and so much more to simply indulge yourself in here.

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The collection includes extras showing some art before it was altered and naturally those covers, including that utterly iconic origins issue cover, Fury, guns in hand, with an visually astonishing black and white Pop Art background that is one of the best bits of graphic cover design of all time for my money (see here for an amazing animated version of that cover by Kerry Callen). This isn’t just nostalgic tripping back to those crazy 60s superspy tales, this is watching a master at work, showing just how far you could push the envelope in terms of how a comic could work, inventing new visual comics languages and styles that are still influencing creators half a century on. Sheer, utter brilliance.

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this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog

Review: the Hartlepool Monkey

The Hartlepool Monkey
(buy from Forbidden Planet / buy from Amazon)
Wilfrid Lupano, Jeremie Moreau
Knockabout

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There is something rather appropriate about this tale born of the Franco-English wars of the Napoleonic crossing la manche from its French publisher to a British one. This is a tale born out of those seemingly interminable cross-Channel wars, based on a reportedly true event (although it is just as possible that this is a local myth that has acquired the legality of truth across the last couple of centuries). Not long after the decisive sea battle at Trafalgar a French warship is cruising just off the coast of Britain. Her captain, a very unlovable character, a virulent bigot and former commander of a slave ship, has a monkey (named Nelson) as his mascot, dressed up in a small French uniform to amuse the crew.

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The ship also boasts a young cabin boy, who bursts the captain’s good humour at Nelson’s antics when he sings an old sea shanty, a song the captain considers to be “an English song”. His furious bigotry is stoked to boiling point when the innocent lad ventures that it was just a song he picked up from his nanny, who was a Cornish woman, so he learned English as well as French as he grew up. This naïve confession tips the captain to violent action and before he knows it the young boy is being forced to walk the plank. But with all attention focused on this event the crew fails to notice the weather turning on them rapidly, as it can so often in the Channel…

The storm is upon them, the crew caught unawares, as the lad is sent into the gray waters the ship itself is suddenly floundering, then taken by the tempest. As she starts to break in the teeth of the storm the crew try to abandon ship; the mast snaps and Nelson the monkey clambers onto it, clinging on for dear life as the few crew who get off the ship flounder and drown, the captain disappearing below the waves right in front of his little mascot. Locals on shore watch through a telescope, unmoved by the loss of life, laughing at the fate of the “Froggies”, just as bigoted and vulgar as the French captain.

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However, as they always do the storm passes, the wreckage washes up upon the shore by Hartlepool, among it two survivors, Nelson and our young cabin boy. Only Nelson is spotted by the locals, provincial yokels, profoundly ignorant, so much so that they take the unfortunate simian for an actual Frenchman from the ship, and decide to capture him then try him as a spy. Fortunately our cabin boy wakes up on a sheltered part of the beach, and with his excellent English he passes himself off as Philip, a native from another town to the local kids who are excitedly playing among the debris, pretending to round up the ‘Frenchies’ and protect Great Britain’s shores from invasion in a playful fit of patriotic fever. Meanwhile a doctor travelling in his coach is forced by the storm to stay overnight in the local inn, and it is largely through the eyes of his young son Charlie, who runs off to play with the local kids, that we witness the events which unfold.

Lupano and Moreau take these events and spin them artfully into a tragical comedy of the highest order of the Absurd, as the trial is planned and carried out by the locals, from the major on downwards all pumped up with a hugely inflated sense of self importance – this isn’t just a ragged survivor, this is a spy, perhaps the vanguard for an invasion of the sacred soil of Albion itself! And they caught him! They will try to pry his deadly secrets out of him and save the entire kingdom! But blast, his French is just gibberish to them! And as for his looks? Well, of course they all know those damned French are ugly, inhuman brutes! The town’s one veteran, the only one of them who has ever seen a Frenchman, a legless old soldier, utterly mad, testifies that yes, the monkey is actually a Frenchman. A child’s suggestion that he is actually a chimp is laughed off by the locals. Unable to understand his ‘language’ they give up on the idea of interrogating him for imagined invasion plans and move instead to try him – in a very improvised, cartoonish version of a proper trial.

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As I said at the start, this is an event which has been oft-repeated as historical fact, and it may well be, but it may also be in inflated myth from centuries long gone. Or, one theory holds it may be a story to hide a much more horrible truth – the young boys, like our cabin boy shipwrecked with the monkey, were sometimes referred to on ship as “powder monkeys”. Did those thuggish townsfolk once string up a hapless cabin boy who had survived the wreck of a French vessel then mythologised it as the monkey incident to hide the truth? We’ll probably never know, but it’s a theory that lends the reader a different view of the character of the surviving cabin boy, now safely passing himself off as English and playing among the local kids, able to view the proceedings, obviously knowing Nelson is a monkey, but unable to interfere to save him, unable even to speak up in case these ignorant locals turn on him too.

The events play out their course with an awful inevitability, but in some ways this story – which to this day has left the locals to be called ‘monkey hangers’ – is just a framework Lupano and Moreau use to hang up there highly effective examination of the dangers of rank ignorance, delusion, nationalistic bombast and jingoism run rampant, the mob mentality, the nature of unfounded bigotry and the sheer stupidity that humans are so capable of. And before we settle back in our smug, 21st century, media-rich, highly educated, literate world and laugh at how stupid our dim ancestors were, that they could mistake a monkey for a foreigner and act in such a ridiculous manner, all whipped up by half-understood propaganda about ‘the enemy’, let’s just consider how this historical tale has much resonance to our modern world.

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We may all be aware of the difference between a person and a monkey, but that unreasoning beast, The Furious Crowd, or worse, The Mob (which can be as unruly and stupid even when made up of highly educated people – somehow mobs seems to atrophy our reasoning skills and revert us to bestial nature, it seems), is alive and well, still stoked by half-truths and outright lies from certain parts of the media and some groups only to happy to use them to exploit a mass moral panic, be it wild tales of mass Satanist cults in remote towns abusing children or painting caricatures of immigrants, asylum seekers, someone who wears a hijab, someone who has different skin colouring or different religion, or no religion – the number of differences perceived to differentiate ‘them’ and ‘us’ is endless and there are always those exploiting them. We all see that right now in our own supposedly more educated and enlightened era, just look at the growth of xenophobic hate groups. These people are the spiritual heirs of the monkey hangers, prepared to hate without real reason (but convinced they have solid reasons, of course) and all wrapped up in over the top , and Moreau and Lupano are, while telling their tale in an inventive manner, also offering a warning of how easily we can descend into mob mentality and commit some awful act.

Moreau’s artwork is splendid throughout, a perfect match for Lupano’s changes from high drama to absurdist farce, from laugh out loud comedic silliness (shaving a monkey so it looks more presentable for the court) to the sad and tragic. Lupano crafts some memorable characters and dialogue (also huge tip of the hat to the translation by Frank Wynne, which rather skilfully substitutes not just French for English but some great and believable vernacular terms), while Moreau seems equally at home with close up character-filled studies (giving us some wonderful close ups of their characters) as he does with large, dramatic scenes, and his skilful use of elements such as light quality to help convey scenes (such as the storm wrecking the ship). And I also have to say something about Moreau’s clever us of the quality of light, especially notable in the opening scenes where the storm clouds literally gather over the ship, panels becoming darker, grayer, colours more muted, to the following morning, and the warm light of a sunny dawn after the storm passes, or the flickering, copper light of a bonfire at night on the character’s faces. It’s the sort of delicate touch which many reader may not notice consciously but it will register subliminally, helping to create the atmosphere for each scene. It’s a lovely bit of craftwork.

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Moreau also takes Lupano’s memorable creations and gifts them with equally memorable appearances. There was also, for my money anyway, something of the Steadman about some of Moreau’s panels, especially some which showed the characters in a more grotesquely foolish fashion (and naturally I mean this as a high compliment). It’s a fascinating read, by turns comedic, dramatic and bizarre tragedy, with artist and writer working perfectly together to bring this unusual historic gem to life. As we blogged just a few days ago one of the major French historical conventions conferred an award (the Rendez vous de l’Histoire – see here) on the French edition of this tale (as with the win of the Costa award earlier this year by the Talbots this was not in some comics category, making the win all the more remarkable and laudable), and it’s not hard to see why.

It’s an astonishing story and you will find yourself both upset with injustice and anger and yet at the same time laughing out loud at the ridiculousness of so much of it and many of the characters, and the sheer absurd nature of it all – although no less absurd than many of the reasons present day people find to vilify anyone they consider ‘different’, which is, I think, part of the point here. This makes it more than a tale of a historical curiosity, making it, as history so often is for those who read it, applicable also to our modern day world. Hugely recommended reading and kudos to Knockabout for bringing us an English language edition so swiftly.

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog

Grant Morrison at the Edinburgh Book Festival

Last month as well as reporting on the Edinburgh International Book Festival as I do most years I was on stage for some events, the first of which was chairing a talk with superstar Scottish comics writer Grant Morrison. We discussed his earliest work in Near Myths, an anthology which grew out of the old Edinburgh Science Fiction Bookshop (which would become the Edinburgh Forbidden Planet years later) which was well ahead of its time in trying to create a comics form for adult readers and also featured the first appearances of Luther Arkwright by the great Bryan Talbot – in a lovely moment Grant took the opportunity to pay tribute to Bryan’s place in the medium (Bryan was in the audience at the time and was, I think, rather delighted) – it was nice to see this peer to peer respect from one top creator to another. We discussed his Batman and Superman works, his plans for reworking Wonder Woman and the return to Seaguy, before throwing open the second half to questions from the audience, who were eager to ask Grant their own questions (and he was looking forward to the chance to interact with his readers, so we tried to give a good chunk of our hour to the audience Q&A).

I’m not mad at being in front of the camera, I prefer being behind the lens, but it was a fun event and from folks I bumped into over the rest of the Book Festival it seemed to have gone fairly well as they told me they enjoyed it, which was a relief as that was my very first time chairing an event at the Book Fest. I have done plenty of events with authors in my bookselling career of course, but it’s been years since I had to do an on-stage event and doing it with a major name, at the world’s biggest literary festival, well, that’s a hell of a way to get back into the saddle! But it was fun to do it as part of the huge Stripped segment of comics themed events at the Book Festival:

Review: Fairest – the Hidden Kingdom

Fairest Volume 2: the Hidden Kingdom (buy from Forbidden Planet)
Fairest Volume 2: Hidden Kingdom TP(buy from Amazon)
Lauren Beukes and Inaki Miranda,

DC/Vertigo

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Yes, I know, I’m recommending a Volume 2 to you – but worry not, although if you already know your Fables history there are little references hidden away for you to enjoy, but to the new reader this Fables spin-off series focused on the female characters is a terrific way into this long-running world of tales (and if it is new to you you will want to explore not only Fairest 1 but the whole of Willingham’s magnificent Fables series afterwards). For this story arc Willingham sought out South African writer Lauren Beukes (rhymes with Lucas, if you are wondering), who I’m sure some of you will alreadyknow from her Zoo City novel, which won the prestigious Arthur C Clarke Award, the UK’s top prize for literary science fiction (I’d also commend her recent, disturbing, fascinating and compelling The Shining Girls novel, reviewed recently by James on our blog and now nominated for the prestigious Golden Dagger award), while Brit comics readers may have seen Inaki’s work in Judge Dredd.

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Lauren was given Rapunzel (of flowing locks fame) as a character to play with and teamed up with Spanish artist Inaki Miranda, and although she felt tempted to do something with folkloric characters from her own African homeland she couldn’t resist the lure of Japan. And while I would love to see the duo revisit Fairest later for an African myth-themed tale I, am glad they did go Japanese for this first outing. Despite working in different countries the two were soon swapping ideas, references and influences, from ancient Japanese folklore to modern anime and J-Pop, and the hugely influential J-Horror (as Lauren put it, there had to be a crazy hair horror moment in the Japanese setting!) which fuse in the tale to give a fantastic setting that takes in the hypermodernity of big-city Japan mixed with its much, much older rich seam of folklore.

Rapunzel has had a mysterious message, that a dark chapter of her long personal history is calling her to Japan, where she had been centuries before. A potion helps slow her astonishing hair growth so she can travel in the human world without drawing too much attention (when your hair grows several inches every few hours it’s hard to hide it on a long flight from the US to Japan!) and with some other Fables she begins her search in Japan, where we get to meet a whole array of Japanese Fables, many of whom soon prove memorable characters in their own right, some quirky, funny, some disturbing and monstrous, some rather sexy.

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This is no simple tale of personal rediscovery in a (too us anyway) exotic setting and culture though , as Beukes and Miranda layer in a whole lot of other elements into both the story and the characters. This isn’t a story that shies away from exploring dubious moralities and the consequences to many from the actions of one, and it is also a story in which sexuality (in a very sensual fashion though, not an exploitative way) plays a major role. Also mixed in with this is violence, including a particularly harrowing sequence which writer and artist crafted to be brutal, not wanting the stylised, almost, as Lauren put it discussing this scene recently at the Edinburgh Book Festival, consequence free violent fights of some superhero tales (lots of violence but rarely seems to matter much). This shows the awful nature of someone being hurt, repeatedly and brutally, deliberately shocking the reader, as indeed it should. Miranda conjures up some wonderful visuals, from a splash of neon Tokyo that looks like a J-Pop album cover to a brooding, dark old forest in which the overgrowth of Rapunzel’s hair (and the things that come from it) are spun into a nest, like something from one of Del Toro’s early films, menacing and disturbing, while the aforementioned violent scene flashes from different protagonist’s perspectives until the physical punishment leads to the frames breaking up, shattering, cleverly echoing the victim’s point of view as the punishing concussion of the blows drives her into unconsciousness, or a psychedelic, disturbing birth scene – the pair of them reallydo craft some memorable scenes.

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There’s been a real push to bring in novelists – especially from SF&F – into comics to help stir things up in recent years, bringing in new perspectives, and this is one of the fruits of that push. Much recommended. You can read a special guest Commentary post by Lauren and Inaki discussing their approach to Fairest here on our blog. Inaki’s art will be seen again this autumn in Coffin Hill as part of the big, new DC/Vertigo series of titles and I reckon he’s one to be watching. Lauren is already working on a new book and let’s hope it won’t be long before she also returns to comics.

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this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog

My video interviews from the Book Festival

During my very busy period at the Stripped comics strand of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, in addition to chairing a couple of the author events this year I was also delighted to pose the questions for a couple of their series of short video interviews with authors, including this one I did with Lauren Beukes and Inaki Miranda shortly before chairing their event (which was great fun) – don’t worry, you don’t see me in either as I am safely behind the camera (which I prefer) and indeed as they edited it to mostly the author’s responses you barely hear me, but was nice to be asked to do a couple and fun to do. I talked to Lauren and Inaki about their collaboration (this was the first time they met in person) as well as their next projects:

And I also got to ask Neil Gaiman some questions, which was great – hard to believe it’s been around twenty years since I first did an author event with Neil in my old bookstore. Our slot got bumped by another interview team but Neil noticed this and very kindly arranged to fit us in after the next item on his very busy schedule, and so we got to stand in late summer sunshine in Charlotte Square and I got to ask Neil about his returning to the Sandman, working with JH Williams III and how it felt, having grown up like most of us our age watching Doctor Who, to walk onto the TARDIS set knowing they were filming a story you wrote, and how much more receptive the people now at the BBC are towards his work:

3″ – a remarkable, brain-rewiring experimental graphic work by Mathieu

3″: a Game of Zooms

Marc-Antoine Mathieu

Jonathan Cape

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Marc-Antoine Mathieu’s 3″ describes itself as a murder mystery, told in only three seconds. How can three seconds be simultaneously enough for a murder mystery to play out sufficiently or for it to be long enough to fill a whole book? One, two, three, blink and it’s over, surely? Well yes and no are the contradictory answers to that. Yes, three seconds is a short time, normally, at least to human perception, but in those three seconds, as Mathieu points out, light will have travelled around 900, 000 kilometres. And time and space, what can happen within those qualities of existence, our perceptions of those events and the unique way in which the comics medium can manipulate temporal and spatial references are all at the heart of this rather bold experiment in comics storytelling by Mathieu.

We open on a slow zoom in, a nine-panel grid (which Mathieu adheres to religiously throughout the entire book), each panel taking us a little closer, like frozen images from the frames of an old celluloid movie film. And right away Mathieu establishes his main gimmick, his MacGuffin, if you will, the device he uses both as the means of telling this story from pretty much a three hundred and sixty degree wraparound perspective and also at the same time his main stylish conceit: reflections. As we zoom in and out of each series of nine frames we realise we are following those same three seconds’ worth of light particles (and indeed waves, since light, tricky bugger that it is, manages to be both) as they move between reflective surfaces, the opening zoom into a man’s wide-open eye eventually pulls in close enough to reveal the lens of his eye reflecting the mobile phone he is holding, which the next sequence zooms towards, until it is close enough to reveal the tiny lens of the phone’s camera, which in turn reveals the reflection of the man holding that phone. The sequence zooms out and as we see more detail around the man with each panel we see right behind him is another man, grim-faced, with a gun raised in his hand, pointing towards the back of the head of the man with the phone…

It’s incredibly complex stuff at one level, as Mathieu must have spent so much time having to work out angles of reflection as he bounces each scene off another reflective surface – a camera lens, an eye, a shiny earring, each time expanding the scene out – and it is the same scene, the same three, short seconds of life or death drama we are witnessing. Each sequence reveals more from different perspectives as Mathieu expands the area around the main event, reflected light taking us spinning around that event to see partial glimpses of it from different perspectives, from around that room in the opening scene to a glimpse from another building, which leads us to the street which leads us again elsewhere, even as far as an airliner passing high overhead and even the cold, unblinking techno-cyclops of a satellite camera in orbit staring back down. All of this our light bounces around within its three second window. At the same time it is in some ways remarkably simple – one short scene, after all. But the multiple variations on perspectives create complexity from this simple-seeming scenario.

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I’ll confess I was intrigued by this notion even before I received a copy of the book, but I was also wary – I’m all for people experimenting with the medium, it’s ripe for it after all, comics are such a wonderful place for creators to tell stories in remarkably different ways. But part of me worried that this might seem like a clever gimmick, but just that – a gimmick. A nice trick, interesting, clever, rewarding to the reader even, but only for a short time, perhaps too much of a reliance on such a gimmick to stretch it out to a whole book? No, that fear was unfounded. I’ll admit it took me several pages to really get into 3″ – oh for sure I liked the technique of the reflections and travelled light from frame to frame, but it was perhaps only when I was starting to get around a third of the way through that I really started to get it.

This isn’t just about a clever technique. This is Mathieu rewiring the visual part of your brain.

Let me explain a little, and bear with me, because this is a very subjective experience and not easily put into words (even more subjective than most reading, I mean). As that repetition of nine frames, each leading to another sequence of reflections and different angles on the same event builds up in your head you reach a sort of critical mass as a reader: the book is no longer a flat, two dimensional object, Mathieu has had the visual part of your brain, the same part that, often without your conscious thought, maps the world around you to let you navigate it with seeming ease, taking in his two dimensional world and recreating it within your mind’s eye in three dimensions. In fact, four dimensions, really since we must include here the element of time to the X, Y and Z axes of a three dimensional representation. As you read each new series of nine panels is giving your brain more information and it starts to reconstruct this three seconds of reality from all sides, as if you were constructing a hologram of it, a fully realised, fully dimensioned scene you could spin around to examine from any and all angles.

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It’s ‘bullet time’ from the Matrix recreated in comics form. Except not just in comics form – as I indicated, Mathieu is trusting the reader, indeed relying on his reader, to do much of the work here. When you reach this threshold – and I imagine it will differ for each reader at what point in the story you do – you realise the artist has put the scene, the story, the entire book inside your head. It’s magnificent, head-spinning stuff when you grasp what he’s done and it feels so rewarding too, that no matter how cleverly he worked out his panels, his moves, his reflections, his slow reveals, it can only work with one last reflection – through the eye and into the human brain where it is reprocessed and becomes a fully realised scene within our own heads. Chris Ware at his recent Edinburgh Book Festival talk discussed ‘three dimensional comics’, that is works like his and others which used the two dimensional surface of a printed page to give the reader a real feel of a fully dimensioned world they can believe in and sense. Grant Morrison too has discussed how the flat ink and surface paper can create a form of virtual reality, a multi-dimensional space we believe in and which requires the reader’s active participation to fully realise (and that’s it, we’re not just reading, passively scanning text and images, our brains are constantly interpreting and rebuilding what we read inside our heads – all the more so with a work like this which is actively seeking to engage with those mental faculties so directly). Well, this is a grand experiment in pushing that faculty of the medium to a new level.

This is a remarkable interaction between the printed page and the reader’s own imagination and mental faculties, a true collaboration between storyteller and reader, and the more perspectives we gain as those nine panel pages progress the more we realise our interpretation of what we thought that first scene was are changing (as with anything context and perspective can always alter meaning, a good thing to remember). In any good murder mystery the reader is always a bit of a participant, trying to guess what happened before the conclusion, drawing on the evidence the author provides, but here it is taken to a whole new level. In fact Mathieu’s work demands the reader’s active participation, and there is even a complimentary website which expands this reader-author interaction. As I said I approached this intrigued but unsure it was more than a clever little conceit of a device more suited to a short tale as an experiment, not for carrying an entire book. I came away with my head rewired and the space Mathieu created now living in full dimensional life inside my brain. It’s a head-trip, up there with those visual eye and mind opening moments such as the Stargate sequence from 2001 or scenes from Apocalypse Now which similarly crack open your imagination and create a very personal-level interaction with the art. It is very hard to really articulate to someone how those experiences feel, but we all know them when they happen – a certain film scene, a piece of music, a painting we fall into – and it changes us a bit. This, for me, is one of those moments. Truly remarkable and a wonderful demonstration of the power and flexibility of the comics medium and its ability to engage with the mind of the reader in astonishing ways. You can even read it backwards, should you wish, like a comics palindrome.

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog