Chas Worthington, the mega rich young heir to an enormous oil fortune, known for his womanising, his extreme sports hobbies and other wealthy pastimes. The Great Pacific Gyre, a rotation of currents that creates a relatively stable spot in the vast ocean currents, where gargantuan amounts of (mostly plastic) garbage flushed into the seas slowly accumulates over years. What does this rich young man and a gigantic, floating garbage patch have in common? What about claiming it as a new sovereign nation?
Chas may lead the playboy lifestyle expected of someone in his position, but behind the scenes he has been deviously out-manoeuvring the treacherous board of directors of his own firm (who want to take more control from him following his father’s death), funnelling vast funds into a secret tech project to do with altering the physicality of plastics and planning to get necessary equipment to the garbage patch, while also making contacts in various governments with strong UN presences who he can ask to help international law recognise his claim to set up the floating plastic continent as a legal country with sovereign state rights.
In lesser hands this could be a pretty straightforward (and clichéd) tale of rich boy who has guilt because his inherited wealth came from hugely polluting industry and wants to make amends. Joe Harris and Martin Morazzo, however, offer up a more complex and satisfying tale. Chas is not a stereotype – yes, he has done the ‘rich kid stuff’, yes, he feels guilt over his wealth coming from polluting exploitation of the world’s resources, but he’s no eco-warrior. He has multiple reasons for what he is doing, only some of which start to become apparent in this first volume. Some are indeed driven by ecological concerns, although he has seen enough of the big corporate world to know they will only back necessary changes if there is a lot of money to be made in it, hence his secretly developed new tech. Other reasons may well include the need to stand out and be his own man, make something by and of himself, not what was handed to him as a rich heir. And he’s not always likeable either, cutting others short, assuming his best friend and assistant will follow him (and not thinking too much about how much he is asking him to risk, without really telling him why) and he is impulsive, his Texan blood making him perhaps too quick on the trigger (which will have consequences).
It’s not a simple plan though; however much he thinks he has prepared and done all the relevant research, this is still something no-one has ever attempted, after all. And then there are complications you don’t expect – pirates seeking hidden WMDs, the intervention of the US government, both legally and militarily, a mysterious group of Pacific islanders who seem to have settled somehow on the garbage patch. And then there is a gigantic Octopus, which the islanders think may be a sort of god, with which he starts to form a strange relationship. The massive floating garbage patches in the gyres of the ocean were first predicted in the late 80s and are now scientific fact (see here for more), although Harris takes some science fictional liberties with it for dramatic purposes, such as making it large and solid enough to walk on and even build upon a little (very carefully!).This also allows Morazzo’s art (which at time reminds me, in a good way, of the Luna Brothers) to depict some spectacularly weird, alien landscape.
But it’s a fascinating premise, a driven and complicated young man playing at both ecology and international politics and corporate business at the same time, in a setting which only exists because of our civilisation’s own wastefulness of material and uncaring methods of disposing of our unwanted rubbish. Clever and intriguing, drawing on several contemporary global concerns, not least pollution of our environment, exploitation of dwindling resources, divisions of wealth, power and influence and corporate-goverment interests and powers (or abuses thereof). This took a very different path from what I originally thought it might be, which pleased me no end (I love when a storyteller throws me a curve ball and hits be some something I wasn’t expecting) and I’m looking forward to the second volume. Plus, y’know, it had pirates and a giant (and perhaps intelligent and aware?) octopus, what’s not to like?!
“I wondered, what if a modern day soldier saw a face so horrific, it could turn him to stone?” Chris Kent in his Director’s Commentary.
I’ve been anticipating reading Chris Kent’s fascinating-looking Medusa since it first was listed for pre-orders in Previews a few months ago, and his recent guest Director’s Commentary here on the blog increased my desire to read this unusual work, so I was delighted when Chris dropped by to say hi when he was in town and also drop off a copy of the book. Ostensibly it is the story of a British soldier, Corporal Elliot Ford, fighting in Iraq when he gets news from home that his daughter has gone missing, and he is sent home on compassionate grounds. But home and the battleground may be separate geographically, but such distancing between the two is not so simple in the scarred mind of the veteran soldier…
This is not just a tale of the mental wounds so many of our armed forces personnel carry home with them, important though that issue is (especially given a recent news report just the other week about how veterans are more likely to find themselves doing something violent because of their experiences and training, without meaning to, yet another festering wound for too many), as Chris takes elements of Elliot’s combat experiences and his family life back home, then mixes them with his deepest fears and mythology. Who is the young woman he saw in Iraq watching his squad just before an explosion? Was she a suicide bomber? An innocent bystander caught up in an eruption of violence in what had once been her own neighbourhood? Why does her face haunt him? Why does he keep thinking of her, seeing her face? And when he gets the news of his daughter’s disappearance back home why is it he feels some subconscious link between both women? Is there a link? How could there be?
Medusa is suffused with this dark, confused, tormented view of events and Chris wisely opts not to give the reader the ‘god’ position, where we can look upon the narrative and know more than the characters, instead we see this mixed up world through the filter of Elliot’s increasingly frantic, desperate attempts to make sense of things, struggling to comprehend what he is experiencing, to understand what is real and what must only – surely? – be in his mind, constantly driven to find his girl, to make sure she is safe.
There’s a real feel of drowning slowly in dark, cold waters here – Chris mixes his own art with an almost collage-like collection of images from newspapers, reworked to fit the tale; rather than the traditional sequence of panels and speech bubbles of most comics this is a series of overlapping images, some dark splashes through which figures or scenes can be barely glimpsed, others like snapshots from a soldier’s diary of life at the front, some flow, others suddenly break up violently into jagged, fractured scenes, emulating both the sudden eruption of adrenalin and violence and danger that comes with a routine patrol suddenly flaring into instant combat action and also the stressed and strained mind of the combat veteran, trying to keep it together for the sake of his unit and his mates relying on each other, then trying to keep it together because he has to be strong, he has to strive for his girl, while all around him he can feel the demons waiting to sink their teeth into him and drag him into dark chaos.
The art approach may put some off, but I found it highly appropriate to the story, a mix of the almost documentary then the broken, fractured scenes, the almost photographic collage collapsing into painted darkness; it gives a flavour of the anguished state of Elliot’s mind, not just his frantic search for his missing daughter (handled so well, anyone who’s had a family emergency will empathise with that lurching, dropping feeling, the panic, the attempt to try to make sense of it, to be ‘strong’ for others and deal with it while wanting to collapse within) but also how the constant strain of patrols and combat and seeing comrades injured or killed, civilians harmed, starts to break down the defences of the mind, causing emotional damage as surely as bullets and bombs do physical wounds. The swirling darkness and struggle to comprehend events that refuse to fall into a regular three-act chronological narrative (even his sense of time starts to break down – how long has he searched? A week, a month? Or has he only been home for a couple of days?), and Elliot’s perspective is ours, so we share that disorientation.
And the Medusa herself? Is that haunting image of the young woman really just a young woman or is she an aspect of an ancient myth, the achingly beautiful rendered monstrous? It’s hard to tell until very late on just how much is in Elliot’s deeply wounded mind and how much is real, and that is how it should be (and I won’t spoil it by going into more on that intriguing aspect of the tale). This is a journey through the Heart of Darkness, and like the voyage up-river to the lair of Colonel Kurtz there is that deepening fear in the soldier that the darkness is infecting him too, and through him perhaps his own flesh and blood, his family, that his actions will lead to karmic payback for what he has had to do, a spiritual, emotional stain that could go beyond his own self and actions to others he cares for.
Elements of Apocalypse Now are in there, also perhaps a nod to the fascinating Tim Robbins movie Jacob’s Ladder. But where this journey through darkness will take Elliot, that’s the real question? Is this a journey of a wounded soul to redemption or a spiral into chaotic despair? A highly unusual, deeply disturbing, dark tale, the mythological elements are timeless and echo the fact that for all the hi-tech equipment of the modern soldier, warfare itself is also, sadly, timeless, and equipment is but a tool, at the end of the day, regardless of century it is the humble squaddie who is at the heart of it, and what it does to the soldier.
“Clint Barton, aka Hawkeye, became the greatest sharp-shooter known to man. He then joined the Avengers. This is what he does when he’s not being an Avenger. That’s all you need to know.” From the introduction.
Oh, where to start with Matt Fraction and David Aja’s superb, rollicking ride of a superhero series? I’ve never been a huge Hawkeye fan, but FPI Glasgow’s Nicola raved about this so much on our blog that I picked up the first couple of issues. And I am glad I did, I liked it; in fact I liked it so much it made my annual Best of the Year list (and some of our other Best Of posters picked it too).I love when someone puts you on to something unexpectedly good, something you’d probably never have picked up otherwise – I mean that’s why we all love to talk about our favourite comics and books, after all, share the love of them, hopefully spread it around.
This is Clint Barton’s life when he’s not busy being an Avenger and saving the world as Hawkeye. This is Clint the guy who lives in an old apartment block, talks to his neighbours (and tries to help them out although he often messes up in the most endearing fashion), who know who he is (even if some keep calling him “that Hawkguy” by mistake). And even outside of his epic Avengers role Clint seems to continually walk into trouble, be it relationships (Kate Bishop is almost like an apprentice to him, except numerous times she proves to be as good as him and has to rescue Clint, while the will-they, won’t-they chemistry between them is superb leading to some cracking inter-personal scenes between the pair), the mystery women that breeze in and out of his life (and bed, always with some sort of I-knew-it-was-too-good-to-be-true consequences, of course), tracksuit wearing, Mini driving Russian mafia goons, secret video files and more.
And along the way there is the day to day stuff; Clint trying to be ‘normal’ (whatever that is), helping neighbours move stuff, attempting to sort out cable problems for another neighbour and her kids after buying the block (to fend off a greedy landlord who attempted to screw his neighbours over – not every victory is won by a battle, sometimes lots of cash works well too, fortunately Clint is very rich), trying to take care of a homeless dog, unpack his own belongings (including, in one great sequence, a bewildering array of ‘trick’ arrows that Aja & Fraction then gleefully give him an excuse to use) and organise his apartment to be like a regular place a regular person would live in. And throughout often sparking off Kate, who is more than a match for him, be it in the middle of action or on a high society bash stake out.
“Keep your eyes open. Keep it casual. Casual. Casual. Nice and…”
“Casual. Casual. Super casual.”
“You know there’s nothing casual about a guy muttering ‘casual’ to himself over and over again, right?”
And all his good intentions always end up in some sort of unintended action (including a brilliant car chase that partakes of both The Italian Job and Bullit). Or his mixing with the neighbours on the roof on a nice day, barbecue, some beers, relaxing, being a regular guy, not just an Avenger as he keeps telling is neighbours – right up until a huge shadow falls over them all and they look up to see a massive SHIELD vessel floating over the roof, ropes drop out, black-garbed action men rapel down, grab Clint without so much as a by your leave and pull him straight up into the air for an urgent mission, while the nonplussed neighbours look on with an “I told you he was a big Avenger guy” expression, a wonderfully deadpan comedy moment.
Yes, it is clever writing, with some smart takes on the superhero genre and what they do when they’re not saving the world and battling supervillains. It has sassy dialogue, superb characterisation, humour, romance, drama, sex, car chases, diving out of buildings, falling into pools, saving ‘orphaned’ dogs, pulling mad stunts, all of them depicted with great art that walks the fine line between realistic and cartoony (right down to an old style Hawkeye mask placed over Clint’s naughty bits when he has to dive naked from bed when hoods machine gun it! A lovely, cheeky nod and wink to the audience).
It has all of those elements, but what elevates it from good to brilliant is that in addition to those Hawkeye is purely and simply fun. Huge, enormous, your own floating bar in your very own pool staffed by monkey butlers fun. And dammit, we like the gritty stuff, the dark stuff, the autobio stuff and the serious, heavy, introspective stuff that the medium can deliver so well, but sometimes a comic read should just be darned good fun. And this is about the best fun you can have with your clothes on, one of the best reads in comics right now. If you’ve not been picking up the issues over the last few months then do yourself a favour and grab this first collection.
Meet Detective Inspector Harry Absalom; Inspector Morse he isn’t. Old Harry is a bitter, tough as old boots copper with a very special beat – the supernatural and demonic and the bloody odd (with an emphasis on ‘bloody’). This isn’t some sort of X-Files inspired law enforcement agents deal with bizarre cases though, oh no. Harry’s department is above even the Special Branch or the anti-terrorism units; the people he answers to are the people, as he so charmingly puts it, that even the senior politicians and civil servants pee themselves in fear when they hear their names. This is a Britain a little different from the one we know, following the capture of a real, live demon in the 16th century, a deal is struck between the throne and Hell, which, as was the fashion for treaties of those days, was cemented by inter-marriage – several of the noble houses of Albion and the infernal regions have inter-married and inter-bred to increase their family power and influence. You think the Old Boy network is bad for hidden influence and string pulling to direct affairs of state? Imagine when many of those old boys are ancient half-human, half-demonic creatures of huge power.
Some are well-behaved, at least in public, and seem human, others are simply a Hellish mess, inhuman and uncontrollable, locked away in a secure countryside facility, others sometimes push their influence further than is allowed. And then in comes Harry, the copper charged with policing The Accord and quite delighted if that involves smashing the face of some part demonic upper class ponce. Joined by a newly transferred officer, Jemima Hopkins, we follow Harry on a series of increasingly desperate events, from small scale (mind reading tricks by low life to steal PIN numbers, a new angle on identity and credit card theft) to escaped demonic inmates from the rural facility, right through to a fracturing of history that sees pivotal scenes from the history of London spilling into the present – pursuing a villain down a street they find themselves in the middle of the Great Fire, severed heads are found in the Thames, but rather than a single murder there are thousands, and all Roman, those killed by Boudica…
It’s a world populated by grotesques where nothing is quite as it seems (Harry himself has a hidden past involving something bad happening to his family and a cancer eating at his body while a diseased doppelganger taunts him, unknown to his team), Jemima, the up and coming high-flyer has her own secrets and those who oversee and direct the team also have their own agenda. The art by new talent Tiernen Trevallion is superb and stylish, perfectly suited to the mood of Gordon Rennie’s series, while Rennie not only turns in a cracking set of tales and neatly builds up interest in the characters, he develops a feeling of far more going on behind the scenes, waiting to be explained in later tales, while also delighting in lashing out plenty of cynical, deeply sarcastic dark humour, gleefully taking swipes at pop culture and class issues. For me Absalom falls somewhere between its brilliant 2000 AD stablemate Stickleback and Mignola’s Hellboy, and believe me that is high praise. More of this, please.
Today I’m the guest blogger on the major science fiction publisher Tor’s blog, in my guise as the editor of the Forbidden Planet blog (which just this week I learned had jumped up in the Technorati blog ratings, which was rather satisfying, especially given the difference in sizes and contributor numbers between us and major sites in the top ten for that area). Tor has been asking folks from independent comics and science fiction stores to guest and pick some of their recommended reading from the month’s new releases. With December being a slow month for new releases (most publisher get the big rush of releases out in September, October and November to catch the Christmans market and catalogues) we decided to split my recommends so half are new December publications and the other half are a sneak peak at some of the science fiction and graphic novels that will be appearing on my Best of the Year list later this month on the FP blog, after the run of our traditional daily series of guests picking their faves (that starts this Monday). I’ve tried to pick a diverse selection, from Leslie Klinger’s Annotated version of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman to brilliant UK Indy comics graphic novel Nelson to Mike Cobley’s latest SF novel, Alan Campbell’s brilliant (and disturbing) Sea of Ghosts and one of my surprise finds of the year, Alden Bell’s The Reapers are the Angels.
It’s 1968; Jim and Rita Baker are eagerly awaiting their first child. In a sequence evoking that long-gone swinging Sixties era, Rob Davis’ lovely art sees Jim puttering around town on his scooter, a cool, hip 60s young man, trying to find a Nelson statuette for his imminently arriving child as a gift. He had a large figure of Britain’s greatest naval hero as a kid and he plans to call his son (he’s sure it will be a boy) Nelson, and he wants his wee lad to have his own Nelson figure right from birth as a keepsake, going through a succession of shops, explaining it to them, telling them he is about to be a dad (the shop assistants in turn either bored, disinterested or amused), being told to try here, there and everywhere, going to one store after the other on his scooter.
(Rob Davis’ cool art for the start of Nelson, evoking London, the Swinging Sixties, the cool young lad-about-town with his scooter, about to become more than a hip young lad, about to become a dad…)
He succeeds but by the time he returns he finds Rita has gone into labour and been rushed to hospital. All a-fluster he heads double time for the hospital and, in an amazingly simple yet touching scene opens the ward door to see his wife holding their baby child in her arms. “Nelson?” he says softly, Davis deftly conveying the astonishment, wonder and terror that comes with the arrival of a child into your life in one frame.
(new dad, gobsmacked in the doorway to the ward – is that really my child? Oh my god, I’m a dad, I have to look after this tiny life for as long as I can. Terrifying and wonderful, all caught in one simple scene by Rob)
Nelson is a remarkably unusual creature – it is an anthology, but not the sort we normally see, where each creator tells their own short tale. It takes in over 50 of the UK’s finest comics creators – Davis himself, Woodrow Phoenix (who co-edits with Davis), Sarah McIntyre, D’Israeli, Jamie Smart, Posy Simmonds, Hunt Emerson, Rian Hughes, INJ Culbard, Darryl Cunningham, Simone Lia, Duncan Fegredo, Garen Ewing. Paul Grist and many more – but they are all telling the same story and it is the one story that each and every one of us has: the story of our life. Each artist takes a moment in Nel’s life, a different day and time, each in a different style, progressing through from her birth, through the 70s, 80s, 90s and up to the present day, from birth to middle age and all that comes in between, the wonderful little discoveries (beautiful books, being able to draw, ice-cream, friends) and all the little heartaches we endure along the way (a lost sibling, trying to define who you are, failed romances, life being unfair).
You might think that changing artistic styles every few pages would be confusing, but actually it suits the story extremely well; each new artist is dealing with a different part of Nel’s life and we, those around us, and the world itself, are always in flux, constantly changing (we need only look through old family photo albums to see that; a common thread we can discern, of course, but run through the endless loom of change, because life is change), with styles ranging from Davis’ lovely rendering of a hip, cool 60s (so effortlessly evoking the era) to the delightful (and very appropriate for the age of Nel) more joyful cartoonish style of Sarah McIntyre depicting Nel’s first day at school (complete with Space Hopper – remember those?), which I defy you not to smile at. In fact the whole story has much in common with a family album, offering us glimpses into certain moments of time, leaving us to fill in the narrative in-between those moments of frozen time and memory; the reader and their imagination here are trusted to be a part of the experience. Some moments are large, but others are simply that elusive, ever-changing beast, everyday life; all are compelling.
(the early 70s – strikes, 3 day working week, cutbacks, ill-advised facial hair stylings and Nel’s first day at school, complete with Space Hopper. Sarah McIntyre, as usual, makes me smile)
It’s a bold experiment, especially from an independent publisher, but the effect is engrossing, drawing the reader into the wonder and chaos of a life and it is impossible not to identify with Nel and those around her at some points in her life, not least her quest for self identity, not just in her rebellious adolescence but for her whole life (and really, do any of us every finish with that search for who we are?). For those of us of a similar age there is a touch of warm nostalgia to be picked up in the details too – oh, I remember that style, those bikes we rode, that music we listened to – which adds a warm touch, but wisely the book doesn’t trade overly on it, they are there as details, but it never becomes mawkish (which would be so easy to do), instead the primary focus is always on Nel, on growing up, on life.
(ah, sweet nostalgia – it’s 1982, young friends, the ‘tranny’ – transistor radio to you – and the happening pop music that is the soundtrack to your young life in Philip Bond’s segment, the pop culture and teen friendships nicely contrasted with checking out the old Protect & Survive guide to nuclear annihilation, preparation for which was a popular hobby of the period)
Trying to figure out just who you are and where you fit into this crazy world is a Herculean task, made harder for Nel because she has a continual feeling of missing something. Many of us may experience that sort of feeling from time to time, but in her case it is almost literal – as her story unfolds we find out that she was one half of a pair of twins, but Sonny, her brother, passed away not longer after being born. Ellen Lindner reveals this in a beautifully moving scene where Nel’s mum is organising her wee girl’s birthday, all is cakes and balloons and fun, but she is fighting not to break down because – because if it is Nel’s birthday then it should be Sonny’s too, but her wee boy never had the chance to experience birthdays.
(Nel’s mum pours her heart out to her friend over her lost child in a scene by Ellen Lindner)
She’s tried to hold it in, but on this day she turns to her friend Marlene, who also lost a child, and it pours out. Since she was a toddler Nel has talked to this lost brother, almost like an imaginary child, and in her adult years, especially when things aren’t going well for her, she talks still to Sonny. Is the spirit of her twin with her through her convoluted life or is it only in Nel’s mixed up head? We don’t know and really it doesn’t matter, it’s her emotional reaction to Sonny that is important and the way she feels losing him damaged what she was meant to be.
It is a remarkable piece of work, highly unusual and brilliantly done – kudos must go to Woodrow and Rob and all involved, and to Blank Slate for being innovative enough to publish such a work, which I think is destined to become a bit of a landmark British comic publication (I already know it is going straight into my personal Best of the Year list) and frankly if you value quality comics work you have to have a copy in your collection, because it is the book we are all going to be talking about this season and you don’t want to be left out now, do you?
(1986 and it is birthday time, always double edged things, birthdays, especially when you are one of what should have been twins. Add in youth, drinks and sexual tension, mix and stand well back in Ade Salmon’s chapter)
Nel’s story weaves through childhood pranks and games to rejecting the straightjacket of school, exploring friendships, romances, art and herself, from art school rebellion to experiencing her first E and Rave Culture in the 90s, watching those she grew up with get on with their own lives and wondering how her life compares (don’t we all? Especially when the 2000s come along and she can compare lives with friends on Facebook – really, that guy from school is grown up, good job, married, kids? Him? Wow! We’ve all done that…), negotiating her own troubled family life (a small scene on her first school day will later come to have huge significance for their family years later), wondering if she should surrender to the daily job grind or still try and do something with her art.
(a grown up Nel wondering where her life went, who she is now, those dreams of youth battered by real life – often such a bully – drowning it in drink, lost dreams and talking to her long-dead twin Sonny. Is he really there talking to her or just in her head? Does it matter? It’s part of how Nel realises herself, for good or ill)
You may wonder why we aren’t offering as generous a discount on Nelson as we normally do with our graphic novels, especially given how much we like it. There is a good reason for that – Blank Slate is giving the profits on the first print run to the homelessness charity Shelter, and indeed a number of comics retailers, including ourselves, are also donating along with them. So we can’t offer you that little extra we normally would to make it easier to try something new and wonderful. But we can still offer you Nelson – a fascinating, unusual landmark publication in Brit comics, a moving tale that works not only as a snapshot of a woman’s life but as a snapshot of the finest comics talent working in the UK right now (seriously, look at that list of contributors, running the range of age, approach and art styles in British comics right now, and hey, we love British comics right now, we really do, it’s happening) – and as a bonus you get to support a charity that is needed more than ever into the bargain. You get a brilliant book, you support UK independent comics publishing and you get to help someone who really needs a hand too. Go on, buy one for yourself and buy one as a present while you’re at it.
Nelson has just been released by Blank Slate and can be found with other Blank Slate titles in your local FPI, on our site and a number of other quality comics stores such as Gosh!, Page 45, Plan B Books and others. Nelson Week sees some of the team at the excellent Thought Bubble in Leeds this coming weekend, there’s a signing in the London Forbidden Planet Megastore, an exhibition starting in the Cartoon Museum in London and a cracking launch night in Gosh to look forward to as well. In fact a whole brace of new titles has just arrived from Blank Slate alongside Nelson, and this week we’re going to be running a preview of a different one each day – Richard has already posted up a look at Uli Osterle’s fascinating looking Hector Umbra yesterday and we’ll have more all week, so don’t touch that dial.
This old review was originally penned for The Alien Online many moons ago:
This is predominantly an ‘origin’ story, dealing with the fall of District Attorney, Harvey Dent, and his re-emergence as the hideously scarred (physically and psychologically) psychopath Two-Face. It is also the story of three men – Chief Jim Gordon, Harvey Dent, and the Batman – and the common cause, justice, which brings them together, and how that trust is ultimately shattered forever.
The Long Halloween combines several strands of plot into this main arc. There is the serial killer, ‘Holiday’, who strikes, as the name suggests, on vacations – Xmas, Valentine’s Day. There is the ongoing battle for supremacy between Gotham’s crime families. Carmine Falcone is the head of the largest crime family. His money can buy most police and courts, but not our triumvirate of heroes. The Catwoman becomes involved in his activities, although, as ever, it is hard to discern if she is a force for good or ill. Her alter ego, Selina Kyle is seeing the Batman’s daytime self, Bruce Wayne. Wayne, in his ‘normal’ capacity as a leading businessman, is involved in trying to block Falcone from using the bank, upon who’s board he sits, from opening a vast account to launder his mob money. Successions of Arkham Asylum’s finest criminal inmates are released upon Gotham and the Dark Knight. Poison Ivy uses her skills to infect Bruce Wayne, controlling him for Falcone, so he will stop blocking the bank’s move to allow in his money. This leads Gordon and Dent to suspect Wayne of being in league with the Mafia (they are unaware of his identity as Batman). Falcone has to deal with the death of several of his crew, including his son, supposedly by Holiday – or is it a disguised turf hit by other mobsters, or even his own sister, Carla? Scarecrow and Mad Hatter are loose on a spree, and the Joker simply can’t stand the thought of another outlandish psychopath in Gotham, stealing his thunder. He attempts to track Holiday, and, failing that, decides he can stop Holiday doing his job of terrorising Gotham by killing the whole population … With me so far? This is a big book!
At the heart of this sprawling narrative, is the story of Dent, Batman and Gordon. All increasingly frustrated at the tide of crime, all seeking to stop it, all fighting for justice with their best intentions. All three trust each other. That trust will be broken when Dent crosses the line, being prepared to kill those who escape justice. He contrasts his approach with the Batman’s, who rejects this. He may be a vigilante, but he does not kill – that would be to lower himself to the level of those he has sworn to fight. Harvey Dent has succumbs to the Neitzchen nightmare – those who fight monsters must take care not to become monsters themselves. All three men have stared into Neitzche’s abyss, but Dent has allowed the abyss to stare into him. Events reach a climax when Dent is prosecuting a court case, trying to bring down the mob with an insider willing to talk. But this is a mere plot, and the witness attacks Dent in court, throwing a jar of acid in his face. Half of Dent’s head is burnt horribly, but the psychological scars are far deeper. Already pushed to breaking by his frustrated attempts to bring down big crime, his mind snaps. Escaping from hospital Dent now becomes the hideous villain, Two-Face. His journey from hero to demon is complete. Gordon and Batman are left to face the ongoing war on crime themselves. But Batman believes in the integrity of Jim Gordon.
This large Batman work may not be quite up there with The Dark Knight Returns (what is?), but it is still and extremely interesting read. The 20s style gangsters and molls give Gotham a suitable period style, and the artwork is rendered in a manner that is reminiscent of Frank Miller’s hard-boiled, neo-noir Sin City series. Loeb freely acknowledges the debt to Miller in his introduction. If readers are reminded of Miller’s excellent Batman – Year One, this is because he gave permission for Sale and Loeb to use some of this Batman ‘history’ for The Long Halloween. Dark, brooding – a Gothic whodunnit, and an excellent addition to any Batman reader’s shelves.
We have an annual tradition on the Forbidden Planet blog of running a series of Best of the Year posts. So do many other blogs and sites, of course, but I like to think we do ours in our own fashion – we ask a whole bunch of people we know to pick their faves out – comics, books, movies – for the year and run the guest posts every day throughout most of December. This year’s series actually has run right on into the middle of January, ove a solid month of daily (well weekday daily) guest posts, plus the selections from the FP folks. That’s a pretty long series of faves and from such a number of different guests I like to think this means we get a really good, diverse range of suggestions. Yes, a lot of the same titles will be chosen independently by a number of folks, but with guests from the US, UK, Europe and the Philippines I think we get a good range – certainly there were some titles that came up that I didn’t know before. You can see the entire 2010 Best of the Year series here. And I’m reposting my own personal best of the year list on here today, first published on the FP blog:
Each year when it’s time for me to think about my favourite reading of the year it seems I have to struggle quite a bit. Not struggling to find stand-out comics and books but rather the opposite – struggling to try and narrow down my list into something reasonably short and readable. I think once more I’m going to fail in that respect and more than likely I’m going to ramble on a bit about some of the frankly brilliant reading material that passed my eyes in 2010 and I’ll apologise in advance for the lack of brevity, but I certainly don’t apologise for highlighting what I consider to be some terrific books. And I know full well after I’ve posted this I will doubtless suddenly remember some other works and slap my head thinking how did I forget to include this or that?
But you know what? This is no bad thing that I’m toiling to produce a short list (okay, a fairly long short list) of my favourite reading; in fact it’s a good sign, a sign at the quite brilliant – and diverse – works that are coming out. It’s also a sign of how much good work is out there that I still have a pile of books and comics I really wanted to read in 2010 that I simply never had time to, because there’s only so much free reading time and I used all of that up (and then some, always snatching a read during commute, during waits in cafés to meet friends, anywhere I can). And this year I am delighted to be able to say a good number of my favourite graphic novels came from independent British publishers. We’ve often gone out of our way here on the blog to highlight the remarkable range of comics work from around the world, but I hope you’ll forgive me for being so excited at being able to honestly say that some of the best works I read came from here, because it’s been a damned long time since we’ve been able to point to British comics publishers producing a continual stream of fascinating graphic novels.
I think 2010 was a real watershed year for Blank Slate Books and SelfMadeHero; both had been producing good works before this year, but it seems in 2010 they both put out a fantastic range of comics work, works which picked up great reviews all over the place (including in the mainstream press). Disclaimer: I should point out, for those who don’t know, that Blank Slate is run by FPI’s own Kenny Penman, but I trust most of our readers know us well enough here on the blog to know that when it comes to reviews and opinions we strive to be honest – when I say some of these books are my favourites it has nothing to do with knowing those involved and simply to do with the fact that I loved reading those books. And talking of those books, let’s get started – and I apologise for how long this is, but I’m invoking editor’s privilege here – if I can’t ramble on about a whole pile of my favourite reading here then who can? To the books …
Blacksad, Juan Diaz Canales and Juanjo Guarnido, published Dark Horse
We’re a bit behind Europe on Blacksad – the first couple of volumes were translated years back but became inaccessible after the publisher closed and we’ve had to wait for a new English language edition. Kudos then to Dark Horse for bringing out this lovely hardback with all of the first three volumes of Blacksad collected together (a fourth tale came out in autumn 2010 in France). Essentially a classic 40s/50s gumshoe detective Noir but with animals instead of humans, Blacksad is simply one of the most gorgeous comics you’ll read. The characters and dialogue are genre-perfect – femme fatales, tough guys but with a code of honour and always a wisecrack – the mysteries and engrossing and Guarnido’s artwork is superb. Richly detailed scenes, both intimate, indoor scenarios and larger, street-wide panoramas, bring the period to life while the expressions on the character’s faces are amazing. Don’t just take my word for it, Steranko himself provides the introduction and lavishes much praise on this aspect of the art.
I’ve adored Glasgow writing-art team Metaphrog’s Louis books for years and was eagerly looking forward to this new volume; I was not disappointed. The story sees Louis on a desperate – possibly imaginary – quest to save the life of his pet and best friend and touches on responsibility, guilt, love and what we will do when driven by those emotions. It’s hard to summarise the plot as much of it is very dream-like (and indeed it may even be a dream), it’s one of those stories you allow yourself to sink into. And the artwork is, in my opinion, some of the best they’ve created yet for Louis – the scenes in the underground city are utterly enchanting and magical, making it a beautiful book for younger readers and the older readers alike. You can read a full review here on the blog and Metaphrog talk us through the new Louis in a “director’s commentary” feature here.
It is something of a surprise to read Burns in full colour – for a few pages it feels quite odd, but I quickly got used to it, aided by the fact that, colour or not, he still uses his beautiful clear line style, which here is most appropriate given his allusions to Tintin throughout the book. Like some of Burns other works while there is a narrative of sorts to follow this is really more a book about dreams, nightmares and the collision of fantasies and the real world. Like Black Hole there is a real David Lynch feeling of creeping dread and our main character with his Tintin quiff (and sometimes donning a Tintin mask to do performance poetry as Nitnit) drifts between a drug-supported illness in his basement bed through what could be dreams, nightmare or hallucinations – it’s almost impossible to tell what scenes may be real and what are the product of a mind moving through guilts and repressions. It’s a work to be immersed into and feel rather than follow as a conventional narrative and I look forward to more in the series.
Typical, you wait ages for a British comic about mental health issues then two come in the same year. However Brick’s Depresso is a quite different beast from Darryl Cunningham’s Psychiatric Tale. It is often just as touching and honest, but the perspective here is mostly personal, a partly autobiographical tale following the cartoonist’s comics alter ego through the highs and lows of manic depression and the effects the illness (denied at first) has on both him and those around him, as well as the struggle to find some form of treatment, being passed from pillar to post in the NHS and the feeling that most health professionals don’t take depression seriously and are content to just keep offering various medications (with their attendant side effects).
Despite the subject matter though this is a more upbeat, comedic offering than Psychiatric Tales – Brick seems very much from the fine old school of Brit comics, the Leo Baxendale, Hunt Emerson type of comics. Even when tackling serious moments the artwork often has you laughing your butt off. I started reading it on a train one day and attracted more than a few looks both for the cover art (the book has a pleasing, European BD feel to it) and the laughs it was evoking from me. It hasn’t had the column inches of Psychiatric Tales, perhaps, but it’s a brilliant bit of very British cartooning and just as touching and honest, but with that lovely comedic touch that brightens even the dark depressions (which reminds us even when we’re down there’s still often something to laugh at – the sense of humour along with love is often what will save us). Brick was kind enough to grace us with a “director’s commentary” feature, talking us through some of Depresso, so if you missed it go and have a look then see about picking up the book.
Over my years as a bookseller I’ve developed a bit of a sixth sense; there are times when I hear just a little about a new book or graphic novel and, without knowing anything else, I simply know it is going to be good and that I am going to love it. Dance was one of those books; as soon as I heard it was in the works I knew I had to read it. No, I don’t know how this feeling works, but I’ve learned to trust it, it’s always pointed me to good reading and this was no exception. Taking a before and after approach to the main events we get two strands about a romance between a Belgian student and a political refugee from Africa, struggling to stay in the country, the first largely from the long-suffering but clearly loving father’s perspective as the affair unfolds, the second set years later as our heroine recalls that youthful love and tells her young daughter about her ‘African prince’. It’s beautifully romantic and touching without being saccharine, capturing that intense feel of young love and also the concern mingled with love of the parents, so worried about their daughter being used or hurt and yet, like any loving parents, still doing their best to help her along the path she chooses because they want her to be happy. Simply beautiful.
When Kenny first told me he was planning to do another translation of European work for Blank Slate some time back I had a look at the artist – Belgian creator Randall C – and his website. I found some of the Flemish version of Sleepyheads on his site and, despite not understanding most of the text, I fell in love with it right away. The artwork was simply so beautiful, even in another language it felt to me like it evoked a dream-like state. The English language version has more than lived up to expectations – it’s a very dreamy state of affairs, moving through a series of connected vignettes, like the dreams one has when lying in that half-awake, half-asleep hypnagogic state, aware you are dreaming yet still held within the dreams, which unfold with their own alternative logic that defies the waking world. Dream-like tales seem to have been something of a theme for me this year, now I look back at it (Cages, X’ed Out), but this stands out as a very unusual and oh so beautiful title, a talent that will be new to most English language readers too. I suspect many who adored entering Gaiman’s Dreaming will find much to love here. Something new, unusual and very beautiful.
The Hot Rock, Donald Westlake and Lax, published SelfMadeHero
We seem to be in a real boom time for crime tales in comics at the moment, both original works (like Criminal or the great series of works from DC’s Vertigo) and those adapted from great crime novelists. The Hot Rock, adapted by European creator Lax from Donald Westlake’s novel, stands easily alongside some of the best of those adaptations, right alongside the likes of Parker or Tardi’s adaptation of West Coast Blues). We get a whole series of cunningly crafted heists planned and executed here, with something unforeseen going wrong each time leading to another attempt to get the eponymous rock. The set-ups are brilliant, the characters excellent and most of all the book drips with the atmosphere of that 70s New York, before Times Square and the like were cleaned up, the sort of vibe you get from Taxi Driver, Mean Streets or French Connection, but with an added with and humour.
I’ve been addicted to Mike Mignola’s Hellboy for many years now; I love the art style, the characters, the way Mignola often mixes in bits of real-world myth and folklore into his own world. So believe me when I say this is one of the best Hellboy collections in years – it reaches right back to the earliest tales and draws elements of them together as we continue to explore more of HB’s real reason for existing in our world and the role he has to play. Dunc Fegredo does a great job of taking on-board Mignola’s distinctive art style without slavishly aping it, still bringing his own feel to the series without disrupting the feel of it, not an easy trick to pull off, but he does it ably. Plus we have giants striding across Great Britain, ancient witches and Arthurian legend, I mean what more do you want?
Bryan Talbot returns with his second Grandville outing and it is a wonderful offering of murder mystery, conspiracy, guilt, revenge and wonderful turn of the century steampunk trappings, all wrapped up in Bryan’s gorgeous artwork. LeBrock returns in a case that become personal for him, following a daring escape from the Tower of London right before an execution of a vile murderer of women he put away. But there’s more here as Bryan starts to hint at more of the alternative history of his Grandville universe and the murderer and LeBrock’s past in the British resistance against French rule and the murky goings on that lead to independence once more are involved, as are conspiracies that may lead all the way to the top of the government. The story is a cracking read and moves along at a belting pace, but once you have read though it you will go back over it again and again because, as he often does, Bryan has loaded scenes with gorgeous details and references to other comics, books, history, film, art movements… It’s a delight finding some of them and I’m sure there are many more I missed, but that’s just an invitation to go back and read it again. Glorious stuff.
Lovecraft – for a man who lived a relatively short life he has cast a long shadow over all of the fantastical genres of the 20th century and shows no sign of his influence diminishing in the 21st. Lovecraft’s ancient horrors that existed long before man tap into both that strand of fantasy than imagine a Hyperborian time before the present race of humanity and lost worlds and the suspicion that perhaps we are pushing too far, prying into too much, that there are some places we should not explore, that should simply be left on the map with the legend “here be dragons”, that some knowledge simply should not be sought and our own arrogance in pursuing it at all costs will bring our ruin, an ancient, dreadful doom. Unlike many modern horrors there isn’t much in the way of huge set pieces here, rather, like Poe, Lovecraft and Culbard weave an atmosphere of dread and constant menace, like the thought that the darkness we walk in conceals something, a primal fear, that there is something lurking in the dark and we’re as helpless before it as our ancient ancestors were before sabre toothed tigers. And we’re right to be afraid here, there are ancient things in the dark places of the world that we should never disturb… Best read in bed on a dark night…
I’ve admired the great Tardi for some time and was delighted when Fantagraphics started translating some of his work for the English language world. I first read some pages from this collection in French (very slowly and unevenly, my French is not great and very rusty) a few years back and have been longing to see it translated. I reviewed it a few months back, where I said that it stood next to Mills and Colquhoun’s Charley’s War as one of the finest comics about the Great War and I stand by that. It burns with a sense of outrage at the meaningless slaughter and sheer injustice of the events of almost a century ago. A century ago, perhaps, but we should never, ever forget and works like Trenches serve both as a fascinating piece of comics work and also an accessible reminder of history that has now all but passed from living memory and relies on books, film and other media to remind us.
Fantagraphics recently released more Tardi goodness in the shape of their first collection of his wonderful Adele Blanc-Sec adventures (Tardi, like Bryan Talbot, seems to be able to flit through any and all sorts of genres, adapting his art style to suit), but alas I only just picked up a copy and started reading it last week, so it’s not going to sneak into my list, but I’m already loving it, so it has to get a mention too.
I’ve been looking forward to this ever since SMH announced it the other year. The Great Gonzo has been a hero (anti-hero?) of mine since my teens, he’s up there with Lenny Bruce, William Burroughs and Bill Hicks in my book as one of the great counter cultural icons of 20th century American life. It would have been easy (and lazy) to have gone down the route of buying into the bizarre, outrageous public persona Thompson created for himself (a creation he both benefited from and suffered from). Instead Will and Anthony, while acknowledging this public image, go behind it to explore a figure who was important in pushing journalism to cover areas it had ignored and to gleefully ignore the wrath of the great and powerful in pursuit of a story that he thought should be told. Given the current rather cowed and tamed state of much of journalism, especially in the US (where no-one rocks the boat lest they have their White House press pass revoked or never be embedded again) this is a timely reminder that sometimes a journalist is supposed to stand and shout the story and make people listen. Brilliant stuff.
I first read Cages years ago, reading a copy that belonged to a flatmate back in my student days. I was already familiar with Dave’s collaborations with Neil Gaiman, especially the brilliant Signal to Noise (still a visually fascinating piece), but this was Dave on his own, his own voice, articulating through words and pictures some of his own thoughts on life and art. It’s a massive piece, with something of a dream-like feel to it and it is ridiculous that such a major opus by a major artist has been unavailable for so many years, so I was delighted by Dark Horse republishing it. An important work by one of our finest creators and an essential tome for the shelves of any comics lover.
What can I say about this book that I haven’t said before? A book so good we reviewed it twice (my review, Richard’s review). A book that wasn’t just on an interesting subject that we all too often shy away from discussing in public because of a perceived stigma, but a book that gets into your thoughts, into your soul, that makes you think again about how you view the world and your own problems and, just as important, how you perceive the problems of others, especially those who are suffering, often through no fault of their own, coping both with a mental health affliction and ignorance and lack of empathy from many around them. I think Darryl’s work certainly addresses the second of those two problems – this is a comic that should be read by everyone. It should be in every library and every school. It’s touching, sensitive, human and a cry for understanding and the milk of human kindness, that finest quality of our species which we shouldn’t have to be reminded to employ, but somehow in our busy, self absorbed lives we do need reminding.
You know I normally select a pile of my favourite comics reading for the year but I normally don’t rank them in any sort of order. I’m going to break with that tradition this time round and say that, for me, this is the most important comic release of 2010. A hugely laudable work that is both well executed comics work and a touching, important voice on a subject too often hidden, a work that can and has reached out beyond the comics readership to many others. I’m delighted to see it is being published now in the US and will soon be translated for the acclaimed Italian publisher Coconino. Here’s hoping it travels further around our comics world and that as well as being a fascinating read, that it actually helps some people. Simply the most beautiful, touching work I read all year.
Since I’ve spent so long rambling on about some of my favourite graphic novels of 2010 (and I am sure I’ve forgotten some) I’ll be a bit more concise with my other faves of the year. In books again I found some excellent SF&F reading, among which was a name new to me, French author Pierre Pevel. His Cardinal’s Blades (published Gollancz) totally hooked me in right away – fabulous historical fantasy, actually for the most part more historical, all set in pre revolutionary France, with a scheming Richelieu, dashing, courageous swordsmen who are, essentially, the Mission Impossible force for the French state and a dash of dragons and magic thrown in. there’s swashbuckling galore, compelling characters (including, refreshingly, some very strong female leads) and a wonderful sense of the history (Pevel’s descriptions of Old Paris are remarkable, you can imagine yourself in those winding, rather aromatic streets so different from modern Paris). I’ve just devoured the sequel, The Alchemist in the Shadows and it was superb, the best swashbuckling novel since the great Arturo Perez Reverte’s Captain Alatriste novels; think Dumas for a modern era but with added fantasy elements. Can’t wait for the next book!
Aussie scribe Marianne De Pierres continued her Sentients of Orion series (published by Orbit), a bit of a departure for her, delving into full on space opera mode. With the latest volume she brought events to a head, with what started as a seemingly regional attack on a planet becoming a huge scale war spread across the galaxy, personalising the vast scale through her range of carefully cultivated characters and, as with her previous works that I’ve so enjoyed, she continues to write some seriously strong female lead characters, something we need more of in SF.
Pittacus Lore’s I Am Number Four (published by Penguin) was a hugely enjoyable young adult slice of SF – a handful of young survivors from a planet decimated by greedy, warlike neighbours who endlessly consume natural resources have fled to earth, watched over and trained by guardians, constantly having to move, to refrain from making connections with others as they try to conceal themselves from their enemies, while they grow into their attributes, powers they develop naturally, different to each of them, their only hope for reclaiming their world and quite possible for defending ours, should the enemy decide our world is their next target. Add in first romance to the mix and it’s a cracking YA read. There’s a movie version due quite soon.
Paolo Bacigalupi’s Windup Girl was a book I hadn’t heard of until it was chosen as the reading for the SF book group I set up years ago (still going strong) and is a fine example of how recommendations and book groups can lead you to something wonderful you may not have found otherwise. Set in a future where most resources have been used up (now we are back to clipper ships instead of huge container freighters and airships instead of fuel burning jets), Paolo’s tale of an environmentally ruined future teems with atmosphere, set in Thailand as it tries to protect itself from outside influences and (literal) corruptions but forced to interact and trade with the outside world. He could have a great second career as a travel writer, the sense of the place, the people and customs he evokes are so remarkable, you really feel yourself immersed into this other culture. I read the Night Shade edition a few months back, but I see our good friends at Orbit have just released a mass market paperback which should be easier for you to find. Something very new, unusual and captivating.
Jeff VanderMeer‘s cropped up more than a few times over the years on the blog as a writer I’ve recommended and his latest work, Finch (published by Corvus), is no exception. Jeff is one of those remarkable writers who is always compelling, be he tackling a novel or editing a great anthology or reviewing books and comics (you should check out his blog), but when he returns to his strange, distorted half-fantasy, half real-world setting of Ambergris I always get excited. This time around he opts for a gumshoe detective style tale as opposed to the autobiography/history approach of Shriek, set in an Ambergris now ruled by the bizarre Gray Caps, the bizarre, mysterious denizens of the city’s underground and the entire city and many of the inhabitants are mutating due to their fungal technology. There aren’t many who could convey both a feeling of Chandler-esque detective tale with Cronenberg type body horror, but Jeff can. Up there with China Mieville as one of the finest masters of the New Weird that you should be reading.
How to Live in a Science Fictional Universe, Charles Yu, Corvus. Another score for Corvus and, like its stablemate Finch it is a welcome unusual entry into the genre, delightfully odd and different to most other SF. Charles is a time machine repair man, happily avoiding life and all the complexity that comes with it and relationships by staying inside his own closed timeline, talking only to his possibly imaginary dog and his time machine’s AI who he may have a bit of a crush on. As with all things temporal it can quickly get confusing, especially when you factor in not only time travel and paradoxes but also the fact the universe Charles is living in seems to be a man-made construct, made by entertainment companies in much the way theme parks are today. Odd, quirky, funny (well to us geeks!) and very smart, a new talent to watch for.
Mike Cobley’s continued to impress me with his move away from fantasy and into space opera with the second book of his Humanity’s Fire series, The Orphaned Worlds (published Orbit), a series in which distant, lost human colonies which were spun off into deep space centuries before to preserve the race in the face of a disaster, are slowly being rediscovered. What should be a joyful reunion of lost human tribes is marred by interstellar power politics though and the colonists find themselves drawn into a situation they know little of after their isolation for centuries. It’s an engrossing series and I love the characters, especially his mix of Russian-Scandinavian-Scottish colonists on Darien (a historical reference and joke on Scots history). Looking forward to book three.
And once again for everyone who enjoys quality science fiction Interzone journal continues to be a much needed home to some brilliant short SF tales, a good place to find new talent (and established voices) to watch for; ditto Black Static, Interzone’s sister publication which takes in horror and the darker side of fantasy, both regular reading material for me, available in our stores and from TTA Press.
Inception was a hugely enjoyable film, for me probably the most interesting Chris Nolan since his Memento and proof that a big budget film with huge effects and action scenes (the assault on the snow fortress is so very old school James Bond, as the director happily acknowledged). The scenes set during the gravity shifts are amazing, as is the walk through the dream version of the streets of Paris. Well worth re-watching, just like Memento, as you try to work out just what is happening as layers and layers of symbols and dreams within dreams are laid on one another.
Sylvain Chomet’s The Illusionist is probably my favourite film of the year – it’s no secret that I love animation and Chomet’s Belleville Rendezvous was wonderful. For the Illusionist he was drawing on an unfilmed Tati script, relocated to my home, the beautiful city of Edinburgh. Chomet worked from a studio in the city to make it and was inspired to capture the constantly changing quality of light we have in Scotland – the scene where a boat crosses a Scottish loch (in a scene nodding to Tintin, but with more flapping kilt) under clouds which suddenly part to sunlight perfectly capture that constantly changing light and weather, while his bittersweet tale of a naïve young island girl and a failing stage magician, while sad in many places, showcases a semi-fantasy version of 1950s Edinburgh which is simply gorgeous.
On the TV front of course Doctor Who continues to be must-see viewing for me and I enjoyed Matt Smith’s first year while Karen Gillan has been terrific too. Fringe has got me totally and utterly hooked and the new season, split between our own and the alternative Earth, has been compelling. And I must give out a shout to one of the most geek friendly of all shows on TV and one that gets missed a lot I think due to being often hidden away on late slots on digital channels, Big bang Theory. My colleague Iz first put me on to this and now I love it – comics, science fiction and science geekery abound, it’s the best geek comedy around and anyone who loves their SF and comics should be enjoying it. Check out a clip of the recent fancy dress ‘Justice League’ scene here (sorry, it won’t let me embed it)
Okay, phew, that’s it and I know I am missing out a lot of people, books and comics I meant to include as well, but I think that’s more than enough! And that’s it, folks, we’ve come to the end of our annual Best of the Year fest and I’d very much like to thank all the guests who kindly took the time to share some of their favourite comics, books and movies with us every weekday through the last several weeks. I hope you enjoyed them and I hope that you picked up some new readings suggestions from them too (I certainly did). There really were some great comics and SF&F reads in 2010, there are some brilliant ones due for 2011 that I am looking forward to very much – it looks like another bumper year for quality comics in particular, especially in the UK scene, and I hope you’ll join us in supporting and celebrating that scene. And I’d also like to thank our many regular readers and friends who comment and link to the blog or re-tweet us – your support is much appreciated!
I’ve adored Glasgow-based Metaphrog’s Louis books for years and I’ve been really looking forward to their brand new book with their perpetual innocent abroad for months. And I am not disappointed. Night Salad begins with an accident, as Louis is working in his garden he trips and falls while handling some toxic chemical from a container delivered to him by the mysterious people who control the little world he lives and works in. In the spill he notices his pet bird FC’s cage has been knocked over and FC seems sick. Poor Louis is distraught – FC isn’t just a pet, he’s Louis’ companion and friend and the thought of him being sick, especially if the cause is Louis himself during the accident, is more than he can bear.
In his little square house in his little square garden Louis is quite isolated, little contact with others in his peculiar little world and now he finds himself desperate for someone he can ask for advice. He isn’t an expert in birds, he considers, so he needs help from someone, but who? Few people come to him apart from the postman and the strange-garbed figures who delivered the container that caused the accident. The advice machine offers no real help and a letter to his Aunt Alison – who Louis doesn’t really know anything about, but is one of his few points of human contact – seems to be in order, but will she be able to advise him how to help FC? Before he can find a way to help his little friend Louis finds himself growing ill, dizzy, lost. At first it seems an emotional reaction to the thought he caused harm to FC, but soon it is apparent Louis is really ill, collapsing in his garden. As he lies there his troubled mind takes him on an incredible journey. The bulk of the rest of the book is taken up with a delightful fantasy quest, through caverns, deserts and fabulous cities as Louis finds friends to help him as he searches for a cure for FC, the fruit of the Raining Tree.
As with previous Louis books though, the narrative is only a part of the whole; underneath the bright, colourful frames that have an almost child’s picture book joy to them, there is always the distinct feeling of more going on. Who are the chemical-suited figures who drop the container of noxious fluids into Louis’ garden and why must he now use it in his work? Who are his meddling neighbours who spy on him? Just nosy neighbours who like to mess with his life a little or are they part of some larger, hidden mechanisms that rule the odd little homestead where Louis lives? There’s always been a touch of dream logic to Louis books, mixed with an undercurrent that suggests nightmare waters lurk a little deeper than the dream, should you but dive a little further down, in contrast to the child’s book bright imagery. In Night Salad the dream logic is much stronger as the ill Louis goes on his quest during his delirium, part fever dream, part vision quest, even in his sick state his mind desperate to save his little friend.
I won’t spoil the journey and the ending for you, save to say it is wonderfully imaginative, as Louis encounters strange lands and new people who he seeks help from. Sandra’s artwork is always lovely and here she has surpassed herself – some of the scenes, such as Louis setting sail, are simply gorgeous works of comics art, a wonderful child’s vision of a sailing ship for adventure with hints of Hokusai’s Great Wave hinting at the deeper, more troubled waters on which the ship sails (wouldn’t the frame above make a gorgeous print?). The desert town and the underground city with its minarets and colours are fabulous and help to open up the reader to the sheer, child-like pleasure of allowing yourself to sink totally into the world the writer and artist have presented to you, to lose yourself into a magical little realm. I think this is some of Sandra’s loveliest Louis artwork yet, there are pages you find yourself turning back to again and again simply to look at and enjoy. There’s genuine emotion wrung from Louis too – like Charlie Brown he may be a fairly simple looking character, visually, but Sandra and John use their words and little expressions and body language to convey his emotions, especially his terrible fears at the thought of losing FC.
It’s a sweet tale but one with darker undercurrents for the adult reader – a child can enjoy the lovely, colourful graphics and the tale of one friend trying to save another through a magical quest and indeed so can an adult, but to the adult there are subtle little markers of the darker, hidden aspects of Louis’ world. I think perhaps Sandra and John have crafted their best Louis book yet, an utterly gorgeous, colourful, touching fantasy for all ages, with fabulous artwork and colouring and an engaging emotional hook.
And I have to say that the design too is quite lovely – Night Salad is presented in a fine little hardback that sits somewhere between a child’s picture book and a graphic novel in appearance, attractively coloured and with that beautiful art of Louis on his ship, all for under ten pounds – yes, this lovely wee hardback joy comes in at under a tenner. If you are looking for something different, something special and charming for a Christmas present for the reader in your life (or for yourself!) then this has perfect gift written all over it, it’s one of those books that makes you happy just to hold it in your hand – in fact it’s going right into my Best of the Year list.
If you are going to be at Thought Bubble in Leeds this weekend then you can see Sandra and John there and I strongly advise you not only to pick up a copy of Louis but get it signed while you’re there, while art from Night Salad can be seen as part of the That’s Novel exhibition of comics art in the London Print Studio as part of Comica. (NB this review first appeared on the Forbidden Planet blog in mid November 2010)
Another old review of mine I thought I would repost on here, this one from the FP blog back in 2007:
Susan Tomaselli on 3AM has a feature on Aleksandar Zograf’s Regards From Serbia, published earlier this year by Top Shelf (link via Marko at Neorama). I’ve been reading Regards myself recently and found it fascinating – the strife in the Balkans is quite recent history of course and it gave me a peculiar feeling as I read it because I remember following the events on the news throughout the 90s, while many friends would also watch and comment sadly how they had just been on holiday to that part of what had been Yugoslavia only a year or two before those events.
As I read on that peculiar feeling increased; half-remembered events from the BBC news resurfacing in my memory contrasted against Zograf’s first-hand accounts from ‘the other side’ (as he tells an American during a trip abroad, he’s from Serbia, the ‘bad guys’!) – it isn’t just that he describes the surreal nature of living under threat of bombings and the ranting and spin of politicians (in the West as much as in Serbia, all full of justifications for their actions, all ignoring the harm to civilians they caused), it’s seeing events from the news reports we saw in the UK but from the perspective of someone who lived there. While NATO commanders and US and UK politicians cheerfully told us that we were using precision weapons to surgically strike only specific targets, the reality of being at the other end of a ‘precision’ raid is somewhat different. Precision is a very flexible term, especially when presented a military campaign to a cynical public sensitive to civilian suffering (although Zograf still manages to inject humour into this grim situation).
Of course when you read Regards From Serbia it puts you in mind of other works, notably Joe Sacco’s comics war reporting, but I think Regards stands on its own – the fact that Zograf is describing his own home adds much to the impact of the book; how would we feel if the place we had lived all our lives suddenly became a war zone? Not something that would happen to us? Well, I seem to recall before the struggle in the Balkans most of us assumed we’d never see large-scale armed conflict in Europe again… The surreal nature of trying to lead as normal a life as he can during abnormal events lends the whole thing a dreamlike – or nightmarish – quality, something Zograf exploits openly, taking the darker dreams he has during the war as raw material for the comic strip. In some ways the surreal and often absurd nature of wartime events and the humour used to deal with them reminded me a bit of Spike Milligan’s war memoirs. On the art front there’s a lot of heavy, black ink which seems appropriate to the subject matter in the same way black and white film seems more suited for serious documentaries. Zograf’s characters are often seen from a side-on perspective, only one, large, oval eye visible in profile, reminiscent slightly of classical Egyptian art but also very much (to me at least) of Pablo Picasso and several times I found his scenes reminding me of Picasso’s powerful and terrifying nightmare vision of war in Guernica.
A large section has been included by Top Shelf reproducing many emails back and forth from Zograf to friends and fellow comics creators in the rest of the world (when the power was on and when the net access wasn’t being blocked by the West); I know some thought this distracted from the comics, but personally I thought it was a good idea, adding to the very personal perspective on the events (I also enjoyed Monty Python’s Terry Jone’s contribution). And that personal perspective is the heart of Regards From Serbia; Zograf never pretends to be a reporter or historian – he presents the events that went on around him and his family and friends, their thoughts, feelings, hope and fears, from a very personal and emotional place, presenting us with an insight a more impartial news report of history text never could.
Chris Kowalski has created a very cool, short potted history of the comics form, from prehistoric cave paintings like the famous ones in Lascaux through the Egyptian heiroglyphics and the Bayeux Tapestry as a form of proto comics strip narrative to Rudloph Topffer, godfather of the modern comics and Outcault with his Yellow Kid and innovative use of the world balloon, through the 20th century, popularising newspaper strips, the birth of the superheroes, Siegel and Shuster, the post war lurid crime and gorey horror book, the conservative reaction to this (and Wertham’s utterly baseless ‘research’ which authorities used to stifle the presses to ‘protect the children’; today it is video games and rap they tend to target, but it’s the same song), the Silver Age of Marvel and DC, the growth of graphic novels aimed at a adult readership and on up to today’s scene. All of it without any dialogue or voice over, just a few short captions and the artwork from a century-plus of comics and graphic novels. And ending with pointing the viewer towards their public libraries for more reading, which is always A Good Thing, in my book.
I’ve been pretty delighted to see the crew at Fantagraphics translating and publishing some of the excellent work of acclaimed French BD artist Jaques Tardi over the last year or so (with more to come), but I’ve been especially keen to read the translation of his It Was the War of the Trenches, having first come across it in French a few years ago, just a few pages from it extracted in a French comics mag I’d picked up. Even those few pages made quite an impression on me and I’ve had a strong desire to read the whole book ever since, so before we start kudos to Fanta for publishing this and other works by Tardi for the English language readership.
Where do you start when your subject is the Great War? How do you approach a conflict which had casualties running into the millions? Which brought new levels of unbelievable, mechanised, mass-produced horror and slaughter to the world, which saw the fall of governments and whole empires, redrew the map, shattered an entire generation and broke social divides? The statistics from the First World War are mind-numbing; they become mere numbers after a while. Our brains simply cannot really process the fact of millions of deaths – we need the personal level in order for us to emotionally engage with the savage events and, like Mills and Colquhoun did with the classic British WWI series Charley’s War, we get that personal, soldier’s level view of events. The men in these trenches may only represent a fraction of the millions from many nations dug into the scarred earth of the trenches, but they are personalised, they’re real and that makes it much easier to identify with them and empathise with the awfulness of trench warfare.
(Tardi captures the industrialisation of the slaughter of war and contrasts the awful effectiveness of manufactured steel and explosives against human bodies and the very earth itself, a Hellish landscape where even the dead cannot rest; (c) Tardi, published Fantagraphics)
Lacking the ongoing characters of a serial strip like Charley’s War, Tardi opts for a more documentary approach, selecting scenes from the war and following a short story of a small group or an individual caught up in a collective madness beyond their control (reminiscent of Burns’ approach in the highly respected Civil War series, using personal tales and reminiscences to give us a human, personal face to vast events). Starting with an even-handed scene setter showing the daily routine of shelling from both the German and French, which then introduces the trenches and the hell of No Man’s Land, cleverly introducing the first man he will follow, Binet. Alas, when we first see him, Private Binet is already dead and rotting away in No Man’s Land, so we already know that he’s going to be one of those vast numbers of statistics. As Tardi goes back to fill in some of Binet’s life he becomes a person, not another number. I think it’s quite brave of Tardi to have as his first character a man who’s quite misanthropic and unlikeable; he’s not trying to paint all of the fallen as saints or heroic paragons of virtue and honour, they are people, some good, some miserable, some funny, some selfish. Binet is not very likeable, but he doesn’t deserve the dreadful death he will endure.
And that’s surely part of Tardi’s point, that this huge, mechanical, industrialised war swallowed all who came before it, regardless of their character, the good and the bad, the poor and the noble born. The suffering Tardi portrays is universal to all of the front line troops – on both sides – and civilians caught up in the maelstrom of events too. A scene from the earlier, more mobile segment of the war shows advancing German troops driving Belgian refugees in front of them to act as human shields, uncaring of the vicious immorality of their actions. It sounds like a piece of the (rather obvious to modern, media savvy eyes) propaganda that was circulated in Allied nations about the ‘monstrous Hun’, but actually it is based on real events. Not that Tardi paints only the decisions like this by war-mongering Prussian generals, he shows the French commanders as uncaring and immoral as the German ones, when they order their men to fire anyway because, after all, the human shield isn’t composed of their countryfolk…
(Belgian refugees caught between equally uncaring French and German troops in the early days of the war, (c) Tardi, published Fantagraphics)
A burning sense of injustice and anger runs throughout War of the Trenches, and rightly so; to anyone who has read the history of that disastrous, monstrous start to the last century it isn’t hard to see why anyone should still be angry about it ninety years after the Armistice. He highlights the sheer ridiculousness of the war, of how nations and entire empires were prepared to spend their entire wealth and resources on slaughtering millions and yet for far less they could have housed, educated and fed every single one of their own citizens (including the many who lived in squalor and poverty, ignored by their countries until their countries required them ‘to do their duty’). He sketches the global nature of the conflict, of regiments drawn from the far corners of the world empires of the French, British and others, the Sikh soldiers from India fighting for the British Empire that had happily taken their country, the Algerian and Vietnamese troops from French colonies who, as Tardi points out, were pressed into service for the glory of France and who would, only a few decades later, be killing French troops as they fought for their own freedom, making a few pages of a single war into a shorthand for the seemingly constant conflicts which litter that entire century around the world.
(past conflicts may have ranged across the world – the French and British empires fighting from the Indies to the Americas, for example – but it took the Great War to make conflict so truly global. Not the best way to bring together the peoples of the world… (c) Tardi, published Fantagraphics)
It isn’t an easy read – there are moments of humour, but it is of the gallows variety (a pair of police who harassed soldiers end up strung up in a ruined village in front of the Charcuterie – the pork butcher’s shop, a macabre pun on referring to police as pigs). But for the most part it is, as you would expect given the subject matter, often grim reading. Which isn’t to say you shouldn’t read it, quite the reverse – yes, it is grim and frequently horror-filled, but Tardi draws on history and personalises it, bring huge events down to a human scale we can understand and empathise with in a way that we don’t always get from a large history volume (although for those who do want to learn more I’d recommend the highly respected Hew Strachan’s The First World War as a very accessible single volume introduction). I have actually read quite a bit of the history over the years but the visual aspect that comics bring to the human aspect of the history adds enormously to its impact, even more so than other visual medium, such as film, can manage (the classic WWI film J’Accuse – obviously an influence on Tardi – is a masterpiece in imagery, but unlike a comic you go at the filmaker’s pace; here you can pause on a scene, a frozen moment, an expression, a detail).
(several times Tardi uses a page layout which is reminiscent of some of the illustrated gazettes of the era; (c) Tardi, published Fantagraphics)
When I was a boy, first reading comics, most of the strips of the time made warfare seem like something of a Boy’s Own Adventure, with the notable exception of Mills and Colquhoun’s Charley’s War, which left a lifelong impression on me. So when I say Tardi’s War of the Trenches is the most powerful comic I’ve read on World War One since Charley’s War, you’ll understand what a compliment that is. The black and white art is perfectly suited to the era being covered, an era we are most used to seeing in monochrome film and photographs, while Tardi, not for the first time, proves himself a master of expression, the looks on the faces of the men caught up in the war speaking absolute volumes (a hallmark of a true master comics artist, a single frame depicting men’s expressions is worth pages of eloquent prose) and some pages are laid out in a fashion reminiscent of an illustrated gazette of the era (a nice touch). It’s a hugely powerful work, both moving and horrific and filled with anger for the suffering and injustices one group of ‘civilised’ humans can visit upon another (and in some scenes on their own people); as I said it isn’t the easiest read though, but then it shouldn’t be. And it does deserve to be read; as the last voices of those who were actually there are fading into silence works like this are needed to remind us of the monstrous acts we can be capable of in service to the beasts of jingoism and nationalism and hubris, that we should read them and take cautionary lessons from them. Never forget.
This review first appeared on the Forbidden Planet blog