Love, life, the blues and terror: Mike’s Place

Mike’s Place,

Jack Baxter, Joshua Faudem, Koren Shadmi,

First Second

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When I first spotted Mike’s Place being  solicited by First Second I got that vibe I sometimes get, my bookseller’s Spidey sense, and had a strong feeling I was going to find it interesting. After First Second were kind enough to send over an early copy I found that instinct was again spot on – I sat down in the local on the way home from work thinking I’d have a quick look, wee drink then off, instead I was so drawn in I read the entire book in one sitting. Yes, it was that compelling, I simply couldn’t face putting it down to head home, so I just sat there and finished it. By sheer coincidence I was reading this about the same time as I was also getting into Asaf Hanuka’s The Realist (reviewed here last week), so I found myself reading two quite different graphic novels with an Israeli theme quite by chance.

Mike’s Place is based on actual events and real people (with the exception of some balancing scenes showing the terrorists from the UK entering the Holy Land with blood on their mind, some of which has to be fictionalised, although sadly the results of their travels are all to real). The eponymous Mike’s Place is a seafront bar in Tel Aviv, a happening joint spun off from an equally successful spot in Jerusalem, home to drink, food and good, live music. It’s a place for anyone and everyone to come, to mix with others, to enjoy life and be reminded that there are good things to this life to enjoy. Politics is to be left at the door – Europeans, Israelis, Americans, Arabs, anyone can and does enjoy mixing in Mike’s Place. Like many a fine bar in many a city, it’s a little oasis where anyone can go to relax. Jack is an independent American film-maker, in town to cover an alleged terrorist, but when he discovers another documentary film crew has already been working on the same subject for some months he realises he’s been scooped and plans to return home. Wandering along the seafront one evening he spots Mike’s Place and soon he’s inside, indulging in the time honoured tradition of chatting to the barman, telling him his problems (the kindly bar-tender willing to lend an ear may be a stereotype, but it’s one with a basis in reality).

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And as it happens the barman, Gal, is also the owner, and he isn’t just lending a sympathetic ear to a traveller alone in a strange city, he actually has a suggestion for Jack – forget the politics, the terrorism, that’s what everyone shows of the Middle East. Instead why not do something totally different and make a documentary about Mike’s Place? All we ever see on international news or films is politics, war, terrorism, but behind all that there are people, normal, everyday folks just like anywhere else, working, falling in love, arguing, trying to get through life, and that tends to get ignored. And just as the country is a melting pot of different nationalities living there the bar is a microcosm of that. Gal can even introduce him to one of his bar tenders, Joshua, who has only just returned from Europe (with new girlfriend in tow, she rather lost in this new country but the pair so wrapped in each other it doesn’t matter much) after completing his film studies – he has a camera man who will also become the director of the film. Jack thinks about it and realises he has landed in just the right spot to make a different kind of film about the region.

Just look around! Everybody come here. Israel is more than conflict and politics. Mike’s place is the real Israel – the best part of the Middle East.”

Soon Jack has teamed up with Joshua, Gal’s friend and bouncer Avi sorts them out with transportation and the documentary gets rolling, Jack and Joshua interviewing the staff, an international collection from all corners of the globe, the “Mike’s Place family” as Gal refers to it. And it’s an appropriate label – the first half of the book is especially strong on a theme of family, both the type formed by actual blood relatives (the business is a family affair, Gal’s brother runs the Jerusalem – or J-Town as he calls it – Mike’s Place) and that remarkable extended family that we all, if we’er lucky, form through a disparate group of friends. There’s an overwhelming sense of friendliness and openness here; Jack is making his Indy documentary, but he’s also, quite happily it seems, absorbing the local ambience and fitting in quite easily with the bar staff and their friends and family, from hanging out with them at bar to spending the Passover meal with Gal’s family, everyone happily making this lone stranger warmly welcome.

And behind the progress on the actual documentary we’re seeing glimpses of the private lives. Cameraman/director Joshua and his girlfriend Sasha are trying to adapt to being a couple in a country she’s never even visited before (“it sounds like we’ll be in a scene from a Woody Allen film,” she tells Joshua on being invited to dinner to meet his parents, “Middle East style, baby!” he replies), but the nervousness of a new relationship in a new setting is held at bay by that first, big flush of love at the early stage of a relationship, when you can forget the potential pitfalls just with a good kiss. Gal is having his own romantic problems, so obviously in love with the bar’s beautiful French waitress Dominique, who adores him, but not in the same way and he doesn’t know that yet. In short, just as the film was aiming to do, we see regular people going around their everyday lives just like anywhere, albeit one where the worry of a terrorist attack is pretty constant, and yet they just get on with their lives because, what else can you do? As one points out, the weather might keep them in their houses, but terrorism rarely does.

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The cumulative effect of this entire first half of the book is to immerse us among this wonderfully welcoming, warm group of characters, and like Jack we feel as if they are going out of their way to be nice to a stranger, to make them welcome, at their ease. We get to know them, the different character quirks, from what they say to the camera in their interviews then the behind-the-scenes gossip of everyday life. Which means when we reach the middle of the book, the attack on the bar is all the more devastating, because the reader has really come to care for these people. And no, that’s not a spoiler, in case you were wondering, the blurb on the book makes it quite clear that partway through making the film, suicide bombers attacked the bar, and indeed the cover showing the back of a man holding a trigger to his suicide vest of explosives in front of a group of happy revellers also tells you that before you read the book. And that knowledge really affects your reading of the first half – the warm feelings I had getting to know these characters was always tempered by the shadow of the looming violence I knew was coming in their future. In a way I suppose that conveys just a little of that sense the film was trying to put across that people still live their lives despite the fact that something awful could suddenly happen, because it’s life and we need to enjoy it while we can.

But for me it really made me invest even more emotionally into the characters. The explosion comes right in the middle of the book, a two-page splash, bisecting the narrative – the first half of a group of friends welcoming a new person into their group and making a film about a side of life away from death and terrorism. The second half, the aftermath, after bloody violence has again shoved its hideous way into people’s lives, our group of characters – and we need to remember these are actual people who really went through these events. And the book doesn’t shy away from showing the horrible, horrible effects, which hurt all the more because the first half so effectively made us love these people and now the reader is metaphorically staggering in shock, much like the characters – what the hell happened, why would someone slaughter civilians like this, what happened to each person, where’s Jack, Avi, Gal, Dominique? And then slowly we get to see it – for a silent medium Shadmi does a remarkable job depicting that moment of uncanny silence after the attack, a shocking stillness for a brief instant before the chaos, survivors rushing to help the wounded, clear the space, check there isn’t another attack coming (there was a second bomber, who for an unknown reason never went through with his attack). Amid the horror as ambulances and police arrive Joshua gets the camera, his instinct to keep filming. But he’s now recording a very different film…

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The entire second half deals with the physical and emotional aftermath of the attack and the book doesn’t pull any punches, from the direct, practical aftermath (specialists clearing up body parts, literally scraping pieces from the walls of the bar before any restoration work can be done, the struggle to try and re-open the bar) but more especially to the emotional load placed on the surviving characters. And as with the warmer, welcoming, friendly first half, this is also a deeply emotional experience, but one marred by sadness and grief and loss. Jack’s idea of showing real people leading their real lives now becomes about showing those people trying to help each other through such a shattering experience, trying their best to support one another while trying not to fall apart themselves, all coping in different ways. “We’re alive” becomes something of a theme here – it had surfaced in the first half, on one of the few nights the bar is closed, for Holocaust Memorial Day, and the group get together, having fun, not out of disrespect, but because they are still alive and they can “we party for the six million who can’t” Gal explains. And that “we’re alive” refrain repeats in the more mournful second half, those who are left, like any of us exposed to sudden loss, in a strange place, shadowed by grief, but being reminded that they’re still here and those they lost would want them to keep going. And that extends to the film, the people and the bar, and by extension to all of those innocents, anywhere, of any creed or colour, who get caught in such horrific events by people who are so sure of their beliefs they are willing to spill innocent blood over it (and damn every idiot who does think that way, on any side of a conflict).

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But that second half, harrowing though it is in places, as the physical and emotional toll on the characters we’ve come to love also wears on the reader’s senses, is not just some dirge; miraculously, out of the ashes and fire and blood that warm bond of friendship, of family, slowly reasserts itself, even though everyone is damaged in their own way. And that warm sense of love and family and friendship is what I really took from this book. Jack, Josh and Koren touch on plenty of themes that plague the Middle East, but from the street level view of regular folks (the perspective we rarely see on the news), and do so very effectively, and the tragedy of making a film that celebrates the world away from the bombs and hate being caught in a bombing is powerful and awful. And yet despite the horror and sadness, even in the second half after the attack, I still kept feeling that strong bond of friendship, too strong and resilient to be broken by something as crude as a weapon, because its forged from something immaterial yet remarkably strong. And that sense of warmth and comradeship and, yes, again I use the word family, but that’s what I kept feeling throughout the entire book, it’s there right through the aftermath. It’s funny, it’s sad, it’s upsetting, it’s inspiring, it has happy moments of laughter and dreadful troughs of despair, just like life, really, but through all of the events here remains that warm, human feeling of inclusion and family, perhaps our only real defence and hope against the hatred in the world.

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The film was eventually completed and was entitled Blues by the Beach; each year on the anniversary of the attack they screen it in the rebuilt bar in memory of the friends they lost.

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Love, life, family, fantasy – Asaf Hanuka’s The Realist

The Realist,

Asaf Hanuka,

Archaia

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I first came across Asaf Hanuka’s work several years ago when he worked with respected Israeli writer Etgar Keret on a graphic novel adaptation of one of Keret’s short stories for Pizzeria Kamikaze (the same story was also adapted into the delightfully quirky film Wristcutters) and he was also a contributor to the compelling animated documentary Waltz With Bashir (which I reviewed several years ago here). In between those works and his lecturing and commercial illustration work he has been producing his series The Realist online. An old maxim teaches us we should “write about what we know”, and like many an Indy cartoonist Hanuka does just this, drawing (literally as well as metaphorically) on his own life to produce a series, usually of fairly short, one-page strips (sometimes longer, sometimes though just one single, large panel on the page – economical but very effectively done, a nice display of real skill), giving us a view of little vignettes of his family life, often peppered liberally with flights of fantasy.

Some of the tensions and problems in his life are, thankfully, ones most of us probably don’t have – for example as he and his wife have to knuckle down and start discussing the stressful matter of trying to get a mortgage and buy a place Hanuka intercuts their family finances discussion with the news on the nearby television warning of Iran’s plans for nuclear power and new missile technology and what this could mean for everyone living in Israel. It’s a clever riff on how daunting steps like taking a mortgage can be in your life, but it’s also perhaps alluding to the impermanence of everything; we view mortgages and buying a home as something so solid and lasting, but here he is thinking perhaps what is the point of this stress to buy a home that may be reduced to radioactive ash in a couple of years? This feeling of threat is found in a number of strips, such as when Hanuka notes that many of their friends are moving abroad “till things settle down” (for a war which as he observes, hasn’t actually started yet).

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Most of the everyday events and problems here though are ones pretty much every person encounters: life, love, kids, parents, work, money, health… The difference being that most of us when we do vocalise our problems it tends to be in the pub with a good friend, but Hanuka puts it out on display, opening up his head, several times almost literally, using the imagery of opening his own skull or reaching into himself to pull things out, or visualising the little sudden daydreams and fantasies that run through all our heads every day. Oppressed by the mortgage talk and having to move out of their first family home he walks into his young son’s room, gazing at him sleeping contentedly, feeling that terrible responsibility and then looking at his kid’s toy and imagining himself as one of them down there on the floor, a momentary retreat from the relentless pressures of adult life into infancy. Although even childhood isn’t always a warm, welcoming place either, as one flashback to young Hanuka shows, as he gets his eyes tested, reading one of those charts in the opticians where the letters get progressively smaller, except this eye chart tells the boy “Life Isn’t What You Thought”.

Although he is quite self-critical about his own perceived faults or failings, I don’t want to give the impression this is a bleak collection, because it really isn’t, and in fact even when he is being hard on himself (too hard, perhaps), Hanuka regularly twists it so that there is a welcome dose of humour throughout most of this collection. His regular flights of fancy or daydreaming, the kind of thing we all do, add colour and humour as well as pathos – Hanuka as a superhero, cape, tights, but a bit dishevelled, workaday hero, carrying the grocery bags home, or in one particularly inspired one, trying to imagine himself as a better man. Not just a better man, better husband, better father, better artist, the whole package re-invented, and here visualised with Hanuka in Steve Jobs pose as if launching a new Apple product – bigger, better, sleeker, faster! It’s the new “iSAF”! Even as he imagines this much upgraded, improved version of himself as if he were a lifestyle product, the faces of family and friends appear around the edges of the daydream, not convinced that his new version is really going to do all it promises on the box (what about that memory upgrade so you can remember things like errands and anniversaries, eh?). The aspirations and dreams we’re sold and think will fulfill us (just like that!) falling short in the face of reality.

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Some stories eschew the daydream elements and offer up problems I’m sure so many have encountered, such as taking his wee lad to school. I don’t want to go, daddy, no, daddy, don’t leave me here, daddy, don’t leave me… Tears, wailing, upset child, parent trying to explain they have to do this, it’s for their own good and feeling utterly, wretchedly guilty as their child cries watching them walk away. Cut to the boy two minutes later happily running around with friends at school playing with Lego, the trauma already forgotten for him as he plays, meanwhile unaware of this his father gets to work, sits at his desk, looks at the photo of his wee boy and cries with guilt for leaving him. The emotional hold others can have on us, most especially kids… Or explaining to his son why daddy is darker skinned and mummy is lighter skinned. I’m of Iraqi descent, she’s from Poland he tells him. But why are you different colours? Why am I white like mummy? You’re half white, half coloured, Hanuka tries to explain. His son looks at one of his toy animals, oh, you mean it’s like a zebra, right, as if to say duh, dad, why are you making this issue so complicated in that way only kids can…

And away from the introspection or self-criticism there are also little moments of pure joy – in grown-up mode Hanuka lectures his college class on this history of art, all serious, heavyweight, telling them off for their frivolous approach, that this is a serious subject they are approaching. Then as soon as he gets home he delights in reverting to a happy five-year old scribbling colourful doodles for the sheer pleasure of it because you can only be serious about Big Art for so long then need to remember it is meant to be fun. Or nice little touches comic fans will appreciate, like a visit to the great Angoulême comic art festival in France and observing many other creators and the fans interacting with them, including a lovely cameo by one of my favourites, Guy Delisle, with Delisle drawn in his own distinctive cartooning style.

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It’s a lovely collection – if you’ve read some online there is still much more enjoyment to be had in sitting back with this nice hardback edition Archaia have produced, and if you are new to Hanuka’s work then this is a fine introduction to his work. There are so many beautifully observed little moments and clever use of the comics medium to show his thoughts and feelings in a way that other mediums simply cannot do, and also some fourth-wall breaking, as he and his wife argue, Hanaka retorts “at least I am real” as we cut to a pen drawing him, or another scene where he muses on views from their apartment then the view the window cleaner gets and how “he sees everything from the other side, just like you do now.” I thought several times of other creators who do the “slice of life” approach mixed with such well-observed humour (the humour often less the outright joke variety, more the organic humour that just happens, because, well, life is often quite silly in so many ways), notably it put me in mind of the likes of Joe Decie, which is a high compliment as I rate Decie’s work very highly. It can be funny, it can be a little maudlin or introspective, it is a slice of life that we can all recognise; it’s wonderfully, warmly human, wrapped up in some lovely, clever cartoon art.

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God of Thunder (and rock and roll*): Thor, the God Butcher

Thor, God of Thunder Volume 1 : the God Butcher,

Jason Aaron, Esad Ribic,

Marvel Comics

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893 AD, the Icelandic coast. The Norse settlement has been bedevilled by a Frost Giant, and had prayed to their gods for relief; the god of the thunder answered their prayers. Thor, the Odinson has already battled and slain the Frost Giant by the time we pick up this story, and is now drinking and feasting (eating more goats than the rampaging giant did, we are told) with the locals as they tell tales of the battle. But this isn’t the Thor we know, this is a much younger Thor, the Thor before he was worthy enough to wield the mighty hammer Mjölnir. This is a much more cocky, undisciplined Thor, overly sure of his own power and ability, and the praise of the local Vikings isn’t exactly dampening his already large ego. But when they spot wreckage and body parts in the sea nearby, Thor’s self-belief may be shaken by what they uncover…

As they gather to examine the remains, most are pulped beyond recognition, save for a head. And from the head they realise this is not some fellow Viking whose ship was wrecked, this is the head of one of the “feathered” natives of the semi-mystic land to the west of Iceland, across the dark ocean, the Vinland precious few Norsemen claim to have visited. An old, wise woman examines the head, but she sees something else beyond the severed head of a man from a distant land. She asks Thor to look into the eyes and say what he sees there. And suddenly Thor is startled from his complacency (beautiful character art from Ribic here) – he sees a god. This is the head of a dead god; a dead god who died with absolute terror in his eyes. The question is, who or what kills gods? But this is just the first taste of deity murders to come.

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We move to the present day, in deep space, the Thor we know today, Mjölnir in hand, answering another prayer, but this time on a distant world. He aids these desperate aliens, bringing a storm to quench their long drought, then asks them (over some of the local ale, naturally) why they didn’t pray to their own gods for help. We have none, they answer, older among them vaguely recall tales from their parents before them of gods, but they are long gone. Curious, since almost all worlds and cultures have stories of gods, Thor investigates, soon finding the sky palace of this world’s gods. And there he finds them butchered inside, every last one. Not just killed, butchered and clearly tortured, their deaths made to last a long time. Thor has a growing sense of unease – he has seen this millennia ago and thought the God Butcher long dead. But this looks like his work, and if he has somehow returned then he knows many more gods – perhaps entire pantheons on every world – will be slaughtered…

Then we glimpse the far future – beyond even the time of Ragnarok itself, towards the end days of the universe. And in a ruined, shattered Asgard only an old and weary Thor remains, grey-haired, one-eyed, slumped upon the throne in the great hall, looking very much like his father Odin once did. His hall besieged by the God Butcher’s creatures, all other gods, even his own kith and kin, gone, fallen. He summons enough energy for one final battle, knowing he probably can’t win, but wanting to die like a Viking, on his feet and in battle. But even this may be denied to him; the God Butcher wants him beaten again and again, but not killed. Much more painful for Thor to live, the very last god in the entire universe of time and space (the Butcher even finds a way to move through time to find and kill more deities), knowing he failed – the God Butcher has kept him till last just to add that extra level of pain upon the Thunder God, to hurt him even more than he could with physical torture. The Butcher has a very “special” relationship with Thor…

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The triple timeline viewpoints Aaron constructs here aren’t just a clever narrative device to allow him to give us overlapping events eons apart, or to remind us that Thor and his fellow gods are to all practical purposes immortal, going on age after age, although they certainly function on both those levels. But that three-part structure also allows Aaron and Ribic to indulge both themselves and the reader by giving us not one but three versions of Thor at different ages. We get the not terribly smart and far too damned sure of himself young Thor, certainly powerful, brave and able, but way too cocksure and smug with it. No wonder this version has yet to prove himself worthy of Mjölnir. The thing is that young version of Thor, in a Viking setting, leading longships of Norsemen on a mission, is terrific fun and the closest to the great Norse myths of the sort of Thor who would fly up north when bored just to pick a fight with a few Frost Giants. But that Thor is also, let’s be honest, grating too, so it is perhaps as well that this tripartite story structure means he never outstays his welcome to go from brash fun to annoying. And the triple timeline approach also gives us a nice view of the Thunder God’s life, from youthful boisterousness to more mature, thoughtful, responsible hero to finally the old king, seeing him across his long lifetime, how he changes through his experiences and responsibilities (and what remains the same).

The main plot, despite the clever three-timeline structure, is essentially straightforward, a seemingly unstoppable and truly vile evil being who goes from world to world seeking gods, any gods (gods of war, gods of poetry, he doesn’t care) and who doesn’t just want to kill them, he takes pleasure in it, even more pleasure in drawing out their deaths. And as Thor uncovers more he discovers from an ancient library that records all to do with every god anywhere, gods and entire pantheons have vanished many times over the life of the universe. And yet until Thor encountered the God Butcher nobody has ever bothered to investigate why – not even Thor. Gods are jealous creatures and care little for other gods, the librarian chides him, and Thor knows it to be true and ponders what this says about his fellow deities. And then realising until his battle with the Butcher he had never given the disappeared gods a single thought, he thinks, what does it say about me?

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It’s a cracking tale, perfect Thor-fodder, mixing high fantasy with ancient myth, just as Thor should. And it’s engrossing, remorseless; we’re driven along, even Thor, by the pace and demands of the relentless God Butcher, chase, pursuit, evasion, battle. But there’s more than hunt and action here, there’s a theme about the nature of gods and those who worship them, and of belief itself, of faith but also hubris. What they are, what mortals think they are and what the gods believe of themselves, and how this shapes the realities of many mortal species on endless worlds.

In one scene we see a brave group of Viking warriors attempt to rescue Thor from the clutches of the God Butcher, who is enraged by the fact that even now these warriors will fight in his name, that they won’t see him as defeated but instead fight to the last to free him. Bravery or faith (real or misplaced)? Both? It’s a fast-paced, visceral (sometimes literally) story, well-constructed, immersive, with both Aaron and Ribic clearly relishing the story (which itself sounds like it belongs in the old Sagas) and in getting to show such different aspects to Thor across the ages. The later volumes expand on this mix of fantasy and myth and draw the reader in even deeper. Thor isn’t always the easiest character to do properly, to balance enough realism against the mythic and fantastical, but here it is done perfectly. One of the finest Thor series in years and, if you’ve been meaning to get back into the Thunder God for a while but were not sure where to start, here is your perfect way in.

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(* = okay, he’s not the god of rock and roll, but some of us can’t say line “god of thunder” without adding that line)

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Hollywood Noir, the glamour and the sleaze in The Fade Out

The Fade Out Volume 1,

Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips,

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Like all the best Noirs, The Fade Out is set in that strange, twilight realm between night and day, the everyday, normal life and the shadow world’s intrigues and weird ways, forever in the shadow of the War. It’s 1948, and places don’t come much more in-between reality and perverse fantasy than Hollywood, it’s manufactured dreams, carefully designed and polished stars and the powerful moguls behind the studios.

Charlie Parish is a screenwriter, working away on another new film, one designed to finally make Valeria Sommers the huge star the studio owner Victor Thursby thinks she should be, the “next Veronica Lake”. There are only two real problems for them – aside from the usual power plays, deviancy and gender abuse going on in Hollywood’s old studio system – but they’re fairly major problems. Charlie can’t write anymore. He tries, but the bright spark that marked him out as a rising star scriptwriter a few years ago was crushed out during the war. Fortunately his friend Gil works with him – Gil has already been blacklisted in the start of the reds-under-the-beds scare as the Cold War slowly works its way into American life, so no studio will touch him; now he works covertly with Charlie on the scripts he’s meant to be writing but can’t, a delicate but mutually beneficial arrangement.

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And the second problem? That’s slightly harder to fix than Charlie’s writer’s block. Valeria is dead, only a few pages into the story. Strangled and left lying on her living room floor. And what’s worse is a hungover Charlie wakes in her bathtub and finds the body, realising he must have come home with her after an out of control party the night before and that whoever murdered her did it while he was drunkenly asleep in the next room, totally unaware. Knowing he would be the prime suspect if discovered he carefully conceals any evidence of his own presence in her house and leaves furtively, later pretending to be shocked when Dottie, one of the studio’s press team, tells him the news of Valeria’s death.

Sick at her sudden, violent death and even sicker at the thought he’s had to lie about it to protect himself, Charlie’s already war-damaged psyche and moral guilt compass is about to be kicked in the head, when the studio’s head of security lets slip to him while talking to the police about the case that Valeria hung herself. But Charlie knows she didn’t – she was strangled, murdered, but he can’t say without admitting that he was there and covered it up. But if he doesn’t then the murderer walks free…

He looks around and can’t tell whose grief is real and who’s just putting on show in case the press is watching.”

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Naturally, in the best Noir tradition there is much more to it than this morally intriguing conundrum for Charlie – as he tries to walk a path around Valeria’s death, trying to keep his increasingly drunken, angry friend Gil on the straight and narrow (and their writing arrangement secret) the seedy, shadowy world of Hollywood draws him deeper into moral turpitude, and his sense of self-loathing and broken innocence, shattered first by his experiences in the war (like so many damaged anti-heroes of Noir fiction) then degraded more by witnessing the sleaze behind the velvet curtain of the movie world, grows, and no amount of parties or drink can still it, and every days seems to simply add more sleaze, more problems, more things he hates himself for being a part of but unable to do anything about or to walk away from, while Valeria’s presence hovers over the story, a ghost with glamour in the way only those great 30s and 40s stars could pull off.

It will surprise no-one who has read Criminal or Fatale to learn that Brubaker and Phillips have fashioned a dark labyrinth peopled by lost, damaged souls, some just slightly damaged, some truly damned, dripping with Noir imagery leavened by that beautiful 40s Hollywood glamour (Phillips creating some truly gorgeous interpretations of the film magazines of the period to show the late Valeria in real period style, pose and lighting, very recognisable to anyone who loves their film history), that beautiful but utterly artificial dream the studios sell to the audiences.

As with Criminal and Fatale, the deeper into the story, the more the moral quagmire deepens, the more the characters become lost in their own late-night labyrinthine maze of the soul, and just like reading Chandler or Hammett we’re pulled in there with them, fascinated and disgusted in equal measure, while, despite the increasing complexity Brubaker maintains a tight, well-paced narrative, perfectly partnered with Phillips’ artwork, which draws heavily on the films of the period, re-creating that perfect Noir atmosphere, be it a late-night city street or a darkened office with feeble light struggling through the slats of the blinds. You feel you ought to be wearing a Fedora while reading it.

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Beautifully crafted art by Phillips (with wonderfully moody colouring by Elizabeth Breitweiser) and sharp dialogue and perfectly honed Noir narrative by Brubaker, and that feeling that while one writes and one draws, this is real collaboration, the pair obviously operating on the same wavelength, and oh how it shows to such lovely effect in the finished tale. I could probably just have given you a much shorter review and recommendation: it’s Brubaker and Phillips – you want it.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Judas: the Last Days

Judas: the Last Days,

W Maxwell Prince, John Amor,

IDW Publishing

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I’ve very much been looking forward to reading this book, every since I saw it in IDW’s solicitations a few months ago. Knowing little about it or the creators save what was in the description, it was one of those books that triggered that vibe I get sometimes that tells me I want to check out a particular book. I was also intrigued enough by the idea of a book exploring a long life of an undying Judas Iscariot to ask the author, William Maxwell Prince, if he would like to do one of our guest Director’s Commentary posts (where we give the space to the creators to talk about their new work in their own words, any way they want), and what he said in his guest post just confirmed my bookselling Spidey sense that I really wanted to read this. I was not disappointed; in fact I found Judas delivered rather more than I was expecting.

He had forgiven me before the first lie even spilled from my lips. And that only makes it worse… There was this just this way… He concentrated on you, loved you, even at your worse.”

When we first meet Judas, it’s fair to say he is not a terribly happy bunny – his immortality weighs heavily on him, along with his infamous betrayal. Two thousand years of wandering the world since he betrayed Christ, lamenting a world and people who don’t really change, who keep making the same awful mistakes again and again. And he himself, despairing, wishing dearly to simply end it, but he can’t – he can’t die, he doesn’t even bleed, as we find out in several flashbacks to parts of his two millennia history, including, notably, one scene with the infamous Doctor Mengele in the death camps of the Third Reich as he experiments on prisoners (also dovetailing nicely with the well-documented Nazi fascination for occult secrets and their eagerness to gain any powers for their own ends). We soon see him entering a secret place, a hidden library, staffed with gnome-like librarians, who keep all the stories of the peoples of the world, including his. Surely they can tell him how he can simply die? But no, his story is fixed.

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And so he goes to seek out old friends – very old friends, as it turns out. Judas isn’t alone, each of the apostles is also immortal, and each has found a different way to adapt to their unending lives. And spreading the Word, even if that was what they most wanted in the earliest days, doesn’t really seem to figure in most of their lives today. Matthew is a cross-dressing lover of carnal delights (including pimping for demonic and other supernatural beings) and Paul (the Lesser) is a bloated mountain of a man, gorging on food, drink and drugs. Except with his immortal physique he can swallow, snort or inject as many drugs as he wants but never really gets high. And Paul… Well, let’s not spoil anything, other than to say Paul, by his own admission, “loves a pulpit” and prefers a high place from which to preach. Except these days his preaching seems to be more about remaking things in his own view and boy has he picked a high position indeed… And all of them know Judas wants to end his immortal existence. And some of them know that even among twelve immortal disciples he is rather special…

And I’m not going any deeper into the narrative, partly because I don’t want to spoil things but also because discussing the main plot points here wouldn’t really do the book justice; Judas does indeed have a fascinating narrative, but it is really one of those reads to be experienced rather than just absorbing a story. In fact in many ways this is a story about stories, about the world, faith (religious or in another person, or sometimes both), it’s about how some special peoples – some might call prophets or even extensions of a godhead – become so remarkable because they have learned to start seeing the world in a different way. And not just see it in a different way but realising that their thoughts and beliefs, especially shared with others, can alter and change the world, change people, change reality. And that’s a process that never ends, because this is about the power of stories and ideas, and ideas, the truly good, important ones, are not static, the Word is not just what was inscribed on a tablet millennia ago, never to be changed or deviated from, it’s just a tool, a key, a device to help expand your own doors of perception and develop your own ways of seeing a different world. It’s fascinating.

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What if I told you there was no such thing as a truth? That anything, any idea, can be turned on its head and made into something better… A single loaf of bread can be multiplied into infinite pieces. A man can walk on water. You, me, those men you’re after, we can all live forever. You just have to know how to change a story.

The story manages an intoxicating mixture of religion, philosophy and fantasy, with an added dab of conspiracy theory, and yet I didn’t think it was disrespectful to the source religion, if anything it highlighted the remarkable nature of Jesus and the love the disciples had for him, but also their feelings of loss when he was removed from their presence (and poor Judas, damning himself for his role in that, but at the same time, wasn’t his role a necessary part of that narrative, a requirement to enable this changing shape of the world to the new, better story that The Word promised, to allow Him to be reborn, even more powerful, transfigured?). John Amor has to handle a huge amount of variety in his artwork – Biblical scenes, various other historical scenes, the present day world and some flights of pure fantasy and changing realities, (and he has to keep the main immortal character recognisable in each of those historical segments), a tall order, but one which he pulls off well. It’s a fascinating work, and one which will demand repeated readings (I’ve already found myself going back over it a couple of times), and one of those intriguing books that plants nice little idea seeds in your brain that will tickle away, tantalising your mind. It’s also one of those books where, because it is about the ideas and concepts it is conjuring up in your mind, maddeningly difficult to do justice to in a review, because each person will see those ideas a bit differently. Judas is a book which, I think, will especially appeal to those who enjoyed works like Gaiman’s Sandman, Mignola’s Hellboy and Carey’s Lucifer. Much recommended.

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This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog

Wrinkles: achingly beautiful, warm sensitive tale by Spanish creator Paco Roca

Wrinkles,

Paco Roca,

Knockabout

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Yes, I know James has already reviewed this (see here) a few weeks ago ahead of it’s release, but there are some books which you can’t resist posting another review of, they get too deeply into your thoughts and emotions. And since it is now on shelves and would be too easily overlooked I think it’s alright to indulge in a second opinion and commend a remarkable reading experience to your attention.

There are still many more interesting comic works coming out in Europe that we don’t get to see here, but thankfully things have improved in recent years, with more translations and more English language editions appearing via some quality publishers like Knockabout, who have translated (another good job by Nora Goldberg – the translators, like editors, often get too easily overlooked for their contribution) Paco Roca’s absolutely beautiful Wrinkles, a gorgeous, funny, sensitive book about family, friends, getting older, declining health.

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Our central character, Ernest, a retired bank manager, finds himself being dumped into a care home as his dementia slowly increases, all but abandoned by his son and his family (it isn’t just that they can’t give him the extra care he needs at home, that would stretch a saint’s patience, but his son makes it clear he has little in the way of plans to even visit the old man once he is in the home, as he is “busy”) – you may expect this to be a downer, an old man dumped into a waiting room for the terminally declining. And while Roca doesn’t shy away from the human tragedy of both body and mind slowly betraying us as we age, this is not an especially sad tale.

Those who can’t manage on their own anymore finish up there… Those who have lost their minds, dementia, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s… Better to die than end up there.”

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True there are sad moments, but they are the “beautifully sad” variety that make you smile as much as cry. And for the most part Roca injects the story with humour and some wonderful characters. These people are old, their marbles are slowly being lost one by one as their condition worsens – the “walking wounded” who can still take care of themselves live on the ground floor – the stairs to the upper floor, an ominous presence in their lives, lead to the ward where those too far gone to perform even the most basic functions for themselves are taken to wait in bewilderment for the end, all dignity gone.

Arriving at the home Ernest is introduced to the various characters who live there, including, most prominently, Émile, who will be his room-mate. And old Émile is quite a character, a scoundrel, but a charming one – you get the impression he was a bit of a Jack-the-lad in his younger years, and he has a nice sideline in scamming some of the more mentally impaired residents for a few Euros here and there, building up a little pile of money that he uses to great effect later on in a major scene for him, Émile and some of the others.

Ernest, as perhaps befits an old-fashioned bank manager, is a little distrustful of the chancey Émile, and yet the two start to form a friendship in this, their declining years, and with the other few residents who still have enough mental integrity left to look after themselves, a small band of very different people from different walks of life, brought together by their shared conditions and aware of how little time is left to them before the fog in their minds swallows all that made them individuals. But there are still sparks of life – old Eugene in the physio session managing to trick the attractive nurse into leaning right over him to help so he can then cop a feel of her breasts (much to the amusement of all the other eldsters).

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And others are in a dreamlike form of escapist fantasy, such as Mrs Rose, who stares out the window all day, but in her head she is looking out the window of a carriage of the Orient Express, on her way to Istanbul, Europe passing before her eyes, and she is young and elegant again; she can still interact with the other patients, but only seeing them as fellow passengers. Rose is lost from the real world, but, like Don Quixote or Gaiman’s Emperor Joshua Norton before her, she is happy in her fantasy, happier than her real-life situation could ever make her; her mind has concocted an escape route that keeps her content and really, you don’t want them to do what they did to the Don and make her face the harsh reality; let her dream happily whatever days she has left.

In some ways this is like a 1980s high school romp film – the ‘inmates’ usually have to follow rules and schedules, but sometimes they like to play up, or even indulge in some Ferris Bueller style “day off” time and escape the confines of the care home (it doesn’t go quite as well as Bueller’s day). And indeed the school allegory is one Rosa touches on directly, Ernest’s damaged memory on his first day in the home flashing all the way back to childhood and his first day at school, both daunting, emotional moments where we feel adrift and alone, unsure of ourselves or where we are.

Then there is Émile, who for all his faults, does seem to come to care genuinely for Ernest, helping him as his condition deteriorates. They are pals, and both know their time is limited, Ernest in particular showing increasing signs of mental deterioration. And of course, it continues to deteriorate – the only fantasy here is in the damaged brains of the patients, the rest is the real world, and in the real world, unfortunately, we know all too damned well that these conditions worsen until one days there is nothing left of the person who was once so vital.

In one heartbreaking but incredibly touching scene, after Ernest is given his Alzheimer’s diagnosis by the doctor, he asks Émile to show him that upper floor, where the hopeless go. It’s worse than he thought, and he knows he is potentially looking at his own very near future, mind gone, but body still ticking over, and he begs Émile, his new friend, please help me, don’t let me end up there. And Émile, bless his normally scoundrel-like heart, tries to help his friend, the two sharing reading and discussion because they heard this helps keep the brain going against the deterioration. And both knowing it probably won’t work, especially when Ernest tells him he’s read some Marquez (the remarkable Love in a Time of Cholera), but then can’t remember what it was about…

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There’s no happy ending here, no sudden miracle cures; Roca depicts this quietly, subtly, a sudden empty chair at lunch signifying another gone to the upper floor, while he uses the comics medium to give us glimpses into the deteriorating minds of the patients in a way no other narrative structure could, skipping between flashbacks and imagined fantasy scenes to the real setting, or that sad yet lovely image on the cover of Ernest, head out the train window, photographs – his memories – spilling out into the slipstream, and yet he is with Mrs Rose on the Orient Express, and seemingly happy. There’s a sad sense of inevitability here, the darkening future bearing down on all of them and there’s nothing they can do about it; old age, illness, death, sureties for all human, rich and poor, since the dawn of mankind. And yet still Wrinkles resolutely refuses to be gloomy. And when the reading scheme fails to improve Ernest’s memory, his wily friend then resorts to his trickster ways to help Ernest evade the upper floor for as long as he can.

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It’s an achingly beautiful bit of work by Roca, with much gentle humour laced through it all. This could have remained as sensitive as it is but been much more serious and darker in tone, but I am so glad he opted for the lighter touch. Not just because it leavens the darker aspects (we know all of these people only have a short time left, and, worse, that most of them will lose their minds before the end, leaving just a body that no longer knows itself or its family or friends, a wretched situation too many families have to slowly endure). But because it reminds us that everyday life, even at that advanced age, even in a place like a care home, still throws up funny moments, little laughs, interactions with friends – in short all the little things that make up our days and make life bearable. Despite what is facing them, despite being left where they are, these people are still alive and still human, Rosa is saying, and he gives them all, even the supporting cast, real character and make us care for them, root for them.

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Wonderfully, humanly warm, emotive, funny, sensitive, and cleverly exploiting the abilities of the comics medium to tell a story in a way only a comic could. A scant few weeks into the New Year and already I know this will feature on my Best of the Year list come December.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

What do you do with a problem like Lucia?

Lucia Hardcover,
Andy Hixon,
Jonathan Cape

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Andy Hixon first came onto my radar when he created the rather unique-looking artwork for Ravi Thornton’s Tale of Brin and Bent and Minno Marylebone tale, and his highly unusual artwork was a perfect match for that story which veered between seedy, grim realities and magical fantasy. Like the great Dave McKean Andy mixes drawn art with sculpted figures and model sets and montage work, creating imagery that, to me, looked like still from an animated film, something the Brothers Quay or Jan Svankmajer might create, with that quite intoxicating, contrasting feeling of very down at heels, grim reality against a sense of the more fantastical, hope mixed with the grotesque, creating a similar feeling perhaps to that in the best League of Gentlemen episodes.

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In this, his solo full-length work, this artistic approach serves him well, suiting the story perfectly. We follow two main characters, Brick and Morty, a pair of broken, damaged characters adrift in the uncaring, crumbling society of today, living on the edge. Literally on the edge and crumbling – their derelict seaside town, Lucia, is slowly dissolving into the waves, the only house Morty and Brick can afford is right on the cliff edge, next in line to vanish as the cliffs crumble into the sea.

On both the physical and the societal scale, these men are on the edge and that edge is eroding out from under them daily, with nowhere else to go. Morty is a wheelchair-bound man who has seen better days, a wife, dreams of a decent life together, of a career as a respected writer, Brick lives in a delusional state, convinced he will, if he keeps training, become the Ultimate Fighting Welterweight champion of the world. Despite being a tiny, skinny wee bloke who’s not terribly smart. His profile on his website and his dating platform are full of totally imaginary conquests of Herculean effort; while Morty dreams of a return to better times poor Brick seems to really believe his own fabrications and delusions.

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But when you look around Lucia you can easily see why Brick chooses to hide in his made-up world where he can be this physically impressive champion; Lucia is a dreadful place, a sort of purgatory almost, where damaged souls wait without hope. Perhaps like Walter Mitty or Don Quixote before him, Brick needs those delusions – hell, we all need little daydreams sometimes to make the harder parts of life more bearable. But with such a bleak environment, so grim, so hopeless, you can’t blame the little guy for believing in his dream, that if he keeps going he will be what he imagines himself to be, even though he never, ever will be. And like Quixote before him the reader comes to love him, not in spite of his delusions, but because of them, and to not want them to be broken, because to expose him to cold reality, even if it could be done (he is pretty far gone into his own world), it would break him. His own form of dreaming madness keeps him together in this awful world.

No such escape for Morty though, his body broken but his mind still sharp, able to contemplate their situation as they pass boarded up shops on the seafront, like many old seaside towns once a hub of family holidays, nowadays derelict and empty save for the “gold for cash” pawn shops, the bookies and the employment exchange (which in a very symbolic scene is actually in a street already swallowed by the sea, but being a tall office block they just moved the offices up to the floors above the tide mark, meaning you have to row over on a boat to claim your job seeker’s allowance – and naturally if you can’t get to this awkward place you are cut from your benefits).

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But I don’t want to give the impression this is one, long gloomy trip. True, both Lucia and its inhabitants of strange, twisted grotesques evoke a sense of abandonment, of the inevitable crumbling of society, alluding to the state of post financial crash and Coalition-government Britain of bedroom tax on the disabled and entire swathes of the most vulnerable failed or outright abandoned by the older social nets that were there to help them back on their feet. And sadness does permeate – a scene of Morty outside the pawn shop, contemplating his golden wedding ring, all he has left of his previous life, is heartbreaking, all the more so because we know real people are making similar choices in the legions of these businesses up and down every town in the country.

And yet this is not a gloom-fest. I likened the look and feel to the League of Gentlemen earlier, and just like that wonderfully bizarre show this can go from pathos or plain disturbing to incredibly funny (even if it is dark and often grotesque humour). One scene in the cafe sees the bizarre owner described thusly “Wendy looks like a retired dinner lady, who regularly holidays in a timeshare in Chernobyl.”Cruel but also funny and even the cruel nature of the phrase is leavened by more text which again shows empathy for these poor, lost, bizarre characters. And despite the grim situation there’s warmth and love in the relationship of Brick and Morty, Brick supposedly Morty’s carer (and he does help him with his disability to be fair), but often it is Morty looking out for his delusional little chum. Two damaged souls, rejected from the “aspirational” society, living precariously on the edge of a fading town that is itself living on the edge of a damaged country.

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And yet they work well together; together, despite all the odds, they get by (just) and there is something heart-warming in the way they look after one another in this dark world. And while he fashions grotesque versions of human beings, Andy also imbues them, especially Brick and Morty, with a lot of emotion, a lot of humanity in those- odd, disturbing, misshapen faces and bodies; it’s wonderful how his art wrings such emotion from the characters and so much empathy from the readers. It’s dark, disturbing, a black parallel of the failed parts of our own society, of towns where the only shops still thriving are pawnshops and the people are downtrodden and yet somehow not quite broken. Damaged, yes, but not entirely broken, still holding on in any way they can, and the strange friendship of Brick and Morty is their way through this crushing world. Both grotesque and yet beautiful, grim but funny, Lucia is utterly engrossing and Andy is a creator to watch out for.

You can read a guest Director’s Commentary post by Andy talking about Lucia here on the FP blog. This review was originally penned for the FP blog

Praise for To End All Wars…

Possibly the most moving piece is the final one of the book, Joe Gordon’s impassioned prose ‘Memorial to the Mothers‘ illustrated by Kate Charlesworth. A simple reminder that for every male name we see on a war memorial there was at least one other wounded person, the mothers and wives who bore the terrible brunt of the criminal throwing away of their loved ones’ lives. Apart from this there was nothing in the volume that quite reached the heights of Mills and Colquhoun’s Charley’s War, or Jacques Tardi’s It was the War of the Trenches for me.”

Eamonn Clarke writing about World War One comics anthology To End All Wars in Everything Comes Back to 2000 AD, and, in the above quote, more specifically on my own story in that collection, edited by Jonathan Clode and Brick. I’ve fiddled with stories pretty much all my life, on and off, but after we lost my mum so suddenly several years ago I lost any urge to write narratives. I was still writing professionally with articles, interviews and reviews, but the spark that made me want to write stories, even if they never went anywhere other than my own blog, had gone out. Two years ago Brick asked me if I would put out a call on the Forbidden Planet Blog that they were looking for writers and artists to submit stories for consideration for a charity anthology they were compiling, as an antidote to some of the bollocks we all knew we would be said in relation to the centenary of the start of the Great War. During this Brick saw one of my many photos I snap around town, this one of an unusual war grave, just moments from my flat in Edinburgh, a father and son, father fallen in the War to End All Wars, his lad in the world war that followed it…

Brick commented there was a story behind that and maybe I should try my hand at submitting something for consideration myself. At first all that sprang to mind were fairly cliched stories, and I wasn’t interested in that. I wanted something different and above all I wanted emotion. If I couldn’t make at least some of the readers feel chocked up reading it then I wasn’t inteersting in writing it. What good is a story that doesn’t evoke an emotional response? All art should create emotion. And given I was using real people and their loss as inspiration, it had to evoke emotion or it simply wouldn’t be right. An idea came to me, that apart from the father and son there was another name that should be on there, as much a casualty as any soldier: the wife and mother. Her husband then her boy taken from her by this insatiable beast of War that even supposedly “civilised” nations consider an adequate way to conduct themselves. And from that, by extension, every war memorial in the world with their engraved names also should have behind them the names of the mothers of the fallen.

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And there was my emotional ‘in’ to the story. I started writing, for the first time since we lost mum I started writing a story and I think I poured my own sense of loss and grief into it. But to be honest I wasn’t sure if it would mean much to anyone other than me, but Brick and Jonathan liked the emotion in it (in fact among their editorial notes they said don’t hold back, pour it all in, so I did). The collection was published this summer by Indy comics folks Soaring Penguin Press, with £2 from each sale going to Medecins Sans Frontieres, the medical charity (currently dealing with victims of war zones and Ebola, so let’s face it, they need every pound they can get) and I have been pleased at its reception. Also as someone who has been involved with the Edinburgh International Book Festival for years it was pleasing to be there chairing talks and see, for the first time, a book I had a part in being on sale in their bookstore. And I loved the art my partner in crime Kate Charlesworth came up with for the story (Kate also did the art for one of my favourite books of 2014 with Mary and Bryan Talbot, Sally Heathcote, Suffragette). Have seen some nice mentions for the collection but have to say I’m pretty damned happy at Eamonn’s comments on mine and Kate’s piece in the collection. It’s not why we do these things, but it’s still pretty nice to see we reached someone. Several moths ago Pat Mills commented to me that he enjoyed the emotional depth of the story, and since I have been reading Pat’s stories since I was a kid that pretty much made my week, and now seeing it compared to the emotional impact of Pat’s astonishing Charley’s War and Tardi (another of my comics gods) and his WWI stories is pretty damned pleasing.

 

The collected Monsieur Jean

Monsieur Jean : From Bachelor To Father Hardcover,

Dupuy and Berberian,

Humanoids

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French comic creators Philippe Dupuy and Charles Berberian are somewhat unusual – instead of the normal writer-artist collaboration, both creators write the plots, dialogue and share duties on the pencils and inks, making their acclaimed Monsieur Jean series a truly collaborative body of work (indeed it’s pretty hard to tell which of them created which elements, which is rather nice actually). I’ve had a huge soft spot for their Monsieur Jean series for many years (even struggling through a couple in French) and their track record is impressive, with multiple nominations and awards at the prestigious Angoulême bande dessinee festival, including being awarded the Grand Prix, an award chosen by a jury of former winners to honour a body of work by creators and generally held by many who love quality comics work to be one of the highest honours in the comics world.

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(the busybody concierge who runs the apartment block and her low opinion of Jean – until she sees him on television being interviewed as an acclaimed author!)

This large, new collection from Humanoids is a most welcome English-language compilation of the early Monsieur Jean works – some five comic albums in one volume – by Dupuy and Berberian. One of the aspects of Monsieur Jean I have always enjoyed is that he ages with the reader, each new album seeing him a bit older – rarely wiser! We may learn more but we also make more mistakes as we get older! – seeing his friends and family growing and evolving around him. Reading a large collection in one go like this really brings that aspect home and I found it increased my appreciation for the series and also it made this fictional character far more real to me, more easy to empathise and sympathise with as he goes through all those ups and downs that life throws up.

Jean himself is a writer, living in Paris, a confirmed bachelor, happy to dive into romance – and like many of us, perhaps to quick sometimes, too rapidly smitten – but obviously rather hesitant when it comes to serious commitment. Which is fine when you are younger, but as he goes through his twenties and into his thirties and he finds most of his friends are now married and then – oh the horror! – they start having children, he sometimes finds himself with that peculiar ennui. Not especially wanting to be married and have kids himself yet, but feeling odd as all the people he grew up with have moved on to that stage of life he’s not really ready for himself yet. A scene where he tries phoning around a lot of the friends in his little phonebook only to find each of them is too busy with various domestic engagements to simply go out with him for drinks and a movie at a moment’s notice is one that many singles will identify with, as they too find old friends who used to live for going out are now simply too busy with ‘domestic bliss’.

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(oh dear, sounds like she may be wanting more commitment than Jean is happy with...)

We meet the whole gang as these various volumes collected here unfold – old chum Clement, who is now the seemingly successful, confident businessman and married man, but who can also be a bit full of himself and like other married friends of Jean’s, enjoys teasing him about his romantic life and sometimes trying to set him up with someone when they go away on a trip (while you also sometimes get the impression he might slightly envy Jean’s single life and success at making a living by writing rather than at business). There’s Felix, of course, who is pretty much Jean’s best friend, but who is frequently a bit of a disaster. Everyone has a friend like Felix – a good guy, well-intentioned, but the one who turns up hours late for things, who seems to float through life without really taking responsibility (work, parenting), and yet because none of this is done with malice, more a sort of dream-like absent-mindedness, and because of his charm, everyone, although often exasperated by him, still loves him too.

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(having a friend’s screaming child dumped on you while he wanders around absent mindedly – good ‘ole Felix at his best)

And then there are the women who move through Jean’s life (his parents over dinner always raising the subject – when will you settle down, when will we have grandchildren; who among us has never had that at some point?). Some are one-offs, a quick fling with someone he met at a party, others develop into something more, making him happy with the romance but also bringing out Jean’s inbuilt worries about long-time commitment, which frequently manifest themselves in wonderfully weird dreams. One dream recurs several times, Jean as the lord of the castle, surrounded by his men-at-arms, in his stronghold where he can’t be touched, but, oh look, isn’t that Cathy? Cathy who broke his heart when he was so young and tender? And here she is, years later, still beautiful, and knocking at his door. Lower the drawbridge! Ah, but, Sire, are you sure you want to let her into the keep once more, imagine the damage she could do again…

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(A popular Parisian landmark to just stand and be still on your own or with someone special, the bridge over the Canal St Martin)

Jean, appropriately enough for a writer, is a bit of a dreamer, not just in his sleep but with little fantasy daydreams – the sort of thing we all use a bit of to help us get through the day. And reading such a large collection I was reminded that while Dupuy and Berberian largely keep events here as a slice of real life (work, relationships, kids, bills, but handled with a deft, light touch) these dream sequences allow them to also include a nice fantasy element occasionally (often with some nicely surreal, dream-like imagery, frequently bloody funny but also in a way most of us will identify with, because we all share the same worries). I’ve said before of Monsieur Jean that if Woody Allen had been French and a comics creator instead of film-maker, he might have made something not a million miles from these stories – if you are fond of Allen, especially that superb mid 70s to 80s period where he balanced life, drama and humour so well in many films – then I suspect you will love the world of Monsieur Jean. And as I mentioned earlier, going back to these early volumes is not just a pleasure, it is an enhanced pleasure – reading several albums in one collection like this was, for me, so much more than just re-reading works I loved years ago, it really deepened my appreciation for the character, for Dupuy and Berberian’s skill in both they narrative and the artistic devices they employ so effectively (it’s wonderfully confident, considered comic work, and like the best work it’s only when you stop and go back you realise how much fine skill went into making it seem so effortless for you to read and grasp), and then there are nice little touches like Parisian landmarks such as the footbridge over the Canal St Martin.

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(one of the surreal dreams as Jean’s fear of commitment sees his castle of the mind under siege from women he has loved firing babies over the walls)

From the trials and delights of single life to getting older, suddenly finding yourself responsible for looking after an ill friend’s child (the bachelor’s nightmare!) through relationships looking for the “one” (aren’t we all?) and to simply maturing, changing as we get older, trying to fit into new roles but still wanting to keep elements of our earlier selves because they are important to us. It’s life’s rich tapestry – the problems, the delights, the ups and downs, the big stuff (children, success in your chosen profession) and the little things (the annoying concierge and her annoying quirks), it’s all here and in this concentrated form it’s even more of a pleasure to sink into and lose yourself in. Hugely respected on the Continent, sadly less well-known to many English language readers, hopefully this very welcome Humanoids collection will go some way to redressing that. Some classic –and award-winning – modern European comics that should be on the shelf of anyone interested in quality comics works.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

The clockwork worlds – Edginton and Culbard’s glorious Brass Sun

Brass Sun Hardcover,

Ian Edginton, Ian Culbard,

Rebellion

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A thousand times a thousand years ago the Blind Watchmaker set the wheel of worlds upon the firmament. And upon those worlds he set the lost tribes of man. Each planet and populous were tasked with their own form and function – each a fine movement. A celestial increment within the greater machine.”

For me, ever since I first saw one in a museum as a very young boy there has been something enchanting about an Orrery, those beautiful, intricate old clockwork and brass moving models of the solar system, little brass and copper planets rotating around a brass sun, tiny metal moons around the planets, each orbiting in their own path and time. Of course cosmology has moved on and today we are confronted by a universe that seems infinitely more complex, and we’ve barely scratched the surface of even our tiny local neighbourhood of it all. And yet that relatively simple clockwork, moving model of the solar system still holds a certain magical fascination, all the heavens displayed at a human scale, in a simple, ordered fashion even a child can understand. Now take that child-like fascination and scale it up – right up – to planetary levels and we have The Orrery, an actual series of real worlds set on their metal rings to orbit their sun like the clockwork model.

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It’s a simple but utterly dazzling and wonderful notion and right from the start it affords us some truly glorious science fiction artwork as Ian Culbard delivers achingly beautiful splash pages, from the intricate cogs of the clockwork mechanism (and even in our day of digital tech and touch screens, isn’t there still something delightful about moving machinery of intricate clockwork?) and then pulling back to show us this astonishing solar system, all the little worlds mounted on their stands and rotating around one another and their sun on a clockwork system of wheels and cogs and gears (you can see a preview on the blog here). I think I fell in love with this story right at that early point.

Now imagine that this clockwork solar system is slowly winding down, the environment in the worlds is changing. Like our own world they face environmental change and possible collapse, and like too many in authority in our own world some are ignoring the facts, or in the religious world young Wren lives in, any attempt to use science to examine the changes and devise a plan is seen as heresy, leading to a death sentence. But in the best traditions of the epic quest tale this young woman is about to be catapulted onto an immense journey, and the fate of all these clockwork worlds will be in her hands, as her grandfather, once the high priest, now secret scientist, entrusts her with the knowledge he has gleaned and, as things fall apart on their world, sends her alone, fleeing, beyond all that she has known.

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Wren finds herself “riding the rails” – the connecting spars that make up this gargantuan Orrery, engineering spaces from its construction, and fortunately for her she meets some of the few who still attempt to study and maintain it, engineers, and a young apprentice befriends her and, again in finest quest tale tradition joins her, the pair travelling further and further, seeking the broken parts of a key her grandfather thinks can fix the slowly declining Orrery, all the time wondering about the nature of the “Blind Watchmaker” who may, or may not, be the creator of this entire, amazing series of interlinked worlds.

I was reminded several times of Ursula Le Guin’s superb Earthsea, not the story so much, but rather the small, different but connected worlds of Brass Sun putting me in mind of the archipelago of islands from Le Guin’s wonderful fantasy classic, while the adventure and quest elements are familiar from any number of fantasy tales, not to mention the original myths which fed those fantasies – an epic-scale journey into the unknown, dangers on all sides, finding new friends along the way who will be true no matter what (and how their emotional bonding also bonds the reader to them, invests us not just in the big-scale wonder of the tale but in the person-level emotions), and how Wren will have to change and grow on her journey, as all the best heroes always have to .

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It’s an achingly gorgeous looking piece of Clockpunk science fiction, and we’ve raved about it as we followed the serialisation in the pages of the much-beloved stalwart of Brit comics, 2000 AD (almost four decades on and still nurturing new work like this). But it’s not just the beauty of the art and the concept, it is a cracking adventure tale, a magnificent quest for our young, untried heroes, who are going to have to grow up fast and face all sorts of challenges, some physical (dangerous environments, nasty people trying to kill them, many now ignorant of how the Orrery was created, or of the other worlds), some mental (the sheer challenge of continuing on into the unknown, the burden placed on such young shoulders), some metaphysical (religion, science, both dealing with the nature of belief and what happens if those beliefs prove to be wrong), and with a subtle message about managing our own environment.

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It is a tale to let yourself fall into, to become hopelessly entangled into it until the Orrery and its characters feel almost real to you (just all the best quest tales have always done, drawn us so very deeply in until we feel we are part of their epic journey). And oh, that glorious artwork. I’ve always held that science fiction and fantasy delivers one quality more than any other literary genre: the sheer sense of wonder. And here Edginton and Culbard will fill your head with wonder and beauty and danger and daring. One of the finest series of the year, now collected into a handsome hardback edition, an absolute must-have. As I said, a story to let yourself fall in love with.

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Review: Grandville Noel, Bryan Talbot’s finest yet

Grandville: Noel,

Bryan Talbot,

Jonathan Cape

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The fourth album of Bryan Talbot’s magnificent Grandville series arrives from Cape (just in time for you to add to your Christmas “I-Want” list). Each of the preceding three volumes has made my Best of the Year list, I’ve absolutely loved them. Talbot, of course, is more than a very gifted artist, he’s a superb storyteller, not just in terms of creating a cracking narrative to draw you in and filling it with wonderfully realised characters, but also because as you read his books you can feel the thought and care that has gone into each panel, even slight touches  added with great deftness to achieve just the effect on the reader that is required (and I know full well there will be techniques and devices employed which are almost inivsible to the reader but picked up subliminally, adding to the effect in the way a tiny pinch of herbs mixes with other, larger, more obvious ingredients in the perfect dish). Grandville: Noel not only carries on this tradition, I think it surpasses it: pitch perfect story, the balance between adventure and humour, bravery and shock, the elements that clearly draw on current worries in our own society (something the best science fiction has always been good at) and some glorious artwork to give us the finest Grandville volume yet.

We start thousands of miles from this Steampunk alternative Paris, in the compound of a religious cult in America, being surrounded by baying citizens, held back by police as the army is deployed; you don’t need a knowledge of Jonestown or Waco to realise that this is not going to end well. But before the place can be stormed the messiah of this particular cult – a remarkably rare unicorn going under the name Apollo – appears before the robed cult members, telling them they are all now about to ascend to a new level of being… Sadly this approach to a supposedly higher form of being is, like the infamous Heaven’s Gate cult incident, is taken by ingesting poison. However, Apollo himself, his old, now broken down mentor and a power hungry Gryphon (another rare creature) and a few truly brutal-looking guards (all of them pigs) have not taken the poison and instead flee to a prepared airship. All of this happens within the first half dozen pages.

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But what of our large badger chum Inspector LeBrock of the Yard and his solid companion detective Ratzi? The pair have something rare for those who work for the emergency services – a festive period off. Ratzi retires to his large home and family, leaving LeBrock on his own. Noticing his landlady is upset he soon encourages her to explain what’s wrong: her sister’s daughter has run off, just a young, teenage girl. Naturally our gallant badger undertakes an investigation of his own, picking up small clues the local police overlooked, which soon lead him to a religious cult via a believer on the streets nearby giving out leaflet (leading to some superb expressions, not least on the religious zealot’s face as LeBrock bears down on him. It isn’t long before the trail of the missing girl, Bunty, leads our intrepid inspector back to Paris and the new headquarters of Apollo and his followers, along the way taking in a joyful reunion with Billie, the Parisian lady of the night who LeBrock is rather keen on, his old friend in the French detective service and tangling in both a new gang war as a vicious but remarkably rarely-seen new kingpin, Tiberius Koenig (yes, there is a clue in that name, which I shall not spoil) who has been taking over all criminal operations in Grandville, and also a search for fabled – possibly mythical, perhaps real – religious documents that could reveal something shocking (and which Apollo also wants), as well as a growing civil unrest by the ‘doughfaces’ (derogatory terms for humans) demanding equal rights (including a cameo from a couple of very familiar faces!), and in the absence of Ratzi a new partner events push him to working with, a doughface cowboy from Pinkertons, “Chance Lucas”, a gunslinger who can pretty much outdraw his own shadow (yes, I think  you can guess which famous comic character he alludes to!).

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And the brief summary of Grandville: Noel doesn’t really give you more than a small taste, but I am reluctant to spoil it for you with too much in the way of narrative detail, because it is an absolute cracker of a plot, buzzing along happily and a terrific pace, developing nicely, the main thrust carrying on swiftly but Talbot still allowing plenty of space to work in some increasingly blossoming romance with Billie and LeBrock, some bonding with Chance, some sidebar elements which at first seem to be merely adding some interesting detail to the history of the Grandville universe but which are woven back into the later narrative with great deftness, and also managing to layer in some elements which comment on topical modern concerns, not least the alarming growth of right-wing extremism and xenophobia across Europe and the way both religious and political leaders can use whipping up hatred of one group and playing on exaggerated fears to manipulate many into supporting actions they would never otherwise countenance (which even in this alternative reality includes some iconography, uniforms and rhetoric that look chillingly familiar, a reminder of where this sort of ‘hunger politics’ leads to). And then the cream and cherries on top of some beautifully done references, executed with a much lighter – and more effective – hand than some of the references dropped into later LOEG books, for example, including, appropriately enough given the nature of this story and the Apollo character, some religious allusions, such as a Last Supper scene.

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And again without going into to much in the way of potentially spoiler-territory details, there’s also a deeply satisfying feeling, especially in the latter third of the book, of the events of this book and the preceding three contributing to some major events which feel like they will be bearing down in the future on LeBrock, a very pleasurable feeling of everything coming nicely together into a larger story and sequence of events. We also get some fascinating glimpses into the history of the universe Grandville exists in, with Talbot, not for the first time, making a nice odd to some Moorcockian ideas of realities. Both of these elements of greater events building and the increased detail of this alternate, Steampunk, animal–dominated world seriously add to the depth and feel of not just this book, but the entire series so far. The art is, as you would expect, superb – I’ve already noted some of the wonderful close-ups Talbot executes of the characters and their expressions, while the cityscape of Grandville, this Steampunk Paris, remains as visually ravishing as ever, while on the smaller scale there is some fantastic layering effects – breath misting in the cold of a winter’s day, snow flakes falling – which contribute to giving an almost three dimensional feel to some panels, a true feeling of depth, be it a small street scene of characters talking in a snowy street or a huge splash page of dashing action as Lebrock leaps from an explosion. Adventure, conspiracy, hidden histories, religious and political plots, the dangers of intolerance, some comedy, some romance, heroics… Really, what more can you ask for? Simply superb, the finest Grandville yet – I read this twice, back to back on a train journey, I feel like another read and also like having a nice re-read through the first three volumes again too. Lose yourself in it.

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Review: Batwoman – Elegy

Batwoman: Elegy,
Greg Rucka, JH Williams III,
DC Comics

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That bat they shine in the sky… Civilians think it’s a call for help. The bad guys think it’s a warning… But it’s more than that. It’s something higher. It’s a call to arms… I’ve found my way to serve. I finally found a way to serve.”

The New 52 Batwoman has been one of my favourite monthly reads, not least with the first couple of years of the run when JH Williams III was co-writing and doing the artwork. But not long before The New 52 reset the DC universe Williams collaborated with the brilliant Greg Rucka (who has given us so many tales, including the brilliant Queen & Country), and the result was this superb Batwoman story, Elegy. A new character appears, the mentally unbalanced Alice, who seems to be obsessed with Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (leading Batwoman to inform her rather tartly that Gotham already has a Carroll-inspired villain). And this bizarre, damaged character seems set on becoming the new all-high leader of a bizarre cult of crime, a cult which Kate Kane has tangled with before.

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But there’s so much more going on here than a new villain and threat to Gotham; Alice is not just another psychologically bizarre supervillain come to make her mark on Gotham, there’s a deeper connection, a personal one, to Kate herself, although she doesn’t realise this at first, and it will change many things for her. While we have this struggle in the present, Elegy is also intercut with scenes from Kate’s past, from childhood with her twin sister to the death of her mother and sister, then growing up, becoming an outstanding officer cadet, determined to serve in the army like her father, the Colonel, only to have her dream brought to a sudden halt – this was the time when homosexuality was not allowed in the armed forces and Kate, a lesbian, is dismissed. Such is the respect for her dedication to her work her commanding officer offers her a chance to simply deny it and continue to serve, but part of her oath includes not lying, and she won’t break that, not even to save her career. Her father is upset at her losing her chance to serve, but he tells her how much he respect his daughter for refusing to lie to save herself; she lost her chance to be an officer, but she maintained her integrity, her honour, and he is proud of her.

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And this is really the meat of Elegy, not the struggle against Alice, interesting though that is, it is a trigger to these flashbacks, which gives us an insight into who Kate Kane is, what drives her. Despite the violent loss of her mother and sister when she was a girl, it isn’t revenge that drives her, it is this urge to serve something larger than herself. Denied the chance to do this for her country she starts to think of another way, after an attempting mugging (the poor mugger picked on the wrong woman! I’m no helpless victim she rages as she takes him down, I’m a soldier) and a chance encounter with the Batman in a dingy Gotham alley. Kate applies her army training and discipline to this new role, using both intellect and physical prowess. When the Colonel finds out he berates her for playing at vigilante (not to mention purloining an array of weapons from the army base – all non-lethal weapons though). I’m not playing, Kate tells him, I’ve found a way to serve. And he understands – he has his uniform and flag, she now has her symbol and her role, and he decides if she is going to do this, she will do it right and with his help. A masked vigilante is trained by the best to prepare for this new war – and it is a war and she is a soldier, he tells her – and becomes Batwoman.

As origins go it is a brilliant piece, a lovely, emotional insight into what makes Kate become what she becomes, while also showing the price she pays, both physically (the intense training, the risks to life and limb) and emotionally (the cost of loving another woman driving her from the army so unfairly, her secret life as Batwoman at night damaging her new relationship with Gotham PD detective Renee). But again there is more to it, and the relationship between Batwoman, the Colonel and Alice will push to break an emotional dam, and create an emotional, personal abyss which has also informed the Batwoman of The New 52. It’s also hugely refreshing to see a gay character portrayed so well here – her gender and sexual persuasion are part of her, and Kate makes no attempt to conceal it (even, as noted before, to save her own army career), but it’s not a major issue, it’s just part of who she is (and why should it be a big deal? It’s a delight the way we are simply given her as a character to accept like any other, which is as it should be, it should make no difference). The mainstream media made much of the new Batwoman being a lesbian, but to Rucka and Williams’ credit this is just a part of the character, Kate, like anyone of any persuasion, has the same problems anyone else has in relationships, because that’s what happens in human interaction, regardless of your orientation, we all share the same problems and emotions, and of course this makes it much easier to empathise with her, bringing reader and character closer.

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In Rucka and Williams’ hands we are given a fiercely strong, deterined gay female character, and they take us into her world and into her mind and her soul in such a way that she becomes a totally compelling character. This is enhanced by Williams’ astonishing artwork – he has to be one of the finest working in the industry today. Not just the quality of his artwork – which is beautifully done – but in the innovative layouts and structures he uses. This is an artist pushing how a comic looks, how it works, how it can tell a story, and by god it is brilliant, clever, kinetic, powerful. In his run on The New 52 Batwoman Williams would refine this even further. It gives us a perfect fusion of intricate story within a story, origin tale, emotional heart and drive and presented in some of the finest comics artwork and layouts to be found anywhere, and it left me with a deep and abiding love for Kane’s Batwoman.

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this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog