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

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

Woody Guthrie and the Dust Bowl Ballads Hardcover,

Nick Hayes,

Jonathan Cape

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reviews: Zenith, Phase One

Zenith Phase One Hardcover,

Grant Morrison, Steve Yeowell,

Rebellion/2000 AD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog

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

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

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

Back then our lives were all about books.”

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

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

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

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

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

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this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Review: Kleist’s The Boxer

The Boxer,

Reinhard Kleist,

SelfMadeHero

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One day, I’ll tell you everything.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Reviews: art swallowed by the ice – Glacial Period

Glacial Period,

Nicolas De Crécy ,

NBM/Louvre Editions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog