Step aside, Pops! More from the wonderful Kate Beaton

Step Aside, Pops! A Hark! A Vagrant Collection,

Kate Beaton,

Jonathan Cape (UK), Drawn & Quarterly (Canada/US)

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Oh, where to start with this wonderful collection… Those of you who read our blog will have already seen us praise Canadian creator Kate Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant work over the years – as well as a previous collection, Kate generously posts a huge amount of her work online for all to read, and we’ve absolutely loved it. It’s mostly short-form cartoon strips, just a few panels (although she also does quite a few linked together in a series), but Kate packs an enormous amount into her short strips, she’s a tremendously skilled comicker. I don’t just mean in the technical sense of her ability to draw (although her artwork alone frequently cracks me up – just the cover alone for this book had me smiling hugely, I so want that on a T-shirt), but in the way she can use just a few, short panels so damned cleverly. It’s far too easy to have a good giggle and them move on without thinking too much about the effort that went into those four panels, but with a lot of Kate’s work they lodge in your brain and leave you thinking about them long afterwards, they’re not just funny, they’re funny-clever, and that tickles me just right.

Kate’s subjects range all over the place on her site and here in this collection too. There are strips drawn from worries and incidents in real life, or modern concerns (several linked strips see parents having to chase bizarre militant scary feminists from their children’s bedroom like some strange modern fairy tale creatures), others draw on popular culture, like her take on famous comics characters – in a series on Lois Lane she pokes fun at the way the whole Lois-Clark Kent-Superman relationship has been depicted over the years. As Kate adds in her footnote “don’t give me those comics where Lois is a wet blanket who can’t figure out the man beside her is Superman. If Lois isn’t kicking ass, taking names and winning ten Pulitzer Prizes an issues, I don’t even want to know.” Following this comment with a strip which shows Clark Kent in full nudge-nudge, wink-wink mode:

Lois, I have a secret.”

Clark, I don’t have time.”

Lois, it’s a big secret.

Well, I have a secret too. Psst, come here…”

YOU. ARE IN. MY GODDAMNED WAY.”

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It’s not just the final gag, it’s the whole short build-up, her art showing Clark so pumped up with a sense of himself he’s radiating smugness and is too clueless to pick up on Lois’ body language which is clearly saying if he doesn’t stop hassling her, she’ll stick a lump of Kryptonite where the sun doesn’t shine… Or a bystander asks Wonder Woman why she isn’t chasing a bad guy who is running away, “Girl, I’m wearing a strapless bathing suit and high heel boots, what would you do?” And then there’s her pretty prickly persona for Wonder Woman…

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A running theme with Kate’s work, for which she’s rightly become both loved and respected, are her delightful – not to mention frequently damned clever – strips which riff on classic literature or on historical figures. Sometimes it can be a very well-known historical figure, such as her series of “Founding Fathers in a Mall”, some loving this modern shopping experience while others like George Washington go and sit on a bench, despondent and complaining this is worse than Valley Forge… Sometimes it can be a historical figure new to you – one I hadn’t heard of before was Doctor Sara Josephine Baker (known to her friends and patients as “Doctor Jo”), a pioneer and campaigner in hygiene and in children’s health, Kate poking fun at the way some things we take for granted today weren’t known back in the day, so we get the lady telling her that her baby is sick. Doctor Jo looks, takes the child and rights him, commenting “you baby is upside down” in a perfectly timed piece. I’m impressed that Kate also got a couple of strips in on Catalonian inventor Monturiol and his remarkable early submarine, a historical curiosity I’ve always found fascinating but few folk seem to have heard of, so I was cheered to see her covering him and his amazing machine in this collection.

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Classic literature proves a rich and fertile seam for Kate’s pen and wicked sense of humour – the Brontes being a particularly happy hunting ground (“Next time on Wuthering Heights – no-one is lonely in a graveyard” complete with raving mad Heathcliff clutching Cathy’s bones). Or in another Byron and Shelley discuss their dreams, Shelley being sure a dream of a naked child rising from the seas was a portent of his death by drowning, Byron more interested in hey, when you say kid, you mean like who cares or more like eighteen and naked, as he pervs away oblivious to Shelley’s worries. “You know, I don’t like it when they call us pariahs,” adds Shelley. “Yes you do,” replies Byron… Or Pride and Prejudice gets reworked but this time with a whole “house full of Mulders”. Yes, our favourite “I want to believe” FBI man, but lots of him, all catching the eyes of the ladies at the local ball (except for “Miss Scully” who is less than impressed). Some old Broadsides woodcut images from the Bodleian Library’s online collection also prove great starting points for Kate to go off on her own tangent (one classic one ruminating on mortality shows a woodcut of three skeletons, leading into Kate’s strip where one complains about their expressions: “ok, so we’re skeletons, but do we have to be sad skeletons?”).

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Ultimately it’s hard to really get over in words just how effectively these strips work, you really have to read them for yourselves to get the full effect, from the artwork and the brilliant expressions Kate gives so many of her characters (I was frequently in kinks of laughter just from the art and expressions alone) and the beautifully observed timing of the frames of each strip (and so much of comedy relies on that innate good timing). And while we all enjoy a good laugh at a decent “gag strip”, there is so much more going on in the world of Hark! A Vagrant – the literary references for some strips are knowing but not elitist, anyone can get them (and they show a love for the original books while still poking fun), the historical strips are funny but also rely on actual knowledge, which just makes them both funny and also clever, the asides on everyday life and pop culture are well-observed (and frequently make a quiet point that will linger in the mind afterwards, more effectively than any amount of soap-boxing might have done).

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The amount of laughter this generated between me and colleagues all demanding to know what I was laughing at, only to be reduced to guffaws themselves when they looked… It’s a real pleasure to read so much of Kate’s work in one big hit like this, it’s truly smile-inducing work. If you’ve already encountered Kate Beaton’s work then you’re probably already ordering this; if you haven’t then go check her Hark! A Vagrant online and I’m sure you’ll soon be wanting to give her money by purchasing her books too.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Review: If You Steal

If You Steal,

Jason,

Fantagraphics

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Norwegian comicker Jason has carved an impressive reputation among lovers of Indy comics over recent years, and deservedly so, consistently offering up some truly wonderful comics with lovely, (deceptively simple) clear-line art, stories that can offer both humour and tragedy (often in the same tale) and which, with a fairly minimal sequence of panels, totally engage the reader. He’s also one of those great creators who “collaborates” with his readers, offering just enough intimation of the narrative (often wordless, or at least with very little dialogue) and respecting his readers enough to trust them to fill in what happens between those panels, or to draw their own conclusions from a “silent” sequence, which I find hugely satisfying.

If You Steal is a collection of short stories by Jason, covering a variety of topics and emotions, from drama and tragedy to gleefully humorous homages to other artforms and cultural pursuits. Some, like the eponymous If You Steal, which opens the collection, are melancholy in tone, allowing the reader to observe a man on a downward slide – gambling his money away, owing more to criminals, having to commit crimes to pay his debts, trying to earn enough to clear himself, to treat his girlfriend who he loves and yet who he also turns against in his rage and sense of helplessness as his life spirals out of control and everything he tries to make it better simply makes it worse and worse.

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Again we have that very minimal approach, Jason using mostly three or four panels a page, like excerpts from the story – for instance, in just four panels we see the man leaving a card game, having lost a lot of money, walking down the stairs to the street, then suddenly running round the corner to be physically ill at what he has done. The whole sequence is only four panels, only one of which has dialogue (a whole two lines at that). Masterfully done and a perfect example of the skill of Jason as a cartoonist.

While the despair and desperation and loss permeates that opening story, this collection is no gloom-fest, it is in fact quite a nice mixture, from outright humour to fun-loving homages to delightfully surreal elements. In Karma Chameleon, for example, Jason is clearly having fun paying homage (and poking fun – lovingly though) at the great 1950s sci-fi B movie creature feature. We start in fairly traditional B-movie mode with people going around their everyday lives before looking up startled, only to be dragged off by an unseen menace, before the authorities step in, the local sheriff, the eccentric academic called in as expert (complete with attractive young daughter for the small town hero to fall for), the reveal of a giant version of a regular creature (here a chameleon) wreaking havoc and, of course, threatening the scientist’s daughter and leading to a showdown in the desert with the US Army. Being Jason though he can’t help but add in some cheeky humour of his own, not least the professorial expert having a strange compulsion to talk about masturbation to everyone.

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There’s more delightful homage work with Night of the Vampire Hunter, which mixes up the Gothic vampire slaying holy man with (classic film fans will be unsurprised to hear) Robert Mitchum’s Night of the Hunter film (right down to the preacher having “love” and “hate” tattooed on his knuckles). Lorena Velazquez pays tribute to another form of film, those wonderfully bonkers Mexican horror movies in which a masked Lucha Libre wrestler is the hero taking on staples of the horror genre instead of a Van Helsing character. Of course Jason starts this one like so many of those generic (yet fun) Mexican horrors, the masked wrestler hero breaking into the grim castle to rescue the beautiful maiden from the scheming, hooded villains. Except Jason then turns the dial up to eleven – as soon as he beats the robed, hooded villains he is attacked again before he can free Lorena, this time by a Dracula figure. Defeating him again he finds the Frankenstein monster, werewolves, mummies, aliens and… Well, you get the picture. It’s a brilliantly mad overload of an already fairly mad (in the good way) sub-genre and left me with a huge, huge grin (it may have been my favourite in the collection)

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We veer back to crime fiction with Polly Wants a Cracker, following a female assassin, seemingly a quiet, unassuming lady but on a job a ruthless and deadly killer, albeit one who adores and loves her parrot. Ask Not takes an entirely different tack, starting with druids at Stonehenge sacrificing animals for a glimpse into the future, then seeing that future evolve, leaping to Nostradamus dreaming a prophecy of a young president shot down in his prime in an open top car as his wife screams, through to the Twin Towers, a few minimal panels taking us from pre-history through to the modern day but all of it controlled and manipulated by a shadowy group of conspirators in a nice twist on all those tales of the Illuminati and other secret societies who are supposedly behind every big historic event. It’s funny but also a thoughtful piece.

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Jason changes gears again for the final story, Nothing, where we see an elderly lady, Emma, struggling – as she tries to eat her food a very creepy black-eyed character snatches her fork from her hand. As she looks on perplexed a nurse asks her what’s wrong. “They took the… to eat with.” “A fork?” “Ah, yes. A fork,” Emma replies and suddenly the fork is in her hand again. As the story progresses we see these same disturbing, black-eyed characters trying to remove other items – they take a painting from the wall, Emma confused points to what to her is now a blank wall, only for her son to ask if she is looking at the painting. As soon as she hears the word the painting re-appears, and slowly it dawns on us that she has Alzheimer’s or a similar degenerative disease, the dark-eyed characters are her mind’s way of seeing the disease slowly robbing her of her senses and faculties and memories. It’s incredibly clever and also terribly poignant, not least when her daughter comes to visit and the dark-eyed character holds his hand in front of her face – now Emma can’t recognise her own daughter, although there are small victories such as the black-eyed characters attempting to carry off something else, but she looks them in the face and names it, and Jason imparts such a sense of triumph on her face as he realises one small victory.

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If you haven’t read Jason yet then this new collection of short stories from Fantagraphics is an ideal introduction, while for those of us who are already fans it is a welcome addition to Jason’s oeuvre, offered up in a handsome small hardback volume. There are some sad, touching moment, some very emotional scenes, but also some brilliantly funny scenes, to make you sad, to make you laugh, to make you think, and all with just a few brief panels and hardly any dialogue, the accomplished work of an absolute master of the comics form. Superb.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Jessica Jones: Alias

AKA Jessica Jones : Alias Volume 1,

Brian Michael Bendis, Michael Gaydos,

Marvel

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You’ve all been watching the new Jessica Jones TV series over the weekend, right? A companion piece of sorts to Netflix’s superb Daredevil series, it follows Jessica Jones, formerly the superhero Jewel, now retired from the capes and tights and running her own private investigation agency, Alias. Created by the excellent Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos back in 2001, the original volumes have been getting reprinted recently ahead of the new TV series, and that makes it a pretty good time to draw attention to them for those who missed them first time round, or for those who read them years ago and are feeling the urge to revisit them (you should, they stand up very well).

When we open this first volume we meet Jessica, in her small PI’s office, having an argument with a less than happy client. A lot of PI work involves morally messy stuff – spouses who suspect their partner is cheating on them, paying Jessica to find out and then, if their suspicions are confirmed, turning their anger on her in a “shoot the messenger” style. And that’s what this fairly seedy looking bloke in the “wife beater” vest does when she shows him the evidence of his wife’s infidelity. Despite the fact he paid her to investigate his wife and find this evidence, he turns his anger on Jessica and curses all women as the same (how could his wife cheat on such a charmer, muses Jessica), then he gets violent… And oh boy, has he picked the wrong woman to get violent with. She may be much smaller than he is, but Jessica was a superhero. In the next scene the man is flying through the glass window on her office door (and yes, they did borrow this for the start of the TV show, and it works great there too). I know violence rarely solves anything, but also have to admit there is a certain satisfaction in seeing a violent creep like this being taught a lesson by someone he thought was “defenceless” and weak…

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It’s clear from the start that Jessica is a damaged character, bitter, a little self-destructive, in many ways a classic 40s/50s private eye character that Raymond Chandler might recognise, carrying mental scars from her past experiences, although where those classic Noir gumshoes were all mentally scarred by what they saw in the war, with Jessica it is events during her time as a cape. When asked by various people why she gave up being a superhero her normal answer is that she didn’t quite fit into it, she was never going to be as good as the A-list heroes, that she didn’t have that drive they have. And some of that may be true, but as the series unfolds we find out there is a much more complex, emotional (and upsetting) core to why Jessica left the superhero line.

But it doesn’t leave her. Although she runs a regular detective agency, given her past and abilities it’s hardly surprising that the world of the capes intrudes into her life whether she wants it to or not. Sometimes in good ways – she’s maintained a friendship with Carol Danvers (Captain Marvel), although in true Jessica fashion she can be a bit of an arse about it, pushing away those who like her and want to help (of course this just makes the reader feel for her all the more and become more emotionally invested in her). Or her on-off relationships with Luke Cage or Scott (Ant-Man) Lang.

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And some of these scenes really work oh so well, they ground that fantastical world of superheroes – we see Jessica and Cage hanging out in a bar, or her and Carol doing lunch and enjoying a good gossip about which superhero is seeing who and how Luke Cage is a bit of a “cape chaser” according to Carol. I thought he was a good guy, protests Jessica (who has had close relations with him herself). He is, Carol opines, but he just can’t resist superpowered women. It’s the everyday, social stuff that you don’t see so much of in the main superhero titles (although to be fair Marvel has always had an element of the everyday life for many characters included in stories). And it lends a realism to the more fantastical elements of the Marvel universe to have such ordinary events like two girl chums chatting over lunch.

Naturally there is more going on here, and even in this first volume Jessica finds herself being manipulated by shadowy forces, pushed into an investigation that just happens to include spying on a woman who it turns out is covertly dating a major superhero, an iconic figure. Who takes off his mask while she is filming the tryst. She had his secret identity on tape and panics – of course she doesn’t want to air it, in fact her first instinct is to destroy it so it can’t be used against an upstanding superhero.

Then she thinks about it and realises she has been set up. But who knew this hero was going to see this woman and why did they want her to film it? If she destroys it she might throw away something that could protect her later. And then when a murder is thrown into the mix Jessica finds herself implicated (and rather thankful that Luke Cage asks a certain Matt Murdock to go in as her lawyer and demolish the shaky cop case). But that still leaves a very shadowy conspiracy going on that Jessica has unwittingly been drawn into…

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It’s hugely compelling and immensely well-written, as you would expect from Bendis, delivering both a good introduction to Jessica Jones and her world and troubles and juggling both larger story arcs (which will reveal much more about Jessica’s past experiences as the volumes progress) and the much more believable, personal, human level. And that is just so profoundly satisfying; it also means that the creators really manage to hook the reader totally into Jessica and her life in a very effectively emotional level.

Gaydos’ art manages the trick of portraying a woman who can be incredibly powerful and strong or can be lost, emotionally hurt and damaged, and again as with Bendis’ script this makes Jessica a much more believably human, three-dimensional character. Gaydos also uses some nice visual tricks – rapid, multiple small panels for a police interrogation scene, hinting at the bewildering speed of events as the detectives try to get her off balance, or a visit to Avengers Mansion being shown from a low perspective behind her, the imposing gates towering over Jessica, suggesting her emotional state of mind on a visual canvas.

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It’s an unusual side-on view of the world of Marvel superheroes that makes it all feel more realistic and believable, delivering a good, twisting detective story with added capes now and then, and a very engaging emotional core. All centred around a female lead who is neither impervious strong hero or emotionally ravaged victim to be saved, but, like most people, has her good and bad days, days where she may just want to break down and run away from it all, or days where a boasting “man mountain” gets the hell kicked out off him by a very strong and angry woman. She’s not a glowing heroic icon of perfection nor is she a damsel to be rescued, but sometimes she has elements of both, which is much more true to life (and also much more compelling for the reader). Jessica is no cipher or archetype, she’s a wonderfully realised, complex human character, with flaws and good points, a mixture of strengths and weaknesses and conflicting emotions, and that may be the single best thing in this engrossing series, just how human Jessica feels.

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With Marvel reprinting the series in larger collections (this first volume has nine issues-worth of material, a great way to get into it) and the TV series making a good impression on viewers over the last week, it’s a good time to revisit Jessica Jones and find out why she deserves a place in your classic comics collection.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

A serious head-trip through billions of years: Jen Harder’s Alpha

Alpha Hardcover,

Jens Harder,

Knockabout

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I’ve very much been looking forward to Knockabout publishing Jen Harder’s Alpha, the first of a projected three graphic works which aim to take in one of the grandest themes a book can tackle: life, the universe and everything, from the fizzing, bizarre microseconds around the Big Bang when even the universal laws of physics and nature hadn’t yet taken effect (in fact they didn’t yet exist as we know them) through the slow birth of stars, planets, whole galaxies, then the molten lumps which would grow and reform to become one planet in particular, our own beautiful Earth.

In Alpha Harder takes us on a mind-blowing head-trip through some four and a half billion years (give or take) from the “let there be light” moment to formation of the Earth, the endless ages of changes, the first sparks of life, the astonishing spectacle of evolution, of great geological processes, from the beginning right through to the Anthropocene era, the “human era”. And as a subtle reminder that humans are not as special as we like to think we are, we come in only at the very end of this volume, comparative latecomers in the great book of life on Earth.

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The Beta and Gamma volumes are aiming to look at the rise of humans, form primitive ape-like forms to modern humans and establishing civilisations then potential futures, but those are stories for other days, and while I very much want to read those, Alpha offers up more than enough imagery, spectacle, amazement and food for thought for any reader to mentally digest.

At first only a germ exists, the singularity. From this infinitely hot and dense original state, no bigger than a football, the Universe expands. An inflation commences. The beginning of Space-Time.”

The breadth and scope of Alpha is remarkable, and Jens has the confidence to trust his readers and their own ability and knowledge, frequently giving us entire pages without text, just images, trusting his readers to participate with him, to be an active part of this story telling experiment. And what a story – the great story, the one philosophers, sages, religious leaders and scientists alike have explored since… Well, for as long as humans have been capable of thought. The first section come across very much like a fantastic voyage, spectacular images splashed across our retinas, from the infinitely small world of sub-atomic physics, quarks, of matter and anti-matter springing into being and annihilating one another, then to the much larger scale, to the cosmological scale. Hydrogen gas accumulating, gravity starting to exert its power billions of years before Isaac Newton would lay down his laws. Atoms are formed, stable substances, they start to group together under the influence of gravity.

As they clump together they are changed, enlarged, spinning, turning, growing. From simple dust and gas will come the most massive of structures: swirling gas spins before our eyes, faster, faster, heat generated by the friction, the rotation, pressures building from being so squashed together until heat and pressure pass the point of no return and this accumulation of matter ignite: nuclear fusion takes place at their heart and the first stars burn into existence, fuelling in turn the creation of more elements, while around these new stars more rocks come together, slowly, oh so slowly forming what will become the planets. It will take billions of years, but these cold rocks smashing together will one day become vast, complex ecospheres of their own, especially our own remarkable world.

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We move from the cosmic to the Earthly, to a world we wouldn’t recognise, one we couldn’t actually live on – the atmosphere, such as it was, poison to us and to most other life we know of, no water yet, the surface crust just the thinnest covering over raging magma, constantly bombarded by debris from the formation of the solar system. And yet this volcanic hell-world is destined to become the richest and most diverse source of life in our entire solar system. Wind and water start to form on this embryonic planet, shaping it as much as the geological movements do, that spinning metal core starts to generate a magnetic field, deflecting the worst cosmic rays, an invisible umbrella that will encourage and protect the endless variety of life to come.

And that life too will change the form of the Earth, the earliest lifeforms breathing the foul atmosphere and excreting oxygen. We can even still see some of those incredibly ancient lifeforms, such as the Stromatolites off the coast of the great island continent of Australia. We know that mighty oaks come from a humble acorn, but here Jens graphically shows us the almost miraculous formation of worlds, stars and life, from the most primitive bacteria which would eventually lead to swimming creatures, then backbones, eyes, legs. Giant sea scorpions, massive dinosaurs, the rise of the mammals, the waves of extinctions and the new forms which would emerge to take their place, a never-ending cycle of death and new life while around that life the Earth itself, seemingly so solid to short-lived beings like us, is continually changed, altered, mountains rise, erode, entire continents move and reform…

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Jens doesn’t just offer up imagery of these events though – throughout the entire book he constantly inserts frames from much, much later, from our own human culture era, into the events. The slow coalescing of gases into the spark of nuclear ignition that forms a living star comes across like a NASA countdown. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, we have ignition, and appropriately this sequence is intercut with the mighty blast of human-built rockets defying gravity to launch a spacecraft beyond our world. The growing power of the young sun bathing the early planets is intercut with more human imagery, Egyptian pharaohs and their children beneath the all-powerful sun-god Ra (or perhaps it is the Aten sun-god of the heretic king Akhenaten). Early creatures experiencing celluar division are contrasted with mythological beings from Incan and Mayan civilisations.

Sequences depicting the first order out of chaos as the laws of physics establish themselves following the Big Bang are intercut with human desires to impose order on nature, the swirl of the subatomic coming together to form the larger-scale reality intercut with the creation of the great Pantheon and its wondrous dome by the Romans. The embryonic seas form in a sequence intercut with Hokusai’s famous Great Wave artwork. Depictions of continental drift are contrasted with delightfully inaccurate and yet still so beautiful medieval Mappa Mundi, the amazing new life forms of the great beasts contrasted with woodcut images from a bestiary, the era of the giant “terror birds” with Alice meeting Dodo, the evolutionary adaptation of skeletons to move from sea to land with the structure of the mighty Forth Rail Bridge, nature and human culture and invention entwined repeatedly.

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It’s a remarkable experience; this journey across unbelievably vast tracts of time and creation is mind-bending. It puts me in mind of The Light of Other Days, a collaboration between Stephen Baxter and the great Arthur C Clarke, in which wormhole technology allows humans to look anywhere in time and space, one character following his own family line back, back, back, his mother, father, grandparents, following them visually all the way back to early hominids and further back. But here, unlike Clark and Baxter, we are moving forward, not back, sailing through space-time and history and evolution.

And while the concepts are as vast and complex as the timescales and lifeforms they depict, this counter-cutting the story of creation with human images puts a scale on it we can understand, while also reminding us strongly that we’re not different, we’re not apart from all of this, we are an integral part of this magnificent chain of creation. It also subtly hints that out of all of those billions of years and different lifeforms, we are the only ones we know of who have established an understanding of these things, and even then only comparatively recently.

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It’s only a few hundred years since Hooke explored the microscopic world we never even knew existed before that period, even more recent since we started to understand world-shaping concepts like continental drift or stellar physics or sub-atomic physics or the Darwinian notions of evolution, barely half a century since we discovered DNA or set foot on a surface that was not part of our own world, but another celestial body. And yet all those new discoveries and knowledge are all connected with what went before, standing on the shoulders of giants, our precious knowledge showcased so wonderfully here also part of that same great chain of circumstances across billions of years which allowed the conditions for these things to happen, these creatures to be, these people to exist, to think…

It is both incredibly humbling, putting us in our place, just another part of a long cycle of life, and yet also exalting humanity for being the only life on Earth to be able to comprehend and celebrate this knowledge. Humans are a part of this creation, not aside from or above it, but a part of it, the latest in a long, oh so long chain of events leading to the conditions for life, then for that life to slowly evolve into beings who could regard this universe and start to read it’s history like a book, to start lifting back the heavy curtains of Dark Matter to peer at the very structures of the universe or to explore the book of life through DNA or the extensive fossil record our remarkable world has furnished us with and start putting together those stories. Which are our stories, the stories of all life.

This is a spectacular book, a ride through the creation of everything, leaving the head spinning, flooded with ideas, imagery, offering new lenses to look again at the world around us and marvel at it all. It’s combination of physics, cosmology, geology and evolutionary sciences is like a terrific mixture of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and David Attenborough’s Life on Earth. Ultimately though, Alpha offers readers something truly special, that beautiful feeling that comes simply from the sheer sense of wonder.

Don’t ask me and don’t tell me. I was there.
It was a bang and it was big. I don’t know
what went before, I came out with it.
Think about that if you want my credentials.
Think about that, me, it, imagine it
as I recall it now, swinging in my spacetime hammock,
nibbling a moon or two, watching you.
What am I? You don’t know. It doesn’t matter.
I am the witness, I am not in the dock.
I love matter and I love anti-matter.
Listen to me, listen to my patter.

Oh what a day (if it was day) that was!
It was as if a fist had been holding fast
one dense packed particle too hot to keep
and the fingers had suddenly sprung open
and the burning coal, the radiant mechanism
had burst and scattered the seeds of everything,
out through what was now space, out
into the pulse of time, out, my masters,
out, my friends, so, like a darting shoal,
like a lion’s roar, like greyhounds released,
like blown dandelions, like Pandora’s box,
like a shaken cornucopia, like an ejaculation –

I was amazed at the beauty of it all,
those slowly cooling rosy clouds of gas,
wave upon wave of hydrogen and helium,
spirals and rings and knots of fire, silhouettes
of dust in towers, thunderheads, tornadoes;
and then the stars, and the blue glow of starlight
lapislazuliing the dust-grains –

I laughed, rolled like a ball, flew like a dragon,
zigzagged and dodged the clatter of meteorites
as they clumped and clashed and clustered into
worlds, into this best clutch of nine
whirled in the Corrievreckan of the Sun.
The universe had only just begun.
I’m off, my dears. My story’s still to run! ” Planet Wave, Edwin Morgan (excerpt)*

(* = apologies for such a lengthy quote, but Alpha put me in mind so much of the poetry of the great Edwin Morgan, who often showed a fascination for real science and for science fiction in his work, and I had to include the opening of his Planet Wave verse, which celebrates the creation of the universe, the world, people and life, much as Alpha does, although in very different ways. Carcanet have it in his collected poems, should you wish to read the full thing)

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Comics on cinema: Filmish

Filmish : A Graphic Journey Through Film,

Edward Ross,

SelfMadeHero

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Cinema. Comics. Two media which have, essentially grown up together through the 20th century, both still evolving today. And both have been intertwined for the best part of a century; today comics characters dominate the top end of the mega box office with films like The Avengers, while the vibrant Indy comics scene feeds into the equally vibrant Indy movie scene (think the wonderful Crumb biopic or Ghost World). It’s not a new relationship – in the earliest days as both comics and film were finding their way as mass media, still inventing what they could do, early comics genius Winsor McCay was dabbling in some of the first animated films. By the 30s and 40s Hollywood would already be mining comics for ideas: Flash Gordon, Batman, Dick Tracey. Cinema and comics have evolved a lot over the last century and a bit, and I find it deeply satisfying that one strongly visual medium, comics, is here being used to discuss another visually rich medium, film.

I first encountered Edward Ross and his Filmish series as a wee A5 self-published mini comic in the Edinburgh Filmhouse, and I loved it straight away. Each issue over the next few years would pick a theme to explore, using clever visuals and some very well-done research to explore various ideas and theories about cinema, some technical, some artistic, some ideological and sociological, taking in a wide variety of topics, from the power of the image and how much we can trust it (or manipulate it for effect) to the technology (both the tech used to make film and also the movie stories often explore our relationship with technology) to sociological and psychological implications, such as social hegemony, celebrating or vilifying the Outsider, the representations of class, gender, religion, race, and, something cinema is remarkable at, discussing what John Berger called our “ways of seeing”.

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Appropriately enough the first themed chapter is The Eye, looking at not just the human eye, but that wonderful mechanical (now digital) eye invented by human ingenuity: the camera. We’re surrounded by visual imagery today; pretty much anyone can shoot a video clip on their phone and upload it within minutes to share online. But in the first few pages here Ed capture brilliantly the sheer magic of early cinema and the astonishing notion of being able to see moving pictures. Think about it for a moment; through all the long millennia of human civilisations we’ve had art – from cave paintings 30, 000 years ago to the seemingly eternal carvings of the Egyptians to the glories of the Renaissance. And yet in all those thousands of years it was only in the closing years of the 19th century that human beings could see the world around them – animals, the sea, trains, other people – in moving images, recorded for posterity, images they could return to and re-watch. How astounding must that have been to those first audiences? Even today there is a magic in this, from that moment when the house darkens and the first images start to appear on a cinema screen, the feeling of going on a journey, or the simple pleasure of home movies, from the old 8MM to modern hi-def videos, moments of time preserved, which we can go back to again and again. Decades on we can go back and see loved ones long gone, but on film they are still moving, walking, smiling, living. Magic.

But there is much more to the act of seeing than just observing, and Ed touches on this topic numerous times, not just in the chapter on The Eye but in later chapters – there is how we see, and how the camera sees. How early on there was more trust, the adage of the “camera never lies”, a naïve assumption of course, every image ever shot will contain some deliberate elements from the photographer. Sometimes it is as simple as what they chose to show in the frame and what they omitted. At other times, as Ed discusses in later chapters on Power and Ideology, it is more sinister, more thought-out, a planned use of imagery, edits, cross-cuts and other techniques carefully used to create a specific message, be it blatant propaganda films beloved by Goebbels or the more insidious messages which many mainstream movies carry, some in an obvious, heavy-handed way (think of the ‘anti-red’ messages blatant in some McCarthy era movies in the US) or mainstream movies which celebrate military achievements and actively collaborate with the armed forces to make the film (giving the authorities direct influence over the making of the film and its message), or more subtle messages, such as supposed societal norms being reinforced (marriage, family, heterosexuality, gender roles) and how some films transgress these notions, often to powerful effect.

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Time and space are essential qualities in cinema – the imagery can show us an endless variety of spaces, from galaxies far away to the sweeping, iconic landscapes of a John Ford Western, while also recording specific moments, thoughts and actions in time, held forever in the camera’s eye. And of course cinema can manipulate those aspects of reality in a way we poor humans cannot – we’re forever stuck in a linear timeline, able to look in one direction at a time. The film can show us multiple viewpoints, long panoramas or intimate close-ups and do so rapidly, or even merge scenes in a way the human eye cannot. And it can play with time; early film genius Georges Melies discovering the edit through a glitch, a camera jam, a technique now everyday but a century ago revolutionary. You could pause the camera, cut to other scenes, use it for effects (like making a person seemingly disappear), you could have slow-motion, you could reverse the flow of images, you could show events happening at the same time or different times within a few moments of filmic sequence, powers of time and space manipulation we don’t have in the real world but which film frees us to explore.

These are not just cinematic and storytelling techniques, they also suggest to the human eye and mind different notions about how we perceive the world around us and why we do – as if the invention of the film camera had added an extra sensory layer to those given to our bodies by natural selection. And that is another strength of Filmish – Ed doesn’t just examine some aspects of film-making and how we view cinema, he goes into how these processes have affected our thinking. Filmish is replete with references and quotes to numerous academic theorists throughout. This is a book which celebrates movies but also questions the medium and it offers up some of the academic tools to help with that process of thinking and questioning not just what we se,e but why we see it, why the film-makers decided to show something in a specific manner and more, to develop that critical faculty while still retaining a simple love for the moving image as well, and in this I think Filmish succeeds spectacularly.

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Having read many of the same theorists cited here back in my college days I can say I am impressed not just with the depth of research Ed has put in here, but how wonderfully accessible he makes it using the comics medium, and the book comes complete with an extensive bibliography and filmography for those wishing to explore some of those topics further. And given we live in such a media-rich environment, a media which is hugely influential, it is no bad thing to have more of us thinking critically about what that media is being used for and how it is made and consumed. And the filmography will leave you with a list of movies you really want to seek out, or perhaps old favourites you will feel compelled to revisit again. And this time perhaps you will look at those films a little differently.

But I don’t want to give the impression this is all about academic theorists in comics form, stroking their chins and talking about the intertextual nature of the postmodern image (yes, I have had lecturers use sentences like that). While Ed presents the film studies side of things very well and accessibly, he never lets it get in the way of simply revelling in the magic of the medium, of the power of the moving image, how it can inspire us, horrify us, make us sigh, weep, laugh and dream. While this is a more text-heavy work than most comics, the artwork is still important here, and there are multiple delights to be had, from lovely splash pages (Melies mastering his early techniques, the amazing cityscape of Metropolis) to many smaller, intimate panels using scenes from so many films across more than a century, Ed often adding his own comic avatar into some scenes in appropriate stance and costume (I think he enjoyed doing that!). And for those of us forever in love with cinema there’s the simple delight of recognition of films from Ed’s panels, the flash of memory at seeing art depicting a scene from the movies we’ve loved, from the nightmarish twisted angles of Doctor Caligari to Goddard’s oh-so-cool Breathless or Kubrick’s 2001, and the memories they stir in us because those images are powerful, woven into our collective culture but also into our personal thoughts.

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It’s a beautifully realised work, both celebrating and questioning cinema, richly illustrated with art that any film lover will recognise right away (and there is a simple film geek “trainspotting” pleasure to noticing the references – go on, admit it, you’re probably already done it just with the cover, haven’t you, how many did you spot right away?), while the structural idea of having themes for each chapter, a device carried over from the original mini-comics (although even the elements which made it from the originals have been extensively expanded and re-worked and re-drawn) gives a flow to the reading here. It’s a rich read, both in imagery and ideas, one medium used to cleverly explore another, and it offers pleasures to both the film-lover, to those of us who’ve waded through film-studies academia and also to those who have never given film studies a thought it is so accessible and friendly a read that they won’t be put off in any way (and indeed they may find themselves thinking a bit more about film and wanting to explore some of the references in the bibliography).

Ultimately Filmish is a book simply in love with cinema – not unquestioningly, it looks, it examines, it encourages the reader to do likewise – but it also remembers to just let ourselves go, to marvel at the magic of the movies and to re-experience that sense of wonder. A film-lover’s delight.

The Longest Day – Robert Capa and Omaha Beach

Omaha Beach on D-Day,

Jean-David Morvan, Severine Trefouel,

Photographs by Robert Capa & Magnum, translation by Edward Gauvin

First Second

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It’s not always easy to stand aside and be unable to do anything except record the suffering around one.”

I’ll be honest up front – Robert Capa has always been one of my photography heroes, a fascinating character who reinvented himself several times in his early life as he was forced to flee from one country to another, until he crafted the person of “Robert Capa”, which he thought sounded a bit more American and would help him make contacts for his work as a pioneering photo journalist (this at a time when photo-heavy magazines were just becoming common, a rich source of images for many in the days before television reporting). Despite being only a little over forty when he was killed covering the early stages of the Indochina war (which would later snowball in the murderous morass of the Vietnam War) in the mid 1950s, he was by then one of the most famous photo journalists in the world. Even before the Second World War he had been dodging bullets, armed with a camera rather than a gun, recording the Sino-Japanese war and the Spanish Civil War (where he became firm friends with Ernest Hemingway, but would also lose his partner Gerda Taro). During this period he took one of the most famous images of combat ever seen, the “falling soldier”.

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Iconic though the Falling Soldier image has become though, Capa’s “finest hour” was still in the future, on a grey, cold morning on the coast of France. The 6th of June 1944: D-Day, the greatest armada in the history of the world set sail from Fortress Britain. The Allies are about to attempt the impossible, to land a vast force of men and equipment in the face of an entrenched, determined, fortified enemy. Gold, Juno, Sword, Utah and Omaha: the invasion beaches divided between the British, Canadian and American forces. Many brave men would fall on this morning amid explosions and machine-gun fire or simply drowned before they could even touch boot to the soil of Occupied France. Intricately planned and arranged as it was, it was still a massive throw of the dice on which the fate of the free world would depend, and Capa, an inveterate gambler himself, couldn’t resist that. He managed to get himself assigned to the American troopships, destination Omaha Beach. Bloody Omaha, as it became known, the worst of all the D-Day landing beaches (half the entire casualties from the first day for all five beaches came from Omaha alone, it was that bad, thousands fell), and plans going wrong as men desperately improvised a way through the Nazi defences as their friends went down around them.

And Capa was there, camera in hand, in the very first wave, wading ashore as bullets ripped beach and men alike, soaking, cold, terrified, seeing American soldiers falling all around him, storming onto the beaches with the very first troops (from the famous Big Red One division). And he shoots his camera. Again and again he snaps picture after picture: one of the most pivotal moments in the history of the twentieth century is happening and Capa is right there, recording it, bearing witness as bullets bounce around him. He shoots four rolls before he makes for a landing craft carrying wounded back to the waiting ships, and even then the horror doesn’t end – there’s guilt at being able to leave, unlike the soldiers (I’m a coward he tells one injured GI, no, you volunteered to do this, you’re no coward the man tells him), the sight of the dead and wounded… The rolls of film make it to the Time-Life offices in London, but in an absolute disaster the rush to develop them leads to an accident. Three rolls are mangled, unusable. After all Capa went through, those images are gone. But that final roll? The developers pull ten images from that. Amazing images, our eye on the Longest Day, history recorded in grainy black and white, with hand-shake from movement and from terror (Capa used to joke that a combat photo should always have a little blur or shake in it), but filled with the enormous power of the image, reproduced endlessly, tiny moments of major history frozen forever by the camera.

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And that’s what Jean-David Morvan and Severine Trefouel explore here, in this fascinating and unusual book, a long, landscape-format hardback which is half comics story and half photography book, the first half using the comics medium to explore the events leading up to and during those astonishing, world-changing moments of the 6th of June, 1944, the second half is a rich helping of wartime photographs by Capa and from the famous Magnum photography co-operative which he co-founded (not unlike Chaplin et al’s United Artists, it was a way for the talent to retain some independence but also to have support; it would produce some amazing images and nurture superb talent) and prose discussing Capa and his life and work and death. Both halves are compelling, fascinating and often seem like something made up for a film, but it’s all true…

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The artwork is in a nice, clear line style for the segments before and after the events of D-Day: Capa preparing for the big push, a last moment party with friends and lovers in war-torn London (including Hemmingway – his girlfriend mistakes the writer for Capa’s dad when he calls him “Papa” until she is told it is Hemmingway’s nickname). And the landscape format allows for some good use of wider images – smaller, traditional frames for intimate moments of friends talking, then bigger images filling the whole landscape page, like a movie camera pulling back in a reverse zoom to show scenes like the busy harbour as the invasion forces prepare to leave Britain for their destiny, or in some cases those large, landscape-filling scenes continue onto the next page with a few regular frames over the top, again very filmic, like cuts between internal scenes between characters and wide-screen shots of the exterior around them. This also effectively suggests both the individual nature of the people involved but also how they are part of one, massive group effort about to do something truly Herculean.

And then there are the pages dealing with D-Day itself, which are, quite frankly, staggering. Much of the art here takes on dark, sombre, grey tones to match the dismal weather (too dark for good photos, quips Capa, preparing to wade ashore), and washes of monochromatic watercolour effects render much of this far muddier than the preceding clear line work, quite deliberately so, I think, an attempt to imitate the “blur” and “shake” of Capa’s photographs, shot while running, ducking from fire, shaking with fear and adrenalin and horror (decades on Spielberg would use these as his inspiration for the shockingly powerful opening to Saving Private Ryan). Several scenes draw directly on those legendary ten photographs, while others, when you pause and take them in more closely, reveal themselves to be those same scenes from the opposite perspective, such as the famous “man in the surf”, a GI crawling forward through the waves, seen as he is in the photo but also seen from a perspective behind him, looking to the hell of the beach, and amid the chaos, on one side, Capa, kneeling behind an anti-tank barrier for cover, camera held up, shooting the scene.

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The landscape format also allows for an astonishing double-page spread, the vast invasion armada appearing out of the grey dawn, filling the entire horizon, And then something even more spectacular – a four-page gatefold, those four pages unfolding their long, landscape pages to reveal an enormous panorama of the invasion beach, sweeping from a Nazi gun emplacement on one end firing on the invasion, to one just captured at great cost by the GIs at the other end, the sweep of imagery between taking in ships lurching in high waves, being blown up, disgorging more men, bodies in the water and over the beach, men fighting, running, dying. It’s perhaps the most stunning single image in any comic work I have seen this year. I keep coming back again and again to take it in. It’s a piece of art that I know will be burned into my memory for a lifetime. It was too large to fit on the scanner, the only way I could get an image was to lay it out on the desk and stand over it on a chair with my camera, so apologies, this isn’t and ideal picture of that magnificent fold-put, but it was the best I could manage (click on it for the larger view below):

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If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”

The second half of the book detailing his life and work is richly illustrated with his photographs from the war. Of course those iconic ten D-Day images are there, and it is fascinating to flip back and forth between the comic images and the actual photographs of that event. But there are many other images, still radiating power across the decades; bodies of the fallen on the beaches, burned out tanks and landing craft behind them, images of oh-so-young lads boarding ships in Weymouth harbour for the invasion, a young German soldier being taken prisoner, uniform and hat askew, piercing eyes and blonde hair, he would normally be a handsome young man, but here he looks like a young boy who has seen too much (which I suppose he was, really), the thousand yard stare of his face haunting, physically unharmed but clearly wounded somewhere deep inside. And there’s a detective story piecing together the true identity of the blurry “man in the surf”, the actual soldier, still alive, finally identified.

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Although really, while nice to know, it doesn’t really matter who the man in that D-Day image was, he stands for all of his brothers-in-arms, he’s symbolically all of them, the ones who fell and the ones who came home bearing scars physical and mental. I’d like to think both Capa and those who served would see those images not just as individuals but as standing for all who did what they had to do on that long, long day.

Capa was a pioneer in believing that a few still images could tell a moving story, and to me it seems highly appropriate that a medium that does just that, the comics medium, should tackle this moment in his life. As with his photographs the comics medium allows us to perceive both a frozen moment, to take in all the details at our own speed in a way real life of moving film cannot, and yet is part of a sequence, connected to other still images, creating a narrative in our minds. Even in our media-saturated modern culture where anyone can shoot video which ends up on global news, the power of a few static images, photographs or comics panels, can still be tremendously powerful and effective in a way nothing else can.

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The book uses some of his own lines from his autobiography Slightly Out of Focus, and is also framed by the device of having Capa relating the story to a journalist over the phone. The journalist is talking to him for an article to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the D-Day landings. Capa was killed by a landmine while covering the Indochina war in May 1954, as former French colonies asserted themselves after the Second World War and made their bid for independence (in what would escalate later to the quagmire of the Vietnam War). It was just a couple of weeks before that tenth anniversary, a date he wouldn’t live to see – he was only forty year old. A camera was found in his hand; he recorded the world right to the last moments of his life.

American-Middle East relations throughout history: Best of Enemies Volume 1

Best Of Enemies Volume 1 1783 -1953 Hardcover,

Jean-Pierre Filiu, Davide B,

SelfMadeHero

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During a war the kind of “evidence” people are looking for usually doesn’t exist.”

Our world, especially since the murderous events of 9-11, has been dominated by the relationship of the West to the “Middle East”, an often nebulous and catch-all terms applied to a wide geographical area and divergent peoples (although to be fair “the West” is a similarly catch-all term). And in particular modern international politics have been centred heavily on how the United States interacts with the Middle East, and the different ways the countries in that region interact with the US, some openly hostile, some allied (but always for a price of some sort), some can be a friend one day and a deadly enemy who must be fought to the death the next, as changes in administrations, ideologies and military and economic power (the two are often synonymous) dictate new policies and directions, decisions made in seats of government that will have huge ramifications for millions who really had little say in matters. Sometimes it’s a new oil refinery or rights to a naval base, sometimes it leads to all out war, and afterwards the shattered, pained aftermath of civil strife, more civilian deaths and desperate refugees trying to flee events they had no hand in, while in the West innocents are threatened by terrorism and fellow citizens become suspect simply because of their religion.

It feels like a very modern problem, this “clash of civilisations” as it has been called, or also “the clash of ignorance” as the great Edward Said noted. Of course it is not and those who read history will doubtless already be aware that there is a long and quite utterly sordid and immoral history lying behind those current events and situations. In fact there is much, much more than most of us probably know. I’ve read a lot of history over the years, and while there were elements in here that I had some familiarity with – going right back to WWI and Lawrence of Arabia, and British, French, Russian and Turk machinations over the region for strategic and resource control – Jean-Pierre Filiu (former French diplomat, historian and academic) and the award-winning David B’s collaboration here exposes so much history, from the European-facing shores of North Africa (now staging post for waves of desperate refugees and god knows how many drowned on the way, these lands have always been a focal point for events) to the Persian Gulf to Israel and Lebanon. It’s a hugely complex jigsaw over overlapping interests from various powers, from religious fundamentalist leader to greedy corporations with the ears of their governments and competing military and economic interests.

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But it’s a complex subject which Filiu and David B make far, far for accessible using the comics medium (at a recent talk at the Edinburgh Book Fest Filiu mentioned in some of his university classes he also uses comics, such as Sacco’s Footnotes in Palestine, to teach his students about the history of the region). Filiu is a very thoughtful man with vast first-hand experience as well as academic learning on this subject, while it will surprise no-one who knows of David B’s work to learn that he creates some remarkably powerful and efficient imagery to communicate this subject which sprawls across decades and nations – from the devilish grin on the incredibly disturbing-looking US spook-master Kermit Roosevelt (cousin of the famous wartime president) gleefully working in shadows to change regimes (his techniques would later be applied by the US to regimes they disliked in South America too),  to stylised images of cannons with legs to denote military force (or cannon with hands coming out holding money bags or diplomatic scrolls to denote negotiation), while leaders, Arabic and Western, sprout oil pipes for arms or Islamist terrorist and US soldiers alike are shown as human bodies clutching guns, but their faces are just huge, projecting cannon barrels.

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David B’s imagery is quite astonishing here, sometimes referencing older, period art styles (a few panels almost like woodcuts) and varies from realistic to surrealist images, and he plays often with perspective and sizes, powerful figures, be it a Western Admiral or an Eastern Pasha, shown as huge compared to the figures of those he is dealing with, or the giant turbans of 17th and 18th century pashas morphing to become a globe around which all the various parties orbit, or an image of the Grand Turk, his curling moustaches now curving blades of Turkish scimitars, diplomats are shown literally bending so far over to meet their aims that they are facing backwards, while others lie with mouths agape as a warren of oil pipes criss-cross the page, terminating above their open mouths which suckle greedily and insatiably on the oil. The imagery is quite magnificent, this is no simple depiction of events, this is the artist doing what a truly great comics artist does best, working with the author’s words but in a way which doesn’t merely illustrate or compliment, it enhances, tells a whole other aspect of the tale in its own right, making both words and pictures far more together than the sum of their parts. This is the work of a master, and I can see why Filiu mentioned that there will be a gap between the second book and the third, as the process is so exhausting to the artist.

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Space here does not allow for me to go heavily into the details of a century and a half or so of US interactions with the region (in which they actually coin the term “Middle East”) and besides, as I’ve already inferred, it’s far too complex to sum up in a review. Suffice to say it is a fascinating, compelling slice of history, laid out in an accessible, highly intelligent manner (and still retaining at certain points a playful sense of humour here and there to leaven the weight of other events), going right back to the newly independent US in the late 1700s encountering the infamous “Barbary” pirates that the European navies had long been battling (indeed the great Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, was once captured and forced to be a galley slave for these pirates who used the mask of religious jihadism to cover acts which were more for their own material gain than any true religious observance – not unlike many today misusing religions as supposed justification for attacking one group or another).

It is just as dangerous to take action as it is to do nothing. There are thing we know and we know we know them. These are Known Knowns. There are also things we know we don’t know. These are Known Unknowns. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know. What does this tell us? That the world we live in is vast and difficult, a complicated world where denial and manipulation are common currency.” Enkidu and Gilgamesh speaking Bush and Rumsfeld’s words – astonishing that anyone who speaks such gibberish could be taken seriously and allowed to make important decisions…

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And the opening prologue is a wonderfully cheeky delight, taking the oldest written story we humans have, the great Epic of Gilgamesh, born out of those same lands we’ve so recently bombed to dust (the cradles of human civilisation, no less), but reworks that great tale that has been retold for four thousand years around the world, inserting actual speeches by George W Bush and Rumsfeld into the mouths of Gilgamesh and Enkidu to justify their warlike raids on neighbouring, resource-rich lands. This isn’t just history repeating itself (and repeating and repeating…), it’s myth and folklore and culture and history and the same mistakes over four millennia, and we still don’t seem to be learning.

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An image of an ancient Sumerian stele unearthed in Iraq (now in the Louvre) depicts a pyramid made of the bodies of enemies, piled atop each other, then cuts to the infamous human pyramid of masked prisoners US soldiers arranged in Abu Ghraib for their own amusement. The ancient stele is called “the stele of the vultures”, the modern image from Abu Ghrain “a stele of the vultures for our century”. For anyone who admires the way in which comics can open up such complex subjects, and who admire world-class comics art, this is a must read. And for the simple fact it puts in context so much of what has shaped our troubled, modern world, it is also a book everyone should read and then sit back and consider. A modern classic.

Everything is teeth…

During the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August I was fortunate enough to be asked to chair a talk with author Evie Wyld (who made the famous and influential Granta Best Young Writers list – putting her among the company of authors like Salman Rushdie, A L Kennedy, Iain Banks and more) and artist Joe Sumner to discuss their graphic novel debut, Everything Is Teeth, here’s my review of the book:

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(Joe Sumner and Evie Wyld signing after our Edinburgh International Book Festival chat)

Everything is Teeth,

Evie Wyld, Joe Sumner,

Jonathan Cape

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Evie Wyld’s name may already be familiar to a number of you, as she has already carved out a spot for herself in the hugely respected Granta list of best young writers, always a good indicator of strong, new talent, as well as winning the prestigious Miles Franklin award for her novel, All The Birds Singing (which I heartily recommend). And like more than a few prose writers before her, she’s been drawn (no pun intended) to the graphic medium, working with artist Joe Sumner to create what I have to say is a very, very satisfying work. In fact it becomes more satisfying. I found with re-reading – this is a very atmospheric book with layers that reward second or third reads to allow those different elements to slowly permeate.

On the one level you could take this as an unusual, quirky memoir of a sort of childhood fascination – or obsession – with sharks, acquired over the course of family visits to relatives in New South Wales, Australia, and indeed Wyld and Sumner perfectly capture that strange mixture of sheer fascination and dread that any of us can have for certain things, especially as children. Young Evie hears the stories from her Aussie relatives, for whom the hunting and killing of sharks is a common occurrence, and we do see her witness some scenes involving the killing of these remarkable animals (rather distressing – hopefully a less common sight these days with many shark species being protected). In some ways you could almost view this as similar to the way children (and indeed adults too, if we are honest, just look at our continued fascination with horror tales), have that bizarre, contrasting fascination with monsters while being scared and repelled by them, and that irrational, illogical feeling that they can be anywhere, not just in their natural environment, but anywhere, waiting to pounce if we let our guard down. “My mommy said there are no monsters, no real monsters, but there are,” said Newt in Aliens. Monsters with sharp teeth take many forms to the young, impressionable mind and, as Newt and Evie both know, they can be very real…

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For most kids this will come in the form of monsters in fairy tales, or the always popular bogeyman under the bed, but here, for young Evie, the monster is based on a real – and highly dangerous – creature. Although in her child’s world the reality of these astonishing and ancient predators mixes with her imagination and becomes symbolic of the young girl’s fears about the mysterious world around, her, especially that of the grown-ups like her mother and father, expressions and symbols of her worries and fears that she is too young to fully grasp but is starting to understand do happen, such as loss, injury and death, much as traditional fairy tales are often a way of introducing young minds to, let’s be honest, fairly terrifying concepts (that we could die, or that we could lose a parent), and that there are dangers out there that we have to be wary of, except here, instead of the dark forest of fairy tales with wolves and iron-toothed witches, it’s the endlessly mysterious depths of our ocean world and the perfectly evolved creatures which move through it, unseen, like a monster hiding in the dark, until it strikes…

But there is so much more going on here than just a youngster who sometimes worries that she has to keep her feet up on the sofa in case a hidden shark comes past the rug, or that one may somehow have gotten into the swimming pool (I remember a similar, irrational yet still real fear after seeing Jaws as a kid). The sharks here aren’t just a subject of fascination and fear, but also become metaphorical elements as her young mind tries to process what happens in the adult world around her, especially mortality and loss, this filter allowing this aspect of the story to come across quite slowly and gently, building across the length of the book, stoking and evoking a sympathetic emotional resonance in the reader that is truly satisfying.

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It’s not the images that come first when I think of the parts of my childhood spent in Australia. Or even the people. It’s the sounds – the butcher birds and the magpies that lived amongst us on the back veranda...”

Both art and text work beautifully together here – with fairly short lines allied to several large, single page scenes of art right at the opening, working together to establish a beautifully atmospheric and evocative sense of place. Sumner’s opening pages of art – coastal waters, a solitary fin in the expanse, nearby coast, trees, very Australian looking farm architecture, another of a mangrove inlet, or the metal windmill at the back of the farm drilling for groundwater – all conjure up a feeling of the place, even for someone like me who knows it only through many film and television viewings. Wyld’s text similarly imbues this sensation into the reader – I could hear those oh-so distinctive bird sounds in my head as I read, the sense of oppressive heat almost real. Perhaps she sings a songline as she writes it, to weave that ancient Aboriginal feel for the land into the words. It’s a beautiful piece of writing, and I’ve found Wyld’s prose work to be similarly atmospheric and evocative of mood and place, and in this work it is so wonderfully complimented by Sumner’s art. The choice of large, single panel pages at the start, which somehow help the text in conveying that feeling of slowness, the languid nature of the far too hot climate, while also mirroring the way memory works, especially our earliest memories, more about sensation than about narrative, impressions of heat, sun, water, the people around us, the smells, the sounds.

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Sumner chooses to depict Evie and her family in a fairly cartoony, deceptively simple fashion, which is very effective, especially in conjunction with the sharks, which, by contrast, are drawn in a highly detailed, realistic manner (I’m guessing a lot of research time for Sumner on that), although he changes his style for a few spots for effect, such as showing the family watching – perhaps inevitably – Jaws on the television, intercut with some panels depicting famous scenes from that original movie blockbuster, drawn in a more realistic style, the actor’s characters instantly recognisable. He even mixes the two styles during this scene, that incredibly famous “dolly zoom” of Roy Scheider’s Chief Brody on the beach being conflated with the face of the cartoony, big-nosed image of her father, while another panel juxtaposes young Evie and her dad with the on-screen father and son moment in Jaws (the charming scene where his wee boy is copying everything his dad does). Young Evie’s imagination, which sees the possibility of the shark stalking anywhere, also turns up some fantastical but memorable images – being driven across the outback in a Ute, imagining a shark following them, floating alone in the air, glimpsed in the wing mirror, or stalking her through the tall cane crop, accompanying her down the street. Magical-realism or child’s fears and imagination, or perhaps both, but they make for some imagery that remains in your head long after reading.

It’s all beautifully, movingly crafted by both writer and artist, carrying a combination of fears, doubts, hopes, nostalgic longings and familial love against the slow arc of a child growing up and becoming more aware of the world and events around her (but the sharks, they’re still there, waiting in the darkness, waiting to strike when we’re ill and vulnerable, ready to take a bite, just like life will often do), and the sense of time and place is so palpable that it’s practically tactile, stimulating the reader’s own senses by proxy. It’s a work to read, then slowly re-read and let yourself become immersed into it like a cool pool on a hot day. Just be careful of the predators in those depths…

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this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Hellboy and the BPRD 1952

Hellboy and the BPRD : 1952,
Mike Mignola, John Arcudi, Alex Maleev, Dave Stewart.
Dark Horse

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Anung un rama…

With Mignola’s most recent mini-series seeing Hellboy not only dead but now in Hell (a new arc starts this very month), Hellboy and the BPRD 1952 is a welcome diversion, taking us right back to his earliest days and his first field mission for the BPRD. We open in a hospital in newly-liberated France in 1946, where Professor Bruttenholm is recovering from injuries. He is visited by a charming young girl who the nurse assumes is his niece, but it’s soon clear that she’s something rather more than the little girl she appears to be. She brings the hospital-bound Bruttenholm news he has been waiting on regarding some of the supernatural experiments the Nazis had embarked on in the dying days of the war, desperate for some magical weapon to turn the Allied advance back. More specifically he wants to know all he can about how Hellboy was brought into the world and why.

Of course some of this is professional and academic curiosity – he needs to know as part of his role in this new Bureau for Paranormal Defence and Research, set up to counter such threats. But much of his line of questioning stems from something far more basic and far more emotional and human – a paternal instinct. The girl tells him about Project Ragnarok, about how the mad monk Rasputin still lives decades after his supposed death and how he summoned Hellboy, destined to grow up to wear the flaming crown as destroyer of all things, the ending of worlds. But, she chides the injured professor, you know this already, and yet you’ve adopted the boy, while others see the danger he poses, they argue for killing him, you treat him like a son… And that fatherly theme is a strong element here. Yes, Bruttenholm is no fool, he knows what Hellboy could be, he has nightmares about it. But like any good father he sees good in his son as well, and believes firmly that if he nurtures the good, brings him up with love and respect, that he can make him something else, something better – not the doom of the world but its hope.

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Cut to 1952, and Hellboy is now fully grown (his body matures quickly), and chafing at the restrictions of always living in the BPRD headquarters. The nascent BPRD is spreading its wings internationally, not just in the US, and a request for help investigating mystery deaths by a supernatural creatures in a village in Brazil elicits a response. As the professor briefs his team for their trip, he also adds that he wants them to take Hellboy. Some are unhappy – he isn’t qualified and the professor himself forbade untrained agents in the field after a previous tragedy. I know, he replies, but I made the rule so I can break it when I think it is right to do so. Some of the experienced agents worry about this, a couple, including Archie, the leader, think it a good idea for the boy to get experience in the field, one seems to object less about the lack of experience and more because Hellboy isn’t human.

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Prejudice rears its ugly head (and there’s more to this than simple bias, as we will find out later). But the professor has decided, and that is that. But there’s more than just letting Hellboy get some experience and letting him out of his confinement in the base here. After the team leave he turns to his assistant, not the head of the BPRD but a father trying to guide a son, feeling, knowing that he needs this experience, that he will instinctively try to fight the monsters, protect the innocent, and that fighting the good fight is what will make him the good man he believes he can be:

Out there, Margaret, only out there can he become a man.”

The slow-burn of the opening takes its time establishing the mood and scene nicely, before the tempo moves up a notch as the team arrive in Brazil. It’s never an easy task to come to illustrating Hellboy after two decades of Mignola’s art, but here we have the excellent Alex Maleev, and he steps up to the plate – one of the first scenes in Brazil is a nice, simple but utterly lovely character piece, Maleev showing Hellboy smiling, happy simply to be out of his usual home in the base, he’s outside, in the world, smelling the trees as they drive down a road in Brazil and this simple pleasure has him grinning. It’s soon business though, as they learn of the deaths and disappearances around a small village, which in best Gothic tradition, is located near a semi-ruined old castle with an evil reputation. Once it has ceased being a fortress it became a prison, but after mass deaths there it was abandoned. Now a rather creepy film crew has set up there, and you just know there’s going to be a connection between them and the mystery creatures – the question is what is that connection, what are they really up to and will the team figure it out in time, especially when playing nursemaid to a rookie Hellboy?

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I’m not going to spoil it too much for you by going into what they find, but suffice to say of course the locals are right, it’s not simple superstition, there is indeed a monster (perhaps more than one) and a young, inexperienced Hellboy will have to decide how he deals with them. Naturally there are dark goings-on in the semi-abandoned castle, and it will not surprise you – especially given the cover art clearly shows a nazi swastika flag – that it involves some of the “boys from Brazil”: escaped Nazi war criminals (and HB is always wonderful when it involves monsters and mad Nazis!).

The story manages the fine trick of being it’s own tale, a coming of age story in some ways, of a young Hellboy, but it also manages to combine that with multiple references to Hellboy history we’ve seen over the years, weaving them into this early story, some as nods to previous stories, some actually expanding a bit on elements of HB history we’ve seen hinted at before. It’s all very, very satisfying for the long-time reader (although a new reader can still enjoy this as an origin tale and they will pick up some elements of HB history along the way which will work nicely if they follow it up with reading previous volumes).

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The nods to Hellboy history also includes his first encounter with a memorable villain we’ve seen several times now in Hellboy volumes – I won’t blow the surprise, but will say I was delighted when I saw who it was and I think many of you will be too. Maleev, as I noted earlier, does sterling duty, making the art his own while working within a style that doesn’t jar with Mignola’s oh-so-iconic art for HB, aided in no small manner by the excellent Dave Stewart and his atmospheric colour palette (an element always important in HB’s visuals) – a fight in a local church lit by candles is all washes of sickly orange and bright red, night scenes in blues and purples (including a memorable image of a priest by a standing cross, looking up to see one of the monsters perched on the cross-beam, silhouetted against the dusk sky).

It’s a terrific romp, it offers more connections to other parts of Hellboy’s established history and, frankly, it’s just huge fun to see such a young Hellboy on his first outing (and how the world reacts to him too – after all, unlike later volumes where HB is well-known, here most people will have no idea who he is and never have seen anything like him). But beneath the action-adventure romping fun there’s that father-son story, which lends it a deeper emotional core and also gives that Hellboy history a more personal note. This isn’t just the story of how Hellboy went from being Rasputin’s tool for the apocalypse to being the noble hero, it’s the personal, emotional, family level of it that really works so well here, an adopted father who knows the responsibility he bears to bring this boy up the right way. Any father worries about such matters, about making sure they instil in their child not just love but respect for others, the instinct to do the correct thing, and while most dads don’t have to worry about their child growing up to be the beast of the apocalypse, on an emotional level it’s the same struggle, the same hopes and fears of a father for his boy.

An ancient classic re-imagined: ODY-C

Ody-C Volume 1,

Matt Fraction, Christian Ward,

Image Comics

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There are certain stories that are, essentially, immortal, which will be told and retold for as long as humans tell each other stories. The Norse Sagas, the Ramayana Cycle, the Epic of Gilgamesh and, of course, Homer’s Iliad and The Odyssey; these stories and characters have been passed down through the millennia, they remain in our shared, collective imagination and dreams because they speak of very human elements that we 21st century types still share with our Bronze Age ancestors, of human pride, arrogance, love, hate, of the whims of fate and the struggles of life. And, simply, because they are bloody good stories. And as such they are also endlessly open to re-interpretation in every medium, because their basic elements can be refitted and interpreted to each new generation. And here, as you may infer from the title, Matt Fraction and Christian Ward are taking the Odyssey, the epic Classical tale of Odysseus (also sometimes known as Ulysses), the crafty warrior of Trojan War fame, and the voyage of his vessel home after that decade of war, a voyage wrecked by capricious gods and fates, turned into a long trial of endurance.

Leaving behind the last century, leaving behind all their dead and their loss: Paris the coward and killer and thief. Here where Keles last stood. Here brave Hekta was bodily disgraced in death. Here where so many great women died. Three ships leave Troiia’s remains. Three adventures now start. Three great heroes begin their last odyssey…”

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Except here Fraction and Ward transform Homer’s epic into a great space-faring, science fiction tale, but an SF version of The Odyssey which is also gender-swapped: this is an epic of great women heroes and goddesses. And so instead of the crafty Odysseus we have “cunning Odyssia” and her fellow Achaeans at the sack of the siegeworld of Troiia, the only male visible being He, now on a collar like a dog, “thousands of swiftships once launched in his name”, now but a spoil of war for the victorious captains. The final ships make their sacrifices to the gods – again all female, save for the “mother-father” who partakes a bit of both genders in this female-centric universe – for a safe voyage home after their long, long war. But those familiar with the Odyssey will already know that this is not a voyage that will go smoothly…

Well, Olympians? What say you now? The war is over. Where shall we find our entertainment?

Yes, Fraction and Wards’ gods of the stars are as capricious, malicious – and downright mean and childish – as those ancient Greek gods of Homer’s day, less interested in helping mere mortals, more in using them as playthings. The war over, how shall they find their diversions now? Well, there’s this long voyage home, a lot could happen, and these gods are quick to take offence and equally swift to deliver revenge for slights, imagined or real (never hurts to be able to justify your violent actions, even if you’re fooling nobody, a sexed-up dossier is still useful for justifying your actions, eh?). One reprimands the Mother-Father, telling her it is vulgar to find pleasure in creating new tortures for great women like Odyssia, while another declares “why should we let these bloodthirsty wanderers roam our spaceways so freely?” and more talk of punishment for their hubris (and as is often the case in Greek myth, when the gods argue about human arrogance, pride and hubris they epically fail to see that they themselves are displaying exactly the same qualities. Never trust a god). It is quite clear that any excuse will be taken by some of these petty gods to inflict suffering and misery.

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I don’t want to spoil the story too much here – yes, it does generally follow the line of the Odyssey’s arc, so if you know your Homer you will already have a fairly good idea where this is going. But that’s part of the joy of it for those of us forever in love with the great Classics, in seeing how Fraction and Ward will tell their version of this ancient tale, of the clever re-imagining and re-workings of those events and characters, such as the gruesome encounter with the vile Cyclops, or the dream-like lure of the lotus eaters. Those not so familiar with the original though, are still in for a treat – there is a reason this story has stayed with us for over two and a half thousand years, after all – and after reading it you really should seek out the original Odyssey, one of the cornerstones of world literature.

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The gender and science fiction components of Fraction’s version of the epic are intriguing, a fresh take on an old tale, well-told, and it’s interesting to see crafty Odysseus of legend still being the same clever, devious and brave figure as a woman, a reminder that the both the heroic aspects and our not so fine behavioural traits are not confined to one gender or the other. And Ward’s artwork? Oh, but Ward’s artwork is utterly sublime here, from the curving swiftships (mentally linked to their captains and crews) to the various bickering gods, from scenes of carnal sensuality to cannibalistic horror and vistas of distant stars. And on top of this some quite remarkable use of colour, giving some scenes an amazing, vibrant intensity, sometimes almost a visual cacophony, an overload, like being on a trip, as if someone had taken Brendan McCarthy’s innovative palette and thrown a Psychedelic Bomb into the paint, a riot of colours, forms and unusual page layouts adding to the otherworldly feel of the story and inviting the eye to linger and drink it in – a wonderful reading experience.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog

A new undead for a New World: American Vampire

American Vampire Volume 1,

Scott Snyder, Stephen King, Rafael Albuquerque,

DC Comics/Vertigo

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Scott Snyder has really established himself as major comics writing talent in the last few years, not least with his highly regarded Batman run for DC’s New 52, but arguably it was his and Rafael Albuquerque’s American Vampire which first seriously established his credentials as a new writer to watch out for, and the fact that the first volume includes work from no less a literary luminary than Stephen King doesn’t exactly hurt. I’ve a long fascination for vampire and Gothic tales, but it’s not an easy genre to do something new with. Every now and then someone reworks the genre and shakes it up – Stoker took the earlier 19th century tales and crystalised them in Dracula, Anne Rice revamped (pardon the pun) the genre in the 70s with Interview With the Vampire, Twilight brought romantic vamps to a mass teen audience while Niles’ 30 Days of Night made them gut-wrenchingly monstrous and terrifying once more. It’s one of the reasons the genre refuses to lie quietly in its coffin, but always rises again in one form or another, to stalk our nightmares, the vampire mythos is, in the right hands, endlessly elastic and able to be refitted to suit so many cultures and times. And here, these are the right hands.

The first volume is split into two linked tales, switching back and forth between them, and it isn’t titled “American Vampire” for nothing – these two settings are ones which strongly evoke a sense of Americana from their respective eras, periods most of us would associate so strongly with the US, the final decades of the Old West in the 19th Century and the early days of the silent movies as they establish themselves in a booming LA in the Roaring Twenties. Cowboy gangs and vengeful lawmen on horseback (hell, there’s even a train heist thrown in!) on one side, the glitz and sleaze of early Hollywood and Flapper girls trying to make it in the big city on the other. They’re well chosen eras that ooze the sense of the period, even now, and Snyder, King and Albuquerque use them to give their vampires a uniquely American personality and setting. Yes, there are more traditional European vampires here, hiding in dark corners, away from the sun, greedy, decadent, self-satisfied Old World monsters, much like the east coast wealthy elite who, for all the republican nature of the US in the 1800 and 1900s, were Old World style aristocracy in all but name.

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Skinner Sweet, 1850 –1880, Outlaw, Killer, Defiler of Women, Born in Kansas, Burns in Hell,” inscription on Skinner Sweet’s grave in the local Boot Hill, in finest Western tradition.

But this is America, the land of opportunity, where you can arrive with only a dollar in your pocket but build yourself up, or at least so the myth that everyone can make it goes. And here that seems to apply to the undead as well. And when a hard-nosed lawman tracks down and captures the infamous Skinner Sweet (a gang leader with a real sweet tooth) at the behest of a wealthy banker (whose banks Skinner robbed), it sets up a chain of events none of them could have foreseen. The wealthy banker is in fact secretly an Old World vampire, here to mine the Western Frontier for new wealth, but when Skinner’s gang ambushes the train carrying him, in a rescue attempt, a fight ensues, and while the lawmen are distracted the vampiric banker attempts to deal with Sweet himself, but Sweet doesn’t die easily and wounds the vampire, his blood falling onto Sweet’s open wounds. Forced to flee he doesn’t realise at first that this has transformed Sweet, but when he does suspect he arranges for a dam to be built and buys up the local town before it is flooded – thus drowning the cemetery in which Sweet lies. Vampire or not, he can never rise now, or so they think…

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But this is, as the title implies, a new type of vampire – somehow the alchemy of the change brought on by the vampiric blood causes something different in this New World, creating different vampires, with different powers and weaknesses, and Sweet does eventually rise, and soon discovers his new powers. He doesn’t need a gang anymore, not with his abilities, he can tear a place apart all on his own. And he does. But when he surfaces again in the 1920s, despite still being a killer, he seems to have his own agenda, and he actually warns two naïve young actresses, Pearl and Hattie, about attending a party thrown by one of the major studio heads, but they don’t listen to him, and at the party Pearl is taken to a private room, where it turns out more of those in power are also Old World vampires, eager to use and abuse her before dumping her body in the desert. But like Skinner, she doesn’t die and instead transforms, desperately trying to figure out what has happened to her, what these new impulses and abilities are, and as she comes to terms with them, determining to take vengeance on the powerful men – these smug, wealthy, Old World vampiric elite – who did this to her.

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You, Pearl Jones, are a different kind of vampire… Just picture it in automotive terms, Bloch and his kind, they’re like old, broken-down European clunkers, okay? But you and me, Dolly? We’re like shiny, new 1926 Fords, top of the line, just rolled out onto the showroom floor.” Skinner explains why he and Pearl have different abilities from the Old World vampires.

It’s a hugely compelling read, and a great twist on the old vampire mythos, and it really does give it a truly American identity. Both story arcs plunder their periods for detail and atmosphere, and Albuquerque does art duty on both, handling Old West and Roaring 20s Hollywood with equal dexterity, giving us cowboy raiders attacking a train, or riding into a sunset on one chapter, or a Flapper Girl making her way in this brave, new post-war boom world of the big city, the bright lights (and dangers), and the lure and magic (and hidden darkness and sleaze) of the emerging magic factory that was Hollywood in the 20s, going from a wonderfully demonic grin on Skinner’s face in his Boot Hill coffin to Model T cars chugging along 1920s LA’s boulevards. Both periods, which could so easily have clashed, dovetail nicely, and of course in the real world the tail end of the Old West did indeed overlap with the early years of the movies, with genuine Western characters moving to LA and taking part in Hollywood’s early “horse operas”, so they’re a good choice for linked tales, and they are eras we’re all used to from a thousand films and books (and as I said, also suitably, iconically American), so we instinctively recognise the styles and tropes of those historical periods.

And it mixes well with the great American myth of itself which grew up during that great Westward Expansion and carried into that new modern, 20th century era (building bigger, better, smarter, always upwards, onwards, boudless optimism), but here translated to brash but bright, eager, capable new energies of new kinds of vampires, evolved to suit this New World (and totally vulgar to the sensibilities of the Old World vamps). I’m always impressed when someone can do something fresh with the vampire myth, and here King, Snyder and Albuquerque have done just that, giving horror fiction terrific new characters in Skinner Sweet and Pearl, in a book dripping with period atmosphere and style.

A quiet, forgotten hero: Le Train de Michel

Le Train de Michel,

Jed Falby,

Halsgrove Publishing

le_train_michel_jed_falby_halsgrove_coverIt’s 1944, and after years of desperate struggle, the tide is finally turning in the battle against the once seemingly invincible Nazi hordes – Russians advance in the east, the Allies are working their way up Italy, liberating Rome and then comes D-Day, the greatest amphibious armada in history, the bloody beaches marking the start of the eventual liberation. In Great Britain, endlessly battered by Nazi bombs in the Blitz, there’s a sense of excitement and relief – it’s not the end of the war, but they can feel that end getting closer, perhaps the worst is over… And then something new appears in the world, the first proper guided missiles, the new “vengeance” wonder weapons, in the shape of the V-1, the notorious Doodlebug. And once more bombs shatter homes and lives in the British Isles. A terrifying new robotic weapon, capable of much destruction.

And yet, terrifying as this new technological killer was, it would have been much, much worse, if not for a French man most people in the UK or France have heard of these days, and the brave group he organised. Jed Falby was a wee lad in London when the V-1s started falling on the city, and this book is his record and also his tribute to Michel Hollard and the vital role this unassuming, forty something husband and father took upon himself. Like many of the best heroes Hollard is not some highly-trained superspy, or skilled man of action. He’s just an ordinary man trying to look after his family in a France now occupied by the victorious Nazis. And that’s an aspect of the Second World War we don’t often think of – once the Battle of France was over, what did the ordinary citizens of the defeated France do? Despite everything, despite the occupation of the hated Nazis, life still had to go on – people still had to make a living, go to their jobs, open the schools, run the railways… And against this background Hollard and his family settle in, he gets new work, like many ordinary people they hate what is going on, but what can they do, except keep their heads down and endure?

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But this simply won’t suffice for Hollard. He cannot bear the fact that his homeland is now under the rule of the German conquerors, and that while the Allies hold out in nearby Britain (with help from others, including Free French forces helping the RAF resist the onslaught, as Falby makes clear), he has to go on as normal? No, it’s not right, others are fighting and dying for the freedom of all of Europe, and this very ordinary man does that thing which takes them from being an ordinary, everyday person to being that extraordinary thing, the hero – he decides whatever he can do, he will do, despite the enormous risks. His new work for an automative parts company allows his free travel, and like many industries the occupying forces are placing orders with that company for their war effort. Perhaps if he can get that information to the Allies and anything else he can pick up on his travels, it might help? But how?

And that’s a damned good question – I mean, with no training in ‘trade craft’ as intelligence agencies call it, how do you know what information to gather and how do you get it to the right people? Slowly Hollard starts working some ideas out, often having to take a chance and trust to luck, fortunately for him often encountering others who feel as he did – these are not members of the famed Resistance, just normal citizens, all doing little bits here and there to help, some graduating to much more dangerous missions as Hollard not only works out a dangerous but do-able route over the border into neutral Switzerland to pass information to the British Embassy, but starts to prove his worth to British intelligence, so they start requesting he and those he has recruited start trying to gather more information. Naturally every new attempt to gain new information to feed back to the Allies puts them at huge danger of discovery, capture, torture and death at the hands of the Gestapo (not to mention a chance their families may also suffer in retaliation). And yet, despite this, Hollard and his friends start to gather information, fragments at first, of major operations happening all around coastal France.

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(cutaway diagram of the V-1 Flying Bomb, borrowed from the Wiki entry)

As they build a larger picture with more and more information, they’re still not sure what they are discovering, and no wonder, because nobody has seen anything like this before in the history of the world. These are launch sites and ramps for the forthcoming V-1 rockets, like something from one of the Flash Gordon movies of the period, science fiction, about to become a horrible, death-dealing science fact. Unsure what they are but knowing they are important, and, worse still, taking compass bearings and realising the ramps for whatever this new device is are all aimed in the direction of London, Hollard and his friends get more information to the Allies, and soon the bombers come, starting with the mighty Lancasters and others, but they are too high to hit these small targets precisely, so in come the remarkable De Havilland Mosquitoes, those amazing balsa-wood framed fighter-bombers with an amazing turn of speed, executing a strategy the RAF would become famous for doing for decades (indeed they still did it during the first Gulf War), low-level, high-speed, precision strikes. Insanely dangerous, of course, roaring across the countryside, practically on the deck, at huge speed with massed enemy fire pouring up at you? But the precision this gave in strikes in the years before laser guided missiles was incredible, and despite casualties the Mossies hit the sites Hollard and his group identified, and hit them again, and again. The Germans rebuild and the RAF strike them once more.

We know from history that this did not stop the V-1 menace. That’s not the point of this story. But what the airstrikes on Hollard’s targets did achieve was to identify a mortal threat early and to cause such damage to it that for all the damage those launched did, it was a fraction of what the Nazis could have unleashed, if not for the bravery and inventiveness of Hollard and his friends, and the air crews who acted on their hard-won information. Imagine the carnage if those wonder weapons had been launched en-masse at the D-Day invasion fleet? And as Falby notes, he was a boy when those V-1s started hitting London. For all he knows one of those missiles stopped because of Hollard could have been the one that hit his family home – he himself may have lived to grow up because of this unbelievable bravery and heroism behind the lines.

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In a rather touching move Falby uses those personal memories, injecting himself into this history, both as his younger self, out for a picnic with his mother when a Doodlebug attack happens, but also as “Old Jed”, retracing some of Hollard’s routes and locations, talking to locals about the events (often making some good friends who are clearly delighted that this piece of admirable resistance took place on their patch and that it was being honoured and remembered). Remarkably he even finds the barn Hollard used before his hugely dangerous crossing of the border to pass on his latest intelligence, still there (now converted into a friendly auberge). While most of the narrative history here follows Hollard’s growing espionage efforts, with some glimpses of young Jed to show life on the British home front, as the story unfolds Falby also starts to put himself directly into the story “talking” with Hollard, asking him questions, about why he did something so fraught with peril, how he managed it, and these all combine to give this slice of history a very personal quality that’s often lacking from heavier tomes written by professional historians, and it’s that personal quality that makes this not just a slice of history, but a personally engaging tale – Falby makes Hollard not a historical character but a real person we can identify with.

The artwork and the book’s format (looking very much like a Franco-Belgian bande dessinee album) are clearly inspired by the European classics such as Tintin. Falby himself carries sketchbooks and those form the basis of some of Le Train de Michel. The artwork is fairly simple, I think, and the flow of the panels isn’t always quite right – in some ways some parts feel more like sketches lined up than a linear sequence of the art panels that allows a comic story to flow naturally. However, that’s a fairly minor criticism, and in fact I think this slightly more basic art approach works very, very well here – this is a hugely compelling story of immense bravery during desperate times, and frankly a much more detailed, fancier artwork approach would have likely detracted from the story. And Falby takes those simple sketches and in several memorable scenes delivers some powerful moments.

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The unmistakable drone of a V-1 overhead, that old adage that “as long as you can hear it, you’re safe” given a starkly simple but powerful visualisation, “a Doodlebug!” goes up the panicked shout”. That distinctive engine noise burbling overhead, then sudden silence. And silence means it is about to drop. It means imminent death. Panel after panel, each a second ticking by as the V-1 drops, each a panicked face, running in fear, trying to reach a shelter, death coming from the skies and nobody can stop it… 10, 9, 8… Each panel ticks down to the inevitable detonation of a one ton bomb among innocent civilians. Or in an earlier case a mother, singing to her baby, unaware of what that engine noise means, thinking it a passing motorbike, but not, it’s one of the brand-new vengeance weapons… It’s simply done and it is powerfully horrifying.

Early on we see older Falby with his family, walking through the St Denis area of Paris. He wants to pause by a cafe which he tells them is a location in the story he is researching (the great Emmanuel Guibert inspired him in this and also contributed a double-page of art), there is a small historic plaque by the cafe, but it is closed and his family see no point in lingering and instead continue to the nearby Gare du Nord for the train home. It’s just a few panels, but it’s a reminder not just of the many hidden histories in our cities that most folk – natives and tourists alike – walk past regularly without every noticing (I know my city well, taken thousands of photos of it, but I am still discovering histories hidden in areas I passed a thousand times), but of how often those almost forgotten histories had a vitally direct impact in shaping the future that became our today. As with all history, this isn’t just about the past, it’s about how the events and people of that past influenced the future; history isn’t a static past, it’s alive and interactive because it breathes directly into today and beyond.

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In that respect Falby’s wonderfully personal, highly engaging book isn’t just celebrating the bravery of a much-overlooked hero, it’s reminding us of how many individuals, all but forgotten to the bulk of “big history” and the acts they committed shaped the events that in turn shaped the world. How many of those ordinary people did something extraordinary in those dark days, putting the hope of a better tomorrow when the lamps would be re-lit across Europe ahead of their own safety, giving their today for our tomorrows?  An unusual and compelling slice of history, remembering an almost forgotten hero, and a reminder that there are some, like Falby himself (and his children, and their children in turn and so on, a chain of ongoing life), who may only be alive today because of Hollard’s wartime work. No bad thing to remember and honour such courage.