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

Woody Guthrie and the Dust Bowl Ballads Hardcover,

Nick Hayes,

Jonathan Cape

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reviews: Zenith, Phase One

Zenith Phase One Hardcover,

Grant Morrison, Steve Yeowell,

Rebellion/2000 AD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog

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

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

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

Back then our lives were all about books.”

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

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

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

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

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

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this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Review: Kleist’s The Boxer

The Boxer,

Reinhard Kleist,

SelfMadeHero

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One day, I’ll tell you everything.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Reviews: art swallowed by the ice – Glacial Period

Glacial Period,

Nicolas De Crécy ,

NBM/Louvre Editions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

To End All Wars

This month sees the publication of To End All Wars, a graphic anthology of twenty six tales by over fifty writers and artists from thirteen countries, all marking the centenary of the start of the First World War – the ‘war to end all wars’ – this year, edited by Jonathan Clode and John Stuart Clark (who cartoons under the pen-name Brick). With this centenary year, while there have been some good documentaries and personal histories we all feared there would also be those who overlook the mud, the blood, the millions slaughtered and mutilated in mind and body on a scale of warfare no-one could have imagined before… So the brief was for stories that would take in all sides, different fields of conflict and service, from the early U-Boats to the trenches to the nurses who travelled all the way to Russia to give aid to the animals who were used in the war. Linking all of them was a desire to avoid those monsters, jingoism and nationalism, which have fueled (and still fuel) so much bloodshed, to, as the poet said, show our contempt for “the old lie – dulce est decorum est, pro patri mori” (how sweet it is to die for one’s country). Yes, Mr Gove, with your ill-informed public views on history and the Great War, we are looking at you and your ilk…


(end papers by Bern Campbell)


(Between the Darkness by Patri Hanninen and Neil McClements)

The subjects are diverse, taking in all sorts of fields of conflict from the First World War and all sides, even the role of animals, and there’s a wonderfully satirical piece by Brick which imagines all the leaders of the nations in that war on trial at the Hague for their war crimes, being cross examined by the Good Soldier Svejk, but all are inspired in one way or another by actual characters or events.


(Above: Il Gatto by Stuart Richardssees a curious feline running between the lines in the Alpine war between the Austrian and Italian lines in the frozen mountains; below: Dead in the Water by Ian Douglas and SM shows the chill brutality of a new form of warfare, the U-Boat campaign, from above and below the cold, dark seas)

My own story is the only prose piece rather than comic, but Memorial to the Mothers boasts some gorgeous, touching illustrations by Kate Charlesworth (who recently created the art for Mary and Bryan Talbot’s superb Sally Heathcote, Suffragette), and it closes the collection. Memorial to the Mothers was inspired by one of my own photographs, which I took of an unusual war grave in Dalry Cemetery near Haymarket in Edinburgh, one which remembers a father and a son, both the same regiment, eerily both the same age at death, the father killed in the First World War, the son in the Second World War. I often wondered if the father consoled himself during his trials by thinking at least his wee boy, when he grew up, would never have to endure the mud, the blood, the screaming of young men dying on the wire in No Man’s Land, because how could anyone ever, ever think about starting another war after this slaughter of nations? And yet here is a memorial to both of them, the son killed only a couple of decades later in the war which came after the “war to end all wars…”

Brick had seen that photo after I had put a call out for contributors for the book over a year back, and he commented there was a story in there and perhaps I should think about doing one myself instead of just spreading the word about for contributors to try out. And looking at it I suddenly realised there was another casualty who wasn’t on this memorial, the mother and wife. And by extension all of those war memorials in counties all over the world which list the names of the fallen too, behind each of them a veriable regiment, a division, an entire corps of mothers, wounded in soul and spirit and heart, casualties as surely as their loved ones who were mown down on the battlefields. That gave me the angle I needed to tell a story, not so much of this sad father and son memorial, but for all the mothers of all the fallen, from that war and all others, and I poured as much emotion into it as I could, drawing, I suspect, without thinking, on my own ever-present sense of loss and grief and trying to channel it into empathy (something our world needs more of), for those legions of mothers, and Kate created some wonderful illustrations, from little items mothers keep, like baby boots, to some haunting images of the mothers left behind, with their loss etched into their hearts eternally, feeling the pain of loss of their young lads as surely as the maimed soldier feels phantom pain from a limb long since left in the mud of the battlefield. Hopefully readers find it as emotional.


(the father and son war grave in Dalry Cemetery, Edinburgh, which inspired my story Memorial to the Mothers)

To End All Wars is published this month in the UK by Soaring Penguin Press and money from each sale is going to help Medecins Sans Frontiers, who offer medical help in many countries, in war zones, disaster hit areas and more, and goodness knows they could use all the donations they can get to continue their work, so I hope that we raise some money for them and that readers find our stories interesting. Jonathan and Brick have accomplished a great feat in herding the cats that are numerous writers and artists (from many countries) to bring this book from idea to actual finished work, and I’m proud of the work of my fellow contributors and myself. We weren’t there, none are left now after the death of Harry Patch a couple of years ago, who served in that dreadful, industrial slaughter, but I think I can say we all approached this with a sense of respect and deep emotional empathy. And with the last veteran now gone to well-earned rest it is all the more important we remember, that we never allow politicians and others to glorify war, because that makes it far, far too easy to for those same so-called leaders – different century, but same sorts of people seemingly in charge, always, too quick to find excuses for war but themselves never in the line of fire, always other people’s sons and daughters, all too often sacrificed to propaganda and political or economic reasons, not the principles they tell the soldiers they are fighting for. Never trust the bastard who speaks of glory in war, never let a leader try to drag us into another conflict without questioning them (yes, Mr Blair, we mean you, you two-faced Judas with your blood-soaked hands).

Velvet: Brubaker and Epting’s superb take on the superspy genre

Velvet Volume 1 : Before the Living End
Ed Brubaker, Steve Epting,
Image Comics

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There are some genres that never truly go out of style, and the superspy tale is one. When the Cold War was over many thought the genre would fade away, but it’s adapted to an ever-changing world and new creators have come along to put their own unique twist on it. And when those creators come in the shape of Captain America team Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting, you know you should be paying attention. And you should, because with Velvet Templeton, Brubaker and Epting have crafted a superb, edgy, sexy, intriguing superspy tale with real 60s/70s style and swagger, not to mention a powerful, assured, intriguing female central character.

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There are the tropes we expect in the genre – the oh-so-cool car (rather familiar looking model, of course with “all the usual refinements”), the glamorous locations, swish parties in Paris, New York, chilled champagne on ice, impeccable evening wear, superbly capable, ruthless but charming secret agents, conspiracies to investigate, sudden death and, naturally, sex. And the coolly reserved secretary to the chief, efficient, calm, flirting with the boyish secret agents, perhaps even falling for them, the eternal Moneypenny type…

Except Velvet is far, far more than a secretary to the chief of the agency, and yes, while she’d had her head turned by some of those charming, suave secret agents who risk life and limb for democracy, queen and country (and the thrill of it), while they think she has fallen for them they don’t realise she’s arranged the trysts and the sex on her terms. And each of them thinks they are the only one she has fallen for. These agents may be at the top of their spy game, but they have the emotional depth of a petulant schoolboy… And they have no idea that before taking her desk job Velvet did the same job they did, but she did it better, equally able to use a knife or gun or her sexual appeal as a weapon to get the job done (on the latter she can’t help but comment “men are so easy” as she uses her charms rather than gadgets or violence to find out what she needs for her mission. Take notes, boys, the female of the species is often deadlier than the male!). The opening skillfully sets up a James Bond style male spy hero only to bring him crashing down shortly afterwards – it is not a story about him – it is Velvet’s story.

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Those secret action days are behind her now, and almost no-one knows about them, but when the agency’s top spy is killed on a mission she is suspicious. Doing a little digging into the records she starts to come to the conclusion there may be a connection between his death and someone high up in the agency – a mole, a traitor? Before she can take it further she finds that for her troubles she has been framed for just that role, set up as the Oswald to take the fall.

Forced on the run, Velvet’s old training kicks in, and an entire team of younger agents finds themselves hopelessly outclassed by this mature woman with the streak of grey, a woman who sat calmly at her desk for years while they undertook dangerous missions, and here she is showing them what a real superspy is. And Velvet is going to need those old skills and connections if she is to find out the truth behind the murder and clear her own name – assuming her own side don’t kill her first.

Velvet is a superbly stylish, well-paced, tight tale of spies, conspiracies, betrayals, action, sex and death – everything you want from that Bond-style 60s/70s superspy story. But here very much from the female perspective, and for a genre which has so often treated women as disposable (literally) eye-candy characters for the main chauvinistic hero it is refreshing to see not just a female lead, but such an elegant, powerful lead. She’s simply better than the boys, faster, better reflexes, she know all the tricks they do but she did them before they ever started in the business, and she did them better. Determined, resourceful, beautiful, lethally efficient.

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Velvet has its cake and eats it, gleefully enjoying using those 60s superspy tropes – the gadget filled car, public school bully boy yet charming secret agent, even the chilled ’45 Rothschild on the balcony bar, the glamorous locations and action – but at the same time acknowledging the strong streak of misogyny that ran through many of them and giving it a damned good kicking from Velvet, who can easily stand alongside Black Widow or Emma Peel. Epting’s art is, as always, superb, and he is as deft in depicting glorious aerial night shots of Paris, or swanky rooftop bars in Manhattan as he is dark, close, intimate scenes, lit only by the slatted light coming in the blinds as spies trade theories in darkened rooms. Velvet herself he depicts as elegant, physically attractive but not overly sexualised; fit and toned to be sure, but still realistic, not the unbelievable physiques often used for superheroines (and superheroes, come to that).

Like Emma Peel she’s confident and powerful and while attractive she’s no mere object for the Male Gaze – you’re likely to find Velvet staring right back at you (and more than likely calculating how she can use your attentions and desires to her own ends. She is in charge here.). All of this plus the always-fun convoluted conspiracy to unravel, the action, sex, travel and a genuinely cool heroine you’ll warm to quickly – no wonder the first few issues of this made my Best of the Year back in December. If you missed those issues here’s your chance to catch up with the first collected volume.

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Classic 50s comics Sci-Fi from EC – Jack Kamen’s Zero Hour

EC: Zero Hour and Other Stories by Jack Kamen,

Al Feldstein, William Gaines, Ray Bradbury, Jack Kamen

Fantagraphics

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EC Comics is a legendary name among comics readers, famed – sometimes infamous – for some of their works which would contribute to the baseless moral panic about comics corrupting the youth of America and the imposition of the comics code which neutered many potential stories. Of course the fact that the censor hated them means we loved them all the more! Fantagraphics has been publishing a handsome hardback series collecting some classic archive material from the iconic EC Comics stable (which has brought us other volumes such as Corpse on the Imjin, ‘Taint the Meat and others so far). This new collection features the work of the great Jack Kamen, who was introduced to iconic publisher William Gaines by the equally iconic Al Feldstein. EC published all sorts – romance, crime, science fiction, horror – and Kamen cut his comics teeth on the romance tales, soon becoming noted for his expressive, detailed style, the character he captured on the faces of his subjects and his depiction of beautiful women. It wasn’t long before he was mostly on the more fantastical subjects and 50s style sci-fi and horror by Kamen is what we have in this, the latest of Fantagraphics’ lovely EC library hardbacks, with stories by Gaines, Feldstein and a very young Ray Bradbury (surely not just one of the finest science fiction writers of all time, but one of the finest American writers in any genre).

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These are all very much short stories in the EC classic mould, only a few pages each, most often featuring a male and female character either sneakily plotting behind one another’s backs or frequently in cahoots to commit some act of illegality or immorality for their own selfish benefit. And like, say, Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected, there is almost always some sort of sting in the tale here. A jealous, scheming wife is sure her husband is cheating on her, duping her with a robotic duplicate while the real version of him is off with another woman, in a story adapted from one of Bradbury’s Marionettes Inc tales (which also feature in his landmark short story collection The Illustrated Man) where a secretive company manufactures detailed robotic doppelgangers. A scientist creates a special process to freeze humans and animals for long-range space missions, and sees in it a chance to stowaway his attractive assistant, ready to defrost in the distant space colonies, far away from his wife, but of course something goes wrong.

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And that’s a recurring theme here – schemers come up with devious plans, husbands plan to cheat on wives, femme fatales (and what femme fatales or swooning love interests Kamen draws) plot to murder for money, revenge and love, sometimes, as in a couple of young lovers who yearn to be married but are too poor, good people are lead astray to do one seemingly clever crime, but every time something will happen, each time that sting in the tale and the moral reminder (hey, this is the 50s) that in the end crime doesn’t pay and that everyone will get their just deserts. There are some exceptions to this ‘house style’ though – a scientist finds a perfectly proportioned miniature woman in his lab, only a few inches tall and the lonely bachelor falls in love so heavily he uses a special potion to shrink himself to her size to live with her, but love has blinded him and there is a secret about her genesis he will learn too late. Or in another Bradbury adaptation, the titular Zero Hour, parents see all the kids in their neighbourhood playing a game together, borrowing items from the houses to construct something as they play a game invented by their imaginary friends – a game about invading the world sneakily, by using children. But it is just a harmless child’s game, isn’t it? Isn’t it….

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Throughout all of these short tales though Kamen’s artwork is gorgeous – the lurid, leering expression of the villainous man, the seductive and yet somehow simultaneously vicious glance of the scheming femme fatale, the wonderfully captured expressions of shock and surprise on faces as the dénouement is revealed to them, it is a pleasure to admire his craft. It’s very much of its time though – not just the style of storytelling, but of that early post-war society that it came from. The casual sexism in many stories will glare out at modern readers – in one tale where a group is asked to take turns working 24/7 on a science project the only woman in the group is asked by the gentlemen to go first and asks for the morning shift so she can have “time for shopping” in the afternoon. This is also an era of the nuclear family, the husband and wife roles very heavily defined (the woman is in the house if married or a seductive secretary or lab assistant if still single and young). And the science in the science fictional stories is often laughably silly to contemporary readers (to be honest it was probably pretty inaccurate even to any half decently informed reader of the time too), but that doesn’t really matter, it’s the stories and that wonderful 1950s artwork that are centre-stage here, and we can’t apply modern mores to stories crafted some sixty odd years ago.

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Enjoy them as period pieces, the stories as great fun shorts, the gender roles as a window into a vanished society (and reminder that while we may have a long way to go in gender parity yet, we have moved on an incredible amount since then, thank goodness), and most of all enjoy these mid 20th century classics for the glorious artwork, a style we really don’t see used much today, perhaps also very much of its time too, but still remarkable and a feast for the eyes. Besides, no real classic collection is complete without some EC works among it, and I think it’s fair to say it was these kinds of stories which inspired the (still running today) Future Shocks shorts in 2000 AD, short tales with a twist, which have been the launching pad for so many now famous creators. The EC Legacy isn’t just in historic archive delights like this, it’s still there, influencing writers and artists…

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

One of the most intriguing & unusual reads in current comics: Sex Criminals

Sex Criminals Volume 1
Matt Fraction, Chip Zdarsky
Image

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It felt so amazing that…

… that I was terrified. I was confused and terrified. How could anything feel so good? How could anything make everything get so quiet?

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Yes, I am recommending a book with that title. No, I have not sunk finally into a pool of my own degeneracy (well not too much). Yes, I expect you to want to read a book with that title on the cover. Why? Simply put because Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky’s Sex Criminals is one of the most unusual and fabulous works to come out in comics recently. The quote above? That’s from Suzie, a rather nice librarian, who is explaining about her first sexual awakenings. Everyone’s been there – hey, what is this, how comes this feels so nice, what’s that – oh. Is that normal? Does everyone do this? Why does nobody talk about it? And the half-blind maze of semi truths picked up from other kids at school and the precious little real information about what’s happening to your changing body and what it is all about. Confusing, fun, bit scary, but so want to know a bit more (except isn’t that being bad and dirty?). And here’s Suzie in this quote looking back at her first teenage orgasm and male or female we can all identify with the competing emotions she experiences. But the “get quiet” bit? Ah, didn’t I mention? When Suzie is at peak arousal time stops for her. And no-one can tell her why.

Doctor, what happens after you have an orgasm? I’m asking for a friend.”

Usually fall asleep, Suzanne.”

No, not metaphorically, not one of those “magical moments that felt like it went on and on” type of deals. Time stops and a wonderful show of swirling lights and patterns envelops her. Like going into an altered state but instead of meditation or mind-altering drugs it’s sex. Growing up and finding out about your sexuality is difficult enough, but when you seem to be different from everyone? First sex, always a mix of worry and wonder, finally it is happening and… Okay, time stopped, here are the colours and your partner, well, he is frozen in time while you go wandering off in your own state of sexually induced temporal grace. So, not the easiest thing to come to terms with, but despite it Suzie seems like a pretty nice, pretty together young woman, in love with her library, which she is desperately trying to stop from being closed down, like far too many public libraries (and rather sweetly trying to ‘rescue’ some of the doomed books). And then she meets Jon at a party, and at their own personal, intimate party afterwards she finds out Jon can do what she can do – to the mutual shock and delight of both of them. Finally they’ve both found someone like them.

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As we got the story of Suzie’s awakening we now get Jon’s, and it is funny and embarrassing in equal measure – like Suzie he finds out about the colours and time stopping, trying to work out what’s going on, realising the reason no-one else talks about it is because it doesn’t happen for them. Finding he can use this power, become aroused, enter this timeless state and actually go out and explore the city while everyone is frozen around him (of course at one point his arousal dips and he appears starkers in a shop. Oops). But this starts to give them both an idea – if they can both stop time together during sexual arousal, and go outside and do things while time is frozen, could they use this power to, let’s say, rob a bank? Not for personal gain per se, but to help fund Suzie’s library. Why not rob the bank that wants to take the library for redevelopment? Poetic justice! Sex as a cultural-economic weapon! But if there are two of them who can do this then isn’t it possible there are others? And some of them may be tasked with making sure no-one misuses those abilities?

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But apart from the story of trying to save the library, this really is more about relationships, love, friendship, coming of age (take that anyway you want in this context), exploring who you are. And yes, a big part of that is s-e-x. The confusions, the worries, the sheer bliss. It’s all part of that weird old thing we call life, and Sex Criminals tackles the subject wonderfully. In fact charmingly. Yes, hard to believe, but I am using the term ‘charming’ to describe a book entitled Sex Criminals. Because, well, simply, it is. Both leads come across as very genuine, it’s so easy to like them, so easy to identify with elements of life they deal with because we all have had similar (okay, perhaps not stopping time, but the rest of it). That opening chapter with Suzie telling us about her younger life is an utter delight – imagine in this medium that has, sadly, not always had the best attitude to women, a story where a young woman is front and centre and her sexuality the core of it. And imagine it being handled with humour, grace and charm and warmth. It’s not sleazy, it’s not exploitative, it is warm, delightfully human, emotional without being schmaltzy.

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It’s different, unusual and utterly addictive, drawing you into these young people’s lives, making us identify with them, laugh with them, share embarrassment at lack of knowledge, smile at them finding one another. Zdarsky’s art handles it all effortlessly, managing to be naturally sexy without being too much or seeming to be simply there for voyeuristic effect (I suppose the difference between pornography and erotica), also doing a great job with the facial expressions of the characters which mirrors the back and forth dialogue perfectly. And those trippy colour scenes in “the quiet” as Suzie calls it, up there with the sort of cool colouring effects Dan Goldman and Brendan McCarthy might use (which is high praise).

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All in all it’s just a uniquely unusual and wonderful story, it’s picked up a pile of critical acclaim and frankly it deserves it. One of the best works in comics right now. And as a bonus there’s a scene where Suzie sings Queen’s Fat Bottomed Girls (including donning Freddie Mercury’s iconic yellow jacket), but they didn’t get the rights sorted in time, so the speech bubbles are all covered with post-it notes explaining what’s going on, which is just a cracking bit of playing with the medium and winking to the reader about part of the process of making the issue, while still creating a great scene. How can you not love it?

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Jeff Brown’s A Matter Of Life

A Matter of Life,

Jeffrey Brown,

Top Shelf

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

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

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

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

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

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

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Sally Heathcote, Suffragette

Sally Heathcote, Suffragette

Mary Talbot, Bryan Talbot, Kate Charlesworth

Jonathan Cape

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

Manchester is the moral conscience of England.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Climate Changed – science goes graphic

Climate Changed: a Personal Journey Through the Science,
Philippe Squarzoni,
Abrams Comicarts

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Climate change – it’s rarely been far from ours news reports over the last couple of decades, and increasingly so in recent years (freak once in century storms happen repeatedly, is it the climate changing and did we alter it?) and just this week we’ve seen a major UN report on expected climate change and the colossal cost to our civilisation if we don’t actually take action. And that action requires a lot more than people in Western nations changing to energy-saving lightbulbs and doing their recycling more – important though those are. And this month also sees Philippe Squarzoni’s approach to this huge scientific-political-ideological-cultural problem in comics form. In pretty weighty comics form, actually – this graphic science work weighs in at well over four hundred pages. This is not a quick read, nor should it be. We’ve seen an increasing number of graphic works tackling heavyweight subjects in recent years and making them very understandable and accessible to pretty much any reader, in the case of books like this even those with only their basic high school level of science learning.

This is not exactly jumping on the bandwagon though – for starters the book first came out in French from Delcourt a couple of years back, and secondly it is quite clear not just from the length but the detail Squarzoni goes into that this is something he has been working on for years. In fact early one we see that this large, complex work actually grew out of a previous bande dessinee Squarzoni had been working on, a book on French politics. As he researched and drew a section on the environment the author suddenly finds himself coming to a halt. When his partner asks him why, he replies it is because he is using phrases like ‘carbon neutral’ and ‘greenhouse gases’. Common phrases these days, we’re all familiar with those terms, right? His partner points this out. Yes, he responds, but what do they actually mean? I’m using these phrases lifted from bits of research and re-using them in my work but I don’t really know what they actually mean, what they involve and what they portend for the future.

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And that is, perhaps, the crux of Climate Changed – many of us know these terms, we even use them sometimes in earnest pub discussions. But how much do most of us really know about the subjects these terms cover (Darryl Cunningham, you are excused this, we know you’ve researched it!)? I mean really understand, not just a vague knowledge assembled from the BBC website articles of the Guardian, but know the various aspects of climate change and how they relate to one another – and there is not just one topic here to get to grips with, this is a real multi-headed monster, a hydra of our own making, and we need, badly need, to understand the problems, and how they interact with one another, before we can even start to consider our response to them. Assuming, of course, we have the luxury of time to formulate a response. And also assuming humanity is wise enough to decide to take relevant action. And let’s be honest, recent events where agreed restrictions on targets like emissions being missed (after already being set fairly low to begin with) or even simply ignored by some nations, that latter part is not looking good right now.

Squarzoni, as you would expect, looks at the science behind climate studies and draws on numerous experts to discuss the observed changes, relating them to historical data gleaned painstakingly from sources such as deep ice cores and tree rings, to give centuries and even millennia of historical context. Because we know the Earth’s environment is always changing – it always has, it probably always will, ours is an incredibly dynamic bio system of overlapping, interacting elements: amount of sunlight reaching the surface, various gases at different altitudes in the atmosphere, currents in the air and the great oceans, the amount of ice at the poles or on glaciers, the amount of vegetation, venting from natural sources such as volcanoes… It’s a massively complex system with each component having effects on the other, which in turn cause further effects, from increased flooding to drought, even to the fabled “mini ice ages” (think of those pictures depicting the ‘frost fairs’ on a solidly frozen Thames). And this is before you factor in human activity…

We’ve started things we cannot control…

Despite the nay-sayers (and there are still many out there, often those with a large financial stake in the status quo of consume more, make more, want more) too many of these scientific studies clearly show large increases in output from human causes which are interacting with this incredibly complex environment’s variables – the charts leap following the industrial revolution really getting going in the 1800s and the post-WWII boom accelerates this at an astonishing speed. And it isn’t just as simple as more power stations pumping out CO2, or too many cars belching exhaust gases into the air – Squarzoni also draws on economic, social and cultural elements to this debate. Advertising imagery crops up numerous times, symbolic of our modern, Western, post-WWII urge to increasingly consume, tied to the cultural ethos of a capitalism that assumes we can endlessly consume, expand, consume more, expand – more production, more buying.

But we live in a finite system, there are only so many resources, and we are using them at an alarming rate. Not just the obvious resources such as fossil fuels being depleted (and increasingly so, with developing nations industrialising) but the simple, everyday items we all take for granted. Shiny new smartphone to replace the previous one – hey, it’s tiny, it’s just me, how much difference does that make? But multiply by the number being marketed and sold across the globe, the resources used to create them (rare minerals, metals), and the energy of mining those resources then that of the factory… And you get the picture. And don’t even get started on people who drive massive SUVs around city centres, the dirty looks Squarzoni gives repeatedly to a large Land Rover parked in the middle of Lyons speaks volumes!

We continue to act like it’s nothing. And the worst thing is … it feels pretty good…”

But this isn’t some anti-capitalist diatribe – as Squarzoni points out neither he or any other person in the West has any desire to cut their use of resources from energy to affordable, plentiful food (and industrial scale agriculture is a major emitter of greenhouse gasses), losing our comfortable lifestyle where we have electricity on tap, central heating, easy transport, affordable range of clothing… He doesn’t really fancy cutting his environmental imprint to that of someone living a malnourished life in an underdeveloped nation without clean water, heating, power… And obviously none of us do. But if we can’t believe the lie of endless expansion and ever increasing consumption how do we square that circle of lowering our impact on greenhouse gases and resource scarcity with maintaining a decent standard of living? Especially as, increasingly from the 1980s on a small cadre of oligarchs and super-rich live a publicly indulgent, opulent lifestyle we’re all encouraged to want to emulate (work hard enough and anyone could be a billionaire in a mansion and yacht!). Plus why, he asks, should we ordinary folk decide to cut down on things like flights to cut pollution if the super-rich are swanning around in a Rolls Royce or a giant yacht?

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And then there is the developing world – how do rich nations who created much of the pollution and resource consumption problem tell developing nations, no, sorry, you can’t come up to our standards, the planet won’t take it? He has to wrestle with this personal responsibility when offered a dream post, several months artist in residence in Thailand. But as he is in the middle of working on this book and researching the impact of things such as flying how can he in good conscience accept travelling there? He’d love to, but isn’t that hypocritical of him? But if he doesn’t go, but the guy down the street continues to run round town in his gas-guzzling SUV, what different has his personal sacrifice made? And, as his partner asks him, does that mean that he will never fly again? Does that mean the places they’d love to see together will be off-limits for them? What about green technologies? Are some good or just a bandwagon that some big companies (who have given more than their share of pollutants) a new, image-friendly ‘green’ marketplace to exploit? From large corporate installations to the personal, such as solar panels or wind turbines on the roof of our homes, which are actually effective, which will help do a bit to reduce our impact, and which are really just a salve to our conscience?

It’s one of the aspects of this book that makes it so accessible and easily understandable – for all the expert talking heads (which are frequent, but while slightly repetitive as a method, it is nonetheless a good way of getting information from expert sources across to the reader) talking about the Big Picture – what government, massive corporations and trans-global organisations such as the UN are trying to do (or frequently failing to do, depressingly), the sheer array of different experts required to make sense of it all (climatologists, industrial experts, meteorologists, geologists, disaster relief experts, economic experts and more) he continually comes back to the personal level, both from the personal responsibility side of things (what can we do individually? How do we encourage others to do the same so small change become large differences? Why should we if others don’t?) but it also reminds you constantly that the author himself is not a scientist, that he’s coming to this subject himself as an individual and realising from his research that, just as some of the experts are arguing, this is a subject that requires individual responses and changes in lifestyle, but also collective – this is a global problem and no nation will escape effects.

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Even if you are lucky enough to live in a country where, say, temperature rises from greenhouse gases are mitigated because actually it makes your region a bit nicer to live in during winter months, you will still suffer because resources from oil to container vessels full of food come in from all around the world. And some of those areas may suddenly stop being so productive. Or may even be under rising waters. And then there are those rising waters – with a huge chunk of our global population (including massive Western cities of millions) right by the coast there will be problems. Perhaps catastrophes (imagine millions being displaced as environmental refugees, both in the developing world and even in the rich, Western nations – consider the thousands of poorer citizens left behind to face the waters in New Orleans after Katrina, but on an even larger scale).

On the art front there are, as you might expect perhaps for a thick tome dealing with science, a lot of graphs, and a lot of ‘talking heads’ as a series of experts from different fields – climatologists, energy experts, economists and more – to deliver large sections of information. But to stop these being too repetitive he also uses a variety of other visual tricks – his obvious love of cinema comes in handy, with frequent visual references to the iconography of film, for instance, and advertising imagery is used regularly, while he keeps grounding this vast subject in the personal with scenes from his own life with his partner and dog, as well as flashbacks to childhood (comparing his journey through life to the relentless change of the world). This also leads to a touching scene further in, as the years go past and their trusted old dog passes away we see later scenes where Squarzoni goes walking in the snow, accompanied by a ‘ghost’ dog, just the outline of his old pal by his side, not actually drawn in detail, the memory of his dog by his side. His walks through the French countryside include some quite lovely large scenes – we may be doing something bad to our environment, but it is still a quite beautiful world, he is pointing out. And in a book where there are many small, close up panels of people talking or detailed charts and graphs it’s nice to be able to breathe in the fresh air of a large, beautifully rendered scene of lakes and mountains.

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It can be quite overwhelming reading – to be honest, despite finding it utterly fascinating and compelling I found it best to limit myself and read it in chunks (the layout of sections actually made this quite a suitable way to approach the book), partly not to simply overload my brain with concepts and figures and arguments, but partly also so I could allow myself time to stop and consider what I was reading. And despite what you may think, it isn’t entirely negative or doom-laden (although there is a strong pessimistic bent) – Squarzoni doesn’t restrict himself to covering everything we’re doing wrong as a species, he marshals many of those same ‘talking heads’ of his expert panel to discuss possible changes. All are adamant we have to change, and the science backs this up – despite some very shoddy media reports – as he points out when some opponents used media claims of dissent between scientists to fuel doubt about climate change a study of a decade of appropriate peer-reviewed scientific journals revealed no such disagreement, compared to about half of articles written by journalists which tried to convey there was doubt about human-made climate change – draw your own conclusions from that. And all point out that such changes are best managed incrementally – none of them want to tip the world back into economic chaos by suddenly imposing major changes without planning viable alternatives, and the quicker we start changing and adapting then the less severe those changes have to be (as opposed to head in the sand, wait till last minute then have to take radical surgery instead of holistic long term treatment approach). And all agree that such change can’t simply be forced, the democratic principle has to be used, people engaged in the debate, informed and give consent (and indeed to pressure) to their political leadership for changes.

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It’s a fascinating, thought-provoking work, well-researched (coming with a good bibliography and list of various experts quoted and other resources for learning more), and the graphical approach makes the task of assimilating the mass of complex material much simpler for the reader. Squarzoni is also to be commended for taking in the large range of industrial, economic, social and cultural aspects to climate change and relating them to one another, in addition to the perhaps more obvious issues of just what sorts of waste we’ve pumped out relentlessly into our own biosphere without thinking about what it was doing. This isn’t a single problem, it’s a series of multiple but interconnected problems, some exacerbated by natural causes, but most from human causes which many simply don’t think about much, beyond the afore-mentioned changing to energy efficient bulbs. But as one expert points out in the book, the Earth has it’s own timetable – change is happening and most consider we’ve gone beyond the point where we can stop even more change coming. But we can adapt to it, we can limit the changes, manage them better, if we’re informed and able to make those decisions (and the drive to see them through – actual action, not just fine speeches from politicians or ads telling us how much giant oil companies care about the environment). And as with many problems, reading about them is a fairly good place to start… Don’t be put off by the size of the book or the heavyweight subject matter – as I said Squarzoni does a remarkable job in putting across the subject and also personalising it (it also arrives bearing plaudits and awards from the European scene), and let’s face it, as arguments erupt already over this new UN climate report out this week, we could all do with being more informed on a subject that affects every single person on the planet.

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog