It’s a god’s life – Hamish Steele’s Pantheon

Pantheon,

Hamish Steele,

Nobrow Press

On the great sea of Nu a pyramid named Benben rose from the water with silent purpose. Benben flowered a lotus… And the lotus flowered the sun. The sun rose up, signalling the dawn of the first day. And the sun named itself Atum. With only eternal darkness for company, Atum did what anybody would do when faced with endless loneliness. He had a wank.”

Right from the start Hamish Steele makes clear that while he is going to cover the main points of ancient Egyptian mythology, he’s going to do so in a deliciously irreverent manner. That he manages to combine a light, fun touch and plenty of humour and yet still actually respects the source myths is quite impressive; taking the Mickey out of events or beliefs is fairly easy, to do so in a constructive way that shows affection and respect while still poking at the humour is a much more difficult task, but it’s one Steele handles with aplomb. With that opening prologue he touches on the very beginning, and the act of divine masturbation which was meant to have seeded creation, an actual piece of the real myth, but also here mined for yuks, an “any excuse for a wee fiddle” comment on the original story.

And that’s one of the great strengths of this book – multi-god pantheons are most often comprised of celestial beings who frequently show all-too-human obsessions and frailties, rather than the perfect divinity of later monotheistic belief systems. The different gods with their different responsibilities, abilities and duties weren’t just a way for a pre-scientific culture to understand how or why events like the Nile flood, or famine, or disease happened, they were also human analogues, and a way of understanding our own nature. And since the basic nature of humanity doesn’t really change those characters remain a source of endless fascination – we all still love, hate, marry, get jealous, have sex, children, and so did the gods of old. And just as there is a seemingly endless amount of natural humour that comes out of everyday life there’s even more to be had here between squabbling, imperfect god-families. Some are good, some are bad, most are a mix, and more than a few are totally blind to their own failings…

…Which is a good thing for the purposes of Pantheon. I mean perfect celestial beings who never make mistakes and are full of true wisdom and a well of compassion might be nice, but it would also be damned boring. That is not a worry here! Early on we see “l’il Osriris” and the other gods being left on Earth by Ra to rule over humanity, with the principle god extolling the virtues of their mission, to maintain balance between gods and men, and instructing them “now don’t fuck it up.” A grinning little version of Set happily mutters “I’m gonna fuck it up.”

And of course he does, he murders and dismembers his own brother Osiris, he causes endless mayhem among the pantheon family, and yet he’s never actually a figure you want to hate. In Steele’s hands Set is that irascible, cheeky relative every family has that somehow always seems to screw everything up, make a mess of things, annoy the hell out of everyone, and yet still has a certain charm (and is still family) so you can never bring yourself to hate them. And with the humour Steele extracts from these gods and myths it’s even harder to hate Set. I mean sure, he dismembers his brother and throws the body parts away, and yes, he does shag his own nephew (incest being a great pastime in ancient Egypt among gods and royals) and inject him with his concentrated evil semen (leading to his mother, in a priceless scene, to encourage him loudly to fart it out before it poisons him, “fart for your life!”), but, y’know, he’s Set, it’s what he does.

Many of the other major parts of Egyptian myth are covered – the afterlife, where the souls are judged (famously the soul’s sins weighed against a feather on scales) takes the form of a TV game show, and the now deceased Osiris muttering how unprofessional the afterlife is and that it would be better if there were a written guide, perhaps a “book of the dead”, he muses. And that friendly chap Anubis gives us a cut-out-and-keep style handy guide to How To Mummify Your Friends (you never know when you might need that). We have mummified, resurrected gods (with artificial dong), giant scorpions, “bird sex with a golden zombie dick”, test, trials, battles, treachery, sex, incest (well, all the gods are related, so…) and more, and the humour – and sometimes downright insanity – inherit in these tales is mined wonderfully.

Egyptian hieroglyphics have often been seen almost as a forerunner/inspiration to the comics medium (in the splendid Radio 4 series A History of the World in a 100 Objects it was a cartoonist, Steve Bell, they turned to as a guest for the episode discussing Egyptian pictorial art and language), and in a way it makes them and the myths and histories they depict ideal for comics. And Steele makes use of that Egyptian style, not just for the look of some scenes, but for further humour –  hieroglyphs are normally seen side-on, and in one scene Horus is wounded through the eye. But my eye is fine, he protests! No, your other eye. My… other eye?? Oh! He turns from side profile to face the reader in a way the Egyptian images didn’t and suddenly oh, yeah, there’s another side of my head and, ouch! It’s a lovely touch and indicative of the differing ways Steele uses the old myths and Egyptian art styles to tell the tales but also extract maximum humour, from the straight toilet humour of evil spunk and fart jokes to using Egyptian art perspectives for more subtle humour.

Taking a subject matter usually treated with a heavier hand and solemnity and instead pulling down its pants for a light spanking (but in a loving sort of way), Pantheon is an utter, cheeky delight, delivering some lovely, colourful art, the richness of Egyptian myth but lancing any pomposity with layers of humours that had me laughing all the way through. Absolutely brilliant.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Books: Disturbing, personal horror on the Downs – Chalk

Chalk,

Paul Cornell,

Tor Books

(cover design by Peter Lutjen)

The great publisher of SF&F, Tor, has been doing a cracking run of shorter books recently, some by new talent, some by existing, some very short (like 90 page novellas), some a bit longer (as is the case here, although still a bit shorter than many modern novels – which is a good thing, actually, it’s just the length it need to be, nothing unnecessary). When this one arrived on my desk it went straight into my eternal tottering pile of must-reads because – well, it’s Paul Cornell. And I also had that mysterious vibe, the bookseller’s Spidey sense, that just whispers to me sometimes that this is a book I need to read. And yes, I did need to read it (bless you, Spidey-sense, you never lead to anything less than a great read).

Andrew Waggonner is a schoolboy in the early 1980s, at a private school that’s seen better days,  in rural Wiltshire, and like any school anywhere there are all the usual things any kid has to try to juggle – the expectations of parents, indifferent teachers “preparing you” for life, the different social castes of your fellow schoolkids, avoiding the bullies, wondering about the opposite sex with a mixture of eager desperation and terror, about trying to figure out who you are, or who you want to be, and, this being school, how not to have any of that stand out too much in case you get picked out as different, listening to music and trying to make sure it’s the “right” music – music that the other kids will approve of and not make fun of you for listening to.

Like pretty much every school ever there is, of course, a bully – Drake – and his clique all desperately trying to make themselves look hard in front of their leader. But when Waggonner becomes the target for their violent urges, they overstep the mark, going far beyond the normal name-calling or hitting to something much worse, far more damaging, both physically and emotionally, something that scars both victim and perpetrators. And it will have repercussions. Nobody here is entirely good or bad, entirely villain or victim; as Chalk unfolds, rather satisfyingly they become elements of each.

At only 265 pages I don’t want to go into too many plot details, because this is a beautifully compact, self-contained work and to describe too much of the events, especially that key moment of bullying abuse, would be to spoil too much. Suffice to say that it is extremely disturbing, even to a seasoned horror fan, and the chain of events it sets in motion, rippling forward is equally disturbing and unsettling. The story oozes a creeping sense of horror, and a sense of an inevitable dread, like something from Poe, that feeling of the world moving off-kilter with a slow but unstoppable, irresistible force, of darkness becoming visible.

Set in the West Country, Cornell makes great use of the location – this is ancient landscape, both natural chalk downs and the landmarks made by the hand of man, ancient man, like the eerie, haunting chalk figures, the great stone circles like Avebury, or West Kennet Long Barrow. This is a region steeped in the arcane, the ritual, myth and magic since the neolithic days of our distant ancestors and anyone who has walked there will be well aware that those long-distant times can still raise a tingle on the back of your neck, a feeling of … something… The people here were an old people long before Rome’s Legions marched across the land. There’s still a sniff of magic in the air now that even a modern world of motorways and television doesn’t erase, and what happens if that ancient magic starts pushing into the modern world, reshaping it?

Chalk bleeds atmosphere, a slow-burn build towards a satisfying, well-paced, faster and faster urgent climax that could go one way or the other, the sense of place and history and myth almost palpable. The atmosphere of 80s school life is just as well articulated by Cornell – Doctor Who on a Saturday night, the hidden world of classroom cliques and groups that no adult (parent or teacher) can protect you from (or often even wants to know about), and, this being the 80s, listening religiously to the Top 40 each week, because this is an era where the radio and singles are how you get your music (no multi-channel digital streams here, this is an era where the school is just getting its first Dragon 32 computers) and it is vital to know what the latest number one is in case another kid asks you. It doesn’t wallow in nostalgia, but it does evoke the era extremely well, and I found myself having more than a few flashbacks; Cornell invests the settings, character and tales with a personal touch that makes the reader empathise all the more (even the bullies are fully-realised, not cardboard cut-outs but complex, contradictory human beings).

There are moments of sharp horror, of violence, blood, fire, some from the now, some echoes from the distant past, but still recorded into the very landscape, almost like Kneale’s Stone Tapes (I found it also, for me, evoking something of another creepy tale of that era, the Children of the Stones). But mostly Chalk, like much of the best horror stories, thrives on atmosphere, the type that gets under your skin, of a growing disturbance, both personal and more widespread across the land, slowly but inevitably building; a creeping horror, the ancient meshing with the modern, a sickening sense of dread cresting like a dark wave that, sooner or later, must hit the shore….

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Haddon Hall: When David Invented Bowie

Haddon Hall: When David Invented Bowie,

Nejib,

SelfMadeHero

It was the end of the Swinging Sixties. That day, like so many others, the London sky was sad, like a cold cup of tea. The nasty rain rattled tediously at my windowpane. I was waiting for my new tenants to show up and inhabit me.”

It’s 1969 and dawning into the early 1970s, and it feels like things are changing, socially, politically, artistically. A young couple have come to view a huge old mansion on the outskirts of London, a vast old property well outside their then fairly slim means, except that they intend to share it with a whole bunch of their artistic friends, almost like a bohemian commune. That couple comprises a very young David and Angie – David Jones, with a genuine hit under his belt (Space Oddity) but not yet broken through, not yet Bowie. The talent is there, the love of all sorts of music, the artistic sensibility, but something’s not quite clicked yet. And that’s what this book is about – not an exhaustive biography of the Thin White Duke, but a look at a crucial short period in which the artist who would become the master of reinvention first truly invented himself for the stage. And the worlds of music and arts were never the same again…

Interestingly Nejib avoids the normal biographical form of recreating known events in a person’s timeline and illustrating them one after another. This is telegraphed right from the start as we realise that we are seeing these artistic young people – and they are oh such bright, young things here – from the perspective of Haddon Hall itself, observing these strange, new, young people living in it, not put off like others by the “discreet decrepitude” of the old mansion but instead amused, delighted, charmed by its idiosyncrasies. It’s not long before they and a group of friends are sharing this huge home – at the house-warming party a long-haired David happily showing Marc Bolan around, the house so large they even have space to turn one big room into a rehearsal space. Every musician’s dream, surely, your own space in your own home to play and record and jam…

But when the Last Judgement comes around for pop stars, I shall willingly testify in favour of our two wild blokes, for behind their outsized egos hid two true loves of music. The could talk shop till they were blue in the face.”

There’s some tension between them, a little professional and artistic jealously perhaps, as they both struggle to make it, to stand out from the musical crowd and leave their mark, but mostly what comes across here is a camaraderie, a friendship, and a deep, deep shared love of music. That sense of warmth and the love of music in so many forms suffuses Haddon Hall. There are other events going on at the same time as the struggle to make it as a musician – relationships, children, family. There’s starting a family to think of, and David’s brother Terry is in a care home because of mental health issues, while David is one of the few people he can connect with.

There are some beautiful scenes, like the brothers settling down, just the two of them, like they did when they were younger, to play records together, Nejib delicately illustrating the almost ritualistic form of this, the choosing of the albums, slipping them out of the sleeve, needle on record, perusing sleeve notes, blissing out to good music shared with someone who means the world to you, your own personal little world for a blessed few moments. It’s a scene so many of us can empathise with because most of us have done the same with friends or siblings; it’s a blissful shared moment of music and art that can bond us emotionally with someone else forever so much that each time we hear a particular song on the radio we think on that moment, laid back in our room with them and the music playing and how for a few moments everything is just right (and how even in bad times later those moments come back to us and help us cope).

Those little, very personal moments counterbalance the larger moments in the evolution of David, as he reaches towards what will become Bowie. The BBC is showing the coverage of the first Moon landing, and there’s his Space Oddity being played to the nation’s television sets as one of the most remarkable feats in human history is finally achieved. There’s the need to focus more, to stop spreading himself about, to concentrate on this next album – perhaps his last chance to make it or else be dropped by his label (and this is an era where labels largely rule the roost, very different from today’s music scene, great if you have a contract and success, nightmare if you are a struggling musician trying to get in the door, no YouTube, SoundCloud or Twitter to build a rep with for the struggling newbie). There’s a tension in the air, like the pressure just before a thunderstorm, except here the prayer is for lightning to strike.

Nejib avoids going for a realistic look, sticking instead with a much more cartoony and loose style here (not even panel borders between scenes on the pages), using only a few colours per white page. It works stylistically with covering this story in a less traditional biographical manner (and face it, Bowie is a subject that deserves a non-traditional approach), although one slight problem is there are a few times where it takes a moment or two to work out who is who in some scenes! That’s not too often though and on reflection it may also be slightly deliberate, a visual way of referring to the androgyny of some of the styles of the period.

And there are some lovely moments worked into the art using that loose, cartoony style and limited colour palette, such as David and piano, all in blue, several scenes of working away hard, struggling knowing there is something there, not stopping for a break, pushing, frustrated, the litter of empty bottles and fag ends building up around him as he pushes onwards doggedly and… And then that wonderful moment when suddenly it clicks, the Muse flows, the colour of the figure changes from blue to green and from the piano erupts, a visual flowering of colourful music growing from his fingertips to the keys and out of the instrument to fill the house: it’s the birth of Life on Mars. There are several other scenes which capture that lightning in a bottle moment of creation beautifully, the real emotional jolt and deep satisfaction that comes with creation, be it music, painting, writing, that moment when it suddenly flows and you know you’ve got it. It only lasts a short time before we have to chase it again, but just for those moments it’s like communing with the gods …

This is a beautiful homage to one of the great musical and artistic influences of the last half century of pop culture, one many of us adored and one whose loss we felt deeply just last year. And here he is, on the cusp of it all, young, trying it all, reaching out for that future, among friends, family and the music. Nejib doesn’t exhaustively document like some biographies, instead crafting the style, the taste, the flavour of the era, of changes (pun intended) of zeitgeist and possibilities and magic in the air, if only you can grasp how to control and channel that magic, and how that magic is shared with the rest of us, incorporated into our own lives and moments (can you imagine going through this life without it?). Stick on some classic Bowie on your stereo, and then lie back with Nejib’s lovely book and just groove.

This was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Edinburgh from above…

Recently on a day off the sun came out to play – a low-in-the-sky winter sun, soft and golden light and long shadows. So I decided instead of going off to the cinema I’d go for a photo-walk, originally planning to walk up Calton Hill (which Robert Louis Stevenson wrote was one of the finest spots to take in views over our city) to take some photos looking out over Edinburgh. But on the way there, on a sudden whim I diverted into Princes Street Gardens and did something I haven’t done for years – climbed the Scott Monument. Several hundred narrow, spiral stone steps winding their way up over two hundred feet. Pretty exhausting, and, especially in the final third, pretty claustrophobic – the final couple of twists of the topmost steps is so narrow I couldn’t fit unless I turned side on! Not for anyone who gets dizzy easily, or fears enclosed spaces (and obviously not for anyone with no head for heights). But worth all the effort and discomfort, because two hundred feet up you get tremendous views over the ancient, volcanic geology and cityscape of Auld Reekie:

Edinburgh from above

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Jenners old department store with its richly carved facade normally towers over me as I walk along the street, peculiar to be looking down on it, rather than up…. As ever, click on the pics to see the bigger versions available on my Flickr page to see more details.

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Looking towards Saint Andrew Square and the tall column of the Melville Monument – normally I have to look up at this, but from the top of the Scott Monument I could zoom in and take a pic of the statue at the top from a straight-on perspective rather than angled up from the ground. In the background in the distance you can see some of the modern apartments which have sprung up in parts of the old dockside areas down in Leith, by the mighty Forth.

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Looking eastwards towards the huge Scots-Baronial architecture of the Balmoral Hotel, which started life as one of the great Victorian railway hotels. The clock tower, a landmark on the Edinburgh skyline, has a timepiece which is actually set a few moments fast, by tradition – to encourage travellers to hurry down the stairs in front of it in time to catch their train in the station below. As with the Melville Monument I normally have to take pics from an angle looking up from far below, but from this vantage point I could zoom in and take a photo looking pretty much straight on for a change.

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The great bulk of Arthur’s Seat, the enormous extinct volcano which sits right at the heart of the city, with the palace and parliament nestled at its feet, the whole lying in a royal park – you can go not just for a “countryside” walk but a decent bit of hill-walking here without leaving the city centre! And the views from the top are pretty spectacular too. Part of the ancient volcanic topography which gave Edinburgh its unique cityscape, it is also one of the places which inspired the modern science of geology, with Hutton wandering around Arthur’s Seat as he began to form some of the first understandings of how our planet is shaped over vast eons of time. And it’s a pretty spectacular piece of scenery to have right in the middle of a capital city – I rather enjoy looking at it each day on my way to work.

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The low, now rapidly setting winter sun casts shadows and warm tones across the western side of the New Town, with the tall, triple spires of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, more landmarks on the city’s skyline, almost silhouetted in the declining sunlight.

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And the view looking downwards towards Princes Street below!

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looking up

And here’s what I had to clamber up to take those pics – over two hundred feet of a Gothic rocket, like a stone version of Thunderbird Three. I have always thought it exceptionally civilised that this enormous monument – the largest monument anywhere in the world to a writer – is not dedicated to some king or general, but an author, a teller of tales, of stories and books. Given that my Edinburgh is built as much of the printed pages as it is history and geology and architecture (look here, Robert Louis Stevenon’s home, there the Sherlock statue marking where Conan Doyle’s family house was, there the pub where Inspector Rebus drinks in Ian Rankin’s novels, there the spot where the early encyclopedias and dictionaries were published, there a cafe where a then impoverished single mother huddled for warmth and wrote her tales of a boy wizard, here the Writer’s Museum, there the Storytelling Centre, over there the largest literary festival on the planet). The Scott Monument itself boasts dozens of sculptures from top to bottom, characters taken from Sir Walter Scott’s many books. Literature in stone.

“Seen!” – Scotland Yardie

Scotland Yardie,

Bobby Joseph, Joseph Samuels,

Knockabout

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Concise, spoiler-free review: insanely funny with a nice line in social commentary and multiple cultural references throughout. On and insanely funny. Yes, I know I said that already, but I haven’t laughed this much since I had a Space Hopper full of nitrous oxide to play with…

Okay, a bit more detail, perhaps? When I first heard this book was in the works I really wasn’t sure what to expect at all, I knew very little about it or the creators. But Knockabout has a long history of bringing some bloody good comics  creators to UK readers, and anything they’re getting behind is always going to be worth checking out. And oh, I am damned glad I did, although I think colleagues are less than amused given it had me continually laughing out loud through my lunch break while they sighed and looked over wondering what was going on.

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The main story is fairly straightforward – in a deal with Jamaican authorities Her Majesty’s Government has borrowed one of their top police officers in a drive to improve the Met’s historically poor race relations (ie their often abysmal form on that score). Well, at least the perception of trying to change and be more inclusive… As the rather bufoonish looking minister explains, this new initiative (naturally at great cost to the taxpayer) will give black people “the equal opportunity to arrest black people as well.” It’s just a bit of public relations exercise as far as the big bosses are concerned, there to make it look like they really care and no, they’re not all bigots or elitist, honest. They don’t realise Yardie has his own ideas about community policing and law enforcement… And does that minister look familiar? There are a lot more familiar faces to come…

Sent to the Brixton cop shop, Yardie is, of course, teamed up with the only other black officer in a sea of white, the overly assimilated, by-the-book Ackee-Saltfish. Who for some reason looks exactly like former newsreader Trevor McDonald. It’s made clear to both that they’re just there for show and to keep out of the way while the “real” work is being done – top example being their own pair of local supercops who have an astonishing record for busting drug sellers. Well, busting black drug sellers. Usually by killing them Strangely though, they seem unable to bring down a new Mr Big who has brought in a new and dangerous drug to the streets of Brixton. Could it be that these supercops aren’t all they’re cracked up to be? That there’s a dark reason for their amazing record? Somehow you just know that Yardie and Ackee-Saltfish are going to get tangled up in all of this further down the line…

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But while the story is solid and damned good fun in its own right, it is only part of the story here (so to speak) – the narrative is also an excuse for Bobby and Joseph to pack in an absolute ton of puns and jokes, both with words and visuals. The frequent little daydream thought bubbles showing what’s really going on in their heads had me giggling early on, while the pair also poke fun at action comics and movie tropes, such as the fetish for unfeasibly large guns (leading poor Ackee-Saltfish to wonder just where the hell Yardie keeps these things tucked away under his uniform)

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The amount of pop cultural references packed in here is amazing – there’s something in almost every page that really demands you pay attention to the background details (look at the image of a man similar to a certain former prime minister chasing a pig for, ahem, some reason) in the image above, for example. Film, TV, music, national and racial stereotypes (of all sorts, the boys lampoon overly-assimilating like Ackee-Saltfish – who of course gets no respect for his efforts – as much as they do the white is right numpties looking down on them) to media-inspired folk panics (such as seeing child molesters everywhere), all get worked into the flow.

Like a far more hip and streetwise League of Extraordinary Gentleman there are also many famous cameos to be spotted in the background, with, appropriately enough here, quite a lot of fictional cops, from Starsky and Hutch to Luther to a trio of Sherlocks (Brett and Cumberbatch with a bemused Downey Jr in the middle in one scene). Heck, this even extends to animals – again look at the scene above and notice it isn’t just a group of dogs on the street, it’s a selection of famous hounds like Lassie and Scooby-Doo (and don’t we geeks just love a bit of “trainspotting” in our comics art?). And come to think of it there is something awfully familiar about the local Big Bad Drug Dealer…. Click the pics here to see the larger versions so you can drink in the detail a bit more.

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2016 was a rough year, 2017 is just starting and doesn’t take a crystal ball to know there’s more problems ahead, but here’s a chance to at least take a break from thinking about all of that and enjoy some much needed laughs. And inventive, clever fun that does make some points, but chooses to avoid the soapbox and go for satire, punnery and a healthy dose of our old friend, the Absurd. And it remains just as enjoyable – perhaps becomes even better – with repeated readings. Terrific fun. Seen!

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Reviews: Rob Davis returns with the Can Opener’s Daughter

The Can Opener’s Daughter,

Rob Davis,

SelfMadeHero

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I thought boys were great. I wanted to punch every one of their cheeky little faces till they bled. Well, that’s what I thought I wanted to do to them.”

Here’s a book I have been eagerly waiting to get my ink-stained paws on, the follow-up to the frankly brilliant Motherless Oven (reviewed here by Richard) by Rob Davis. Where the first volume focused on Scarper Lee, the schoolboy whose Death Day was fast approaching, this book gives us some of the answers behind one of Scarper’s questions about the strange girl who arrived in his school then, with his friend Cas, turned their lives upside down – “who the hell is Vera Pike?” We start with a younger Vera, who like Scarper and everyone else in the previous book, has a mother and father that she made. In her case, as you may infer from the title, her dad is a can opener. Her mother? Her mother is a terrifying looking being, an incarnation of the Weather Clock (the very one that caused events like the rain of knives we saw in the previous book). She is also the Prime Minister. And she drinks a lot.

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But not of the Bear Park, that strange and compelling mixture of the everyday British suburbia and the often disturbingly bizarre. No, they live in Grave Acre, clearly a much more upmarket place. And as the kids here don’t make their mums and dads, she isn’t allowed to let anyone know that the weather clock is her mother. And as we slowly come to realise, she may not even be the actual weather clock but another version who has challenged her for supremacy. And like many hungry for power she’s increasingly paranoid, using and abusing anyone around her for her own ends, happily bringing forward people’s Death Days if they anger her or could possibly be a threat. Even she can’t do that to her own daughter though, so she does the next best thing to infanticide – she ships her child off to a boarding school, the wonderfully named Saint Sylvia’s School of Bleak Prospects and Suicide, peopled by horrid posh girls like Fonella Bonelli-Magee. Of course they look down on the new child, especially as she only has “half” a name and, shudder, she doesn’t have a name-plate…

Ever the rebel, eh? Of course, everyone is a rebel when they’re young. Then they grow out of it. That’s because real change means taking power, and power makes monsters of us all. It requires that we do monstrous things.

I don’t want to get too deeply into the narrative though – this is a book to get lost in, and I really don’t want to risk any spoilers here ruining your experience of it. As with Motherless Oven the book is suffused with some remarkable imagery throughout – the strange, recursive artwork of the “immortals”, the people who invented death, hanging up in the Prime Minister’s residence. In fact there is so much delicious detail throughout this is a book you’re going to probably want to re-read pretty quickly – I read this just before Christmas and planned to get a review up in time to include this in my Best Of the Year list, but I had to go back and give it another, slower read to let more of the details – and the atmosphere – seep in (so I’ll doubtless include this in my 2017 Best Of list now).

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The use of the school is clever, giving us a chance to learn more about this strange, familiar yet alien world through the odd lessons Vera is forced to sit through. It also gives Rob a chance to work in some St Trinian’s homages, which is no bad thing. There’s a lot more world-building going on here – as well as exploring some of Vera’s back-story and the events that lead up to her coming into contact with Cas and Scarper which we saw in Motherless Oven we really get much more of a sense of this reality Rob has conjured up, and a much deeper handle on Vera, why she is as she is, perhaps we even get to understand her more than she understands herself, and with that understanding also comes an inkling of subversion and change to how that world has been ordered up till now, just waiting to happen, perhaps already starting to happen…

There are disturbing scenes – ruthless enforced “suicides”, strange creatures in the woods (an almost Terry Gilliam-esque moment), the vile, monstrous, terrifying Stour Provost, the literally jagged mother, but also lots of humour, much of it gallows-dark or deligtfully absurd. There’s the eternal push-pull dynamic between parents and child, of social class, of youthful fire and rebellion (and that rebellion where you know you want to fight against.. Well, not exactly sure, but you know you need to do it and it makes you angry), of the hunger for power and control and answers – but they may be answers you don’t like and that power you so covet comes with a hard price…

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The art is superb, from the cheeky smirk frequently found on Vera’s face to the varied designs of the mothers and fathers, with so many fine touches like the heavy black background for scenes in a chamber of horrors below the police station (home of the awful Stour Provost) that bleeds out a feeling of wrongness and oppression, the comical statue gods in the gardens, or the haunting paintings of the immortals that are endlessly recursive, images repeating and looping back again and again on themselves.

This is some of the best contemporary British comics has to offer – clever, compelling, immersive, brilliantly illustrated,  and it’s one of those books you will want to come back and re-read again and still find more details you didn’t spot before. Simply brilliant.

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This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Nick Hayes’ gorgeously emotional silent graphic novel: Cormorance

Cormorance,

Nick Hayes,

Jonathan Cape

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Oh where to start with this remarkable read? I was deeply impressed with Nick Hayes’ debut, The Rime of the Modern Mariner (here’s a guest commentary by Nick on that book), then a couple of years ago his engrossing Woody Guthrie totally drew me in, the man and his music, his approach to life, the gorgeous artwork (reviewed here), and both also with strong ecological themes. And after that one I had the pleasure of chairing a talk with Nick about that bookat the Edinburgh International Book Festival. So fair to say that despite knowing little about his new work, Cormorance, I was very keen to read it. Actually I read it several times – it’s one of those works you have to really immerse yourself in. And it is beautifully moving and emotional – and does so totally silently, no speech balloons, no thought bubbles, not even any dialogue boxes. This is carried entirely by the art, the layouts, the expressions.

This fairly substantial book is split into three chapters; the first two following to different children who are about to undergo the worst thing that can happen to any of us, let alone a child, losing a parent, while the third gently brings their individual stories together. Without words the art has to carry everything here, it has to imply a narrative, a sequence of events, of emotions with no supporting language. It’s a brave choice, especially for quite a long work such as this, but Nick is up for the challenge, with his stylised artwork varying from multiple small, rapid sequences of panels to suggest events to shorter sequences of close ups to let the expressions of the characters and their body language carry the meaning, both narrative and, crucially, emotional, as well as some quite wonderful full splash pages, and an utterly stunning four-page fold-out.

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In the first chapter we meet a young boy, he and his mother and father packing up to move house, both an exciting adventure for the youngster but also daunting – leaving the home he’s known, moving to a new one, a new area, a new school. But he’s got that solid bedrock any child needs, loving parents, and Nick’s art makes the affection and love clear, you can almost feel the warmth coming off the page, especially in scenes with the wee boy and his mum. And similarly in the second chapter as we meet a young girl and her mum and dad, a wee girl who loves swimming, especially because it was something her mum was so good at, winning medals and trophies, and she wants to be like her mum.

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The warmth and bonding between child and parents in both chapters is quite wonderful, and it’s easy to find your own mind wandering back to hazy memories of your own childhood days, how perfect it was when you felt loved, protected, and there was no problem so big in your world that your mum and dad couldn’t take care of. Except illness doesn’t care about love, about family bonds or what age you are, and both the boy and the girl are going to face the slow deterioration of a loved one, then their loss, and then, just as hard, trying to find a way of coming to terms with that loss, which both do, although at first perhaps they aren’t really seeing it that way, it is more that they  have something they both need to do, something that will overlap with one another as it happens, but really they’re also finding their way through the emotional abyss of loss, a way to keep going, a way that will involve challenge, the inspiration of the natural world and shared experience and friendship.

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There are so many gorgeous touches here – nice foreshadowing as we see the wee boy make his way into his new classroom, we glimpse the girl, except we don’t know it is her then, that only becomes clear as her story unfolds in the second chapter – little touches like that woven into this larger tapestry are another reason why I felt compelled to re-read the book again a couple of times, and it really does reward that attention. With it being wordless there is an onus here also on the reader as well as the author; of course there always is in any sort of reading, it isn’t a passive experience, the author summons up certain ideas and emotions, but the reader also takes those and creates a mental image and map based on the book but also their own thoughts, feelings, experiences. And in a silent work like this it is clear that the author is trusting his readers to be instrumental in creating the meaning and feeling here from the images and sequences, it’s a partnership, and a satisfying one at that.

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It’s a clever and beautifully crafted work, both the overall story it is creating with those wordless panels and the smaller, intimate, moving scenes of family life and love, the little moments that mean so much. And it is deeply, deeply emotional, especially if you’ve suffered the loss of a parent. I had to stop several times, it was just too much for me at certain points and I imagine more than a few readers will find themselves blinking away tears reading some scenes and remembering their own loss, but it’s not a depressing read, rather a hopeful one about how the love we so depend on still remains inside us, even after losing the people who gave us that love, a final, remarkable, wonderful gift they leave us. An utterly gorgeous, beautifully executed and warmly emotional book.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

One Hundred Nights of Hero – Isabel Greenberg’s wonderful new book

One Hundred Nights of Hero,

Isabel Greenberg,

Jonathan Cape

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Is it a true story?

It could be.

I’m tardy with this review, I meant to have it up a couple of weeks ago or more, but book, work, life and task juggling got in the way and I was quite adamant that I was not going to rush through One Hundred Nights of Hero. No, this is a book to be taken slowly, enjoyed, savoured, pause frequently to think about the ideas, memories and thoughts it stirs up before returning to the next part. This is a book to take your time with and it’s perhaps a good idea that it is published as the longer nights draw in over autumn, perfect time for drawing the curtains, turning on the reading lamp, curling up in the comfy chair by the fire (and a nice drink to hand, of course) and lose yourself in the pages…

After Isabel’s wonderful (and Eisner nominated) Encyclopedia of Early Earth (reviewed here by Richard) I think it is fair to say many of us had high expectations – no doubt the praise heaped upon that book and its success was welcome to the author, but it is also a burden, a high bar to set on a creator. Fortunately Isabel has taken that challenge and surpassed it admirably. I think I fell in love with this book almost instantly, within the first few pages – it’s hard not to love a book which commences with a page showing the globe and the legend “in the beginning was the world”, then you turn over the page to reveal the very Early Earth, depicted in a lovely faux-primitive style, somewhere between pictogram and Lascaux-like cave painting,s and the words “and it was weird.”

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We meet the god Birdman and his children, the boy Kid and his sister Kiddo. And while Kiddo and Kid are also gods it is clear, as it usually is in most pantheons, that there is a chief god – in this case Birdman. And again as with many ancient pantheons deities, especially the ones at the top of the heap, are jealous, capricious, insecure and over-controlling creatures (Birdman is mostly depicted with his beak wide open – always something to declare, usually over the top of anyone else; he’s a bit of a blowhard and egomaniac, not to mention a Champion Mansplainer). And after fiddling around with the rest of the universe of creation, he takes notes of a smaller creation – a world, the Early Earth – that Kiddo has crafted and peopled with beings she calls “human”. She’s fascinated by these small beings who live and love and eat and sleep and grow and die, and is content to watch over them. Birdman, however, considers this an affront – he wants changes and principally he wants these small being to worship him as he effectively co-opts Kiddo’s creation.

But while the nature of religion, Birdman, Kiddo and the history Early Earth recur through the stories (not least in the horrible Beaked Brothers, the religious fanatics from Birdman’s church who enforce dogma and societal norms), the main part of this quite substantial tome (it is a pretty impressively large work, and it comes in a very handsome hardback with cloth-bound spine and metallic, embossed lettering) is, as you may guess from the title, inspired by the classic Tale of a Thousand and One Nights. In the place of clever Scheherazade we have Hero and her friend and lover Cherry. Heroes across the millennia may sometimes rely on a strong sword arm, but the smartest ones rely more on their intelligence and wit (Achilles and Ajax may have been the strongest warriors in the Iliad, but it was crafty Odysseus who outlived them, despite his diverting problems). And what of women, kept “in their place” in a rigid society, little say in who they will be married off to, forbidden from learning to read (because we know from history when you let people read they get all sorts of ideas for themselves, and that would never do). Those heroes really must rely on instinct and wit and intellect, not brute strength and a sharp sword. And compassion and understanding. And friendship.

And stories. Especially stories…

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A foul wager by two very, very silly men (who sadly, despite being fools and bigots hold power over the lives of their womenfolk), Manfred and Jerome discuss women, Manfred in particular proving to be especially loathsome, one of those men who sees all the faults in everyone else (especially women) but not his own myriad of failings. And their discussion of “worthless” women sees them lay this aforementioned wager – Jerome is so sure of the virtue and fidelity of his young wife (who seems more like a possession to him than a partner) he bets that the vile Manfred cannot seduce her while Jerome is off on business for a hundred days and nights. The art here is fabulous, most especially the way Isabel depicts the expressions of these two men – a scene showing Manfred leering (for all his ranting about how no woman is worthy, he is clearly obsessed with them, not an uncommon pairing of characteristics) had me laughing out loud.

While the wretched and loathsome Manfred sets forth cockily to win his bet (and it matters little to either man about the woman they so cavalierly use for their sport with one another) it is the key to the spinning of a quite wonderful series of tales. Cherry, the demure, chaste and obedient wife he is to try and seduce is actually far smarter than her husband (and Manfred) and she gets her passion elsewhere – from the eponymous Hero, her friend who poses as her maid but is really her lover, both struggling to have a loving relationship and to also nurture their intellect and learning in a society which would condemn them for both. And it is Hero who determines to stave off Manfred’s unwanted advances through that tried and tested method of the spinning of enticing tales, stories that captivate and compel. Stories that stop at break of day but oh, Manfred needs to hear the end, so he keeps pausing his lustful advances to hear more. And more. And, well, you get the idea.

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It’s a lovely way to frame these stories, and no, I am not going to go into each of the tales Hero spins over the hundred nights to save her lover from Manfred, there isn’t space enough and besides, I’m not going to ruin it for you. But take it from me, they are enticing, lovely and often oh so emotional tales, taking in both love and loss, death and life, finding but also losing, and mostly with a very feminine perspective, for many of these are the stories of women, women forbidden to read and write, to touch books, so some of them take it upon themselves to acquire stories which they learn by heart and pass on, both by word and by the craft of tapestry. An all but invisible web of stories being shared in secret telling stories of love and romance and triumph and betrayal and bigotry and hatred. Of moons falling in love with humans, of sisters parted by duplicitous lovers, of princesses and the mirror fantasy worlds they escape to from a controlling king and father.

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It’s a beautiful kaleidoscope of stories, each building atop the others for a satisfying cumulative effect, each enhancing the others. There are terrific touches in both story and art – little background scenes such as the guards set to watch over Hero and Cherry becoming totally besotted with the stories they overhear them telling (which of course they tell their friends and wives and children, who then tell them to others, because stories are contagious, in the nicest way). Or simple but hugely effective techniques, such as a new wife, her expression rapt and loving as she gazes at her new husband, but while his face points towards her we can see Isabel has his eyes roving, already looking away from his adoring wife for another conquest. It’s just one tiny touch in one panel, but it’s indicative of the care and craft in this work.

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There is a serious subtext here about the way men and women see and treat one another (especially the way many men have treated women, sadly something that is, yet again, in the news for all the worst reasons – some men, it seems, are incapable of growing up and evolving, and boy could a lot of them benefit from these stories, if they were open to them, that is). But it’s also a book of adventures and wonders and romances and hopes and regrets and humour (and sassiness!) , all wrapped in some lovely, lovely artwork. It’s a collection of stories which come together to form a larger narrative and set of shared ideas and themes in a quite magical way, and it is one of those books you just know you are going to find yourself revisiting again and again (always the mark of a truly good book). I think come December this will be a very strong contender for one of my Best of the Year selections, an utterly wonderful book that I cannot recommend enough.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Reviews: how the future used to look – Tom Gauld’s delightful Mooncop

Mooncop,

Tom Gauld,

Drawn & Quarterly

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We’ve been huge fans of Tom Gauld’s work for ages here on the blog, so it’s always a pleasure to have a new book from him, and in my own case I also had the added pleasure of getting to meet and chat to Tom about Mooncop at the Edinburgh International Book Festival a few weeks ago (report here). In his weekly Guardian cartoons Tom has often referenced science fiction and also a sort of retro-futurism which somehow manages to combine humour and amusement along with nostalgia and a gentle melancholy. Think, for an example closely related to his new book, of his cartoon of three panels, one showing the Moon from billions of years ago to 1969, an unchanging vacuum desert, then a panel showing the brief visits of Apollo, then the last showing the Moon from 1973 onwards, back once more to the empty, unchanging desert, empty of people, the bright moment of optimistic future exploration has been and gone.

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(revisiting some of Tom’s earlier work before our Edinburgh Book Festival chat I saw this strip in a different light now, perhaps an early ancestor of what would become some elements of Mooncop. Collected in the You’re All Jealous of My Jetpack by Tom Gauld, published Drawn & Quarterly)

Mooncop takes that feeling and that older, optimistic belief in the future, one many of us of a certain age grew up, that by the 21st century we would be living on the Moon, holidays in space, jet packs for all (an old children’s guide to the future proudly proclaiming all of this as if it were fact was one of Tom’s inspirations for the book), and delivers a story that celebrates the wonders of the stark Lunar landscape while also questioning why we thought we would want to live there in the first place. “Living on the Moon, whatever were we thinking? It seems rather silly now” comments one older lady, one of the original colony designers, to the Mooncop, who replies “Not to me. I think what you did was wonderful”.

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Our cop zooms around that astonishing landscape in his hover-car, but with little to do – zero crimes, means actually his efficiency rating is high, but that low crime is mostly because there are fewer and fewer people still living on the colony. Helping an old lady find her missing dog (off for a Lunar walk in his pressurised “hamster ball”, which makes for some smile-inducing visuals), or retrieving the faulty robotic automaton of Neil Armstrong (a clever way to give him a sort-of cameo and pay homage to that first human on the Moon) is about the worst he has to deal with in his police duties. And as he returns to his apartments each evening (a relative term on the Moon) he experiences an ennui, that this place he always wanted to come to and finds beautiful is slowly dying as people give up and move back to Earth.

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Perhaps he should too? What’s the point in being the only cop on the Moon if there are almost no people for him to serve and protect? Every day there are fewer and fewer. He feels like he arrived at a great party after it had started to break up, and starts to consider the other may be right and he should request a move back to Earth too. And yet… And yet, it’s the Moon, it’s that stark, otherworldly beauty and the image of the Earth rising above the horizon, a homage to that remarkable photo, Earthrise, taken by the crew of Apollo 8 as they came out of the shadow of the dark side of the Moon on Christmas Eve, 1968, the first time any human being had ever had a view of the whole globe hanging in space.

He loves it, and as the book continues, as the 60s-style optimistic, shiny Big Future fades in the face of everyday necessity and reality Mooncop becomes less about the science fiction or the humour (although both remain present, I should add) and more about that personal journey, not the physical one to the Moon but the inner one we all have to take at some point, about getting to a place, both physically and emotionally, where we don’t judge our place by what others say but how we feel about it. Our slightly-lost Lunar policeman needs to figure out where he is happiest, what makes him feel right. It’s a lovely, gentle tale of how the future used to look on one level, while on another level it’s about how it isn’t the discoveries and new locations and technologies which make a good future, it’s us ourselves and our understanding of where we want to fit into it all.

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The art is gorgeous throughout, Tom’s minimalist approach paying dividends on the largely barren Lunar landscape, while the colony itself is quite different from many other Moonbases I’ve seen in science fiction. Rather than a huge, domed city sprawling across the plains or a large underground base as in 2001, here it’s individual buildings – apartments, small houses, trees, coffee shops (even a Mooncop needs coffee and donuts, which of course come packed in their own little pressurised containers), with their own little domes, spread out across the landscape, reminiscent of a small town in one of the great deserts of the USA, and there are some nice little references in the art to visual inspirations from the real-world (once futuristic, now run-down cube apartments in Japan) and from science fiction (from Duncan Jones’ Moon to 2001 and Silent Running). It’s a lovely, smile-inducing work, presented in a lovely, well-designed small flexible hardback with metallic finish (a nice addition to your shelves)

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(Tom Gauld at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, photo from my Flickr)

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

A fairer world: The Red Virgin and the Vision of Utopia

The Red Virgin and the Vision of Utopia,

Mary and Bryan Talbot,

Jonathan Cape

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I’ve been eagerly awaiting this new work from the Costa Award-winning Mary and Bryan Talbot for month, and Mary and Bryan’s recent guest Commentary post whet my appetite even further. Was it worth the wait? Well let’s put it this way, I read it last week then found myself re-reading it twice over the weekend on a train trip back home; it’s one of those books that very much deserves another pass because there is so much going on here, between the history, the politics, the biography and, of course, the detailed art, that it rewards you handsomely for re-reading.

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The Gare de Lyon, Paris, January 1905; our first glimpse of Louise Michel, political agitator, feminist, revolutionary, fighter for equality and a dreamer of a better, fairer world. And it is her funeral, a full-page, appropriately with a black border, mostly black, white and grey tones, save for the deep red of the funeral flowers and the red of revolutionary flags. Thousands have turned out for the final journey of Louise, and caught up in the busy procession and arriving American writer, herself no stranger to the ideas of Utopias or the fight for more equality, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, arriving at the station to be met by young Monique. Gilman is in the middle of a European lecture tour, and while they wait for the procession to pass Monique explains that the funeral is for Louise Michel “She spoke out for the people. We loved her.” Gilman recognises the name – the two had met on a previous lecture tour and spent a pleasant evening discussing Utopian fiction. Monique offers to tell her more about Louise, and this is the clever framing device which leads the reader into the story of this remarkable, revolutionary woman.

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It’s snowing heavily in the run-down streets of Montmarte on a December evening, 1870. Montmartre today still has a slightly different look and feel to it from much of the rest of central Paris, but back then it was more like a tumbledown village. A full page gives a wonderful impression of the place, a caped figure shivering through the snow, you can almost imagine the soft runch-runch-runch of footsteps in the snow and the quiet, damped sound that comes with the snow. Inside a group, mostly women share what little food they have, huddled around a lantern, its glow uplighting their faces, including the face of Louise, a face that combines compassion, intelligence and strength. These are people in a poor district who have little at the best of time, but as the Franco-Prussian War and then the siege of Paris drags on (these are events which would lead to the creation of modern Germany after France’s defeat).

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But despite the biting winter outside, the lack of food and heat, the war, the poverty, this is a warm scene, these are people who are friends and neighbours, people who help and support one another. And while this helps introduce Louise and the conditions which helped drive her desire to change the world, it also provides some beautiful little details – a cat happily snoozing on a woman’s lap, and its indignant expression when she leaps up – which brings the scene to life, makes these not just characters in a tale but real people, people we can recognise and empathise with. And that makes this more emotional, personal, relatable, not a remote moment of history, but events involving real people, and that enriches everything which follows.

And what follows… Ye gods, what an amazing life. I knew of the Franco-Prussian War, of the changes it lead to in French government and had heard a little about the Paris Commune. But I hadn’t heard of Louise Michel. And after reading (and re-reading) this book I’m wondering why I’ve not come across her story before. Perhaps it’s one not widely known outside Francophone histories. However that just added to the pleasures of this work; that wonderful, warm feeling that comes from having both an engrossing story and learning something new and fascinating. Our modern society is still hideously unfair and unbalanced – we need look only at protests in recent years over the ever-increasing gap between rich and poor and the influence and control the former accrue to themselves, or the way people – even in supposedly “advanced” cultures are mistreated because of the colour of their skin, their gender, denied opportunities for not having gone to the “right” school… And here’s this woman in a poor arrondissement of Paris in the 1870s fighting – quite often literally – for education for all (and girls to be taught the same as boys), proper political power from the people, ensuring resources of nations are used for the betterment of their people, not just a few at the top…

The Talbots take us through the heady days of the Commune, moments of brief triumph before the brutal re-imposition of Almighty Power (a government and army that couldn’t defeat the invading Prussians but was able to turn its guns on its own citizens). Thousands are killed, many survivors imprisoned or transported to the distant colonies. And still Louise Michel doesn’t stop fighting, she doesn’t stop studying and arguing and dreaming. Even exiled to the far side of the world she takes it as an opportunity to learn more, to expand her horizons. In a period of high imperialism she instead talks to the natives, learns their ways, language, culture and in turn teaches their children just as she teaches the children of the French exiles in her makeshift school, seeing in the colonial mastery over others the same blind, greedy power which she fought in the streets of Paris.

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Having young Monique, then later her elderly mother (a friend of Louise Michel’s, and one who stood alongside her) telling Gilman their account of this remarkable, revolutionary woman is a wonderful way to frame Louise’s story, leading us in easily to the events, adding human depth and emotion to these events, and it is little surprise given Mary’s academic background that the work comes across as well-researched and boasts an appendix of notes and sources which are also quite fascinating. The artwork throughout is beautiful, as you would expect from one of our masters of the medium, from subtle use of colouring around the pages (jet-black for the funeral and opening, a much lighter page tone for the scenes in distant New Caledonia, intimating the brighter light quality.

There are some memorable images – a line of soldiers marching but with their loaves impaled on the bayonets of their hoisted rifles (something thrown up by research but which makes such a lovely visual image), to the revolutionaries ripping up the street cobbles to erect barricades, in true, traditional Parisian fashion, sudden “terrible beauty” amidst the horror as erupting cannon fire causes the spring blossoms to rain from the trees, a ghastly set of double-page spreads showing the bloody aftermath of the brutal suppression of the Commune, dark, dark, dark pages of bodies and the suffering of the survivors, seen as if through falling soot and smoke from gunfire, the bright red normally reserved in the book for the flags and Louise Michel’s scarf here given to blood of ordinary citizens pooling in the Parisian streets. Coming almost midway through the book those pages are sombre, shocking and a reminder of the bloody cost that has been paid time and again by those trying to change the world.

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This is an utterly fascinating book, a beautiful meshing of history, story and art, telling the story of an inspiring woman and of causes that are still far, far too relevant in our own modern, troubled world. There’s a lovely mixing of the Utopian science fiction of the period, of that dream that all of this marvelous new technology coming out of that period, and what will come later, will be used to finally free all of humanity from drudgery and suffering, to essentially create something not unlike the Federation in Star Trek, and a number of references are made to the SF literature of the period and how it helped inspire those dreamers wanting to change the world (as many tales today still do, and thank goodness for them, because what would we do without those dreamers pushing the rest of us to try and make things a bit better, even if we never quite get there, but we keep stepping closer at least). And this also allowed Bryan to indulge in a nice scene showing one of those imagined Victorian SF futures, a little visual treat.

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In a lovely touch I was moved to see that Mary and Bryan had dedicated this book to another writer of Utopian science fiction, the late Iain M Banks, who I imagine would have heartily enjoyed discussing Louise Michel with the Talbots over a good dram. Powerful, moving, thought-provoking and fascinating. It’s only May and I already know this will be going straight onto my Best of the Year list come December.

You can read a guest Commentary post by Mary and Bryan Talbot talking about how they came to write the Red Virgin here on the Forbidden Planet blog

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog. Mary and Bryan Talbot will be at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on the 27th of August

All the world’s a stage…

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.” Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5

Four hundred years to the day since William Shakespeare shuffled off this mortal coil, a popular playwright in his own time, he may well have been just a footnote in literary history like so many others, and yet, partly due to the posthumously published First Folio collection in 1623, put together by his friends so that Will’s work would not be forgotten after his death. Could any of them have imagined that these would become part of the absolute canon of world literature, told and retold endlessly across the centuries, adapted to new mediums and new ages…

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(the portrait of Shakespeare from the First Folio, by Martin Droeshout)

How many ages hence,
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over,
In states unborn and accents yet unknown!” Julius Caesar

Four hundred years on and Shakespeare’s works still suffuse not only the cultural heritage of Britain but, appropriately, given the name of his famous theatre, the Globe, so many lines entering the popular language, used even by those who have no idea they are quoting from the Bard. They’ve been adapted again and again into new media that Will could never have dreamed of, from radio productions beamed into our homes through the ether like some magic by Prospero to the glories of the silver screen, and re-interpreting his works and life as inspiration for new tales – witness Neil Gaiman’s remarkable use of Shakespeare several times in his magnificent Sandman comics, both the plays and the man and also looking at the act of artistic creation, the cost of crafting stories (using the medium of stories to examine stories…). I’ve been a bookseller for more than two decades, a reader all my life, and I know full well that of the many stories published each year some can go on to become hugely popular, bestsellers as we’d call them today, and yet ten or twenty years later even those bestselling writers can slip into out of print obscurity.

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(One of the Shakespeare elements of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, from on of my favourite plays, The Tempest, Prospero and Miranda, artwork by the incomparable Charles Vess)

Save for a precious  fraction of all the authors who have ever been published – the Jane Austens, the Charles Dickens, the Cervantes, the Borges, the Walter Scotts, eternal Homer of course, Mark Twain. These remain in print, always re-read, across the world, loved and admired and passed on to other generations, translated into languages Shakespeare would never have heard uttered, read again even in nations which didn’t exist when Shakespeare walked the streets of Stratford. As Gaiman has Dream tell his version of Shakespeare, there are some stories which are simply forever, which will always need to be retold as long as human tells stories – and storytelling is in the very blood of humanity, we’ve been doing it since we sat around fires telling oral ballads and drawing on cave walls. Times change, but people are people and the best stories say something about our nature, about what it is to be human, and that makes them forever pertinent to any age. And of course they’re also just bloody good stories to enjoy!

Masked wrestlers! Monsters! Tequila! Hellboy in Mexico!

Hellboy in Mexico,

Mike Mignola, Richard Corben, Mick McMahon, Fabio Moon, Gabriel Ba, Dave Stewart,

Dark Horse

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We’re still partway through the Hellboy in Hell story arc at the moment in the main, ongoing HB series, but Mike Mignola has been leavening those tales of poor old Red being dead and wandering the afterlife with some stories set in Hellboy’s early career with the likes of the Hellboy and the BPRD 1953 (see here for review) and now this enormously fun Hellboy in Mexico collection of short stories, which sees Mignola collaborating with some fantastic talent – Gabriel Ba, Fabio Moon, Richard Corben and Mick McMahon (with the redoubtable Dave Stewart on colouring duties once more). I think many of us would consider those names alone worthy of the price of admittance.

Here we have a young Hellboy in the year 1956, and a lost period in his life, which as Mignola notes in his introduction (as with most of the other Hellboy short story collections Mike does introductions to each of the stories which I’ve always found almost as much fun as the stories themselves), started almost by accident when a few years ago he drew a sketch of Hellboy with some masked wrestlers and the caption “Palenque, Mexico, June 2, 1956”. This left an enticing door open for Mignola to return at some point to his creation and a “forgotten” era in his history, when Hellboy and a couple of other BPRD operatives were sent to Mexico to investigate a rash of supernatural disturbances and monsters. In fact there’s such a mess of monstrous events that his companions can’t take it and leave, but Hellboy stays behind. But the events take a toll on this young, rasher, less experienced Hellboy and he essentially vanished from the BPRD’s radar for five months (slight shades of Ambrose Bierce). He himself claims not to recall much of what happened – traumatic events mixed with far too much drinking. Or perhaps he simply doesn’t want to remember it…

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(Richard Corben’s excellent art illustrates Hellboy and his trio of masked wrestling monster hunters)

One event in particular is a painful memory for Hellboy, introduced by a later BPRD mission to Mexico in the 1980s with Abe Sapien. Awaiting pick up they find some shelter from the sun in a small, ruined, lonely church. On one wall, among the ruined religious artefacts Abe spots old photographs tacked to the wall – one curling picture is indeed that one of Hellboy with the masked wrestlers, and naturally he asks HB about it, and so we start on these five “lost” months of his younger life. The three masked wrestlers in the 1950s photograph were three brothers, travelling the small town wrestling circuit until they are granted a vision in a church, that they are to help fight this plague of supernatural monsters. Hellboy teams up with them, fighting monsters by day, drinking tequila, singing and dancing in tavernas by night, until inevitably this catches up with them. After one night’s post beast-hunting drinking session, their luck turns sour, and in this world of damned creatures spewed up by the Pit and ancient Mesoamerican mythological monsters there are worse things than being killed…

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(The Coffin Man – complete with demonic donkey! – art by Fabio Moon)

As this is a collection of short stories (as many of the best Hellboy books have been over the years), I don’t want to get into the actual stories too much as it is way to easy to accidentally let slip a potential spoiler. But I will say this whole collection has a terrific atmosphere to it, partly reflective – a glimpse of a younger, less seasoned Hellboy learning both adventure but also consequences the hard way – partly though it is just a terrific excuse for a series of adventurous romps, filling in a part of Hellboy’s life we’ve not seen before. And of course there is a huge amount of fun in seeing Hellboy teamed up with masked Mexican wrestlers battling vampiric beings, old Aztec gods and others, with many nods to the local mythology and also to the rich pop-cultural seam of horror films from the region.

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(“Hellboy Gets Married” – too much drink, some music, a pretty face and it’s easy for a young lad to go astray… Art by the brilliant Mick McMahon)

It’s an absolute delight, and with Richard Corben, Gabriel Ba, Fabio Moon and Mick McMahon as artistic collaborators it’s as great a visual as it is a narrative pleasure, while Mignola’s trademark introductions before each story add nicely to the appreciation of them.