Comics on cinema: Filmish

Filmish : A Graphic Journey Through Film,

Edward Ross,



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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

The Longest Day – Robert Capa and Omaha Beach

Omaha Beach on D-Day,

Jean-David Morvan, Severine Trefouel,

Photographs by Robert Capa & Magnum, translation by Edward Gauvin

First Second


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

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


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

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


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


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

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


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


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

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


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

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


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

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

Best Of Enemies Volume 1 1783 -1953 Hardcover,

Jean-Pierre Filiu, Davide B,



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

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

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


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


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


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

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


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


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

Everything is teeth…

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

Edinburgh International Book Festival 2015 - Evie Wyld and Joe Sumner 03
(Joe Sumner and Evie Wyld signing after our Edinburgh International Book Festival chat)

Everything is Teeth,

Evie Wyld, Joe Sumner,

Jonathan Cape


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Hellboy and the BPRD 1952

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


Anung un rama…

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

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

hellboy_bprd_1952_mignola_arcudi_maleev_dark_horse_review_header (1)

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

“All we want from you are the kicks you’ve given us…”

Phonogram Volume 1: Rue Britannia,

Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie,

Image Comics


Since the dawn of humanity, magicians, shamans, the Clever Man, the Wise Woman, whatever you want to call them, have been aware that words carry power and that music and rhythm can induce altered states, altering, changing, expanding perspective. Little wonder then, that popular music, marrying both those rhythms and melodies with the words of the lyrics can exercise such power on so many of us. Not just to induce mental states of delirious happiness or moping despair as we listen to a particular album, but the way those songs, usually the product of their times, the zeitgeist, the happening cultural trends that rise and fall like waves in the ocean and that we all try to surf for at least a while, especially when young (go on, admit it, we all did, and why the hell not, it’s what we’re meant to do, especially in that everything-seems-new flush of youthful energy and experimentation). And that brings us to revisiting this modern classic by a team – Gillen and McKelvie – who have gone on to become major names in the international comics community. This was one of their signature calling cards, just a few years ago, and despite the river of work they’ve done, both together and separately, since then, it still holds a fascination, just like a much-loved pop song. You still want to take it out the sleeve and put the needle in the groove again and just go with it…

Pop music is one of the defining socio-cultural experiences of the modern era, it can be light, frothy fun, it can be the howling agit-prop anger of early Manics, and all shades in-between, and like the comics it’s a medium that is seemingly transient, ephemeral, trends and characters come and they go, and sometimes they come around again, and even if they don’t though, they somehow remain lodged inside us, tied not just to memories of when we first loved that single or album, but everything going on around us at the time. In the same way they say a smell can evoke rich memories, so to the music we love, and the music we loved when first discovering music, oh boy does that have power over us, singly and in groups (how many of us bonded with others, friends and total strangers, over that shared musical experience at a certain place and time in our lives?). And while all pop draws from – or sometimes powers – the zeitgeist, the phenomena we now call Brit Pop really seems to capture that 90s “Cool Britannia” period in the way the Beatles capture the Swinging Sixties.


Or does it? That’s part of the question in here, as we meet David Kohl – how much of that Brit Pop era are we collectively remembering correctly, how much is ‘remembering’ all the labels applied posthumously to it by commentators and others after it had been and gone? It’s an important question for Kohl – not only is he a phonomancer, a magician who draws on music for his tricks, his own identity is bound up in that era and it’s music. The goddess Britannia who shone for those few years is gone, but her influence on what makes Kohl himself is still there, and he can feel things changing, and if they change then so will he – he may even no longer be a phonomancer or even remember what he was before he changes, perhaps being altered into just another guy with a mortgage, settling down (yes, not hard to detect that slightly older twinge here, how different from other generations we would be when we were older, as we danced, powered up on that music, and then years later realising we grew up much the same). And after an encounter with the main aspect of the goddess of music Kohl is compelled to look into Britannia – another aspect of that goddess – and her life and her death.


I find it quite brave that Gillen and McKelvie decided to give us such an unlikeable, self-obsessed, self-serving central character – that could easily backfire, but they take this arrogant bastard and still make us give a damn (there are even hints of hopes for redemption hidden in his acts). There’s more than a hint of the John Constantine about Kohl – the constant smoking, the cool pose, the hidden knowledge, the casual use of that knowledge and others for his own selfish ends, and a feeling of a much larger, darker, mysterious world around him. Maybe if Constantine had come of age in the 90s this could have been him. McKelvie’s artwork is beautifully clear black and white work here, some panels looking like they could have been stills from a 90s Japanese animation, and he captures some of the characters superbly – Kohl, trying to get back into a mindset of the music of his formative years, depicted wearing the make-up his younger self used to sport, beautifully done in crisp B&W, and instantly bringing forth memories of trying different looks in the mind of the reader (again, go on, admit it, we all tried, and even those who got it down so stylishly right look back now and think oh, what was I thinking? But it was cool at the time…).

Or the way showing a beautiful young female musician-singer in one panel, and then almost exactly the same image in the next panel, but now with jet-black eyes, works as a brilliant “jump” moment (also reminds me of the oh-so-eerie all-black eyes on Joanna Lumley in an old Sapphire and Steel episode. Creepy and disturbing), as she reveals herself to him as not just a singer-songwriter, but a major aspect of the goddess herself…


Ultimately, for me anyway, Phonogram is as much about memory and identity as it is magic and music. It’s about how we defined ourselves, and often how we continue to define ourselves, by musical tastes, gigs we were at, the people we sang along with at a certain time and place, and how that process creates part of our selves, part of our own self-image, how we see ourselves. And how that process is dynamic, rarely static, because even years after that period, even after Britannia herself has been and gone, both individually and collectively, we rewrite part of that period, and with it how we see ourselves again. And the odious Kohl, who has great taste in music in place of a moral centre, that’s part of his problem – he wasn’t just defined by the music of that era and scene, he still is. Other phonomancers have moved on, the somewhat sad retromancers cling to the old music in revival sessions to tap some magical energy, but he’s still trying to be just what he was then, and it just doesn’t work that way, not for an individual, not for popular culture, it’s a constant state of change and even the past can be redefined.


It’s a gorgeous piece of work – not just a compelling story and good hook (music is magic, magic is music, we make and experience both), but it also comes freighted with that bittersweet nostalgia and memory that makes you both laugh in shared recognition but also wince in embarrassment (did I really like that back then??) or even sigh over old regrets (we danced all that night to that music, why did I ever let you slip away…). Phonogram manages all this while looking oh-so-cool and stylish while conjuring all these competing, contrasting emotions in the reader – and a strong urge to listen to some old favourites…

Comics fun at the Edinburgh International Book Festival

Over the last week or so of August I was busy enjoying the Edinburgh International Book Festival, both as an audience member and as a participant again (I was asked to chair a couple of the Stripped events in the festival’s comics strand). There was more on than I could fit in, especially as I was busy preparing for the two talks I was involved in (reading away and trying to think up some different questions and knowing full well chances of asking an author something they’ve not been asked many times already are slim, but still we persevere…).

Edinburgh International Book Festival 2015 - busy Charlotte Square Gardens 02As chance would have it most of the comics-related events I was at all fell within a few days of each other, starting with chairing and event with Karrie Fransman and Rob Davis. This was a very satisfying one for me to be asked to chair, I have to say, since I’ve followed Rob and Karrie’s work for some time. Both authors introduced their latest works, Karrie with the fascinating, multi-voiced approach of Death of the Artist, and Rob with the wonderful mixture of grounded realism and the fantastical in the Motherless Oven. Rob explained a bit more about the level of metaphor and symbolism in The Motherless Oven, and the way the comics medium allowed him to also make some of these metaphors visual, something prose couldn’t do (which isn’t to say there hasn’t been some very effective use of metaphor in prose and verse, of course, but comics does have that added extra trick of the visual). Edinburgh International Book Festival 2015 - Karrie Fransman and Rob Davis

I thought Motherless Oven worked as it was, but also felt with the elaborate world-building for this alternative world that Rob had put into it, that it was open to other tales in this setting, and he confirmed this was the case, that he had actually planned more with SelfMadeHero, although with the fairly sensible proviso that they would see how the first book was received (fortunately it was very well received), so we should be seeing more, I’m glad to say. Karrie explained about the multi-author approach to Death of the Artist, as five former college chums now in their thirties try to recapture a bit of their energetic youth and art. I was already familiar with the concept – look away if you don’t want to know something major about this book! – that in fact all five authors here, telling the same story from different angles, in different styles, are all actually Karrie, the author essentially being her own choir as well as conductor. I didn’t know, however, that the “friends” in the photo-comic chapter are actually all actors, with a clever bit of Photoshop used to de-age them all for their supposed college-time snaps. It turned into a three-way conversation and we could easily have carried on longer.

The following day I was again on chairing duties, this time with a writer and artist I hadn’t met before, Evie Wyld and Joe Sumner. Joe is an illustrator, model-maker and sculptor, now adding comics artist to his quiver, and he talked about how the whole approach o the art came about slowly, some ideas started then junked to be begun once more as he learned effectively on the job – being an artist is one thing, but there’s a lot more to comics artwork than simply drawing the art. He and Evie had known each other for years and they worked on this project between their own main jobs – something many comickers can empathise with, I am sure – and in fact this process took place over several years, so they had time for writer and artist, both fairly new to the comics game, to refine what they wanted to do, the shape of the story and the art changing significantly over the period of their collaboration until it took the form it does in the finished book, Everything is Teeth. We discussed Joe’s different art styles – the cartoony style for young Evie and her family, a very realistic approach for the sharks themselves, and the fantasy/fairy tale aspects of the work as the sharks become not just real-world scary creatures but take on a symbolic role similar to that of monsters in fairy tales.

Edinburgh International Book Festival 2015 - Evie Wyld and Joe Sumner 03Evie also noted that in writing for comics as opposed to her prose work she really had to boil down the words – something she and many other writers will do in prose anyway, of course, starting with a rough work and then editing and pruning, but with comics requiring far less text there was much more work in distilling the choice of what words she would permit herself to use and where (I think they both did a remarkable job, the prose and art works beautifully for both story and a strong sense of place). It was an engrossing talk with two creators already with a solid creative track record in others fields (Joe’s aforementioned arts work and Evie who has a number of literary awards for her fascinating prose novels and made the influential Granta Best Young British Novelist list) as they collaborated on their first comics work project (and yes, they did enjoy it and they are considering another collaboration, quite possibly something tilted towards horror, preferably the creepy, chilling kind of horror, which I like the sound of). It was terrific to meet them and I look forward to them producing more comics work in the future – my recent review of Everything is Teeth is here, and I highly recommend this fascinating book (and also recommend picking up Evie’s two prose novels, which are very immersive).

Another day, another comics event, and another double-header, this time a shared theme of comics and politics as Teddy Jamieson talked with Martin Rowson – surely one of our best political cartoon satirists? -and Jean-Pierre Filiu, former French diplomat, historian and academic, who worked with acclaimed European creator Davide B (Epileptic) on the first two volumes of Best of Enemies (a third is planned), a look at American interaction and intervention in the Middle East, going right back to the 1800s and some history many will never have heard of (and you have to love the cleverness of a book which mixes the oldest written tale, appropriately from the Middle East, Gilgamesh, with actual words used by George Bush to justify his ill-conceived foreign adventures). Filiu also talked with much admiration about the work of Joe Sacco (an author Rowson also professed much respect for), and I was rather satisfied when he mentioned that he not only admires Sacco’s works, especially Footnotes in Gaza, that he uses it in his lectures and classes. He also spoke of the quality of research Sacco carried out – not only with multiple first person interviews but then trying to source documentation to validate what the eyewitness testimony claimed. Filiu’s insights into the region are remarkable and one of his simplest recommendations was also one of the most effective, that world leaders should know something of the history of the region before getting involved. He was ultimately optimistic that eventually – who knows when, though – the region would solve its problems, with or without the West (or these days perhaps the East). Edinburgh International Book Festival 2015 - Jean-Pierre Filiu & Martin Rowson 02

Rowson, making another return visit to the festival, was on exceptionally fine form, discussing his latest book, The Coalition, covering what he refers to as the worst government in his lifetime. Well, he was after he dealt with a phone call – his phone rang just as the event was starting, and turned out to be his daughter calling to remind him to switch off his phone before the event! His loathing for some of these politicians was evident in both his talk and in the artwork he was showing, as he explained how he visualised the previous administration, such as the luckless Nick Clegg (as Pinocchio, the boy who wanted to be a real politician, and being made of wood he could use him for all sorts of other visual metaphors – broken up as a wheel, sawdust, used as a broomhandle), or shiny-faced PM Cameron as Little Lord Fauntelroy.

The language turned bluer than a a conservative’s rosette on several occasions – those of you who have heard Rowson talk about his craft and the politicians he covers will not be surprised to hear he flayed them, and indeed he sees that as his task, to scour these public figures and hold them to account. His satire was also turned on those who report on the politicians, notably controversial BBC former head politics reporter Nick Robinson, who had by coincidence had been at the festival days earlier and used it and a newspaper article to attack politicians he felt had a go at him for perceived bias in his supposedly neutral coverage (a major talking point here in Scotland during the Independence Referendum) – interestingly Rowson had created a cartoon about this possible bias in his reporting work and showed us the cartoon (which got a fair cheer from the mostly Scottish audience, I noticed). And even more interestingly he noted that Robinson reacted to this cartoon by telling him he had been “unfair”. Unfair?! Rowson exclaimed. He’s had many subjects of his satire contact him to swear at him, threaten him or tell him he is talentless, but, he added, Robinson is the only one ever to say he had been “unfair” to him, and left us to make of that what we would.

Edinburgh International Book Festival 2015 - Darryl Cunningham 01

On the last day of the festival I finally got to meet one of my favourite of the current crop of new British comics talent, and indeed a creator who, several years ago, used to be our very own cartoonist in virtual residence here on the blog for some time, Darryl Cunningham (no, I’m not sure how it had gone this long without me actually meeting him in person either). Darryl had been invited to join Swedish writer Katrine Marçal (author of the deliciously titled Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner), Darryl discussing some of what he discovered in his huge amount of research for the brilliant Supercrash, a comics investigation into the causes and effects of the shattering 2008 global financial meltdown, while Katrine’s work took a more gendered view, economics with a female perspective, very interesting.

I was also delighted when asked about terms like graphic novelist or journalist, Darryl explained he is a cartoonist and he makes comics – albeit ones which regularly require quite massive amounts of research, and he discussed how he set around distilling this research into something he could work with for the book, and which would allow him to get over some frequently complex concepts to readers in an accessible and understandable manner. And given some of what was going on in the financial world, that was no mean feat, but he certainly managed it. It was a very well-attended event and, despite the complexity of some of the subjects both authors, as they had in their books, did a very good job of keeping the conversation on a tack the audience could follow and indeed engage in during the audience Q&A at the end. A very nice ending to my 2015 Book Festival outings, and naturally several more signed editions for my collection…

You can never have enough books…

I suspect fellow bibliophiles and reading addicts will identify with this, I certainly do. After a couple of decades as a bookseller, reviewer, editor and writer I generally accrue more books than I can find time to read (let alone review), and I’m in the fortunate position of regularly being sent interesting new ones to look at. And yet I still love a good browse round a decent bookstore, especially second hand and charity ones, where you never know what you’ll find. Couple of weeks ago, despite having a pile of new and forthcoming books waiting on my attentions (and having several on the go at the same time) I still went off with a chum to rummage through the charity bookstores on Edinburgh’s Southside.

oh look a bookstore
(via Spinning About)

I decided since the bulk of my reading recently has been fiction (prose and graphic novel) I would limit myself to only non-fiction (like that matters when you have piles overflowing the shelves into corners, but hey, whatever justification works, right?). And I ambled off after our bookstore troll to the pub with several books – couple of history works, a pop science book and a collection of poetry. Necessary when you have so many other books waiting? Technically, practically, no. On the level of my reading soul though, yes, of course! And it made me feel better.

Most recently my reading has been focused very much on the books of authors I will be talking to next week when I am again chairing a couple of events at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, as I read then re-read to try and pick out some relevant questions for the events, but it’s good to vary the reading diet – and for a break – to dip into some other pieces, so I am also taking quick peeks at Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, a history of the American West but from the perspective of the Native Americans, a book I have been meaning to read for years, and which I found on the shelves of one of those charity bookstores recently. Which I take as a sign from the literary gods and accordingly grabbed it.

For those interested, the two events I’ll be chairing next weekend as part of the Edinburgh International Book Festival are a talk with Karrie Fransman and Rob Davis, both of whom I have followed for years and who are creators who push the ways in which the comics medium can tell a story, and Evie Wyld (one of the Granta best new young writers) and Joe Sumner about their collaboration, Everything is Teeth (I’ll post a review of that on here soon).

An ancient classic re-imagined: ODY-C

Ody-C Volume 1,

Matt Fraction, Christian Ward,

Image Comics


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

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


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

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

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


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


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

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog

A new undead for a New World: American Vampire

American Vampire Volume 1,

Scott Snyder, Stephen King, Rafael Albuquerque,

DC Comics/Vertigo


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

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


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

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


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


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

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

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

A quiet, forgotten hero: Le Train de Michel

Le Train de Michel,

Jed Falby,

Halsgrove Publishing

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

Mike’s Place,

Jack Baxter, Joshua Faudem, Koren Shadmi,

First Second


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

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

mikes_place_baxter_faudem_shadmi_first_second_01 mikes_place_baxter_faudem_shadmi_first_second_02

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog