All the world’s a stage…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Masked wrestlers! Monsters! Tequila! Hellboy in Mexico!

Hellboy in Mexico,

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

Dark Horse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chester Brown returns with Jesus Wept Over the Feet of Jesus

Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus,

Chester Brown,

Drawn & Quarterly

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Chester Brown has to be one of our more uniquely interesting comickers, tackling sensitive – indeed even controversial for some – subject matter with a deft hand, an open mind and a strong element of respect and sensitivity. And tackling Biblical topics is an area likely to generate debate and, I would imagine, controversy, especially when the subtitle is “Prostitution and Religious Obedience in the Bible” (some people just can’t deal with those concepts, and sadly those are the sort of people who could most benefit from reading and thinking about some of the issues raised). Those of us who have enjoyed Chester’s frank and thoughtful work such as Paying For It, which looked at the world of sex workers and those who go to them, will not be at all surprised to find that here he is considering elements of sexuality and gender issues and perception and where they fit into the general human condition.

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And again Brown tackles what could very easily be exploitative material in lesser hands with his customary dexterity and thoughtfulness. Indeed throughout this entire book there is a genuine impression of Brown looking at some of the issues he raises and considering them, not just taking the standard interpretations of Gospel material, but presenting a selection of example tales – Cain and Abel, the Talents, Job Bathsheba, Ruth and more – allowing the reader to absorb them and start forming their own impressions, then, in an expansive Notes section going into far more detail about why he selected those tales and what his own reading has lead him to think about what lesson they really are trying to convey. And I have to say that I often found this latter part even more fascinating than the comic adaptation of the Biblical stories.

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That is no slight on Brown’s comicking ability, by the way – I love his style; the deceptively simple, mostly four-panel layout and the way he retains a cartoonish look but still packs a huge amount of expression into his characters’ face, making them much more relatable and believable and human. And of course those fascinating Notes wouldn’t make much sense without the context he prepares first with the actual comic strips. But it is clear from the Notes how much thought and study has gone into which tales Brown has chosen here to illuminate his chosen topics of obedience, morality, responsibility, gender roles, sex and prostitution. The Notes have extensive bibliographic references to the source books he has drawn from for inspiration, including, to his credit, some that he doesn’t necessarily agree with, but includes their reasoning and argument, which adds balance but also again prompts the reader to think more about their own assumptions, which is never a bad thing.

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(the parable of the Talents)

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I’ve little time for religion myself – my interest in it isn’t theological or a matter of faith, but  pretty much the same as the interest I’ve always had in the stories of the Olympian gods, or Norse pantheon, or the gods of the Mayans or Aztecs.  I’m more fascinated by what the worship of these beings and the stories constructed around them to explain what they are and why they do what they do says about human nature and our attempts to explain the world around us, and also to try and codify a coherent shared structure of beliefs and rules that can help shape and bind a society (for both good and ill). And of course quite often some of these are also just pretty interesting stories – the best of them, like many other good stories of all types, still holding relevance to today. The gender issues raised here are especially still of much relevance to our modern society, and you’d think by 2016 it shouldn’t be (come on, two thousand years later!), but sadly yes, it is and so it’s a good thing authors like Brown are highlighting them again, reminding us we’ve still a long way to go in improving ourselves and how we deal with others. Going back to a time when women were almost just property, where they had to rely on “a good match”, it’s not that far off from some of what you pick up on millennia later in the likes of Jane Austen (not so much the stories, but the position of women, the restricted choices they have to make in a hugely paternalistic society) and other writing from the Modern age.

I often disagreed with both the mainstream and Brown’s own conclusions about the meanings behind some of the stories – as with a lot of religious discussion it is easy to get tied into mental knots attempting to explain the reasoning behind the actions of some (to me totally imaginary) sky-daddy figure, when to me it seemed that, as with the likes of the Olympians, it’s better to just never trust the reasoning by any god because deities seem to change their fickle minds rather too often and then blame poor mortals for any mistakes. But cynical as I am I was still deeply fascinated by the reasoning Brown showed here, and the underlying theme of compassion he clearly has, and found that after reading his fascinating Notes section that I had to go back over each of the strips again several times, feeling as if I was looking at them from a slightly different angle, and that, my friends, is a real gift to a reader, not to convert you to the author’s point of view (and to be fair I doubt that was his intent anyway), but to share with the reader various viewpoints and competing ideas and allowing them to open different perspectives in the reader.

Reviews: the Imitation Game explores the life of the astonishing Alan Turing

The Imitation Game: Alan Turing Decoded,

Jim Ottaviani, Leland Purvis,

Abrams Comicarts

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I’ve long been fascinated with the life and work of Alan Turing, the remarkable British mathematician and boffin (and if anyone deserves the affectionate old British label “boffin”, surely it’s Turing), the ideas, far ahead of his time and the technology available to him, spilling out of that unusual mind like a brilliant river of thought that most of us would struggle to stay afloat in, let alone navigate that river. Ideas which changed the world, although for many long decades some of that astonishing work would be concealed under the Official Secrets Act, wartime work not to be discussed. And it wasn’t; from the eccentric academics with their erratic, lateral-thinking brains tackling seemingly impossible problems to the legions of women who sweated over the operations at Bletchley Park, they kept their mouths closed. Some, like Turing, would go to their graves long before the nature of their work was revealed, the role it played in saving the nation – and arguably the free world – from the dark tyranny of the Nazi onslaught.

And as if helping save the world was not enough, also using those desperate times to push the envelope, advancing ideas and new technologies which would otherwise have taken years or decades more, birthing the proper digital programmable computer (in hastily erected sheds in wartime Britain of all places). Birthing the technological creations which would take us from the Industrial Age into the Information Age, a revolution we’re all mostly still running to catch up with, an idea which, like Gutenberg’s movable type printing press before it was an idea which would branch off into so many other areas, influencing every aspect of our lives, from everyday things like train travel or making a phone call to the exotic, like launching satellites or creating new ways of peering into our bodies to create new treatments. And some of those first ideas come from a young, eccentric and awkward, but brilliant, lad, ideas which may have remained only theories and academic papers and perhaps the odd bit of mechanical or electronic tinkering, if the budget allowed, until the war came.

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Ottaviani (who previously brought us a wonderful biography on the great Feynman) and Purvis break this look at Turing’s life and mind into three main parts, starting with his youth – school and college days, home life – then answering the call of duty during the dark days of the Second World War for secret work at the (now rightly famous) Bletchley Park, the desperate, frantic attempts to find ways into the supposedly unbreakable Enigma codes, and then his post-war life, able to show his OBE for services to “king and country” but not to ever tell what that remarkable work actually was. And of course, for those of us already familiar with Turing (I’ve admired him since I sat programming my first home computers, way back in the days when you had to learn programming to make them do anything, long, long before apps and swipes) that last act is a tragic one (potential spoiler alert for those not familiar with that history).

It would have been very easy to focus entirely on those Bletchley Park years, and indeed the material from that period would easily have filled the book. But to Ottaviani Purvis’ great credit they want to show the person, not just the historical figure, and it greatly enriches the book by taking in his younger years first. The awkward lad with a brilliant brain that seems to grasp hugely complex problems easily and solve most of them just in his head (where the rest of us would fill entire journals working on the problem for years and still be scratching our heads), and yet to whom many of the normal everyday social interactional skills were a mystery (these days it’s hard not to imagine Jim Parsons’ wonderful portrayal of Dr Sheldon Cooper when noticing these quirks).

But there are still warm, social connections there despite his awkwardness, from family, from a few select friends, including Chris Morcom, a young, intelligent friend who accepts him as he is, and who other biographers have speculated about – was he perhaps young Turing’s first crush as he realised he preferred men to women? Here that isn’t exactly downplayed, but neither is it highlighted, instead, rather nicely focusing on their friendship and shared interests, sadly doomed to end all to early as Morcom died very young (the scenes following that are both sad and very touching, showing Turing the man, not just a brilliant brain, but a person with feelings).

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Some of the book follows Turing himself, showing him at school, college, being invited to America to Princeton where he is in the company of the likes of Von Neumman, Alonzo Church (even Einstein was there during this period), then into the wartime work and realising some of his ideas about “universal machines” could be used to help crack these Nazi cyphers, first by mechanical means (the famous “bombes” rotating and clacking away by the hundred, staffed by service woman often working in their undies due to the heat of the machinery) then (with the brilliant electronic engineering of the GPO’s Tommy Flowers) an actual electronic, digital computer, the first such in world history (although as it was a state secret for decades afterwards textbooks would give that honour to American scientists. Again those who worked on it kept their lips sealed about their much earlier efforts).

At many other points the book deviates from this approach, instead bringing in people who knew him, friends, colleagues, his mother, even his wartime fiance (who accepted even though she knew he was homosexual, because he liked her time with him), taking their turns in the interview chair, introducing parts of Turing’s life that they were involved in, as if in a documentary film. Again this very much helps personalise this story – it isn’t just about an odd but brilliant mind, it’s a person and the people who were around them. I also very much approved of the many nods to others from Bletchley, such as Dilly Knox or the “golden geese” (the servicewomen who worked there – as Churchill called the vital Bletchley decrypts, it was the goose which laid the golden eggs but never cackled. This was an era where one did one’s duties, all in it together, and did not talk about it. Most maintained that silence for decades until their work was declassified). The Bletchley segment is also something of a celebration of the “backroom boys”, the great British Boffin, the sort of chap with a brilliant mind solving amazing problems in time of need, and yet the sort who often forgets to tie his own shoelaces.

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And then there is that final act, the tragic act (again spoiler for those who are not familiar with this history and don’t want to know in advance of reading the book). The postwar work, struggling to get resources like they had during the war to continue his early computing work, and the nature of his homosexuality also coming out, no real, continuing romantic relationship, just the odd fling, giving an impression of sadness and loneliness, also of frustration at work he can’t advance as much as he wants. And finally the fling which lands him before the judicial system, because this was 1950s Britain and homosexuality wasn’t just frowned upon, it was actually illegal. His status and service saved him from prison, but cruelly he was put on a probation that included taking female hormones to “cure” him, causing him illness, weight gain and even developing breasts, provoking despair and depression and more isolation. Until this brilliant man, whose work had been absolutely pivotal to the survival of the entire nation, takes his own life with a poisoned apple (beautifully foreshadowed much earlier in the book as he and a college chum go to see the new Disney film, Snow White).

The disgrace of a man who had rendered such service to his country, to be treated so is shocking still, and the question that can never be answered echoes heavily over this last chapter – what else could have come from that brilliant mind? What other innovations would Turing have given to the fledgling computer industry? But despite this terribly sad ending this is not downbeat, this is a celebration of a remarkable man and an astonishing life. Purvis uses some wonderful visual tricks to convey the processes of Turing’s mind – a scene showing the ticker tape for an early thought experiment machine flowing past him as he effortlessly walks on and his friends struggle to keep up with him was rather wonderful, likewise a fantasy scene with Turing talking with the brilliant Ada Lovelace – another innovator of the world we now live in – is beautifully depicted, and there are lovely little cameos, including a young officer from Naval Intelligence, Commander Ian Fleming (later to create the James Bond novels).

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It’s a beautifully told story, both for those of us with some familiarity with Turing and that historical period, and to those who are new to it, a reminder also of the enormous debt the present and future always owe to the past and those who came before us, and what they achieved, often in the face of adversity; it celebrates an amazing man and the people he worked with. In 2009 the British Prime Minister issued a posthumous apology to Turing for his judicial treatment, in 2013 the Queen officially granted a royal pardon. Computer scientists, cognitive psychologists and philosophers are still debating Turing’s thought experiments on advanced computing technology actually being able to develop into artificial intelligence, his importance and work are still taught in academia around the globe.

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Reviews: Cthulhu horror meets racial bigotry in the Ballad of Black Tom

The Ballad of Black Tom,

Victor Lavalle,

Tor

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In recent months top SF&F publishers Tor have bee putting out a series of rather tasty wee novellas covering fantasy, science fiction and, here, straying into Lovecraftian horror, and indeed urban horror, the sort that is generated as much by the more vicious, ignorant elements of humanity as it is by supernatural and magical threat. Charles Thomas Tester – Tommy Tester, the eponymous “Black Tom”, is a black man in early 20th century America; it may have been decades since Lincoln’s Emancipation Declaration, but even in urban New York (let alone the Deep South), discrimination and intolerance is rampant, the Civil Rights movement and hard-won battles of the 60s are a long, long way away.

This is an era of know your place, and if you are a young man of colour then that’s even more important – keep to your “own areas” (such as Harlem), don’t get in the way of the white folks (especially the rich ones), and avoid the attention of the police. And given Tommy grafts a living from a mixture of playing a simple repertoire for busking in the street and from running slightly dodgy errands, which can take him outside his comfort zone of Harlem. And we see him early on running one of those errands, delivering a strange manuscript to a mysterious woman in a richer (and whiter) part of town, a book which may have esoteric learning in it, possibly dangerous knowledge. Despite keeping his head down and often adopting the servile and simple stance expected of him though, Tommy’s no idiot, he’s sharp, sharp enough to deliver the book and take his payment, but to ensure an important page is held back so that its knowledge can’t be fully used.

There’s a little hint of the John Constantine around Tommy, not so much a streetwise magus like Constantine, but a man who knows there is more about the world than just what most people see, and this knowledge and his esoteric errand-running bring him to the attention of a very wealthy man who asks him to play his music at a private party at his large house. And it is there that Tommy Tester learns that there is even more behind the everyday scenery of the stage we call the world than he suspected, and he thought he knew a bit. That there are other realms, and dark, ancient beings to whom human civilisation is but an ant hill. But living as a black man in that era of US history, being seen as unimportant, beneath notice almost, is something Tommy knows all too well, and his perspective on the ancient, dark beings is coloured (no pun intended) by how the simple fact of his own skin tone has seen him treated in his own society.

This is a superb read – Lavalle, even in the brief length of a novella, conjures up a superbly atmospheric story, both in terms of the atmosphere of dark, Lovecraftian dread and unease building throughout and also in the way he so wonderfully brings out a real feeling of New York in that period, the different areas with different ethnic cultures overlapping, each with their own ways and districts, and the realism of those streets – all now so changed, entire subcultures and communities moved and changed in the intervening decades – works perfectly as a contrast against the darker fantasy elements. And the aspects dealing with they way race, class and wealth  dictate how someone is treated – does the policeman respectfully raise his cap to you or does he wallop you over the head with impunity – and viewed have many parallels to modern society.

In a mere 149 pages Lavalle crafts an increasing air of menace an unreality lying just beyond the seemingly solid walls of our reality, just waiting to break in, and at the same time does what the best writers do, uses the fantasy to draw parallels to social problems of the present day. This is the first time I’ve read Lavalle, but I’ll be happy to pick up anything else by him after this.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Reviews: Thor, Goddess of Thunder

Thor, the Goddess of Thunder Volume 1

Jason Aaron, Russell Dauterman, Jorge Molina

Marvel

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Following the events of Original Sin, Thor has been badly affected – since Nick Fury whispered a secret into his ear, a secret stolen from the Watcher, Thor has not been the same man (or god). Mjolnir, his famous hammer, lies on the surface of the Moon and no-one, not even Thor, can pick it up. The hammer decides who is worthy, and it seems the Odinson is no longer worthy to wield it with the power of Thor. Broken, devastated, he has little idea of what to do, and matters are further complicated with  the return of his father, Odin, who now assumes that his wife Freyja and the council will simply roll over and return control to his arrogant hands as if he had never been away.

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And then as the Asgardians are both weakened and in a demoralised, confused, divided state, a horrible, vicious attack by Frost Giants takes place on Earth, on a deep sea research based owned by the villainous billionaire Roxxon, with much slaughter. Odin shows no interest in defending Midgard. Thor finally snaps from his torpor by his now off-limits hammer, arms himself with a favourite axe instead and mounts his ram to fly into battle. But without Mjolnir he lacks so much of his power, and his added bitterness and anger has unbalanced him. The Frost Giants are being lead by an ally, a scheming Dark Elf who wants something Roxxon has, and who is perfectly aware of the turmoil in Asgard and that Thor no longer wields the hammer. And Thor is no match for him – he loses, and he loses badly, defeated and his bodily badly mutilated. Others try to lift the hammer – including the incredibly arrogant Odin – but none can. And then a slim woman, features concealed by a silver helmet, steps forward after the rest have gone. And she picks up Mjolnir… A hero is always needed, and if the Odinson has been judged unworthy of Mjolnir, then another must step forward to take his place, the hammer lifted, the lightning unleashed.

There must always be a Thor.

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This new Thor has little time to try and come to terms with the vast power of Thor that Mjolnir imbues her with (she even finds herself speaking like Thor, “thees” and “thous”) – how does she even use it to fly? Oh yes, she’s seen Thor do that twirl it around then throw and zooommm. Hel, yes, that works! And it’s fun! Fortunately Mjolnir’s relationship with her seems to be almost symbiotic; this is no mere tool or weapon, the enchantment which allows it to judge who is worthy also seems to work with the new Thor, guiding her, helping her, it wants to help her, wants her to succeed, to be the best hero she can be. And as she arrives at the scene of the Frost Giant invasion she will need all the help she can get, literally thrown in at the deep end into a huge fight against the odds deep under the ocean. And then a partly recovered Odinson, dragged back to Asgard for treatment after his defeat, turns up. And he is not amused that someone else wears the mantle of Thor. Who is this unknown usurper? Now she has a Dark Elf, Frost Giants and and embittered, furious Odinson to deal with. Hel of a first day…

Aaron and Dauterman (with Jorge Molina on art duties for the final part) deliver one of the best Thor story arcs for ages here, giving us not one but two very powerful women who have to use their power and influence while navigating a very male-centric world, both the new female Thor and also Freyja, queen of Asgard. Often wiser and a better ruler than her arrogant husband, and also more understanding of the new Thor. The All-Father sees a thief and usurper – despite the fact Mjolnir chose her and rejected him – but Freyja sees nobility and honour in this new Thor, of a woman who has stepped up because if the Odinson can no longer be the heroic Thor then someone must be. Because Thor is needed. It’s pure, selfless heroism. And to Dauterman and Molina’s credit even when powered up by Mjolnir the new Thor doesn’t suddenly become some ridiculously proportioned uber-Amazonian caricature, she remains the same, slim woman (thank you for not going down the six foot legs, gravity-defying bosom and revealing costume route, this shows far more respect for the character and what she will need to undergo to be worthy of the mantle).

It’s a steep learning curve for this new Thor – she has to learn to control her new powers, to wield Mjolnir effectively (although the hammer seems happy to help her – in fact it does things in battle it never did even for the old Thor, much to his amazement, helping him to start realising that perhaps this woman is no thief but is truly worthy to hold it). She has Frost Giants to deal with, Dark Elves plotting with more clearly threatening to erupt on both Midgard (Earth) and Asgard at any moment. And she has to somehow convince the Odinson that she is not his enemy or an usurper. And then there are the everyday battles a superhero has to fight, including a wonderfully drawn and scripted fight with the Absorbing Man and his other half, Titania. And as well as fighting supervillains she has to fight his condescending, macho, misogynistic attitude too:

Thor? Are you kidding me? I’m supposed to call you Thor? Damn feminists are ruining everything! You wanna be a chick super hero? Fine, who the hell cares? But get your own identity. Thor’s a dude. One of the last manly dudes still left.

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And the female Thor rather satisfyingly beats the living tar out of this chauvinist pig, using Mjolnir in a way he has never seen, making him gasp, “what kind of Thor are you?” And as she punches him in the face she replies “the kind who just broke your jaw!” while in a thought bubble we can see her also thinking “that’s for saying “feminist” like it’s a four letter word, creep.” Titania arrives to bail out her defeated husband, but decides this one time she won’t fight. Call it a superwoman to superwoman nod of respect for the sorts of attitudes they have to face. It’s a wonderful scene an it’s not hard to detect in it a rebuke, not just to sexist attitudes in general and those extra hurdles many women are forced to jump to be successful (like life isn’t plain hard enough already for anyone), but also to the well-known problem of sexism in the comics industry, among publishers, creators and some readers. More than a few male readers howled, outraged at the idea of a female Thor, as if it somehow emasculated them. Goodness knows what they’d make of the actual Norse Sagas where Thor has to dress up as a blushing bride at one point!

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The identity of this new Thor isn’t revealed till a later volume, but it is someone we know well from the Marvel Universe and it is taking a huge toll on her, and yet she will keep doing it because in her innermost core of being she is a hero, and that hero is needed. It’s pure Joseph Campbell Hero With a Thousand Faces stuff, mining the very nature of what makes a hero, the trials, the ordeals, the sacrifices, male or female, and as such it fits the mythic-rich  idea of Thor perfectly, while the gender issues and the politicking in Asgard add more layers (often inter-related layers – would Odin be so outraged if a male hero had been chosen by Mjolnir?), upping the interest and hinting at more to come. I won’t spoil things by revealing who the new Thor is – I’m sure some of you have heard already, but for those coming fresh to this new chapter in Thor’s life I’d rather let you find out at the pace the creators decided. Solid superhero action, strong female characters, slowly building larger story arc in the background, cracking artwork, shining heroism, mythic heroism and as bonus dealing with gender issues in a positive way, this is one of the best Marvel superhero tales going right now.

Reviews: Ancestral Fire

Ancestral Machines,

Michael Cobley,

Orbit Books

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(Ancestral Machines cover artwork by Steve Stone)

A few years ago Mike Cobley moved from his popular fantasy series to science fiction, with his hugely enjoyable Humanity’s Fire trilogy, centred around a lost colony world (settled mostly by Scots and Norwegian colonists) being rediscovered, only to be brought into the middle of galactic politics and power-plays they didn’t even know existed until contact with the Earthsphere was re-established. Over the course of the trilogy Mike gleefully indulged himself in some fine world-building, both on his lost colony planet and then a wider galactic canvas. Ancestral Machines is set in the same universe as Humanity’s Fire, but it is a standalone novel, and while those of us who enjoyed the heck out of the original trilogy will welcome this return to that setting, I think it establishes itself and its setting so well that you can still enjoy this even if you haven’t read the trilogy (and you will probably find afterwards you will want to seek those out!).

Brannan Pyke is a pleasingly irascible scoundrel from Cobley’s Scots-Norwegian colony world, now master of the Scarbarus, with a motley collection of crewmembers from various worlds, taking on legal and, well, slightly less above board jobs to make ends meet, now that their world is connected into that larger universe again. There’s more than a hint of Joss Whedon’s much-loved (and cut far too damned short) Firefly here, I was thinking as I read it, then found Mike actually referencing Firefly in his afterword. There are other influences visible here, notably from fellow Scots-based SF writers like Ken MacLeod and the late Iain M Banks, and readers who have enjoyed those authors will find much to enjoy here. Which is not to say this is slavishly following those other creators, Mike’s too good for that, he takes his influences but the characters, setting and compelling narrative are very much his style.

After a shady deal goes wrong Pyke and his crew wake up in their de-powered ship, their partners having left them to die and make it look like an accident with power and life support. Understandably angry they try to pursue the double-crossing former partners, little knowing that a smuggling deal gone wrong is about to lead them straight into a situation they could never have imagined, and a desperate struggle, as they are dragged into the Warcage, an unbelievably vast series of worlds, all connected by ancient technology, around an artificial star, travelling into our galaxy, built by creators so ancient and distant that even the AIs of the Construct, who monitor the galaxy from various tiers of hyperspace, had thought this travelling group of worlds to be a myth. Originally conceived as a utopia, creating harmony, it was long ago usurped by those who saw it as a tool for power; instead of harmony between various worlds now the various races all train in martial arts, competing in regular deadly tournaments to keep their skills sharp (and to ensure they are always going to have grudges against the other species, therefore unlikely to combine to take control).

All of this is overseen by a group of five cold, violent, loathsome beings, the Gun-Lords, so called because they are a hybrid of an organic host with a quasi-organic-machine parasite, which also includes a sentient weapon arm on the host body. These vicious beings took control of those harmonious worlds and turned them into the dreadful Warcage, and now it’s moving towards out part of the galaxy. The Construct and Earthsphere Intelligence are concerned and plan a covert mission to investigate, little knowing the human Pyke and his crew have already been drawn into this struggle and that their paths will cross.

This is an absolute cracker of a space opera, fast-paced despite being over 400 pages, with both the personal level – Pyke and his crewmates desperately trying to save themselves and also being inexorably drawn into a greater struggle – and the large scale (entire planets destroyed, the misuse of power and how tyrants craft their vile states and hold onto power through a mix of lies and violence, an origin going back millennia), the larger scale exciting the imagination, the personal scale keeping it nicely relatable, which characters we genuinely care about.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Reviews: Tim Powers returns with Medusa’s Web

Medusa’s Web,

Tim Powers,

Corvus Books

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Tim Powers has been one of my favourite authors for many years – I tend to have a tottering tower of books and graphic novels waiting to be read at any one time, but Tim is one of the authors I will shove everything else in the queue out of the way for. Ever since the remarkable Anubis Gates back in the early 1980s I’ve been addicted to his work, which frequently takes real historic events and characters then slips them in and around the fictional characters, not contradicting the established histories of real people he uses, rather taking areas where there are gaps in their lives or parts we simply have no knowledge of, and then using those as an area where he can spin story elements, be it the Romantic poets in Anubis Gates or the spies and counter-spies like Burgess in the Cold War era Declare or the spirits of Edison and Houdini in Expiration Date. It makes for an intoxicating, immersive read, and the historic details leave you wanting to go and seek out some books on those people and periods to learn more (always a sign of a good book, I think, one that inspires you to want to read several more books).

Madeline and Scott Madden are sister and brother, living in Los Angeles, orphans, their mother and father having vanished in mysterious circumstances when they were young, leaving them always wondering what happened and why their parents just left without a word, never tried to contact their children again. Growing up somewhat damaged, they were raised by their Aunt Amity, alongside their cousins,  Ariel (who seems to harbour some grudge against Scott for reasons he doesn’t understand) and reclusive, wheelchair-bound Claimayne in her sprawling old mansion, Caveat (and with a name like that you already know this isn’t going to be a happy family home…). His aunt had been a writer for decades, although in later years her books had gone out of fashion, and the estate and house is rather run down, permeated with that faded glamour of long-gone better days. Once it was almost rural, a large house and estate with small guest cottages that were often rented out to Hollywood starlets back in the earliest days of the movies, but these days LA’s great sprawl means it is surrounded by dense neighbourhoods and the nearby log-jam of the eternally blocked LA Freeway.

After their aunt’s death (by a bizarre supposed suicide method that I will leave you to discover for yourself) they are summoned to Caveat, their first return in many years to the odd home where they grew up, a home with connections to the Hollywood of the 1920s and 30s, even having a corridor lined with doors salvaged from old Hollywood homes of famous people (they’re just doors, of course, fixed to the wall but opening onto nothing, just decorative architectural salvage. Or are they? Somehow you suspect there may be more to them than that…). Apparently their aunt had changed her will just before her death, leaving Caveat to them rather than her son Claimayne or Ariel, who both still live there and are, understandably, not happy about this state of affairs, although none of them, including Scott and Madeline, expect the will to be upheld when challenged as the nature of her suicide would indicate their aunt was clearly mentally unbalanced when she changed the will.

Or was she? Did she have an ulterior motive for changing the will? Is it a slight against her son? Sudden late affection for her troubled wards? Or did she have some plan which involves Scott and Madeline, something they have no knowledge of, a plan designed to work even in the event of her death? And where do the “spiders” fit into this? Strange patterns of lines which went glimpsed send the viewer into a strange state, as if different dimensions are crossing one another, and also connecting different parts of time together during a trance-like state. What did their aunt use them for? Why has she left some for them to discover, why do Claimayne and Ariel use them almost like a drug and who are the people in a shadowy, secret underworld of spider-users and what is their interest in all of this? Scott and Madeline seem increasingly to have been maneuvered into multiple labyrinths, some of which they aren’t even aware of, can’t even see, closing around them, while others are planning and stalking around them with purposes they can’t even guess at yet.

It’s a wonderfully mysterious story, each new, hard-won revelation illuminating fragments of this multiple-level conspiracy, but also offering more questions. Who is out for what and who means ill to Scott and Madeline is frequently hard to tell, Powers refuses to spoon-feed the reader with simple answers, but instead teases us into walking the labyrinth with the character. The spider viewing open up connection to other people and times – Caveat doesn’t just have many historical links to early Hollywood, in some ways it is still connected to it, and those connections are not just one way…

Early Hollywood history leaks into the present (as history so often does), and real historic characters like Rudolph Valentino (arguably the first great star of Hollywood) are tangled with the modern day characters, while closer to the present the family history of Scott and Madeline, their missing parents and aunt are all woven into the narrative, making it a century-long mystery and linked conspiracy, full of rich historical details and how that past shapes the present still as well as a satisfyingly emotional family history tale, arrived at through a wonderfully confusing and intoxicating puzzle across history, time and dimensions. The modern day story arc is compelling, while the historic elements pushing their way into the present are rich and evocative.

This post was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Step aside, Pops! More from the wonderful Kate Beaton

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

Kate Beaton,

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

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

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

Lois, I have a secret.”

Clark, I don’t have time.”

Lois, it’s a big secret.

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

YOU. ARE IN. MY GODDAMNED WAY.”

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

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

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

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

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

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

City built on books

Reading today that the vast knowledge the great consulting detective Mister Sherlock Holmes displayed was due largely to his Edinburgh author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle attending classes at the Royal Botanic Gardens in his teens. One hundred and forty year old records show a young Conan Doyle’s signature for attending his classes, where he would have learned about a number of interesting plants, including the deadly Belladonna, which would prove very useful several years later when he began writing the Sherlock Holmes tales, along with the already very well-known inspiration for Holmes himself which Doyle had in the shape of the remarkable Edinburgh lecturer Doctor Joseph Bell.

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This is one of the things I most love about living here in Edinburgh – not just the very long, rich history, not just the culture (like having the largest arts festival in the world), the amazing architecture, perched in turn on top of even more astonishing geology (giving Edinburgh a skyline like no other and wonderful walking opportunities along streets which curve down and up, and around), it’s the books: this is a city built on literature as much as its geology. Books are everywhere here, and I’m not just talking about the obvious form of bookstores or the Edinburgh International Book Festival (again largest in the world), it’s the way so many corners of this old city are deeply tied to authors and writing, from Robert Burns, Hume and Scott, Stevenson and Doyle to publishers like Chambers with their great reference works.

Robert Burns on the Mile

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Home of Robert Louis Stevenson

Today you can still see Robert Louis Stevenson or Conan Doyle’s childhood homes, drink in pubs they visited… And it goes on, from the mid 20th century “poet’s pub” in Milnes, where rhymers and bards got together (the Portrait Gallery here has the wonderful painting of them all together in the pub, for where else should a Scots bard be?) to the cafes where a struggling single mother was writing what would become the Harry Potter novels which so galvanised the reading habits of millions of children (and adults!) or a drink in the Oxford Bar where Ian Rankin’s bestselling Inspector Rebus enjoys a jar or three, and indeed it is not unknown to bump into contemporary Edinburgh authors when out patronising one of our city’s many fine drinking establishments, enjoying a small refreshment. It’s a book-lover’s city.

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Fireside seat

Winter in Scotland, and one of the finest and simplest pleasures, sitting not just in the pub, but getting the comfy, cushion-strewn sofa right by the old stove, cosy, comfortable, ah, perfect…

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Waiting on chum and his dogs to arrive (the hounds, of course, after several minutes of demanding attention from me settled down happily in front of the warm stove for the rest of the afternoon), and leafing through a fascinating book while sipping a very fine ale by the fire on a chill winter’s day. The simple pleasures….

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Review: If You Steal

If You Steal,

Jason,

Fantagraphics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog