Reviews: Gamish – a Cultural History of Gaming

Gamish: a Graphic History of Gaming,
Edward Ross,
Particular Books

I first encountered Edinburgh-based comicker Edward Ross’s work in one of my second homes in the city, The Filmhouse, a local arthouse and Indy cinema that is also home to the Edinburgh International Film Festival (the oldest continually running film festival on the planet). Back then Ed was producing his Filmish comics, in the finest tradition of the home-made, small press scene, complete with staples holding them together, and on sale in the Filmhouse box office. I picked up each of them as they came out and reviewed them on the old Forbidden Planet Blog, then in 2015 SelfMadeHero published a large, expanded and re-drawn version of Filmish (reviewed here), greatly improving on the original mini-comics to give a longer, more in-depth look at the history of cinema and film and its place in our culture – not just the technical and artistic innovations across a century and more, but also how some films reflect the culture of their days, their preoccupations, worries, fantasies, fear, prejudices (race, class, gender and more).

It made for fascinating reading. When I interviewed him at the 2016 Edinburgh International Book Festival about Filmish I asked what he planned to follow it, and Ed replied that he was considering a similar approach to video games. And as we continue to stumble through 2020’s stormy seas, grabbing at good comics and books like lifeboats to help keep our spirits afloat (or simply to transport us away from the actual world for a while), Gamish arrives, and yes, before you ask, I think it was very much worth the wait. Gamish is very similar in format to Filmish, both in physical appearance (a smaller 235 by 170mm format instead of the larger “comic album” format, although in hardback this time) and layout, but also in approach, not least in a virtual Edward appearing in different settings to guide us through what is happening.

Filmish tackled the century and a bit of film history by taking themes for chapters, such as technology, and Gamish also has a number of themes to help explore the history and the culture of gaming, from the role of technological innovation and artistic interpretation to the portrayal of race and gender, of disabilities, of cultural norms (and blind spots) both in the games and within gaming communities too. And like the earlier Filmish, Ed has undertaken an enormous amount of research to try and place all of this within a historical context – this doesn’t just take a simplistic approach to video game history and evolution, Gamish also explores why human beings play, how that play has become more elaborate as humans moved from hunter-gatherer to early civilisations, and placed the modern video games within that millennia-long history of human culture.

Early in the book Ed asks why it is we play: in fact, as he notes, most animals, especially mammals, play, be it kittens pretending to hunt a piece of string or human children making up games to play in the park or with their Lego and action figures. Play is part of how animals, including humans, learn important skills for later life, of how to be and how to act and how to perform certain acts, but it is also often a bonding and socialising tool as well, teaching us how to interact with others (also helping us form relationships as well as skills), and, of course, it is often hugely pleasurable. Ed takes us to an excavation near Amma, where a new roadworks dug up a 9,000 year old village site. Within this the archaeologists discovered a stone board with rows of indentations, which some recognised as a gaming board. In fact it strongly resembled a version of Mancala, a family of similar games which were widely played around the Middle East and Mediterranean basin back in Antiquity, and is still played to this day, especially in parts of Africa.

Just as ancient cave art such as those in Lascaux, France, or the Aboriginal rock paintings on the Burrup Peninsula in Australia reminds us that our ancestors of thousands – even tens of thousands – of years ago were not some simple “ugh, ugh” brutish, apish people but modern homo sapiens like us, the same bodies, the same brains, the same desire for self expression and abstract thought and creation. And gaming. A few indents in a piece of stone, pavement slab or wooden board, nearby pebbles for playing pieces and human imagination, and we have games we can play with others. As Gamish makes clear, this is not something unique to modernity, or even the great civilisations of the Classical period, this is quite simply a facet of being human, and the first part of the book takes us from those prehistoric games to the slow evolution of more sophisticated games like Go and Chess, which travel around our world and different cultures, being played for pleasure but also as training for the mind in organisation, even in military strategy (think of Chess as battlefield command training).

In this early chapter we first get a glimpse of the technological games that are to come, and which will take the majority of the focus of the rest of the book: enter Wolfgang Von Kempelen with his astonishing Mechanical Turk, a robotic chess player that challenges humans across Europe then later the Americas, this automaton playing against such figures as Napoleon and Benjamin Franklin. As many of you will know, after more than a century of touring the globe with great success, the Turk was eventually found to be a fraud: it was not a machine intelligence, but a masterful chess player concealed cleverly inside the mechanism, working the Turk’s arm through pulleys and levers (if you are interested, Tom Standage did a terrific book on the Turk back in 2001 that I highly recommend, my review is here).

So this proved not to be the start of us using clever machines for gaming – but it did inspire much of what came later. Not just in the way Turing (also featured here) used chess as a way to test and try computer learning in the mid-20th century, or the numerous programmers who tackled chess as a way of improving computer learning (eventually leading to Deep Blue beating human grandmaster Kasparov), the very idea of a machine capable of the intricacies of a game like chess, with so many possible outcomes (increasing with each player’s moves) inspired the likes of Babbage, along with Ada Lovelace one of the father’s of what would evolve into modern computing, and computer chess remains a challenge tackled by many programmers and engineers from Turing to today, both in fact and in fiction (consider HAL playing his human crew-mates on the Discovery in 2001).

All of this is fascinating in its own right, and Ed continues to chart the evolution of computer gaming into forms contemporary readers would recognise – heck, some of us even played early versions of these, such as the now iconic Space War (I remember playing a version of this tweaked for amusement arcades in the late 70s and early 80s and loving it), the move from students using room-sized University computers to run games after hours to the first home games and the birth of what is now a multi-billion dollar industry with simple games video games plugged into the TV in your living room, from Pong to the cartridge-based Atari, the explosion of video arcade culture (at one point in the early 80s so popular that in Japan it lead to a national shortage of coins as they were all being rattled into Space Invaders and other games cabinets in the arcades!), and the evolution through those early, simple 8-bit games to today’s hyper-real, fast-paced, detailed graphics and richly visualised alternate realities, from text based dungeons and dragons games to massive, multi-player online fantasy worlds accessed from around the globe.

All of this is interesting in its own right, however what makes Gamish, as with Filmish, at least for me, is that Ed is at great pains to put the human dimension into this history. This isn’t just a straight, chronological history of technical development leading to bigger, better, more sophisticated games and virtual realities. As with Filmish, Ed is interested not just with how we increase the sophistication of our computers, programmes and gaming, but also the how and the why, and also how these have shown up many of our inbuilt social norms and prejudices, as well as how they can be used to tear those down. He looks at how many games for far too long offered only character avatars to the player who were male and white, or, as in World of Warcraft, we get non-human characters representing different cultures but which mostly draw on a very blinkered, European notion of what Native American or Asian culture is.

Gender and sexual identity, as well as ablism are also covered here – he notes how in the increasingly complex gaming worlds your on-screen character could follow multiple paths, even have romances with other characters, but usually those relationships were purely heterosexual. Despite modern games offering multiple options to players to navigate their character’s paths, it hadn’t occurred to the programmers to offer the choice of sexually different tastes, just as many hadn’t thought to include player avatars who had skin other than white, or more female options. Ed also touches on the hostility of a wretched (and thankfully small) section of the emerging gaming community, mostly young, white males, who became so possessive over games as belonging exclusively to them that they attacked female, LGBT or players of different skin colours on forums and in gaming worlds (sadly, as with GamerGate we’ve seen a similar bunch of utter idiots in the comics world too with very much the same notions).

However Ed also covers the more positive aspects of this gender, race and cultural disparity in gaming, bringing forth all sorts of examples where different groups have used the medium to empower themselves, be it refugees creating an idealised homeland they can dream of in cyberspace to transgender and non-binary players who found being able to inhabit any form of virtual avatar was therapeutic for them, and helped them explore their true inner identity in virtuality before making decisions and lifestyle changes in the real world, or Muriel Tramis creating a game where you had to play as a rebelling plantation slave as a way to highlight that dreadful period of history (and by implication its continuing influences to this very day in terms of how some people are perceived and treated even in supposedly free and equal societies).

Naturally this book also touches on that old bugbear of video violence and its possible effect on people in the real world. As Gamish points out, yes, there certainly has been a growth, especially in the 90s, of very graphically violent video games, not least the FPS or First Person Shooter, made famous by the original Doom (which I must admit I loved playing on my early PC, an hour of that would be my unwinding after spending hours on the same machine writing my college essays), and how an often rather lazy connection was made between these and real world violence (especially the dreadful problem of school shootings in the US). As the book points out though, while there should be some concerns, this moral panic was just the latest in a long saga of blaming different new media for societal ills – in the 50s it was rock music records, in the 80s it was “video nasties” and rap music, in the 90s it was video games. Always easier to simply blame those than actually try to understand where families and societies are going wrong to produce those real world problems (it also, as Ed observes, ignores the fact that if the games were indeed the cause of this real world violence then we would be drowning in such acts as millions plays them every single day).

Overall however, while Ed does explore the negative side of gaming culture, the tone here is bright and optimistically hopeful – while he details faults like sexism or ablism or cultural difference ignorance, he prefers to give far more space to positive stories, of individuals and groups who have challenged norms and used technology and gaming advances to their own advantage, to claim some of that virtual, shared cyberspace play realm for themselves, but also to share it with others and so educate us to new ideas and people and ways of being. And frankly I am glad he takes this approach – he’s far from ignoring the many problems, in fact he discusses them, but he chooses to highlight positive aspects of gaming and the power within games to help us make things better by building more understanding through shared activities, learning, creating new friendships with different people with different views on life.

Much as he did in the earliest pages of the book, when talking about our hunter-gatherer ancestors and their early play models that helped them learn skills and socialisation, Ed’s later chapters explore examples of how many today are using the modern, sophisticated gaming environments available to us right in our own homes to do the very same, with different sorts of people all over the world (the book takes pains to depict a wonderfully diverse arrary of characters in its pages, which I greatly appreciated). It’s warm, it has a sense of fun and humour and importantly it has a lot of optimism for the media and for the way it can empower all sorts of people, and right now that feels like a wonderful, uplifting notion to leave the readers on.

This review was originally penned for Down the Tubes

Reviews: Judge Dredd: America – Lost & Found, the Rediscovered Scripts

Judge Dredd: America – Lost & Found, the Rediscovered Scripts,
John Wagner, Colin MacNeil,
Rebellion

Rights? Sure. I’m all for rights. But not at the expense of order. That’s why I like to see that Statue of Judgement standing there, towering over Liberty. Kind of a symbol. Justice has a price. The price is freedom.”

Judge Dredd: I’ve been reading his tales every since the very beginning, way back in 1977. I’ve been fascinated by the adaptability of the character and the story format- across more than four decades we’ve seen everything from broad comedic farce to tragedy, from short, punchy tales of a few pages only (which nevertheless often lodge in the brain long after, despite their brevity) to huge, widescreen epics like the Apocalypse War. And Dredd himself, the unbending, iron man of the total law of Mega City One? Clever storytelling has given us Dredd as both heroic at times and at other times a freedom-crushing fascist stormtrooper.

I find it remarkable that one strip and one character can can be so astonishingly flexible, go to such extremes. The writers and artists of Dredd have made us cheer for him as he is battered and broken by often unimaginable events and opponents, way past the point where even a mythic hero might have given up as a lost cause, but not Dredd, he keeps going, dogged, determined, he stands till the end, the the bad guys are vanquished, it’s a tenacity on which the entire survival of the city and sometimes the world has depended.

And at other times we see the cold, hard machinery of Mega City Justice Department, how it bears down crushing those it is meant to serve, unbending adherence strictly to every rule to the most ridiculous level, smallest infractions dealt with via immediate and hard, violent response, while no threat to the supremacy of the Justice Department will be tolerated. It is this latter aspect we first saw in America, by the Dreddfather himself, the great John Wagner, and the equally superb Colin MacNeil, who here delivers some amazing painted artwork, which is something else to behold, be it depicting a tender, intimate moment of friendship and love and intimacy or dreadful acts of violent outbursts.

For many decades America has, for me, been one of the finest Dredd stories of all time: it has action, romance, characters that are flawed and believable as humans rather than cyphers to advance a plot, it has humour and love and tragedy and wades into the swampy lands of Morality, not afraid to show the complexity behind the simplistic ideas of good and evil, right and wrong. When I heard Rebellion was re-issuing it complete with some of Wagner’s rediscovered original scripts I was excited, although part of me also thought, how does this story hold up in the world of 2020?

How will I feel when I re-read it now, at this point in my life and with the world around me as it has become, instead of remembering it through a glow of nostalgic love for earlier 2000 AD? I needn’t have worried myself on that score, however: this is Wagner and MacNeil, I was always in safe hands with these masters of the comics form, and, if anything, sadly aspects of the story are actually more relevant to our troubled world of today than they were when this was written, even in the supposed democracies of the Western World. And that emotional punch, that you just know is coming yet you can’t look away? It’s still there, still so strong it will wrench your heart.

I’d imagine most DTT readers will already be familiar with this story, but for those who are coming to this Dredd classic for the first time, let’s have a quick recap of the actual story. We start with foreshadowing, with Dredd, always an impressive, ominous figure at the best of times, here depicted in full page splashes by MacNeil from a low perspective, as if we’re under his feet, trampled beneath the heel of the Justice Department (much later we will loop back to this scene and realise its dreadful context), with the quote about rights and freedom that opened this article. It is an opening that in two pages and images already tells you that this is a story that will not have a happy ending. This is Mega City One, not Disney.

From those threatening, huge splash pages we moved into smaller panels, the inside of a nightclub, the dressing rooms, a young woman, attractive yet with an air of terrible sadness around her, getting ready for a performance. She is the one who starts the main story going, she tells us of America and of Bennett Beeny, right from the very beginning, as she is born kicking and screaming into the world of Mega City One to immigrant parents, who in gratitude for their new home decide to christen their baby daughter “America”. Even in this happy moment, as their friends congratulate the couple on their new arrival, there are hints of the storm clouds to come, when her father, still new to the city, quotes “America, God shed hees grief on thee”, only for a friend to point out it is “grace”, not “grief”, but I think we already know in this case it will be grief. The America the Jara family thought they had emigrated to no longer exists, except as a dream. A dream that will burn in young America throughout her short life.

Benny and Ami are the best of friends as kids, but even as children it is clear they are different: Benny is good natured and effectively rolls with the system as it is, not liking it, but doing his best to make the best life he can have under the circumstances, while Ami hates the life they are forced to live and yearns to make the world a better place. Even at this young age we see the Judge system, but from the perspective of small children, these huge, armoured, imposing figures towering above them, instilling fear now – like the Jesuits who wanted to start their teaching young so they would have the later grown person for life, the Judges lay down heavy examples even to small children.

It is not a pretty sight, and it also serves effectively to show the two different characters: Ami seethes as this treatment, you can see her thinking how do I change this, take away this power the Judges have over us all, while Benny is complaint, “no, sir, thank you, sir” types to the threatening Judge. A scene a little later shows them as young adults now, and MacNeil beautifully frames their view of the vast city from a high vantage point through a broken chain-link fence. It’s beautiful visual shorthand (the story is replete with similar examples), this should be an awe-inspiring view across the city, but instead it gives the impression they are exhibits in an old, broken-down zoo, Benny already cowed, will stay behind the wire, fearful, Ami is seen looking out through the mesh of the fence into the world beyond, seeing something more, something better, if only she can manage it.

There’s such bittersweetness around this point, as the two who had been inseparable are now growing up, becoming more the adults they will become, so too they are growing apart. We’ve probably all been there, with childhood friends we thought we’d have forever, and some we do sometimes manage to keep but there are always others than our life paths take away from one another, keeping in touch at first, but less so as time goes on and the world slowly makes us drift apart. That feeling is evoked so well here, and added to by the fact we can see how clearly Benny loves Ami, not just as his lifelong friend, but he years for her as a lover, he is hopelessly lost in love with her, and he knows that while she cares for him she’s never going to love him that way.

Their paths diverge and they lose contact, although she is never far from Benny’s thoughts, he still carries a torch for her and always will. Some may see that as weak, as Benny refusing to move on emotionally, and perhaps it is, but you could also argue that it is a beautifully pure form of love, an idealised version he carries inside himself, aware that the grim reality of the real world can never give him what he has in his heart. Benny becomes rich and famous with his comedic songs and gets to live a comfortable life – he may be in a cage like any Mega City citizen, but his is gilded and comfortable thanks to his huge success. Ami, when she finally crosses his path again, has been less fortunate.

Ami’s path has been hard, her dedication to the older freedoms before the Judges has brought her into conflict with the Justice Department with the predictable heavy response. But it’s not just the heavy handed tactics which have further enraged her, it’s the basically cruel turning of the screw to teach her a lesson – for instance her child is decreed not to come up to genetic standards and so banished from Mega City. This only hardens her in her convictions to do anything to fight the system (and it is hard not to sympathise with her). It even leads to scenes with the two reunited briefly, but leaves the reader to question if Ami does so only to manipulate Benny into helping her and her comrades, or because she really does care for him and perhaps yearns for even a brief respite of peace and love? Wagner cleverly leaves that very much to the readers, even in his accompanying script notes he says it’s best not to answer that, let the readers ponder…

And I won’t go too much further into the plot for those who haven’t yet read America, because I have no wish to ruin it for you. Suffice to say do not go looking here for roses and kisses and a happy ending in the sunset. But do expect drama and love and moral clashes and trust and betrayal and tragedy. And for none of the characters to come out of this untarnished: Dredd and the Judges, glimpsed mostly in the background of this story, are clearly the fascistic power of repression here, Benny well-meaning but spineless and out of his depth, Ami driven by The Cause, one which we may even admire her fighting for, except she will use any method, even brutal killing, to serve The Cause (as with many in the real world their causes, however well intentioned, can often become more important than the lives of people).

I came back to America not just in our troubled world of 2020, but also after reading the second Judges prose omnibus by Mike Carroll, Maura McHugh and Joseph Elliot Coleman for the second Cymera SF festival back in June (you can still see the hour long discussion on Cymera’s YouTube channel, while the book is reviewed here). That book explores the early world of the Judges, before the Mega Cities, with the first generation of Judges operating alongside the final years of traditional law enforcement in near-future America. Those stories often evoked America as I read them – in those books we see the Judges created precisely because current law enforcement has failed. It is corrupt, police almost untouchable even when they commit violent, unprovoked attacks, clearly carrying a huge racial bias, all things the Judges are trained to ignore: they will serve the law equally upon all, regardless of class, race, gender, wealth or position.

When I was reading those stories in preparation for our Cymera talks we were all watching with horror the racially motivated judicial killings in the US of people of colour, the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement, the awful,violent response those demonstrations often received, not just from far right civilians driving cars into crowds, but police then federal government forces gassing, shooting and arresting peaceful demonstrators. The parallels to Dredd’s Mega City One were horribly, wretchedly visible to many of us. Dredd has always carried a strong element of social commentary, not to mention dark satire, but this echoed so much with that fictional world that it was painful.

I’m not going to soap-box on those aspects, this is a review, not a social commentary piece, albeit about a story with a strong social commentary component, of course, but re-reading it I think it is fair to say I found America fitted in far too closely with aspects of our contemporary world, far, far too closely for comfort. Ami’s life in some ways echoes that of the nation she is named for: born with idealised notions of freedom and equality for all, only to see that dream constantly perverted to suit those in the positions of power, and likewise with Mega City One.

But that’s the point – to realise the threat to the Dream we have to see it and know it for what it is, call it out, stand up to it. The idealised version of that Dream may always be ultimately unattainable, like most potential utopias, but it is a noble vision and striving towards it hopefully means we make a better, fairer world for all as we try to reach it, and not to let others corrupt and subvert it for their own ends. Wagner himself sums it up in his own notes with his accompanying script pages:

America – not so much a place as an ideal. In these times of increasing authoritarianism, even in the Western world – when the reins of power have fallen into the hands of crooks, self-serving conmen and shameless liars – the message in the story is more pertinent than ever.

We’ve got to keep looking for America.”

This review was originally penned for Down the Tubes

Reviews: The Doors of Eden

The Doors of Eden,
Adrian Tchaikovsky,
Tor/Macmillan
Hardback, 608 pages,
Published August 2020

After the recent Children of Time and Children of Ruin, as well as Firewalkers, it is fair to say I was very eagerly anticipating Tchaikovsky’s new stand-alone novel. As with the Children series, this is a huge tome of a book, but don’t let the size daunt you – like Peter F Hamilton’s books, when you start reading them they are so engrossing and so well-paced it doesn’t feel like you are working through a massive page count, you will be quite happily enraptured with both the story and the myriad of ideas it sparks inside your head.

Two young girlfriends, Mal and Lee, take a short holiday of sorts – they love exploring reports of cryptids together, and even write them up for publications like the Fortean Times. Naturally both like the idea of mysterious creatures, unknown to science, but they are also intelligent enough to know that most reports are mistaken identities (it turns out the giant panther was a domestic cat and someone couldn’t judge distance and size in the dark) or out and out fabrications. What happens, though, when it starts to seem like there may be more to a sighting on the lonely moors than they suspected? What happens when a set of three ancient standing stones, known as the six sisters, despite only numbering three, becomes, right in front of their eyes, a circle of six? And when snow blows across the midsummer moors in an instant, with strange beings glimpsed in the storm? What happens when Mal vanishes?

Four years on and Lee, still wondering what happened, if she imagined things, if she went mad, is still missing her friend and lover, when Lee returns, looking different, but definitely her. Where has she been? Why so long before returning to London? Lee’s return is linked to a number of other events though – other strange disappearances, a remarkable breakthrough in computational maths and physics that could bypass all the top-secret encryption used by security services the world over, a manipulative billionaire with connections to both political heavyweights and low-life Neo-Nazi boot boys… And, perhaps something even larger, something which has a bearing on the very nature of existence itself.

Within the first hundred and fifty pages or so Tchaikovsky gives us a story of intrepid cryptid explorers then adds in scientific breakthroughs and elements of a spy thriller. This is more than most novels do in their entire page count! And then there is the fascinating and compelling element of multiple realities. The multiverse is no stranger to SF readers, of course, from Moorcock to the Adventures of Luther Arkwright and many more, and indeed it is a concept taken seriously by many in the scientific community nowadays. Here, in addition to the idea of multiple Earths in parallel realities, Tchaikovsky also deftly indulges in a lot of evolutionary what-ifs.

This isn’t just the old, here is the Earth where the Allies lost WWII, or Rome never fell approach (not that I have anything against those, tales, when done well), here, as with the Children books, he takes the very long-term view, exploring multiple evolutionary approaches on Earth. There are some where dinosaurs never became extinct and evolved into intelligent lifeforms (yes, I know, technically not all dinosaurs died out, some evolved into the bird family, and indeed that idea is also nicely explored), others where the huge sea scorpion type creatures became the dominant life millions of years before even reptiles or dinosaurs, let alone mammals or humans. But in each, while all the various possible lines of evolution play out, each Earth still suffers the same massive traumas, the same mass extinction events caused by ice or fire or meteor. Some vanish into these cataclysms, others adapt only to be lost later in the vastness of geological epochs passing (we are talking millions and billions of years, after all). We even get to ponder that remarkable evolutionary accident that had more than one type of intelligent human life existing at the same time on the same world (our own) and how that played out in other Earths closer to our timeline.

The main arcs of the story have some fascinating excerpts from a book on these parallel evolutions on other Earths, which explores so many possibilities (and yes, it does also allow Adrian to indulge in having some multi-legged creatures in the book, of course!), and I found these as intriguing as the main story. We have an engrossing story, some terrific characters (and also, I should add, a nice bit of diversity there, including gay and trans characters, and that’s just among the humans, which was very welcome), and a gradual layering of all the various strands which take the story off into a different direction than you may at first suspect, upping the stakes for the characters, indeed for all of the various worlds, each time we learn something new, and at points even incorporating the multiverse story into the actual structure of the writing to give multiple perspectives and possibilities.

This is simply superb science fiction, a gripping, high-stakes quest, and some staggering concepts that will leave you thinking about all those many possibilities, all those what-ifs that made our world – and the many other Earths – what they became.

This review was originally penned for the Shoreline of Infinity, Scotland’s leading journal of Science Fiction

Reviews: Victory Point

Victory Point,
Owen D. Pomery,
Avery Hill

During the seemingly endless, long, slow days of the main part of Lockdown, Avery Hill released a trailer for Owen D Pomery’s upcoming Victory Point, and sent me a link to view it, along with a few preview pages. It’s fair to say I was smitten right away, and it brightened a Lockdown day; I’ve been waiting since then to get a proper read at the full graphic novel. I was not disappointed. I’ve long had what I refer to as my “bookseller’s Spidey-sense” (caused by a paper cut from a mildly radioactive book) that gives me a vibe on certain new books, before I have even read them, and I know I am going to like them a lot. I don’t know how that vibe works, but it’s never steered me to a bad read yet, and I got it in spades looking a the previews and trailer for Victory Point.

Owen’s educational and professional background is in architecture and illustration, and that shows very much in Victory Point. A small coastal village, it is unusual – not to mention extremely pretty – for having been designed entirely by one architect as part of a socio-architectural experiment in the inter-war years, to create a small town that would not only be a home to families but be a base for artistic and scientific colonies (perhaps inspired by some of the artist colonies that for many years drew creators to places like Saint Ives). In true British tradition, this vision was never fully realised, with only part of the town constructed, and it soon turned into a regular, quiet little seaside town, save for the unusual architecture that visually unites the area.

And what a style it is, all beautiful, clean lines of 30s Modernist architecture, elegant without being fussy, the buildings and streets carefully situated into the descending slope of the coastal landscape as it reaches down from cliffs above to the beaches and sea below, all drawn in Owen’s handsome, clear-line style. We first see Victory Point on a bright, summer’s day, as Ellen, a bookseller in the (unnamed) big city is returning by train; this is her home-town, and she is coming back to visit her dad.

The fact that it is a summer’s day makes it ideal for luxuriating in the views of these gorgeous Modernist buildings that festoon the slopes of the hills, the elegant curves, the whitewashed walls catching the light beautifully. I’ve always loved the architecture of this period, and there is something particularly nice about this style when on the coast. I still have childhood holiday memories of Morecambe in the summer, and the beautiful Midland Hotel (fortunately now refurbished and restored), with its Modernist and Art Deco grace right by the sea, catching the light and making me think of the great ocean liners from the golden age of travel – long before I was old enough to understand what those art and architectural styles were, I knew they were beautiful.

The pace of the story is leisurely, and this allows Owen to indulge himself and the reader in the luxury of just wallowing in a pool of beautiful illustrations, as the returning Ellen walks through her old home-town to her parent’s house, and we are treated to so many simply wonderful, beautiful panels, with many of the panels being large, or even entire pages, the better to drink in the art. The pictures also do a magnificent job of conveying something of that glorious light quality of a clear, summer day by the coast, especially on that handsome, whitewashed architecture.

Not that this is a book just about a beautiful architectural experiment turned delightful anomaly – students come out from the city to behold “what might have been” if the experiment had been completed and expanded to others, but they see only the myth of the genius of the designer, not the fact that it is a real place, with real people living real lives (I must confess, despite vastly different architecture – though just as striking – I experience the same often in Edinburgh where I live, where it feels many visitors see it almost as a set and forget it is a living, working place and home). No, there is a story here, about belonging, about home and leaving, about growing up, about being part of your family but also needing to be yourself, and that bittersweet mixture of hope and joy and regret and sadness that entails.

Victory Point perfectly captures that slightly surreal feeling of coming home when it isn’t really your home anymore, something most of us will have experienced. Going back to the home town, to the parental mansion, still home and yet, not really home, because now we are grown up and moved away somewhere else that is now home. But this is still somehow home too, but we feel a weird mix of being a visitor as well as belonging now. Likewise Ellen’s reunion with her dad expresses those feelings many of us will have had on going back home to a beloved parent, of realising they are getting older, that while you are all now adults and living your own lives, they are still forever interlinked, and that no matter how old you are, that feeling that in your parent’s heart of hearts, you are still their little child and they worry about you, want to help you, see you be happy, are planning, even now, to try and make sure you will be okay when they are no longer there (and how our minds rebel against the thought when they bring such plans up).

The artwork for the characters is reminiscent of the Herge style – no bad thing, of course – with the little dots for eyes and simple yet effectively expressive faces that still convey so much emotion despite their economy (a single panel of her dad hugging her when she arrives home is just beautifully done and radiates emotion), and characters, architecture and landscape are all integrated so well in Victory Point, not just from the visual, aesthetic point of view, but also in terms of the story and the competing emotions underlying it.

It felt to me that this elegant, beautiful, quirky failed socio-architectural experiment was in many ways a metaphor not only for Ellen’s life, but for any of our lives, how something can seem, from the outside, to look perfect, enviable even, be it another’s home or their life, compared to our own, but of course beneath those facades are the same complex problems everyone has. The use of matching architecture to make an almost uniform town, except real towns don’t exist that way, they’re a mixture of styles and periods, a melange, much like the lives of those who live in them. Or Ellen visiting the secretive little cove where she first learned to swim as a child, floating naked in the clear water, the perspective from above, showing the geology of the coastal hills meeting the sea, Ellen, wondering where her life will go next, floating, suspended between the sea and sky and land.

Yes, this is a visually stunning, beautiful piece of comics work, filled with elegant artwork and vistas designed to show those structures off, but it is also a quiet, gentle tale of life and growing up and our competing goals and emotional attachments to people and places that all go to make us who we are and form what we do, all the hopes and desire, all the fears and regrets. This is a book I will come back to again and again to just drink in.

This review was originally penned for Down The Tubes.

Reviews: A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians

A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians,

H.G. Parry,

Orbit,

Paperback, 534 pages

Kiwi author H.G Parry was new to me when I read her utterly delightful The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep at the start of this year, in which a young literary academic prodigy has the unusual gift of bringing characters forth from what he is reading, if he gets too lost in the book (seriously, it was a book-lover’s delight, chock full of references to other works and with a wonderful sense of fun, it went down well with my SF Book Group). Orbit planned to release a second book by Parry within just a few months, so I was now primed and looking forward to this one, and while I loved her first novel, I was also pleased to see this next one was taking a very different subject matter and approach, being ostensibly Alternative History.

I must confess I have a real soft-spot for alt-history tales, doubtless driven by my interest in history; anyone who has read a lot of history books is almost certainly aware how many world-changing events could easily have happened differently, and this offers fertile ground for storytellers, from Ward Moore’s classic Bring the Jubilee to the massive and engrossing works of Neal Stephenson. In this instance Parry is focused on the Age of Enlightenment, with the main action taking place in three locations: France as the Revolution approaches and then happens, the Haitian slave rebellion in the Caribbean, and in Britain, the work of Wilberforce and Pitt to create an Abolition bill to outlaw the slave trade.

The book is littered with many actual historical events and figures, from the aforementioned Pitt and Wilberforce to Robespierre in France and Toussaint Louverture in what would become Haiti, but while it follows much of our world’s established history, this is a version of our world in which magic is real. Real, but restrained, however, especially for the Commoners, who are forbidden to use any inherited powers, while the aristocracy has much more leeway in using their gifts to enhance their already privileged lifestyle and opportunities. The threat and promise of power through magical ability – or the restraint of that power – links the events in all three settings, as does the issue of immorality of slavery.

As the monarchy of France falls to Revolution – with a call for “free magic and liberty” replacing the more familiar “liberty, fraternity and equality” – and the Haitian slave rebellion blooms, the Revolutionaries are torn, as the slaves are demanding the same rights and freedoms as they do – but the French coffers need the money coming from that lucrative sugar trade which relied on back-breaking slave labour (the clash between morality and money, a sadly eternal quandary throughout our history, imagined or actual). Magic is also used to bind the slaves in this world – while the brutal treatment of our own shameful slave-owning history is present here, a magical elixir is also used, which effectively imprisons slaves with their own body and will compliant to their masters, while leaving their mind perfectly aware of what is being done to them but unable to react, to even cry out if they want to, another horror on top of horror.

Morality and the struggle to maintain one’s principles is very much at the core of this story – as well as struggling with the notions of equal freedom for the Caribbean slave, the French Revolutionaries, notably Robespierre (whose magical power is Mesmerism, very useful in the debating chamber) who has strong principles, which he increasingly bends then breaks, in the name of securing Liberty (the ends justify the means, even if it means The Terror). In Britain too the fight to end the slave trade is riven by those who insist it is fine in principle but in practice will bankrupt the nation, just as it needs every resource to combat the French in warfare, while in Haiti the slave rebellion leaders debate the merits of trying to be merciful if they do secure a free society on the island, rather than giving in to the (no doubt justified) revenge on those who inflicted years of cruelty upon them.

Into this already engrossing stew of events and philosophical musings there are hints of a wider magical history underpinning this era, including a centuries-ago war against vampire lords, which lead to a bloody campaign to free Europe of dark magics, a pact still enforced by the Knights Templar, even in Protestant countries like Britain. And behind all these world-wide events is a shadow-figure, glimpsed mostly in dreams by Robespierre, Toussaint Louverture and Pitt, who seems to often be offering help and advice, but you just know that any bargain made with this mysterious figure will be a Faustian pact.

This is a richly-detailed alt-history, and arriving with wonderful coincidence as the Black Lives Matter movement has triggered far more serious reconsideration of the slave-owning era in the history of many countries, and its legacy (indeed one of Pitt’s fellow politicians here is Dundas, who delays the attempts to end the slave trade – as I was reading this we are debating in my home-town of Edinburgh how to mark his statue, atop a huge column, to address his shameful legacy, just as memorials to others from that era are also being re-evaluated). You can imagine how this coincidental timing of events and publication added to reading of this book, and acted as a reminder, if any were needed, that history is never just the study of the past (even in imaginary, alt-history), because the present is shaped by that history; it isn’t really past, it’s still with us, affecting all aspects of our civilisation in ways we need to study and comprehend if we are to learn from those events and grow beyond them to a better future.

A beautifully-written tale, which takes in the personal – the close friendship of Pitt and Wilberforce for instance – as much as it does the large-scale, global picture of events, with a strong examination of morality and how power corrupts it, be it money, legislative power or magical abilities, with some lovely turns of phrase (Parry’s descriptions of the walls of the House of Commons reacting musically to a well-written speech is quite wonderful and evocative of the power of well-chosen words, delivered with conviction). I look forward to the next volume.

On a side note: if you enjoy history and are interested in this period, Mike Duncan’s excellent Revolutions podcast series has covered both the French and the Haitian revolutions used in this book in great (but very accessible) details

This review was originally penned for Shoreline of Infinity, Scotland’s leading journal of Science Fiction.

Review: Mongrel

Mongrel,
Sayra Begum,
Knockabout Comics

There’s an old saying that you will never understand another person, unless you walk some miles in their shoes. I’ve often thought that books, especially autobiographical works, are one of the best ways we have to learn at least some understanding of another person’s life, their culture, their perspectives, and Mongrel reinforces that belief. We may never truly be able to walk in another’s shoes, not completely – how could we, every life is a unique set of very personal circumstances, even the life experiences of twins will differ – but we can obtain a look into those other lives, other interests, worries, cultural drives and norms, and by doing so we expand our own world a little more (and hopefully make ourselves a bit more aware, a bit more open to the differing lives of others).

Drawn in a rather beautiful pencil work, Mongrel offers some beautiful visuals, lovely to look at but carefully done so they never overwhelm the subject matter. The style is quit distinctive too, especially the faces of Sayra and her family and friends, the large eyes and often profile perspective putting me in mind of the way humans are depicted in ancient Assyrian or Egyptian art. It’s an unusual style, at least in Western comics, but it works beautifully, as well as adding another layer of difference, reminding us that we’re looking into what, for many of us, will be a different culture, a different set of societal and familial norms. There are some lovely little visual techniques too – Shuna lost in thought of how her life has lead to this moment, her memories shown literally fragmented, like jigsaw pieces of her life, a thought bubble floating above her which she then reaches up and pops.

Walking through the door of my family home was like walking through a gateway to Bangladesh.”

Shuna’s story will, no doubt, be familiar to more than a few readers, those who have had to make that difficult journey that spans different, often competing, or even opposing cultural drives. Her religious upbringing and the societal expectations her parents – especially her mother – have are formed from Bangladeshi society, but Shuna and her siblings are being brought up in the UK. Try as they might to limit their children’s external activities – which friends they can see, when they can go out and when they cannot – they are, of course, exposed to other experiences and possibilities, and some of those seem alluring, exciting even, compared to home.

But home, as they say, is where the heart is, and for all the urge to rebel there is also an urge to conform, to please the parents and others in your community, to be an accepted, welcome part of it. While the experiences may differ, in many ways this is no different really from what most of us go through growing up, especially in our teens. We long to belong, for the warmth, love and safety and acceptance of family, but we’re also driven by the often contradictory impulse to stand out, to explore our own path. We want to belong and to be individual at the same time, one of the great contradictions of human nature, yes, but it is also part of what drives us to grow. It’s often a rocky road for most of us, but for those with strictly interpreted cultural beliefs and standards, it can be so much the harder, the possible penalties for transgression far higher.

It is to her great credit that Sayra explores all sides of this generational, cultural and societal problem. It would be all too easy to take a simplistic approach – make the parents out to be villains, inflexible, unwilling to bend to accommodate the fact they are raising their children in a different land with different standards and opportunities. Yet Sayra never falls into this trap. Which is not to say there isn’t conflict here, there is in fact a lot of that, and a lot of butting of heads, of inflexible approaches and failure to compromise, to try and adapt to each other’s competing drives and needs.

But Sayra makes it clear that her mother’s strict stance, no matter how harsh it may seem to us, is driven from love for her children – her religious beliefs make her fear that their failure to comply with how she thinks they are to behave imperils them, that it could take them from the path of righteousness and into temptation. In short that her children could damn themselves and on their day of judgement they would not ascend to Paradise and so she would lose them for all eternity.

Although Sayra is drawing on her own mixed heritage, being British Bangladeshi, there is much here that any of us will recognise from the awkward moments of our own youth, of striking out on our own, sometimes against what was expected of us, against a parent’s wishes or expectations. Family and people are family and people, no matter where we come from or travel to, after all. For those who have had an even harder journey trying to claim their own individual experience in the face of family, community and societal norms – cross-cultural children, gay or trans youth for instance – it will most certainly seem all the more familiar. The cultural imperatives and strifes may be different but the song remains the same. A beautiful and emotionally honest work

This review was originally penned for Down the Tubes

Cymera Talks

The first weekend in June should have seen the second Cymera festival of science fiction, fantasy and horror literature taking place in the Pleasance in Edinburgh. We had the first one last year and as well as attending many events all weekend (and taking lots of photos, as usual), I also participated, chairing a multi-author discussion on stage.

Of course, like pretty much all festivals we had to cancel due to the pandemic. A little while into the Lockdown I was asked by organiser Ann if I would still be up for chairing if some online events could be organised, and of course I said yes. And so did pretty much all the authors, so the virtual version of Cymera that took place over the weekend just gone wasn’t just a few online chats, it was an entire programme running the three days of the original festival plan with author events (live and some pre-recorded), writing workshops and more, quite an amazing feat to pull off, effectively an entire festival online and at such short notice.

Cymera has been busy adding some of the live and pre-recorded events onto its YouTube channel now, which you can enjoy for free (although if you enjoy them and you can afford it, even a small donation would be helpful, the festival, despite not having the physical ticket sales, is still paying authors a fee for their time, so help is appreciated – you can donate here).

The two events I had the pleasure of chairing are online now: my talk with Arthur C Clarke Award winners Anne Charnock about Bridge 108 and Adrian Tchaikovsky about Firewalkers, both books doing what the best SF always does, using the future as a filter to examine the concerns of our own troubled times, such as environmental issues, global inequality and more. You can see it here:

And on the Sunday I was delighted to talk on a 2000 AD panel with Maura McHugh, Michael Carroll and Joseph Elliott-Coleman, discussing their novellas in the Judges series for 2000 AD (reviewed here), dealing with the pre-history of the iconic Judge Dredd series in the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic. Set decades before Dredd, much closer to our own time, it effectively brings the world of the Judges – special lawkeepers with the power of instant justice on the streets, trained to be incorruptible, impartial – almost into our own world.

This isn’t the great Mega City of the far future but still America, an America crumbling socially, politically and economically, hence the Judges experiment. The three stories have a fascinating mix of murky morality, with those on each side all having both merits and flaws, and the tales, especially Elliott-Coleman’s “Patriots” had some terrifying resonances to recent events in the US, which we also discussed in relation to the books:

Reviews: Judges Omnibus Volume 2

Judges Omnibus Volume 2,
Michael Carroll, Maura McHugh, Joseph Elliott-Coleman
Rebellion/2000 AD

This second volume collects three novellas by 2000 AD regular Mike Carroll, joined by Maura McHugh and Joseph Elliot-Coleman. Mike, I am sure, most readers on DTT will be more than familiar with, Maura – among her many other writings from short stories to collections to scripts for stage, screen and even computer gaming – will be known to DTT readers for some of her very fine Irish comics work such as Jennifer Wilde (illustrated by Stephen Downey), while Joseph’s writing came to the attention of Mike (series editor) via his contribution to Not So Stories, which featured writers of colour from round the globe keeping the wonder of Kipling’s tales but re-imagining them without the period imperialist, colonialist, racist elements.

I must confess, I am not normally that keen on prose tales based on comics. I don’t know why, perhaps my prose and my comics reading sections of my brain like them in their own compartments, but whatever the reason, it isn’t my normal choice, so imagine my delight in finding that these weren’t just interesting tales, but extremely compelling stories, offering glimpses into some of the blank spaces in the history of Judge Dredd, and, like many a Dredd tale, also commenting on current social and political problems.

In fact, as I was reading the three novellas in this collection in preparation for chairing and event with the authors at the Edinburgh-based Cymera festival of science fiction, fantasy and horror literature (like many such events the festival was cancelled, but the amazing team then re-created it online; it has been recorded so hopefully the 2000 AD panel will be on YouTube in the near future), I found that in a disturbing coincidence of timing that some of the elements from all three stories, not least Elliot-Coleman’s “Patriots” tale, were terrifyingly close to the dreadful events we have seen unfolding in the US. So much so that several times as I sat reading them, I had to pause. I’ve been reading Dredd since the beginning, I’ve seen some excellent socio-political commentary woven into the series (not to mention its rich seam of dark satire), but this was something else…

For those not familiar with the series, Judges is inspired by the now-classic thirtieth anniversary Dredd: Origins by the Dreddfather, John Wagner and the much-missed Carlos Ezquerra, which saw flashbacks to the early days of the Judge system. With a number of decades to explore and huge blank spaces to fill in (while keeping true to over forty years of established Dredd history), the Judges series is going decade by decade, with a few tales from each, not exhaustively covering the pre-history year by year, more like spotlights on certain moments, and will continue on taking us closer to the time we know from the original years of Dredd.

Opening the collection is Mike Carroll’s “Golgotha”. This is long before Dredd and the Mega Cities, this is still America, albeit an America that is crumbling and failing socially, economically and politically, it’s only a short few years from our own time, making it very familiar to us, and it is fascinating to see Judges not in Mega City One, but patrolling Main Street in small US towns. Under Fargo the Judge system is expanding, slowly replacing the traditional police force and legal system, but with both having to work in parallel for some time. For those who remember the earliest Dredds this will bring back memories – those stories showed police working under the Judges in the Big Meg, something that slowly faded away from the comics.

Here we see Quon, the very last officer to graduate from an American police academy. Quon has always wanted to be a police officer, and is a straight arrow, very by the books, disgusted at laziness and corruption in the Force, but also filled with loathing for the the incoming Judge system – she believes in due process, civilian policing, a court of peers at trial, not in giving any one person the powers of instant justice and sentencing. Ironically her attitude and unbending adherence to the law make her prime material to train as a Judge, but she isn’t interested, while those same qualities mean her fellow officers, also bitter at the new Judges, despise her too, but she’s going to have to find a way to work with them for an investigation.

In Psyche, McHugh expands on her previous Judge Anderson work for the Dredd Megazine, taking us back to the very first use of Psi-Judges – here called “Psykes”, a covert team of Judges who have been studied and trained with civilian scientists who have long believed there were those with psionic abilities and that if there were, some would be dangerous and therefore the new Judge system would need its own equivalent to protect citizens from harmful Psis. Fargo agrees and sanctions more training and the formation of a black-ops unit, off the books, something nobody will know about if it doesn’t work.

It’s a cleverly-structured two-timeline narrative: in what would be present-day Mega City One (i.e. the same era we see in the weekly comics) Psi-Judge Pam Reed, a pre-cog, literally unearths part of history, exploring old buildings below a collapsed City-block, which happens to contain the original offices of the Psyke research team. Reed’s abilities in this location somehow allow her mind to astrally travel to that era and communicate with Judge Wise, one of the first Psis. As well as being a gripping story (with inferences that if Reed in the future cannot help the nascent Psis in her past, her future may never happen), McHugh also deftly explores the outsider nature of the Psis. Even in Dredd’s time most other Judges aren’t keen on Psi-Division, seeing them as odd, peculiar – Judges are trained to stand apart, but Psis can’t help but feel what citizens feel and this makes them more empathic and human. This outsider status goes doubly here in the early days when most don’t even believe such powers are real, and there is an interesting question mark over freedom of choice: as with the Psi Corps in Babylon 5, there’s little freedom for a Psi, if they are detected they are expected to serve and that’s it.

In “Patriots”, Elliot-Coleman has Judges on the mean streets of New York. This is a New York that has more in common with the dirty, crime-ridden NYC of the 1970s than today, and draws on many influences from that era, from films like The French Connection, Taxi Driver et al, while also rather satisfyingly mixing in elements of The Manchurian Candidate and Carpenter’s classic cops-under-siege Assault on Precinct 13. Right-wing patriots, who see themselves as heirs to the original American Revolution are trying to defy the advance of the Judges system, seeing it as a surrender of liberty and democracy. And they may well be right, but the problem is like many fanatics they are willing to kill many innocents – for their own good, of course – for their cause, and while they call out the banner of liberty and freedom they also won’t accept anyone differing from their opinion.

Judges, even early era Judges like these, are just as stubborn and determined in the application of the Law, of course, so we have two unyielding paradigms clashing violently for the soul of the nation. And in “Patriots”, and indeed in “Psyche” and “Golgotha” too, we see both sides of the pro and anti-Judge argument and resistance, and the thing is, both sides have some moral validity, this is a moral quagmire, not a straight black and white morality, and that makes it far more thought-provoking for the reader (and also more dramatically satisfying too). For all their violent methods and their disregard for the safety of their fellow citizens (the ones they proclaim they are protecting), they do have some grounds, the Judges do mark a huge erosion of traditional liberty and freedom. But the Judges have been created because the existing system has failed – they have been trained to be impartial upholders of law to all, unlike courts and politicians, they will not discriminate on grounds of the colour of someone’s skin, their social class, wealth. The crumbling system badly needs them to try and stabilise it. But at what cost?

Each of these stories has been published as a novella on its own, but I read it in the Judges Volume 2 Omnibus, which collects all three, and I’d recommend tackling them that way if you can. While all three shine a light on a different aspect of pre-Dredd history and are their own beasts, they also, like the various comics series over the years, work very well together, feeling separate but also connected, part of a greater whole. For the long-term Dreddheads this is a compelling must-read, a very welcome exploration of how the Judge system first began in America and how it starts, decade by decade to show how it leads up to the post Atomic War world of the Mega Cities we know in 2000 AD, all layered with some complex morality, multiple mirrors to our own very troubled times and a nicely diverse cast of characters. I look forward to more in the series.

This review was originally penned for Down The Tubes.

Reviews: Bluebard, a Feminist Fairytale

Bluebeard: a Feminist Fairy Tale,
Metaphrog,
Papercutz

I’ve adored Glasgow duo Metaphrog’s work for many years now – their wonderful Louis graphic novels always entranced me, with a subtle mixture of the child-like innocence and deeper layers of darkness behind that bright world, that rewarded multiple readings. I think that aspect of their storytelling has paid off handsomely in their output for Papercutz, with the previous books The Red Shoes and The Little Mermaid. Both presented magical worlds, enchantment and wonder, complimented by Sandra’s beautiful artwork (please, do go and take a look at the Little Mermaid in particular, the art is gorgeous), but the storytelling never shies away from the menace and darkness that lurk within those tales. Our collective imagination of fairy tales have always carried these dark elements – they were, after all, as much cautionary tales as they were entertainment, and Metaphrog’s approach has been perfectly suited to this.

I’m sure most readers will be familiar with the idea of Bluebeard – the mysterious, intimidating wealthy lord of a large castle, who plucks a young, innocent maiden from her simple but loving family life in the poor village to be his wife. Or at least his latest wife – the castle walls are adorned with portraits of a number of women, previous wives. What happened to all of them? Even for adults, familiar with the story, there is still a compulsion to see it retold, to experience that combination of wonder and chills (for the wondrous often comes with a dark shadow, to dare wonder is often to also court terror), something rewarding about revisiting it again – and that is one of the hallmarks of many fairy tales, that they are infinitely re-readable, adaptable, giving new meanings at different stages in our lives and experiences.

For the younger readers, who this is principally aimed at, it may, of course, all be new, their first time entering Bluebeard’s richly adorned yet somehow cold and loveless castle. While the main story beats of Bluebeard are all present, Metaphrog take care to introduce the main characters in the village: after a glimpse of the castle, and the deep, dark, menacing forest around it, we see the village, in much warmer, happy tones. There are lovely wee touches throughout – mended sections on house roofs, like patches on an old piece of clothing, hinting at a people who do not have much, but are able to get by, make do and mend, and are content with it because as long as they have those little homes and their families, what else do they really need?

Young Eve, the girl who Bluebeard will later claim as his latest wife, receives the most attention here, and I was pleased to see her richly described, and her family and friends around her. In some versions the bride to be is a just a two-dimensional character there to serve the plot, but that would never do for Metaphrog, they are too skilled in storytelling, and besides, there is, as the subtitle “a feminist fairy tale” suggests, a quite deliberate move here to ensure that the female characters are fully developed, not just pawns in a story to be moved around by the men in their life, and it is all the richer for it. This also has the bonus of making the readers much more invested in the characters and their fates, with the relationship between young Eve and her best friend from childhood, Tom, especially touching, a lovely, warm, pure love.

The artwork, as you would expect from previous books, is utterly gorgeous, colour schemes moving from warm tones for the village and family life, to darker hues and menacing shadows for the dark forest around the castle. There are many beautiful details and touches – among the portraits of the former wives, for instance, one that bears a remarkable resemblance to another strong woman, Frida Kahlo – and influences to be spotted and admired, with the use of silhouettes and shadows in some panels putting me in mind of the astonishing work of early film animation wizard Lotte Reiniger., while some of the art, especially characters and their expressions, eyes and so on, hint at an anime influence.

While the younger readers may not get those references, they will still react to the styles, the colours and framing, while it offers these lovely gifts to the adults reading with their children – and this really is a book to share with your children, and then explore some of the themes and the influences (a perfect excuse to introduce them to Reiniger’s animation, much of it available on YouTube, a good diversion during Lockdown! Who knows, it may even inspire some creative art in the young readers). I’ve already paged my way through this twice and I think like previous Metaphrog books it is going to reward repeat readings as there is so much detail and more references to get in Sandra’s artwork, while the strong female characters are inspiring, especially for young girl readers, but it’s good for the young boys to be exposed to strong girl characters too!

Metaphrog’s Bluebeard is pretty much a perfect balance of the wonder and the scarier elements a good fairy story requires, while taking time to enrich the characters and present us with strong female protagonists gives a welcome contemporary aspect while retaining the story’s ages-old nature at its core,and the cautionary, coming of age journey into adulthood elements, while the artwork has pages that adult and younger readers alike will happily lose themselves in. Ideal for younger readers, even better for adults to read with them (and why wouldn’t you? Storytelling with children is one of the nicest shared experiences we can have). Hugely recommended reading for young and the older (but still young in reading heart) alike.

Bluebeard by Metaphrog is published on May 5th – check their Twitter feed where, since they can’t celebrate the book launch in a bookstore or school because of the Lockdown, they are going to have a virtual celebration for the launch day.

Reviews: The Extraordinary Adventures Of Adele Blanc-Sec

Extraordinary Adventures Of Adele Blanc-Sec Volume 1,
Jacques Tardi,
Fantagraphics

And another Jacques Tardi piece I wrote for the now-defunct Forbidden Planet Blog, but somehow forgot to cross-post here on the Woolamaloo (in my defence I spent many of my own evenings writing or editing articles for the FP blog, unpaid, and didn’t have time or will to then do so on my own blog). So here below is my 2014 review of The Extraordinary Adventures Of Adele Blanc-Sec:

French creator Jacques Tardi has to be one of the most respected writer-artists working in comics, European or world-wide, and he is also a huge favourite of ours. Like Bryan Talbot he seems to have an uncanny ability to move through different mediums, adapting his art and style to suit all sorts of stories, from his early work back in the 60s in the famed Pilote comics magazine through adapting hard-boiled urban crime novels and his anger-fuelled, horror-filled World War One strips, but he has also created one of the great heroines of European comics, Adele Blanc-Sec, a writer by day, adventurer by night, Set in early 20th Century Paris, just a few years before the Great War, Adele stands out in an era when women were expected to ‘know their place’ in society, being a single woman of means, more intelligent and observant than the men around her and certainly far more adventurous.

Like Tintin she is an intrepid investigator of mysteries, and there is also something of the classic Scooby-Doo here as well in that there is often a fantasy or supernatural element (or at least seemingly supernatural – or is it??) to her stories. Fantagraphics have been translating and publishing Tardi’s works in English, to much acclaim, a series largely driven by Fantagraphics’ own Kim Thompson, not only a champion of quality comics work but also a multi-lingual editor, translating these works himself until his recent death (a major blow for both the publisher and the comics community in general). This first volume has been out of print for a while, but with a fresh print run on the way it seemed like a good time to turn our Classic Comic spotlight on to it.

This handsome hardback, full-colour volume actually boasts two stories in the one volume, collecting two of the original Adele Blanc-Sec albums, Pterror Over Paris and The Eiffel Tower Demon. Pterror introduces Adele to us and also the bizarre stories she can be caught up in, in this case a madcap science fiction tale worthy of a Victorian writer like Verne or even Conan-Doyle (in his Professor Challenger mode), in which a peculiar experiment, part palaeontology, part medical science, part mystical-mental ESP powers (a not uncommon theme for the era) combine in an attempt to resurrect a Pterodactyl from its millions of years of fossilised slumber. Those same mental powers which brought this extinct flying dinosaur back from pre-history are meant to guide it, but the animal instincts are too powerful and freed from it’s tomb the creature soars into the night-time skies of 1911 Paris and hunts on the wing, as it was meant to, bring terror – or ‘Pterror’ as the title puns – to the City of Lights, and drawing in both Adele and the bumbling police inspector Caponi (who became a regular character in the series).

What follows is a spectacular piece of high adventure as the incompetent police, scientists from the Museum of Natural History (where the Pterodactyl emerged from) and Adele all follow the trail of death and destruction left in the dinosaur’s wake, each with their own ideas and agenda. As well as superb Boy’s Own style adventure moments (the beast swoops down and rescues a man falsely accused of murder right off the guillotine scaffold) there are nice touches of humour (government minister calls head of police to complain who in turn calls his senior officer who calls his district chief who calls the unfortunate Caponi in a classic bit of bureaucratic pass-the-parcel). The second story offers a classic supernatural cult conspiracy tale, an elite of the city’s movers and shakers, hungry for ever more power (as those types often are), seek to bring back into our world the demon Pazuzu. But who is truly controlling this cult, and is the demonic monster we glimpse (even entering Adele’s nightmares) real or a front, just a control method to garner more power for some?

And the art throughout is glorious – Tardi creates and portrays a strong female lead character but doesn’t sexualise her – Adele is written and drawn as what she is, a strong, independent woman who knows her own mind and she isn’t waiting for some hero to come along, nor does she pine for romance. But away from the characters, there is also pure joy to be had in his depictions of early 20th century Paris. The scenes in the historic heart of this beautiful city are especially wonderful, because many of those locations are largely unchanged today. An opening scene in a wonderfully detailed Natural History Museum in the Jardin des Plantes depicts its iconic great hall while a number of scenes on famous Parisian streets will be instantly recognisable if you have ever walked them, or even if you have only viewed them in photos and films, this realistic detailing giving the grounding that allows the more fantastical elements to take flight (in the case of our winged dinosaur, literally).

In the second tale we go from the famous Parisian underground tunnels to the heights of the majestic Eiffel Tower on a snowy, winter night, and it is all so beautifully executed you find yourself going back through the book’s pages after finishing the story, just so you can stop and admire many of the scenes, especially those beautiful cityscapes. Stunning art from a master of the medium, a strong female lead, fantastical adventures which both pay homage to those Victorian/Edwardian lost world science fiction tales while at the same time also clearly poking a little fun at how ludicrous the concept is to modern readers (but in a loving way), demonic being and ancient dinosaurs running amok in the Paris of a century ago, scenes filled with period detail, what’s not to love here?

Reviews: Run Like Crazy Run Like Hell

Run Like Crazy Run Like Hell Hardcover,
Jean-Patrick Manchette, Jacques Tardi,
Fantagraphics

This is actually an older review which I wrote for the (sadly deceased) Forbidden Planet Blog back in 2015. Normally I would cross-post my reviews here on my personal blog too, but for some reason I hadn’t done so with this one, and it was while penning an article on the great French creator Jacques Tardi for Tripwire’s 100 Graphic Novels You Should Read feature that I realised I had never posted this one on the Woolamaloo, so here it is below:

Jean-Patrick Manchette was one of France’s powerhouse crime fiction writers of the 1970s and 80s, often hailed as one of the writers who put the pep back into the genre in France, and the great Jacques Tardi (surely one of the finest bande dessinee creators in the Franco-Belgian scene today) has turned to adapting his work into comics form before, to popular and critical acclaim. Fantagraphics has been publishing Tardi’s work in English for several years now, everything from his Adele Blanc-Sec adventure fantasies to his apocalyptic World War One works and the hardboiled crime tales. The loss of Kim Thompson at only 56 a couple of years ago has delayed the series somewhat – Thompson wasn’t just a major part of Fantagraphics and a champion of translating and publishing European cartoonists into English, he was also behind much of the translation work himself, and losing him so suddenly has naturally had an effect on their publishing. So it’s doubly good to see Run Like Crazy, Run Like Hell finally coming out from Fantagraphics as it marks the resumption of their Tardi publications, which I imagine Thompson would have approved of.

There’s something about the 1970s and early 80s that seems especially well suited to crime fiction – the prose novels of the period, the television and the films, on both sides of the Atlantic, all seem to ooze a certain flair and style that adds hugely to their enjoyment, and Manchette was a part of that. In Run Like Crazy we follow Julie Ballanger, a troubled young woman who has spent the last five years – voluntarily – in a mental care facility. Enter Michael Hartog, a one-time struggling artist and architect who came into astonishing wealth when his brother and his wife were killed in an accident, leaving him with their fortune and company, and also Peter, his nephew. Hartog has built a reputation over the years since his inheritance for recruiting employees from the ranks of the dispossessed, the disabled, injured veterans and the like, and it seems now he is extending this to Julie, offering her a home and a job looking after young Peter after his old nanny left. She’s treated well, Hartog picking her up himself in his chauffer-driven limo to take her from the care home to his own large dwelling, her own place to stay, even new clothes in the wardrobe for her when she arrives. Is his philanthropy for real, or is there a hidden motivation behind his employment schemes?

Our other major character here is Thompson, a hitman for hire with a fearsome reputation in the French underworld. We meet him in the opening pages waiting in a dark apartment to plunge his knife brutally into the heart of a young man, a homosexual, although it’s not really clear if Thompson cares about his sexual orientation or if it is simply another contract to him, although the accompanying text hints at some homophobia (or it could just be an example of the period in which the tale was originally written). But Thompson, for all his brutal, cold efficiency and reputation, is actually a man struggling with his profession. While he doesn’t seem to suffer any deep questioning of the morality of how he makes a living, clearly something deep inside his psyche is troubled – he finds himself with stomach pains and cramps leading up to a job. He can’t even eat. And yet after the deed is done he feasts with gusto before driving off in his classic old Rover to meet a new client. And a new job which involves kidnapping Peter and Julie.

Oh, and framing poor Julie for it – hey, young woman with troubled past just out of psychiatric care? If well staged then why wouldn’t the cops believe she’s lost control once back in the outside world and gone crazy? A perfect crime, perhaps?

Except no crime ever is perfect and there are always unexpected kinks in any cunning plan – especially when the hard-headed Julie turns out to be capable of seemingly playing along then dealing out some improvised violence of her own back against the gangsters. This leads to a classic series of chases and cat-and-mouse manoeuvres as Thompson, increasingly and clearly beginning to manifest physical illness from the mental stress of his occupation, is determined to get Julie and her troublesome young charge and fulfil his contract like a true professional – nanny and child dealt with, blame pinned on her, as per the plan. A plan rapidly going belly-up and requiring swift improvisation by Thompson, wrong-footed by underestimating Julie. And then there’s the question of why anyone wants to kidnap Peter in the first place and why they would want to try and frame Julie for doing it.

As you’d expect from a crime tale of this era there’s some hard-edged dialogue, swearing, threats and backed up by some sudden bursts of hideous violence (one scene in the countryside involving a shotgun and a foot recalls an amped-up version of an infamous scene from Straw Dogs), and it is all carried out with great style and panache by Tardi in his dark-inked black and white art, some of his close up character scenes and their expressions being particularly superb. The whole work drips with style and that hardboiled 70s crime feeling – you could easily imagine this with a suitable soundtrack as a storyboard for a Tarantino movie. It cracks along at a great pace, helped by the regular use of smaller, more urgent-seeming panels, and manages to make you root for Julie (and Peter) despite not exactly painting them in the nicest light either – victims of this attempted crime, perhaps, but Julie’s violent temper and Peter’s spoiled tantrums mean neither is an unblemished character.

Tardi remains, for me, one of our finest comics creators, able to work in all sorts of genres, adapting his style and art accordingly (in this respect he reminds me of Bryan Talbot), and a selection of his body of work belongs on the shelves of any serious lover of the comics medium. Returning to Tarantino for a moment, I recall one review of Reservoir Dogs referring to it as an “awesome, pumping powerhouse of a film” and that feels appropriate for Tardi’s gripping take on Manchette’s crime fiction. Read it then maybe go enjoy a good crime movie too – maybe the French film Mesrine would be a good partner to a read of Run Like Crazy. A fabulous, hard, tough crime fiction ride, perfectly depicted by Tardi.

Reviews: The Book of Koli

The Book of Koli,
M.R. Carey,
Orbit Books,
Paperback, 400 pages,
Published April 2020

(cover design by Lisa Marie Pompilio with photography by Blake Morrow)

A new book by Mike Carey is always something to look forward to: here we’re even more fortunate as The Book of Koli is the first in a new trilogy sequence by Carey, with The Trials of Koli following in September and The Fall of Koli in March 2021. Koli is a teenage boy, in the small, walled village of Mythen Rood (a nod to Mythago Wood, perhaps? And “rood”, a splinter of the True Cross, a play on the importance of trees and wood in this book?). In many ways this feels like a medieval-era village, but actually it is an unspecified point in the future, and the world is very different from today, in the land of “Ingland” or “Yewkay”.

The deep, dark woods beyond our settlements have disturbed human dreams and nightmares since the dawn of time; they litter our collective folk tales of old, they re-emerge in many modern horror films and books, danger always lurks in there for those who stray from the path. In Koli’s world, while there are dangerous beasts in the wilds (and dangerous rogue people who may be bandits or cannibals or both), it is the forests themselves which present the greatest danger.

Long before his time, the old stories tell of a civilisation that had such knowledge and power as to seem magical to Koli’s simpler, damaged era. But in their arrogance they over-used their knowledge and science, damaging the world around them. So they turned to those same devices and learning to repair the damage, genetically altering the flora and fauna, with catastrophic results. Now the trees are deadly – only certain kinds of true wood can be used (Koli comes from the Woodsmith family of wood-turners), any seeds that land in the village and aren’t clear can cause death and destruction, swallowed chocker seeds result in a horrendous death from within, wood cutters and hunters only venture out on dull, overcast days when the trees are less active, in a reversal of what would have been normal practise of utilising periods of fine weather.

The village is dominated by the Ramparts, the group who can use the remaining, scavenged tech from the fallen world. By a remarkable coincidence – or is it? – one family has become the only ones who ever seem to make the dormant tech “wake” (a coming of age ceremony sees each youngster try to wake a chosen device, those that do become Ramparts, but these days nobody save members of one family seem to be able to manage this). Koli is a teenage ball of longing – for a friend who now seems more interested in a young Rampart, for the ability to work the ancient tech and become a Rampart himself. He will come into knowledge via Ursula, a travelling physician. And knowledge can be dangerous without the wisdom to use it, even more dangerous when it contradicts the established system and privileged groups who do well from it, and it will put a reluctant Koli onto a very different path from that he expected.

The youngster coming of age, discovering new knowledge and awareness before they have the experience to know how to use it safely, finding companions on the way, is something of a staple in storytelling, as is any resulting voyage of discovery and trials on the journey. This is Mike Carey, however, he is well-versed in those classic tropes, and quite deliberately using them, then reshaping them to new ends in some quite delicious ways.

Koli’s world is richly described, from the village to the terrifying woods, with Carey only allowing us small fragments of the history that lead to this dystopian world where humanity has turned nature against itself, so the reader is much like Koli, finding out pieces along the way, and this immerses us into Koli’s world, piquing curiosity not just about what will befall Koli but how this world came to be as it is. As you may expect from Carey, this doesn’t shy away from some quite terrifying and horrific moments, and it populates its world with realistic characters (nobody here is entirely evil or heroic, they are just people with a mix of traits). There’s a strong ecological theme running through the book, and also eco-horror, which reminded me (in the best way) of some of Jeff VanderMeer’s work and the “revenge of nature” cycle of fantasy and horror common in the 1970s. A world turned upside down, once exploited by teeming masses of humans, now the humans are a small group living in fear of the world,.

It’s rich, intriguing, heady and often terrifying work that will draw you deeply into Koli’s world. I can’t wait for the next volume…

This review was originally penned for Scotland’s leading journal of Science Fiction, Shoreline of Infinity