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

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

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

Back then our lives were all about books.”

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

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

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

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

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

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this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Review: Kleist’s The Boxer

The Boxer,

Reinhard Kleist,

SelfMadeHero

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One day, I’ll tell you everything.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Reviews: art swallowed by the ice – Glacial Period

Glacial Period,

Nicolas De Crécy ,

NBM/Louvre Editions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

To End All Wars

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


(end papers by Bern Campbell)


(Between the Darkness by Patri Hanninen and Neil McClements)

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


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

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

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


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

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

When the nightmares leak out into the streets: Lauren Beukes’ Broken Monsters

Broken Monsters,
Lauren Beukes,
HarperCollins

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There’s a short version of this review which runs something along the lines of South African writer Lauren Beukes has been sent personally by the Dark Forces from the Infernal City to scar the mind’s inner eye with a scalpel of sharpened words. Although if Lauren is sent by demonic forces she’s very personable and has excellent taste in footwear. And besides, joking aside, from me saying a writer can scar your inner eye is a compliment. In Zoo City then more particularly with her last novel, the intensely brutal and powerful The Shining Girls (which made by 2013 best of the year list), she has displayed an uncanny knack for not just being able to conjure up images and scenes which stick in the reader’s mind long after finishing the book, they really get under your mental skin. In Broken Monsters she develops this skill to peel back the reader’s cognitive functions with a fine blade: the compelling main narrative flows over the cognitive components of the brain but the imagery leaks beneath the foundations of that logical faculty and seeps into the parts of our mind where imagination and it’s twin offspring Wonder and Terror live. This is a book which works as much on the logical strength of a powerful detective tale narrative but simultaneously works by engaging the darkest parts of our imagination; the combined effect is devastatingly powerful.

It seems pretty much everything in Broken Monsters is a struggle. The lead detective, Gabrielle Versado, has had to struggle against macho misconceptions about gender roles in the homicide department, as well as racial ones, while also struggling with a broken marriage and trying to be a single parent (her clever, determined but impulsive daughter Layla is also struggling, to come to terms with no longer being a happy family, with her mother often being dragged away by work pressures and the usual coming of age problems any teen in any city has). She and the entire department are in an eternal struggle, not just against crime in a city riddled with violent acts but with trying to bring order to a city that itself is struggling to hold together – Detroit. And then into this comes Clayton Broom, a man who has failed at relationships, at fatherhood, work and art, a man struggling to try and make sense of his life but lacking the ability to really understand and fit in. Until a car accident changes his perspective and he begins to start using his ‘art’ to reshape the world to how he thinks it should be. It’s not long after this that the first murder victim is found, his first attempt to bring his ‘message’ to the world and try and change it.

A body of a young boy.

Or, more accurately, half a body. The lower half is gone, replaced with those of a young deer, fused to the boy’s torso, then left posed to be found.

The scene is described in terms that really bring home the horror of this, not just of the deliberate, wanton taking of a life – a child’s life at that – but desecrating the corpse in this manner. Beukes captures the mindset of a group of big city detective battling to develop any possible clues into something they can work with, to take the monstrous but categorise it into areas of logical enquiry they can use, at emotional arms-length, to focus on the case and start working out why the killer did this, what it tells them, how they can use this to hunt him. Serial killer? Twisted trophy hunter fed up stalking animals, now turning to people? Is it race-driven? Sexual? Could it be some sort of ritualistic thing – a Satanic cult, Voodoo? You can almost hear the mental clicking of gears as the detectives take a situation that should never happen and try to apply their tried and tested methods on it to make sense of something that may be beyond sense, to categorise it, analyse it and follow those clues. But what if it is something else altogether?

What starts as a brutally compelling police-procedural story soon starts to morph – it will surprise no-one who has read Beuekes’ other books to learn that no single genre label can contain her work, and this is as much a horror story and a dark fantasy novel (reminding me sometimes of the dark horrors the likes of Tim Lebbon can conjure) as it is a detective story. When we see some of the events from Clayton’s increasingly disintegrating point of view we see that to him his horrific murders and bodily mutilations and alterations are not killing – they start as a sort of art, but not just art, this is primal art, art as a form of magic, as it was in the earliest days, when painting a deer on a cave wall was not just art but sympathetic magic, trying to capture something of the essence of that creature being depicted and to use it for understanding, shaping the world and power. The writing is deliciously dark – these are nightmares leaking out of the darkest places of a twisted, delusional mind of a man turned murderer, but as we are drawn deep into this heart of darkness it becomes increasingly difficult to tell nightmare fantasy from hard, cold reality in the semi ruined streets of Detroit. How much of this is the warped imagination of a sociopathic killer trying to somehow justify what he is doing to himself? And could it be real? What if others start to feel the awful, dark presence of what he is doing and how it can change the world around him and his ‘art’? It this shared delusions? Is there something else here? Psychotropics? Or something far worse, darker and unnatural…


(Lauren Beukes with artist Inaki Miranda at the 2013 Edinburgh International Book Festival, pic from my own Flickr)

I won’t delve any deeper into that, save to say Beukes manages to both have her cake and eat it in the very satisfying manner in which she explores the escalating situation and offers up different aspects for the readers to draw conclusions (and doubtless to argue with one another over aspects of what was what). Running through this main narrative thrust there are other elements – a sexual predator her daughter and friend bait with the aim of publicly shaming, her daughter’s friend in her seemingly perfect family but nursing her own dark secret, the burned out, failed journalist Jonno, come to the decaying city of Detroit and trying to reinvent himself as a new media guru, feeding off the increasingly bizarre murders. The scenes where Beuekes depicts various forms of new media and social media circling these events, exploiting them (and traditional media trying to feed off it like carrion) are bitingly realistic – the instant rush to judgement on comments online posted by people who don’t know what really happened but straight away have to shout loudly about their opinions (often in banal, badly spelled ways, frequently in vile, violent form) are sadly far too realistic. But those elements aren’t just added for a bit of detail or verisimilitude, oh no, Beukes is too good for that, she also starts weaving these new and social medias into the story in an unusual form that contributes to the main narrative, and how those changing media and technologies alter our view of the world around us, and our morality.

Even for an old hand at horror like me (happily raised in the pre-legislation era of the Video Nasties where you could watch anything) this is a deeply disturbing read. Somehow Beukes manages to craft not just the awful horrors of the brutal world big city detectives have to deal with on a daily basis (and she depicts the toll it takes on them) but then make this worse with an almost Lovecraftian atmosphere of some unspeakable, un-knowable, un-nameable horror that is leaking out from realms that should not exist except in our collective nightmares, bleeding into the real world on an artist’s palette that uses blood and body parts instead of oils and brushes. And it is utterly, utterly compelling while making parts of your brain twitch, you simply can’t pull away from it.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

On the BBC

To End All Wars, the World War One comics anthology I have a short story in, has a nice, big feature on the BBC site today, and yours truly’s contribution, alongside that of Kate Charlesworth who created the wonderful art for the story, is about two thirds of the way down the article. The book itself, edited by Jonathan Clode and and Stuart Clark (who cartoons under the pen-name Brick), is published by Soaring Penguin Press towards the end of this month (so I’ll have my copy in time to ‘casually’ tuck under my arm as I stroll around the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August, where I am chairing a couple of author talks again this year). Two pounds from the sale of each book will got to benefit Médecins Sans Frontières medical charity, so I hope folks will give it some support.

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The stories take in a large number of creators from different countries, with many tales inspired by real events or people and telling stories from all sides of that awful conflict which, even in this centenary year of it’s commencement, still echoes down to us, even after the last of the elderly veterans from that war have faded into history and gone to their rest, and takes in the war in the trenches, the seas, the mountains and the air, the humans and the animals who were used in the war effort, the front line and the home. I strongly suspect Michael Gove will not appreciate the sentiment of most of the stories and also suspect that most of my fellow contributors would be quite happy that he would hate it (I certainly would be). My own story is inspired by one of my photographs, of a war memorial in a cemetery just a few moments walk from my flat, a father and son war grave, the father killed in the Great War, his son in the fall of France in 1940. You can also read a special guest post by the editors talking about how the book came together over on the Forbidden Planet blog.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Reviews: Barricade – superb science fiction debut from Jon Wallace

Barricade,
Jon Wallace,
Gollancz

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Meet Kenstibec, a ‘taxi driver’ in a ruined, near-future Britain. But in this post-apocalyptic world taxi driving doesn’t quite mean what it does to us today. This ruined, irradiated, polluted land is now split into rural and urban, both utterly wrecked, the rural areas held by the Reals (natural human survivors) while the pulverised cities are in the hands of the Ficials, at first glance human-looking, but a closer inspection shows them to be that bit taller, better built, more perfect. They are engineered beings, a sort of biological version of an android, somewhat like the Replicants of Blade Runner, and like those Replicants usually stronger and more capable than mere humans, originally designed to serve, with different models optimised for various specific purposes. Kenstibec started as a Power 9 engineering model, very strong and optimised for engineering and construction – not so much call for that after all the wars and destruction of course, so now he has adapted to his taxi role, one of the few who are skilled enough to take a passenger across the Real-infested wasteland that had been the British countryside from one Ficial urban stronghold – or Barricade – to another.

Fortunately as well as being strong, Ficials are also built to last, unlike mere humans, loaded with clever nano technology which can repair even devastating injuries (early on we encounter Kentsibec in a flashback to before the wars, hanging upside down in the recovery shed, missing a limb after a horrendous construction accident, but unlike us, he can heal from such an injury – it takes a lot to really terminate a Ficial, and if course this means they are very difficult for humans to stop, let alone kill). Currently resident in a ruined Edinburgh, Kentsibec gets the call for a driving run and makes his way to the underground garage where his ride is being prepared for a fare he has to take, a former pleasure model (and one time media celeb) now working on a Ficial news channel that broadcasts out of an underground chamber near one of the city’s old breweries. He is to take this female Ficial, who calls herself Starvie, to Control in the London barricade, a hell of a run, extremely difficult to do – even just getting out of town is hard enough let alone traversing the distance from the Scottish to English former capitals with hundreds of miles of diseased, violent, hate-filled Real tribes trying to kill them all the way.

There’s much more going on here than a simple Mad Max style road warrior fight across a ruined landscape though (fun though that is when done well – and it is done very, very well here). Wallace presents the journey but intersperses it with more flashbacks to the pre-war world, a world where political and economic struggles between nations have pushed humanity beyond the planet’s ability to cope (not exactly far fetched idea, sadly). Our sceptred isle is one of the few places where life is still relatively good, and, in a UKIP supporter’s worst nightmare, there are legions of political, climate and economic refugees desperately working across the Continent trying to aim for Britain (imagine the Daily Mail headlines). And into this come the Ficials, invented as servants and workers it isn’t long before they are also adapted for combat, with soldier models (complete with eerily glowing green eyes that let them see in low light), sold to the human population as the only resource we have to help us manage in this collapsing world and to keep out the ravening foreign hordes desperate to enter Britain. In true Frankenstein tradition though, humanity makes its own monster, which turns on it…

There are other strands coming together here too between the troubled journey south from Edinburgh and the flashbacks showing slowly how the world came to be the horrible mess it now is – for example, why does Control want a former pleasure model turned news presenter transported such a distance? And more to the point why is it most Ficials don’t hear the commands of Control these days? While some things are exactly as they seem other elements of this mission may be other than Kentsibec has been lead to believe, but I’m not going to risk any spoilers by going into the plot in any more detail, because Wallace has constructed a powerful, fast-paced, gripping, sci-fi actioneer and I don’t want to ruin it for you.

The advance copy I had contained an introduction from Gollancz associate publisher Simon Spanton, saying one of the reasons he was so keen to take on this book (Wallace has a solid track record with short stories in excellent SF journals like the venerable Interzone – and I consider being published in Interzone to always be a high recommendation for a writer’s ability – but I think this is his debut novel) was because it reminded him of Richard Morgan’s powerhouse debut, Altered Carbon. Since Richard is fantastic writer and his Altered Carbon was one of the best débuts I had read (it was also the first novel my long-running Edinburgh SF Book Group read, a decade ago), that got my attention – of course that sort of comparison could be a double-edged sword. Yes, it’s terrific for a new novelist to get such a comparison, but on the other hand it also places a fairly hefty expectation on you! Back in the days of The Alien Online (some of you may recall that early SF and comics site) we really raved about Altered Carbon, so when I say I think the comparisons are more than fair, that’s a bloody big compliment. Wallace creates a very believable post-war society (and without resorting to some padded-out 500 page brick – this is a slim but muscular read) and a compelling, page-turner of a narrative, and steeps it with sufficient details and characters to make it all very believable and real to the reader, but not overloading it with too much detail that would slow down the well-paced narrative.

And this is a wretched future, not just the remains of the Reals fighting the Ficials for survival, but the ruined landscape, destroyed between chemical pollution, fighting and a nuclear exchange (it is hinted with Bible-thumping remnants of what had been the USA, who see creating Ficials as creating soulless demons). Yes, there are some nods to Richard Morgan’s Takeshi Kovacs, but while the tweaked abilities and healing powers of the Ficials may remind the reader of Kovacs’ custom-made ‘sleeves’ (engineered bodies to download into), Kovacs was still human and the Ficials really are not, despite being built in our image. No real emotions, no particular drive other than to do what they were optimised for, this leads to what a human would see as a dreadfully cruel amorality, although the Ficials don’t see what the fuss is about. And the contrast between them, with their self-repairing bodies, and the miserable human Reals, half-starved, ridden with diseases in a world where even the air and water is toxic and damaging (unless you are a hardy Ficial) is quite disturbing, as disturbing as the contrast between one of us and a desperate refugee in Africa. Just as JF Sebastien observed of Roy and Pris in Blade Runner, they’re so perfect, and the Ficials seems inhumanly perfect, especially in this wrecked world. Blade Runner and Altered Carbon are obvious influences here, but Wallace draws on other elements, from other science fiction (the toxic environment and engineering beings reminds me of 2000 AD’s classic Rogue Trooper, for example) but also from real world concerns – mass immigration of economic and environmental refugees, an environment and resources being pushed beyond what the planet can handle by short-sighted humans, even the ruined future draws on parts of recent events such as conflicts that include children as soldiers, all adding to the grim, hard-edged atmosphere of Barricade, he even manages to slip in references to our pop cultural obsession with celebrities.

Perhaps his greatest trick here is that the Ficials like Kentsibec, amoral, inhuman beings who ‘cull’ humans on sight, man, woman or child, without a twinge of moral pain or guilt (human traits they care little for, along with compassion or love or nostalgia), still come across as more likeable than most of the wretched humans we meet here, both in the pre and post-war segments, which is a tribute to how well he crafts his characters, I think. A superb, powerful, perfectly-paced debut that I found myself galloping through – clearly a writer we should be keeping an eye on. Hugely recommended. You can follow Jon on Twitter and there’s another Twitter for Kenstibec here, and you can get a taster with a short extract to read online here.

this was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

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

EC: Zero Hour and Other Stories by Jack Kamen,

Al Feldstein, William Gaines, Ray Bradbury, Jack Kamen

Fantagraphics

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

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

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

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

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

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

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

Sex Criminals Volume 1
Matt Fraction, Chip Zdarsky
Image

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It felt so amazing that…

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

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

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

Usually fall asleep, Suzanne.”

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

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

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

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

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

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Jeff Brown’s A Matter Of Life

A Matter of Life,

Jeffrey Brown,

Top Shelf

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

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

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

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

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

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

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Sally Heathcote, Suffragette

Sally Heathcote, Suffragette

Mary Talbot, Bryan Talbot, Kate Charlesworth

Jonathan Cape

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

Manchester is the moral conscience of England.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog