It Don’t Come Easy…

It Don’t Come Easy,

Philippe Dupuy, Charles Berberian,

Drawn & Quarterly

I’ve loved the Angouleme-winning Dupuy and Berberian’s work for many years – I’ve even struggled through some of it in the original French (no mean feat given how rusty my French skills are) – and I’ve grown very, very fond of Monsieur Jean over those years, not to mention the ensemble cast which has grown around Jean. In fact they’ve been around so long, and growing older (not necessarily wiser!) as the years passed, that they’ve become like old friends. You know, the sort of friends you have known forever, right back to when your eyes were clear and wrinkles were something you couldn’t imagine ever having. The sort you used to be around every day and couldn’t imagine it would ever be any other way.

Then one day you realise that Real Life has gotten in the way – you are all older, you’re still friends, still part of each other’s lives, but you see each other less frequently as work, relationships, family and more build up, or you find yourselves living in different cities. Revisiting the cast in this new D&Q collection, which collects fourth through to seventh of the Monsieur Jean series, feels a lot like that, and as the years rolled past for Jean, Felix, Cathy and the rest, so they did for the readers, and I think that’s part of what is so endearing about this series. There’a a lot here that most of us can empathise with; even if it doesn’t mirror our own lives exactly, we’ve all been through similar moments, and that makes it the stories all the richer and more emotionally satisfying.

Doing the best you can. Maybe that’s the trick. I try. Sometimes I even feel like it all makes sense. Everything just falls into place. Every breath I take, every thought: it’s all clear. Clear in a way you can’t put into words. It’s a fleeting sensation. It disappears the second I try to explain it. But when it’s there I know… Everything I do...”

We’ve seen Jean go from struggling writer to published success and acclaim (and then the treadmill of what do I write next? Will it be as good? Problems which plague every creator as much after success as the problems they had in trying to be published in the first place), a young man, single, playing the dating game, enjoying life, dealing with the highs and lows. And now here he is – Jean is in his forties, he has a baby girl (Julie), and he and Cathy are struggling with their relationship. Or more accurately Jean has little wobblers – little nervous moments, is this the life he wanted, is it too late to change, if he could, would he? Cathy, meantime, mid 30s and thinking she can’t wait forever for a man who can’t commit fully.

And meantime the old crowd are still there, notably disreputable best chum Felix, with his adopted young son. And Felix is still a dreamer, floating through life, seemingly not a care in the world, free-spirited, not bothered about settling down into his own place, solid job or any of that stuff. All of which seemed quirky and charming when younger, but as he gets older – and is responsible for a child – seems more like being selfish. And yet, despite frequently rubbing Jean up the wrong way, he is still his best friend, and you know he’s always going to forgive him after being angry with him.

That said, even Felix can surprise you – he seems his old, laid-back self, floating through problems (even a social services visit about his parenting skills gets treated lightly by him, as always). And yet Felix cares about the boy, not even his biologically, but the child of a former girlfriend who didn’t want him, and he’s taken responsibility (well, relatively, this is Felix, a man who can forget to pick the boy up from school, but that’s okay, Jean will do it, right?) for all these years. And when a family event offers him a huge opportunity, but one that comes with a horrible revelation, dear old Felix will show a strong side he’s never shown before, even if it costs him dear (although this may be a closing one door but seeing another, unexpected one open situation).

We travel from Paris to the countryside to New York as work for Cathy and Jean moves them, and so does their own relationship, both trying to figure out what they want in terms of career and family life, and realising, as we all do sooner or later, that you don’t get everything you want, that you have to compromise with the important people in your life, with their needs and desires as well as your own, if you’re going to make it work. And that creates tension and problems, and sometimes it leaves you unsatisfied… And other times it makes you feel like everything is perfect and you wouldn’t have it any other way, and it is all worth it.

In between these ups and downs we get treated to those flights of fantasy that have been a bit of a hallmark of the series; Jean’s imagination runs riot around a story involving an antique picture, bleeding into his own life and worries, his formidable concierge takes on monstrous forms in his dreams, or he has weird visions about Cathy, pregnancy and fatherhood (drawn in a totally different style to the usual version both Dupuy and Berberian create for the series). We revisit favourite old spots, like the bridge over the Canal Saint Martin, but also new places, like a stay in New York (a good excuse for our writer, Jean, to visit literary NYC landmarks like The Strand). People stay the same but also change at the same time, the essence of life.

The Jean books have always put me in mind of Woody Allen movies, circa mid to late 70s, still laced with humour but more dramatic and emotional than the earlier outright comedies, not quite as dry as the later ones, with dashes of the soap opera that is life and the Absurd and flights of fancy, both narratively and sometimes artistically. There’s a real sense of growth (painful, sometimes two steps forward, one step back variety, but that’s life, isn’t it?) for all the characters here (even old Felix), of realising, sometimes slowly and painfully, where they need to be in life, and more importantly, who they need to be there with. An absolute pleasure to lose myself once more in the company of Monseiur Jean and his friends.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog


Today would have been the birthday of one of my favourite writers, Edgar Allan Poe. I’ve been reading Poe since I was about twelve and still love his work. Here, to celebrate his birthday, enjoy another of my favourite writers, one I’ve had the pleasure of meeting several times, Neil Gaiman, reading The Raven:

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door —
Only this, and nothing more.”

Picturing the year

As usual I took a ridiculous amount of photographs through the previous year, people watching shots, landscapes, the festivals, whatever caught my eye, so here are a few of my favourites I took in 2017:

Singing to the Sea 01

Back in March I was down at Portobello beach on a windy, cold afternoon, and this group in white robes descended from the promenade onto the sand, and proceeded to sing towards the sea. I have no idea why, although it sounded and looked religious in nature, the singing in a language I didn’t know, but it sounded quite happy, joyful even.

union of cloud and hills blessed by last rays of the day

The end of an early spring day, last light hitting the peaks of the Campsie Hills, diffused through a band of cloud along the summit line.

Forth Rail Bridge 015

Looking down the Fife side of the Firth of Forth, past Inchcolm island (you can just see the silhouette of the 12th century abbey on the island), towards the mighty Forth Rail Bridge through the mist, with the mid-2oth century suspension road bridge behind, then the (at the time still being constructed) new cable-stayed road bridge.

taking the wedding one step at a time

Simply walking round town one day, saw this newly married couple who had decided to pose for their photos on the Vennel steps, which cut up from the Grassmarket, past the Flodden Wall, towards the Meadows, so I grabbed a quick candid shot from the hip as I passed.

a stroll through the market

Street market on a bright, spring day in the Grassmarket, I was taking candid people-watching shots, and got this young couple pushing their baby stroller, just as the light and shadow came together.

The Wild, Wild West 03

I finally visited a spot I have meant to for ages – there is an Old West street hidden away behind some tenements in Edinburgh, not the sort of thing you’d expect to see here! The “cantina” door is actually the fire exit for the Morningside Library. It was built as a promotional stunt by a local firm several years back, and is now slowly decaying, although to be honest it looks more authentic now it is somewhat distressed. The things you can find if you go looking…

world's cutest jedi padwan 02

At the comic con, bumped into one of my colleagues and her husband, there with their wee girl, who was dressed up as Rey from Star Wars and having great fun. Cutest Jedi padawan ever!

Edinburgh Comic Con 2017 031

Another from the comic con, this couple had matched up their cosplay costumes, which I just loved.

March for Science Edinburgh 02

I went on the March For Science in the spring and took a bunch of pics, but I especially loved this one with the student waving her sign and giving the camera a great, big smile.

spring tango 06

Walking through the Grassmarket one bright day, and there was an open-air tango class going on, right there in the middle of the square, underneath some trees, so the light through the leaves was dappled. I was taking several pics when one of the dancers saw the camera and just as I clicked she smiled right at me, and I was lucky enough to capture it. Sometimes you get lucky and grab a little moment like this.

Meadows Festival 2017 033

Slightly different weather in this one! I was going around the Meadows Festival when it started to rain. As I scuttled for cover I managed to snap off a couple more candid shots of people at the fest in the rain, including this one with the lady and her umbrella.

Canal Festival 2017 021

Singer with her band at the annual Canal Festival and Raft Race, on the nearby Union Canal.

Edinburgh International Film Festival 2017 - The Last Photograph 01

As I came out of one of my film festival screenings I saw actor and director Danny Huston on the red carpet, about to go into the cinema for the festival screening of his own new film, The Last Photograph. The camera is always in my bag, so quickly out and click.

Cloisters 04

Something I have been meaning to photograph for ages – the beautiful cloisters in the Neo-Gothic Glasgow University.

A Visit to the Trossachs 02

Out with dad for a day in the Trossachs, a day of constantly shifting light and shadow as sun poked through clouds to illuminate patches of the landscape in shafts of light, while casting large cloud shadows over the rest. Gorgeous.

Carnival 2017 038

How colourful is this costume on this wee chap at the Jazz and Blues Festival carnival??

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Close up portrait of one of the performers at the carnivale.

clan gathering 01

Clan gathering in summer when all of our Canadian relatives were over, rest of the family all got together for food, drink and chat, while the kids played in the garden. Someone brought out soap bubbles, and one little cousin, Wee Joe, was mesmerised by them!

clan gathering 017

All that playing can be tiring though, one of the kids curled up for a wee nap!

Fringe on the Mile 2017 020

Fringe on the Mile 2017 021

Festival time on the Royal Mile, and on a whim I wandered behind the bustle of the main drag, behind the cathedral, and saw these two performers. They were rehearsing before going out onto the Mile, and didn’t see me at first, so i was clicking away merrily.

Fringe on the Mile 2017 028

Fringe on the Mile 2017 041

Fringe on the Mile 2017 053

Some street portraits of performers strutting their stuff on the Royal Mile during the Fringe, trying to attract an audience to come to their shows, always a happy hunting ground for taking photos.

relaxing in the sun

Fringe bustling all around, but this one young woman had found herself a quite spot on the edge of the cathedral, in the sunlight, to take a wee break.

wet night in the New Town

Freehand night shot, coming out of the Book Festival on a rainy night, wet streets reflecting the lights.

Fringe on the Mile 2017 073

Saw this musician and her partner several times on the Mile during the Fringe, and took several shots, but I really liked the way this one came out, think it caught something of the joyful exuberance she was showing as she sang.

Fringe on the Mile 2017 091

This lady in traditional Korean costume was dancing on one of the small stages on the Mile, where the Fringe performers can put on excerpts from their shows to try and entice audiences to come along. I shot a lot of photos of her and her fellows, but kept zooming in closer, only to find her moving just as I lined up the shot. Finally I got one, very close up, in focus and in frame. Quite pleased with this one.

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Another Fringe performer on the Mile – I loved her smile and her sign!

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Juggler on the Royal Mile.

Shoreline of Infinity evening 05

Author Ken MacLeod reading from a book of his and the late Iain Banks’ poetry at the regular Shoreline of Infinity science fiction evening in Edinburgh.

Elcho Castle Doo'cot 06

This is standing inside an old doocot (dovecot), at Elcho castle, looking straight upwards, but the effect, especially in monochrome, seems otherworldly.

Scott Monument at dusk 02

Blue Hour on an autumn evening 04

“Blue Hour” in Edinburgh in autumn, when the sun has set below the western horizon but there is still some pale, blue light in it, not yet the full black of night sky. One of my favourite times for taking night photos in Edinburgh. Here it’s the Scott Monument silhouetted against that sky, and the Castle and the National Gallery.

Shoreline of Infinity November - Aurora Engine 05

Musician Aurora Engine was playing the harp and singing at a Shoreline of Infinity evening. I took several pics of her, then on a whim I zoomed in to try and capture her fingers moving deftly over the harp strings. It was in an underground venue in fairly low light, and I didn’t expect it to work, but I got this fairly sharp image and was quite pleased with it.

Commercial Quay, winter night 01

Walking around Commercial Quay at Blue Hour – these were all old dockside warehouses by the Port of Leith. Once left neglected after their working life ended, they have since been beautifully restored and are now home to apartments, businesses and many restaurants.

The Shore, winter night 08

Same evening, little later and darker, freezing evening, taking night photographs along the Water of Leith, by The Shore, a regenerated area near the docks which boasts lots of very nice pubs, cafes and restaurants, plus the sight of the buildings at night reflected in the river. Been meaning to take some night shots down this way for ages.

The Tower 02

Spur of the moment shot – I was zooming in on the weathervane at the top of the steeple on the Auld Kirk in Kirkintilloch when suddenly the skies darkened and these crows descended on the steeple. Suddenly it went from a detail of some old architecture to a brooding, Gothic photo that looks like a scene from a Poe novel.

me and my shadow

A couple of weeks ago, walking past Edinburgh University, bright but cold day, sun so low in the winter sky it cast as many shadows as it did light. I passed one student sitting on this bench by a stone wall, the sun casting sharp shadows and it was just begging for a black and white shot.

Schoenstatt at Christmas 015

Boxing day, 2017, dad and I drove over to Schoenstatt, a religious retreat by Campsie Glen, under the shadow of the hills. Freezing but bright and clear, snow had started falling on Christmas night and by next day it was crisp and frozen, crunching under foot as I walked through it, while the foliage was encased in ice, with the low winter sun shining through it.

sky snow clouds and hills

I can never resist taking yet another shot from the parental mansion looking out to the Campsie Hills. No matter how often I have taken pics of this landscape, it changes all the time depending on time of year, time of day, weather, and when the bright, low winter sunlight hit the snow-covered hills, while the clouds drifted by in front, I had to take another one…

The Modern Prometheus still sparks fire from the Heavens

January 1st marked the 200th anniversary of one of the first and most influential works of science fiction and horror, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, first published, anonymously, in January of 1818 by the small press of Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor & Jones, a run of only 500 copies. Two hundred years on and Frankenstein remains unbelievably influential, in storytelling, as a cautionary note in scientific research, of the dangers and responsibilities of human knowledge and abilities. Of all the books ever published over the centuries many, even those which were huge bestsellers in their day, fall into obscurity, remembered only on the odd literary course. A few, a very few, achieve a form of literary immortality, remaining in print, still read, translated into other languages for even more readers around the world.

And of those few only a handful penetrate and suffuse the popular culture to such an extent that ideas and terms from the books are borrowed regularly and used even by those who haven’t read the novel, but who are still aware of what the ideas are. We are still, to this day, borrowing from Shelley’s novel – when reporters write a piece on genetic modification, her creature is evoked: GM crops become “Frankenfoods”, the possibility of genetic manipulation of the building blocks of our human DNA raises dire warnings drawn from Victor Frankenstein and his unfortunate creature (Frankenstein is tormented by visions of any female mate he makes for his creature joining with him to breed a new race that would outstrip by design mere, naturally evolved humanity). These also go hand in hand with worries about the pace of discovery and advancement, which often seem to move to fast for us to adapt to and outstrip our ability to moralise and legislate upon – the Universal film’s cry of “In the name of God. Now I know what it feels like to be God!” remains a pertinent warning to us that we always need to consider what we are doing and why.

In part this is due not just to the longevity of the original novel, but the way it and its themes have drawn other creators to adapt it, or to be influenced by it, for other media. Within just a few years of publication Frankenstein was on the stage. In the dim, early days of flickering light from the first motion picture cameras, the Creature was there, right at the beginning of the medium, in a short silent from the Edison Company in 1910. And the, of course, that first golden age of horror film from Universal in the early 30s, bringing us first Lugosi’s Dracula then Karloff’s wonderfully nuanced creature in Frankenstein and the Bride of Frankenstein, with Jack Pierce’s iconic make-up. A couple of decades on and Hammer would revive both Dracula and Frankenstein for a new audience, in colour, with plenty of “Kensington gore”, and another iconic actor in both roles, the great Christopher Lee. Endless film adaptations, even more films and television programmes inspired by the themes in Frankenstein, the new medium of video games, and comics – notably the superbly illustrated work by the late Bernie Wrightson – those classic Aurora famous monsters model kits, even humour (think Herman Munster, or Mel Brooks’s wonderful young Frankenstein), Frankenstein has permeated our culture.

(above, the great Bernie Wrightson’s superbly detailed, iconic comics take on Frankenstein. Below, horror legend Karloff, whose subtle playing through Jack Pierce’s visually iconic make-up, gifted the cinematic monster with humanity, emotion and empathy. Bottom, Johnny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch in a modern stage version of Frankenstein, in which both actors took it in turns on different nights to play either Victor Frankenstein or the nameless Creature)

It’s not hard to see why – one of the keys of great writing is that it remains relevant to readers long after the time in which it was written. New decades and new centuries roll on relentlessly, new readers pick up the book and see in its themes comments and warnings applicable to their own contemporary world (again think of the conflation of Frankenstein’s creation with the worries over genetic research today). Of course it isn’t just the theme of humans dabbling in areas they shouldn’t, or the classic “mad scientist” who goes too far just because he can, it’s also the personal elements, the human elements – love, hate, responsibility, life and mortality, the powerlessness we have in the face of the death of loved ones, the duty we have to others, all are aspects of human nature that do not change, and so still resonate with us today. Guillermo Del Toro once described the book as one of the best “teenage” stories ever, as the unfortunate, rejected creature bemoans his state; he never asked to be created, didn’t have a choice in this life, is left rejected and alone and wondering why do I exist, why was I brought into this brutal world, what am I meant do to, what meaning is there to any of this?

We’ve all wondered that, especially in those formative teens years. I was to be your Adam, the creature tells its creator, instead I am your fallen angel. Milton’s Paradise Lost was a major influence on Shelley, the creature wants to be good, but his constant rejection and the fear others show him drives him away; can he be good? He’s not naturally created, does that mean he lacks a soul that God would have given any naturally born person? Does that mean no matter what he tries to do he can never be good, that he will always be a damned creature, except instead of being banished by his Creator to the Pit, he is rejected by his human who tried to steal the fire of creation, banished to the wastelands where no human feet walk, bereft, rejected, alone.

Other elements that remain very relevant to us: the gender roles of men and women – here a man who defies nature by creating life by himself, rather than from the womb of a woman. Is it hubris or is it fear of woman’s sexuality that drives him to try and become a creator of life himself, to take that power of generation for his own? And what does it say about relationships between men and women, about birth, death and creation? Gender even shows in the original publication, the first editions nameless, and while the first couple of editions generated mostly good reviews, some, now aware who wrote it, would sniffily dismiss it as an overwrought work of ‘a woman’, and therefore not worthy of contemplation. Two centuries on and how many women writers, especially in the fantastic fiction fields, have written under names that use only androgynous initials, or a name that could be male or female, because of the publisher’s fear that SF&F by women won’t sell as well? We’re getting past that a bit more now, but it still happens, and we still have a number of female writers who have had to do that to build a readership. Some elements, it seems, will remain with us for quite a while. At least we’re talking about it now.

Even the circumstances of the creation of Frankenstein fascinate us. The macabre experiments of Luigi Galvani with early electricity, notably the gruesome public experiment that saw him applying electrodes to the corpse of an executed criminal, creating spasmodic movement, grimacing facial expressions, all in a dead body. What was this power? Could it actually restore animation to the dead? Nobody knew, imaginations ran riot, and some of this is captured in Shelley’s dreams of an artificial being (along with, possibly, a visit to Castle Frankenstein, rumoured to once have been home to an alchemist who tried to find the secrets of life). And bear in mind this is a time when mortality, especially among children, was far higher than today, a sad fact Mary had horrible first hand experience of, even dreaming once that her dead little baby came back to life in her arms as she warmed him by the fire. Oh to have that power… And yet, nature clearly didn’t intend for us to have those powers, what would happen if we did? It all feeds into this rich novel, coming out of a fevered competition between Shelley, her poet husband, Doctor Polidori and Lord Byron as they sat bored in their villa during the “year without a summer”, trying to entertain one another.

Something opened in Mary’s mind that evening, those experiments, her reading of Milton, her own awful losses, all being fed into this story, a story that has lasted two full centuries, and which new readers are still discovering for the first time, and which has inspired countless other science fiction and horror writers across the centuries and continues to do so (what are modern fictional fears of AI outstripping its human creators, if not a modern Frankenstein tale?). If you’ve never actually read it, only watched the films or the comics, I’d urge you to go back and read it, it’s a different experience, taking in the novel; you think you know the story, but really, you only know it if you read the original, even the best film or play versions are interpretations and adaptations.

(painting of Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell, from the National Portrait Gallery)

As with other cornerstone works of the fantastic with which Frankenstein is often grouped, Stoker’s Dracula, Stevenson’s magnificently psychological Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, you have to go back to the actual books to truly know these stories, their nuances, their layers, their themes that haunt us still and likely always will. Mary’s Frankenstein will, most likely, remain one of those select novels which will be read for as long as people pick up books. In a way she has created her own being through her words, drawn down the vital spark of creation, and its lumbering shadow still stalks our dreams and nightmares in the twenty first century, and will continue forever…

This was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog