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

Reviews: Ordinary #1

Ordinary #1

Rob Williams, D’Israeli

Titan Comics

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We’ve mentioned Rob Williams and D’Israeli’s Ordinary on here a couple of times in the last few months, just before it started its run in the creator-owned slot the good folks at the Judge Dredd Megazine have (a very good thing to include) and then again more recently when Richard had to be secured with duct tape to stop him falling off his chair laughing while reading it in the Megazine. Now for those who didn’t get to see it in the Megazine there is a new format from Titan collecting Ordinary in the US style comics format, the first issue being out this week. And that’s a good thing, because this is clever, satirical and often so funny the sanctity of your pants may be in jeopardy (go to the loo before reading. And wash your hands afterwards).

Meet Michael Fisher, real two-time loser, a plumber living in Queens, NYC. He’s rubbish in his real life (estranged partner and child, often absent at work) and just a pathetic even in his own dreams. In fact we open with him telling us about his dream of dating Scarlet Johansson and how even in his own dreamscape she turns him down and he just accepts it. Waking to find he has already slept in late for his first job, Michael is about to ind his day escalating on the bad to worse scale. Barely out the house, running to his job, late already and he runs into the enormous local thugs he owes money to. And then as they ‘chat’ there’s a loud noise and something seems to be happening to an airliner overhead.

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Getting free and finally reaching his first job of the day, his partner is unhappy because while waiting on Michael he has had to endure listening to the life story of the old granny whose apartment they are working in. Exasperated, Brian stomps off to begin the plumbing work. And then, as Michael watches, the elderly lady stands up and suddenly she is younger. Then even younger – marvelling she glances down her own cleavage “how high they are!” she cries, delighted. Except she keeps getting younger and, well, there’s only so far you can go if your body suddenly ages backwards… Rushing through to Brian working on the toilet plumbing to tell him what happened he finds his workmate is now – how to put it? – a little different. Okay, a lot different. In fact Brian is now a giant bear.

It’s more than Michael can take, and when he runs out into the street and finds the entire world seems to be going crazy he does the only sane thing he can and goes into a bar for a stiff drink and fumbles some cigarettes from his pocket. When the barman tells him there is no smoking allowed inside, Michael points out the world is apparently ending, and the barman tacitly agrees that lighting up inside is probably not high on the list of world problems, not on this day. This also sets up the next scene where Brian has followed Michael to the pub, still in his bear form and sits down, orders a pint then asks him matter of fact “I’m a bear, aren’t I?” When Michael tells him he looks like an American Black Bear Brian tells him not to be so racist. Then looking at Michael’s ciggy he decides to bum a smoke, leading to what has to be one of the best lines I have read in any book or comic all week:

I would like to see a bear smoke a cigarette, I have to admit. Maybe that makes me a bad person.”

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Then when the news comes onto the bar’s TV it becomes rapidly clear that this isn’t a local NYC problem, this is global – everyone, everywhere, child, adult, saint or sinner, has suddenly found themselves gifted with some form of superpower or ability. And predictably the world goes nuts – imagine the entire population suddenly able to do something they want to using vast powers, imagine the chaos. Imagine the petty arguments that can now develop into shattered buildings and bodycounts. Or the simple shock and horror at finding yourself changed into something totally different. Some powers are awesome in their potential, others are wonderfully ironic (imagine the usual two-faced Janus of a political leader suddenly finding that his power is manifesting comics-style thought bubbles by his head, showing everyone what he is really thinking while he says something else in his speech. Brilliant and one of those conceits that could really only work so perfectly in the comics medium).

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Michael though? Nope, only person not to develop superpowers. So in real life and in his dream life he is a loser, now even in the new tomorrow of superpowers, still a loser. Except of course that may make him vital to working out what happened to everyone…

It’s a cracking read – clever story and some great characterisation between Rob’s script and D’Israeli’ artwork. And on the latter it probably won’t surprise any regular 2000 AD readers to know that D’Israeli has been reworking his style yet again, something he does quite often, finding a new style, palette and approach for different story subjects (and it is this quality that I think is one reason why he is one of our best artists, he has an almost Talbot-like quality to change styles to suit different characters and stories). The nature of the story allows him to go from doing realistic city street scenes to the surreal, from a bear fixing the toilet to a dragon flying over New York, or a giant stomping over the city with the characteristic NYC “Hey, I’m walking here!” refrain. He’s obviously having fun with this.

And there is some lovely attention to detail – right back in that early scene I mentioned at the start, as Michael leaves home but runs int0 the local loan sharks? There’s a kid in the background playing with a toy plane, just a little background detail. I noticed his plane seemed a different colour in the next panel but put that down to a change in lighting perspective or simply a colouring mistake. But nope, much later on we’ll see this kid interact with Michael and realise that tiny background details was one of the first bits of foreshadowing of what was about to happen. It’s just a small details, wouldn’t change the story really if you never noticed, but to me it shows the care and attention D’Israeli puts into his art and the pair have for shaping their narrative.

Clever, inventive, bloody funny and it is creator-owned, so do yourself a favour and enjoy a good read and at the same time support a couple of our top-flight creators with their own work. Win-win situation. Roll on, issue #2.

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Extreme street acupuncture!

Walking home from work earlier this week on a very fine, sunny spring evening, spotted a crowd of tourists on the Royal Mile watching this street performer, Sideshow Stevie, paused on route home, had missed most of the act but did see little of his final part…

Which involved this small bed of nails, laid across his tummy

Then this fairly hefty chap climbed up and stood on the board!

Ouchy!

Now that is a pretty extreme form of acupuncture!

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

Harlan Ellison’s original City on the Edge of Forever adapted

Star Trek: Harlan Ellison’s City on the Edge of Forever #1
Harlan Ellison, Scott & David Tipton, KJ Woodward
IDW Publishing

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(regular cover art for Star Trek City on the Edge of Forever #1 by Juan Ortiz)

Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

When I first heard these now iconic words I was just a little boy; it was the mid-70s and we didn’t have the multi-channel reams of telefantasy let alone online works we enjoy today. But alongside the small amount of home-grown science fiction on the telly back in that age of “stone knives and bear skins” we also had this wonderful, colourful import of a US show, a huge starship on a noble mission to explore and learn, crewed by men and women of all colours and creeds – some of them even alien – it was good science fiction and drama and also trying to paint an optimistic view of what our future could be. I loved it. It was, of course, Star Trek. The show that too many grew to love for it to ever die.

I had no idea it hailed from the late 60s when I first saw it being repeated on the BBC as I sat and watched it with my parents, it didn’t matter really – while the odd episode is very much of its time (think the now embarrassing ‘space hippies’ episode) most of it holds up well, even now, decades on. Several episodes in particular still stand out some half century on for their clever use of science fiction, drama and emotional content; a good story, well told, is a good story in any century. And among the most notable episodes any version of Star Trek every aired, City on the Edge of Forever by the great Harlan Ellison must be the most respected (also one of the few to win a Hugo award). I’ve seen the episode numerous times, I even still have the ‘Fotonovel’ from the late 70s of that episode (one way to revisit an episode in the days before home video – here’s my pic of that old, dog-eared copy, still on my shelves today). But Ellison always maintained that his original idea was much more complex and intriguing than the version that was chopped and edited and changed to suit a television production schedule. And most of us who have read Ellison – and that episode was my introduction to this remarkable spinner of words, another reason to love the show – believed that and wondered what the Ellison draft of that story would have looked like, in another time and place, perhaps in a mirror universe.

Or perhaps in that alternate reality space we call comics…

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(artwork for variant cover for Star Trek City on the Edge of Forever #1 by Paul Shipper)

And that’s what we get here as Scott and David Tipton, with art by JK Woodward, adapt the mighty Ellison’s original teleplay – the story as the original creator envisioned it, and as a bonus visualised here with the magical ‘unlimited budget’ which a comics artist can supply, rendering visualisations well beyond the basic special effects the 1960s could have supplied in the actual show (not to knock those, though, like the stories some still hold up well for their time and budget). Some very fine science fiction art by Woodward, who also balances the not inconsiderable task of capturing the familiar likenesses of the Enterprise’s crew and sets.

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Looking at this first issue and the essential main idea of the story is familiar from the broadcast version: the Starship USS Enterprise is far, far from home, on the edge of the galaxy, and she detects strange anomalies on her sensors – perturbations in the fabric of time itself, and a seemingly desolate, dead and ancient world is the centre of it. On beaming to the surface Kirk, Spock and company find the source of these strange readings, an energy vortex which is also a way of looking into the past and future, as well as a potential gateway.

How we get to that point, though, is somewhat different – in Ellison’s draft the crew is not merely exhausted by years of deep space exploration and the danger which comes with it, some are starting to crack, despite the best of training and supervision by the medical staff; there’s no way to anticipate these breakdowns after so many years of continual stress. And one lieutenant has developed an addiction to a strange, alien narcotic, a sort of jewel which is ingested, and one crewman is quite happy to supply him with his fix – as along as he gets certain perks in turn, because this man, Beckwith, sees the voyage purely as a way to advance himself. Any chance to meet new species for him is not for knowledge but how he can barter for technology, artefacts or narcotics than he can peddle and exchange for his own enrichment. And it is the odious, unscrupulous Beckwith, at last confronted by his drugged-out officer finally coming to his senses and trying to report him, who flees the ship, not, as in the televised version, Doctor McCoy, temporarily unbalanced by an accidental injection, beaming down to the strange world below, pursued by the crew, leading them to this temporal gateway.

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I can see why Rodenberry in particular may have objected to some of this – character flaws like drug addicted officers and villainous crew members out to make a buck any illegal and dangerous way they can (it is hinted a previous trip to a planet by Beckwith lead to deaths) doesn’t fit in with his vision of how the Federation or humanity was meant to be by the 23rd century. But it does make for a more biting drama… There are other changes here – multiple Guardians instead of one, the time vortex itself more imaginative than the one the show had (again though some of that was editing changes to Ellison’s draft some elements like that would always be constrained by budget and effects tech of the time no matter what), and instead of a few ruins and talking gateway we actually do have a literal city on the edge of forever. This original version also, even in just this first issue, starts to gives us a bigger, more complex view of the Guardians and the nature of time as presented here, not to mention the dangers travel into the past can create. All of us who love science fiction today are well schooled in the “do not interfere or change anything” rule should we ever, however unlikely it may be to happen, find ourselves transported into history. This is one of the landmark time travel tales that set down those warning rules and the consequences if they are ignored.

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Would it have made a better television episode this way? Perhaps, but also perhaps the tone here is, as I commented earlier, just not quite what 60s Trek was aiming for. But does it make for a fascinating new angle on a classic science fiction tale? Oh yes, my pointy-eared friends, it certainly does. I was genuinely crestfallen when I reached the end of this – the end, already? More weeks to wait for the next part? That’s a measure of how quickly this hooked me in, even with my familiarity with the original tale I was utterly engrossed in this version of Ellison’s tale and I cannot wait to read the rest of the issues. A compelling new perspective on one of the finest Star Trek tales of all time and one of the quintessential time travel stories of science fiction, from one of our most intriguing writers (and if this introduces Ellison – no stranger to the comics medium – and his writing to you then so much the better). And the questions and moral dilemmas raised by City on the Edge of Forever remain thought provoking, or, to use the old Vulcan phrase, “fascinating”.

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This review was first penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Making music on the Mound

Walking through Edinburgh on the way home from work the other evening and came across this trio on the Mound, right by Princes Street Gardens, in the space next to the Royal Scottish Academy. They are called Marama and consisted of two drummers and a bagpiper, kicking out the jams to a fabulous beat, folk music but with a more modern edge, which reminded me of bands like Shooglenifty we used to go to see back in our student days who took Scots and Irish folk music but reworked it in a modern style (we danced all night to those, irresistible beat).

They were having a ball, drummers whacking away and the piper frequently dancing around them both as the beat rolled out across the city and the crowd cheered along.

Great fun to come across things like this just ambling home, another sign of moving properly into spring and summer (despite the weather!) as street performers start to appear more often.

And here’s a short video clip of them in action – sorry, being a street scene the audio isn’t that great and doesn’t do them justice really, but was only way I could try and grab at least a bit of of their sound to share:

The clockwork universe: Edginton & Culbard’s beautiful Brass Sun

Brass Sun #1

Ian Edginton, INJ Culbard

Rebellion

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Regular readers will no doubt have heard several of us on here mention Brass Sun, a wonderful science fiction series created by Ian Edginton and Ian Culbard for the mighty 2000 AD. Have you ever, as an adult or a child, been entranced by the simple beauty and wonder of an old clockwork orrery? A seemingly perfect little moving model of the solar system, all the worlds and moons orbiting around the sun, driven by clockwork, representing each world’s distance from the mother sun and length of rotation and orbit relative to its fellows, an intricately fashioned device. Our understanding of celestial orbits and dynamics has increased enormously since those models were first fashionable and we know the universe to be far more complex than we ever dreamed of when first the craftsmen took Newton and Keppler’s laws and applied them so lovingly to these brass representations of the heavens.

And yet the orrery remains such a beautiful piece of work, conjuring dreams of wonder, a marriage of the craftsman’s art, as precise as a hand-built clock, with scientific learning; engineering and art and imagination all in one lovely device, for some a demonstration of what Sagan called “the magnificent machinery of nature”, for other’s proof of a benign deity, a magical clockmaker in the heavens. Now imagine there were real worlds, little realms actually on such an orrery, all living on their little realms rotating around that central sun on their brass wheels. A “wheel of worlds” set by a blind watchmaker… That’s the set up for Brass Sun, which several of us on the blog have been loving in the weekly 2000 AD, but now as part of the ongoing expansion of 2000 AD series (especially to the North American markets) the series (so far, it is still ongoing in the weekly Prog) is being collected into US-style comics of 32 pages, starting late in May, a perfect way to get into it if you missed it in 2000 AD.

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Frankly I have to say the Ians had me at that simple but beautiful and wondrous concept alone. And oh, it is beautiful, achingly beautiful – Culbard does wonderful close-up character scenes but he’s also a master of the magnificent splash page, and our first glimpses of this clockwork solar system is a glorious piece of comics art, tapping into that most precious of sensations that science fiction – in both graphic and prose form – does pretty much better than any other genre in literature: the sheer sense of wonder.

But wonder alone isn’t enough – a story requires narrative drive, it requires characters, and we’re in the hands of two of the UK’s very best here. We meet young Wren and her grandfather – he has been committing a dangerous heresy in a very religious and orthodox world, studying the skies with his telescope. He knows he will be noticed and reported, that the guards will come for him, that he will face burning at the stake for his heresy. But he has gained knowledge from old papers, secret papers, and with his scientific study of the sky applied to this he knows that the seemingly relentless icy winter which is pushing into their world, killing all before it, is no accident but a sign of something wrong in the very system of their wheel of worlds. He equips his grand-daughter Wren, entrusting her with information and a ‘quaycard’ and sends her off, knowing that he himself will be dragged before the religious authorities. Indeed we now find out he was once a bishop himself but what he learned turned him from orthodoxy. Now beaten and in chains he argues with the religious leader:

I was like you – I did as the Cog commanded – but the ice still came. Our people freeze and starve by the million. Prayers and persecution cannot hold the inevitable at bay. There must be another way.”

Faith! Faith is the only way!

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It’s not hard to see these scenes alluding to the persecution by the church of early astronomer’s for daring to suggest that their observations and calculations showed the progression of the heavens to be different from what the religious authorities of the day said, threatened with torture and worse for daring to speak what we now know is commonsense truth. And it’s not a major leap to see these scenes also as a commentary on some zealots today who refuse to acknowledge rational debate and scientific evidence (think on demands to give creatonism space on a school curriculum alongside evolution). But the world doesn’t care what blinkers people put on and what fables they tell themselves are true, it will do with it will, and in this case it seems the wheels have been slowing for centuries, but religious dogma has chosen to ignore this. Now Wren is sent away from her doomed grandfather, beyond her own world and into the spaces beyond armed with his journals. He hopes she can escape, but more than that, perhaps she may be able to do something to help the people of her world, of the other worlds…

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And so we get a wonderful melding of different story types, the science fiction with a hint of Steampunk for the clockwork solar system, the medieval religious mind meeting the early scientific thinking and then the classic young but determined hero (or heroine) being forced onto a dangerous quest. All of this is set up within this first issue, a terrific bit of storytelling from both writer and artist – introducing such a lovely concept for a world (or series of worlds), characters and quest, all within 30 odd pages, but then again as both are used to working with four of five pages in a weekly Brit anthology comics format those are skills in economy of storytelling you have to hone to work well in that format.

I was totally taken with the first runs of Brass Sun in the weekly 2000 AD and am delighted to see it being offered in this new format so more readers get a chance to experience it (same US comic book format as was used for the recent, highly successful Dredd movie sequel tale), and it is also a great way to wave the flag to a wider reading audience for some of the fine works that still come out of the House of Tharg and from our top Brit comics creators. A gorgeous, intoxicating story, beautifully illustrated and carrying us on a tide of wonder. Brass Sun #1 is published late May and is available to pre-order on our comics subscription site.

This pen was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog

Fists of Fury

Iron Fist the Living Weapon #1

Kaare Kyle Andrews,

Marvel

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Alright, confession time – I’ve never read a lot of Iron Fist before, so I come to this first issues of the Marvel Now! take on the hyper kung-fu martial art warrior relatively fresh. A colleague recommended it to me and well, since this is a first issue of a new take on the series it does seem like a good time for those relatively unfamiliar with the character to have a peek. And actually I’m pretty impressed.

Kaare Andews has a somewhat unusual opening for a mainstream comic issue, the very first page being pretty much just a head and shoulders shot of Danny, the current Iron Fist, very long series of speech bubbles down the left margin (we soon find out he is being interviewed by a very smitten and flirty journalist) and series of dialogue boxes counterpointing the speech bubble conversation over on the right. One large image and an awful lot of text – not the usual way top open a brand new action series. Ballsy, different and quite interesting, I thought.

There is one smaller element to that main head and shoulders shot, almost easy to overlook actually given the small size and the amount of text distracting the reader’s focus – a small image overlaid on one shoulder of Danny, explorers by the look of them, in parkas tramping through snowy mountains. The following pages follow into that flashback presaged by this tiny, subtle hint on that first page, Danny as a boy, with his mother, father and family friend trekking through storms in the remote mountains, his father so obsessed with his quest he is risking his family.

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There are some fantastic scenes and layouts here, from a one page splash that combines fairly minimal art juxtaposed with big, stark, bold sound effects lettering to denote the start of an avalanche – quite excellent use of art and graphics, more effective than a series of smaller panels depicting the characters being caught up in the moving wall of snow would be, followed by several landscape format panels on the next page, each one becoming slimmer than the last, the black spaces between wider, giving a seriously good impression of being caught in the flow of that avalanche, the noise, sudden movement then white out followed by black out…

Back to the present and Danny musing on his father and his obsession, as well as his business empire, He eats and drinks mechanically, even has sex with the flirty journalist, but again the same lack of emotion on the face, everything is the same to him, he is going through the motions. Outside his apartment window the ruined tower of his father’s former corporate headquarters juts up into the sky, still standing but huge portions gone, mangled, standing in silhouette against a blood red sky like some Freudian symbol of father-son power dynamics.

Of course this is Iron Fist, so we have to have some action, and wouldn’t you know it, helicopters deliver teams of ninjas sliding down their ropes to attack sneakily, but it’s rather hard to sneak up on Danny. And he really hates ninjas…  Again Andrews uses some pretty interesting layouts for the dynamic, unusual looking fight sequence, and the troubled Danny forgets his brooding over his life, his father, his company – a big battle against multiple opponents focuses his mind: “this is just what I needed.” This line is delivered from an uplit, menacing looking facial shot of Danny which reminds me very much of Miller’s The Dark Knight where it clearly acknowledged the dark part of the Batman that liked dealing out violence to wrongdoers, even needed to do it.

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As for the question of why the attack team was sent to ambush him and what is going on back at K’um Lun, those I’ll leave you to discover for yourselves – don’t want to spoil the whole issue now, do we?

I have to say I was very impressed with this, even coming to it with no great knowledge of the character or indeed particular love or interest in it previously, but for a first issue of a relaunch it worked perfectly for someone with that background – I didn’t need to know anything else, this was self-contained (I’m sure old hands will spot references I didn’t, but it all still worked for me). And as I already said there are some fantastic, innovative layouts here, some great use of space, different panels and the like, some of the most interesting I have seen since JH Williams III’s brilliant work on Batwoman, and some wonderfully moody use of colour schemes and shadow. Intriguing first issue plus creative use of art and layout, someone clearly wanting to push and play with how you tell a story in a comic issue, what’s not to love here?

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