Nocturnal reflections

Walking home from work this week, huge, long puddle by modern offices of major company, water turned into dark mirror by the fall of night, nicely reflecting the buildings around it. No tripod since I was coming from work, didn’t think it would actually come out freehand at night, but the new camera has a lot more low light sensitivity than the previous one so sometimes I can get lucky with handheld night shots. Funny how something as mundane as a rainy puddle can become interesting in a pic…

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Reviews: Tim Powers returns with Medusa’s Web

Medusa’s Web,

Tim Powers,

Corvus Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

This post was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

A day at the beach…

Look, an actual day when it wasn’t howling a gale with the rain coming down horizontally!

a sea view 01

And it was also very mild, temperature-wise, in fact too mild for me to wear my winter coat, had to slip to something lighter. Such a weird winter, we’ve had endless storms of high winds and driving rains then spells where the temperature has risen so much we’ve seen daffodils starting to poke out of the soil (even in December!) and petals appearing on the cherry blossom trees, then back to winter chills and gales again.

coming and going

But this day was dry (it even brightened up a little later too) and fairly warm for a January day, and since that coincided with a weekend lots of folks hit Portobello beach and Promenade (lots of kids wobbling around on new skates or bikes they obviously got at Christmas but have had little chance to play on because of the lousy weather). Also gave me a chance to play with the new camera (lousy weather means I’ve had little chance since I got it, especially during the sort daylight hours), still getting used to it.

beachwalking the dog

there's treasure everywhere

I wasn’t the only one taking photos of course!

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While others were lost in thought

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And some just happy to sit down by the sea and relax…

relaxed

a sea view 04

And there’s always coffee and snacks from the Little Green Van to perk you up on your Promenade strolling

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(as ever click the pics for the larger versions on my Flickr)

Step aside, Pops! More from the wonderful Kate Beaton

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

Kate Beaton,

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

step aside pops hark a vagrant kate beaton cover

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

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

Lois, I have a secret.”

Clark, I don’t have time.”

Lois, it’s a big secret.

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

YOU. ARE IN. MY GODDAMNED WAY.”

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

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

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

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

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

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

City built on books

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

Sherlock Holmes 02

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

Robert Burns on the Mile

Home of Robert Louis Stevenson 2

Home of Robert Louis Stevenson

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

An Iain and an Ian go into a bar

2015 in pictures

Having a week look back through my Flickr stream and decided to pick out some of my favourites from the photographs I shot during 2015. No theme here (other than being roughly chronological from January through to December), not the ones which got the most views on Flickr or anything like that, or even technically the best shots, just the ones I was most pleased with capturing through my lens last year.

This old, crumbling cemetery is St Machan’s, complete with ruined church, nestling at the foot of the Campsie Hills by Campsie Glen, and it looked especially atmospheric in the snow and that blue light quality we get on some winter’s days:

St Machan's kirkyard, winter 04

Out for a walk after dark back in January with the tripod, taking some night shots of the city – for some reason while I shot buildings and other scenes it was this simple shot of an enclosed lane which runs along the side of the Assembly Rooms, something about the angle, the lights and shadows, all screamed for a black and white shot:

well-lit lane 02

From the same winter photo walk, I’ve long meant to bag a pic of this shop, an antiques and pawnbrokers, I think, on a corner in the New Town on Queen Street, with these very distinctive eagle sculptures along the top, and as I was passing by with the tripod I thought now was the time…

Duncanson & Edwards at night

This was an improvised night shot on the walk home from work – no tripod since I was coming from work, so I set the timer for a long exposure and rested the camera on top of one of the small metal bollards along the Union Canal used for tying up barges, which seemed to make it steady enough for a long exposure – how cosy do these houseboats look?

floating homes

An afternoon in the local pub, this particular one doesn’t just allow dogs in, they don’t mind them being on the seats (as long as humans don’t need the space), and as we drank my chum’s greyhounds made themselves very comfortable, so I used the timer again and sat the camera on the seat next to them to get this low perspective shot in very low light:

sleeping pub pooches 03

March – should be springtime, but on the way to work as I crossed North Bridge (which strides over the valley the railway station lies in, connecting Old Town and New Town) early on a freezing morning, I saw this view of a snow-dusted Edinburgh Castle and paused to get a quick photo before heading on to work. These are the sorts of views I can get just going to and from work, another reason I love living in Edinburgh…

springtime in Scotland 02

I’ve taken many photos along the East Lothian coast near North Berwick as my chum often drives down there with his dogs for a good walk and I sometimes tag along. No matter how many times I’ve taken the mighty Bass Rock off the coast it’s always tempting to take another as the light and seasons change how it looks. Here though the tide was in, save for a small, flat spit of sand projecting out, and when I took the shot from this perspective it made it look almost as if the people looking towards it were walking on the water:

walking on water

In May dad and I were driving past Chryston and I had noticed a now closed petrol station – not unusual these days, so many have closed down, unable to compete with the ones run by the giant supermarket chains next to their stores. But what was unusual was that everything was still in place – normally the pumps and other equipment are taken away, leaving just the weed-strewn concrete apron behind, but here building and pumps, rusting, some burst open, all still in place, and on a bright day with good light, so we pulled over so I could shoot some images of this abandoned, rusting derelict:

this petrol station is no more, it has ceased to be 07

On the same day dad and I had driven out to Hogganfield Loch, a loch in a large park in Glasgow, which we used to go to a lot when I was a kid (it was very popular for boating and had nearby golf and putting greens), first time in years I had been there. No boating anymore there, but huge amounts of birds:

Hogganfield Loch 09

Out for a walk on a pretty cold spring afternoon in May, taking some pics, and as I passed Peter’s Yard, the Swedish bakery and cafe on Middle Meadow Walk, I paused to take a few “people watching” shots, and caught this rather nice moment between two friends sitting on the outside of the cafe:

sharing coffee outdoor 02

June arrived, Film Festival time for me, and this year the festival had asked me to write up some pieces for their site as they were showing Future Shock, a documentary about 2000 AD, and the comic’s founder and major UK writer Pat Mills was up for the screening to do a Q&A afterwards. I’ve met Pat a few times and he was kind enough to do a signing in our store before the film festival showing, where I snapped this pic:

Pat Mills signing Forbidden Planet Edinburgh 03

Late June and the Canal Festival and annual raft race came along just up the road from my flat. I took a bunch of shots but this was one of my favourite ones, as a band played on the old Leamington Lift Bridge – I think it was the smiles I captured in this shot that made me like it so much, they were clearly enjoying themselves:

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Walking along the Union Canal near my flat during the early summer, always swans and ducks around on there, but this day an entire family out, the adult swans and these adorably fluffy-looking wee cygnets:

The Swan Family 02

Tom Gilzean is now in his nineties – despite this, this veteran is regularly seen on Princes Street rattling his cans to collect for charities, he’s raised more than £100k doing this. I’ve always wanted to get a shot of him at “his post”, so to speak, but never managed one, until I was on the way to work, the bus stopped at the lights right next to where he was just setting himself up, so I grabbed the camera from my bag and got this very quick shot through the window from the top deck of the bus before the lights changed and we moved off. Another reason why I always have the camera in my bag – never know who or what may present itself to you for a good pic as you go round town…

Tom Gilzean, charity fundraiser extraordinaire

Festival time and Edinburgh is bursting at the seams with tourists, performers and luvvies, and as usual I try to get as many shots as I can of the performers, who all congregate on the Royal Mile near the Cathedral, in a section of road given over to them during August, some doing excerpts from their shows on small open-air stages, others in costumes, walking up and down the Mile with posters and flyers to drum up interest (with hundreds of shows at the biggest arts fest in the world you need to fight for an audience). I always take a huge amount of shots on this stretch during August, but this performer from the Paperplay puppet theatre was one of my favourites, just as I was taking pics of her and some of her colleagues she turned just as I zoomed in a bit on her and gave me this smile just as I clicked. Sometimes the photo gods smile on your timing…

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Another Fringe performer on the Royal Mile last summer, on one of the small stages on the street, so she was standing a bit higher than me, light was good and I managed to zoom in and get this portrait shot that I was quite pleased with:

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More from the Fringe: sci-fi musical spoof Saucy Jack and the Space Vixens has become a regular visitor to the Festival, and I’ve snapped some of them in previous years, but this time they were doing a number from the show on one of the small stages and I caught this moment with one of the actors singing away:

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Still on the Royal Mile during Fringe time (well, I said I take a lot of pics in August!) – I still don’t know if this was an actual couple enjoying a sudden romantic moment surrounded by the bustle of Festival-time Edinburgh, or if they were from a show and promoting it (if they were they didn’t have any obvious flyers or promo material with them). I was actually shooting some other performers, looked around, saw them behind me, whipped up the camera thinking dammit, they will have finished before I can get them in frame, zoom in and focus, but no, this clinch went on and on and it gave me the few extra seconds I needed to zoom in and capture this moment. I think this was going to be my favourite pic I took this year, but one I took a couple of months later just beat it (see further down):

ae fond kiss

August also means the Edinburgh International Book Festival and of course I was there, enjoying a number of events as well as chairing a couple of the talks as well. And catching up with fellow book people, such as the fab Sarah McIntyre. This was “backstage” by the Author’s Yurt, Sarah was getting ready for her own event and had just changed into her costume, so I grabbed some photos, including this one with her own badge for her Dinosaur Police:

edinburgh book fest 2015 - Sarah McIntyre 03

Back on the Royal Mile and a pair of very young but very talented ladies who were playing classical music in the street, lovely strong light and after shooting a couple of general pics of them with their instruments I thought I would try to zoom in a bit as I wanted to capture their expressions as they played. It’s not perfect, trying to balance strong sunlight on one side with shadow on the other, and she moved just after I had zoomed in a bit more to get that close up, so it isn’t perfectly framed, but hey, shooting live on the street you grab what pics you get and while technically not a great photo frankly I loved it because it caught her expression of delight as she played her violin in front of a Fringe crowd, and I’ll take capturing a moment over being technically proficient any day of the week:

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This was a pure chance shot – walking along George IV Bridge on a bright summer day, people sitting outside the bars and cafes having a drink and eating, I saw this couple having an animated discussion at their pavement table, sunlight right on them. I was on the opposite side of the street, in the shadow side, aimed camera and zoomed in across the street and had to try and grab a shot before traffic blocked the view, got this little moment:

animated conversation

September and a very warm, bright day – better than much of the summer had been, in fact, and so I went for a photo walk, ending up at one point on a busy Calton Hill, and the autumn light was so nice on the National Monument, and all the young tourists sitting on it in the sun, that I thought I’d try a monochrome shot:

Calton Hill, bright autumn day 03

A couple of comicker chums, Neil Slorance and Colin Bell came to do a signing, I was snapping away when they did this pose just as I clicked another shot:

Neil Slorance & Colin Bell signing Forbidden Planet Edinburgh 02

Late autumn, walking home from work on evening, that wonderful golden light we get on clear autumn days, and the long, long shadows because the sun is so much lower in the sky. I love the light quality here in autumn, it’s warm and golden, like honey on hot toast. This was the last half hour or so of daylight, sun sinking in the west, the east and north sides of the buildings sinking into deep shadows while the west-facing flanks of these tall, old stone buildings radiated that glowing copper light:

autumn evening in Edinburgh 03

Late autumn again, walking through the Meadows, unseasonably warm and again beautiful clear, autumn light, when I happened to just pass this chap making giant soap bubbles, so naturally I stopped for a pic. I love just coming across something like this, brightens the everyday world up a bit…

I'm forever blowing bubbles 03

Dad and I had a great day out visiting the Kelpies, the gigantic sculptures of these creatures from Scottish folklore, rearing up by the Forth & Clyde Canal near Stirling, quite wonderful to see. Would love to get back some time to do some shots of them by night…

Myth made steel 02

Same day out with dad, we had a quick visit to The Pineapple – I think you can see how this 1760s structure for the earls of Dunmore, near the Forth, got its name. It used to contain a hothouse for exotic plants being brought back by the many expeditions round the world at the time, the pineapple being an example of that (common to us now but then a sign of status, wealth and having travelled to far climes), while it looks down into a walled garden, which creates a micro climate allowing plants which would not normally survive the Scottish weather to flourish. The Pineapple roof is hand-carved and very clever – the projecting fronds also channel the water from it so it doesn’t collect and then damage the sculpture in winter by freezing. A wee hidden gem of a place:

The Pineapple 01

Into late October and a scene I have taken numerous times because I often walk home from work this way, straight up the famous Royal Mile. And by the end of October it is just becoming dark as I leave work – in fact the sun has actually set at this point, the streetlights are one, but there is a magical, extended twilight in autumn. I set the timer for a long exposure and sat the camera on top of a traffic bollard to steady it, pointing westwards up the Mile towards the cathedral. I’ve taken this shot several times over the years, but dammit, it’s so wonderful standing there that I just take another one to share anyway… This scene was much darker to my eyes, but I had a long exposure here, so the camera drank in what little light there was to give this brighter image, capturing what photographers call “the blue hour”, that moment when the sun has set but the western horizon still glows blue on a long exposure, only lasts a short time, but it’s wonderful when it does:

Royal Mile, blue hour

Autumn also saw a great visit from the entire Canadian contingent of our clan, including some of the younger kids who we hadn’t seen yet. At one point my uncle and I took some of them to the playpark nearby to let them run around for a wee while, and I took a bunch of pics, this one of one of my cousin’s wee girls became my favourite and probably my fave pic I took all year, just because she was so adorable and after shooting a bunch of her playing I finally got a decent close up before she moved out of frame again:

cousins at play 011

Winter and out for a shorter photo walk with dad, visiting the vast Necropolis, the huge Victorian cemetery on a small hill by the medieval Glasgow Cathedral, an astonishing place, terraced mausoleums going up the steep hillside, many large and ornate memorials, and from the top some splendid views over the city. It is reached from this, the evocatively-named Bridge of Sighs (so called because of the sighs and weeping of mourners accompanying funeral processions across the bridge taking loved ones from the vibrant city of Glasgow into this large city of the dead). An amazing place to visit:

Necropolis 012

Properly into winter and the annual festive market and fair in Princes Street Gardens had just opened, so after work I went on the prowl with the camera to take a few night shots around the market, and I couldn’t resist taking a B&W shot of these metal and glass candle holders on one stall:

glowing white in the night 02

Meanwhile, literally just a few feet from one of the brightly-lit entrances to the festive market, and all the lights, and shops and food stalls and happy browsers, this chap on the street, a reminder that not everyone gets to share in it all:

not all are included in the festive spirit

And once last night shot from the festive market – my new camera had arrived and was supposedly better at low light so I was desperate to try it out, but the weather had been so relentlessly awful, howling gales and driving rain, that most nights weren’t very suitable for a quick photo stroll after work. So when it was actually dry one night I had to go and play with the new camera – still getting used to it (unlike most bridge cameras it has manual focus and zoom options), and several times I could have sworn I had it in focus only to find out when I put them on the computer at home that the pics weren’t right, but that just needs more time getting used to the new picture box. This one came out very clearly though, especially considering it was a handheld shot at night with people moving around. Be fun to see if I can get as much out of the new camera as I did the previous one…

festive market 015

Spring blossoms in December…

Walking home today after a frankly dispiriting and depressing birthday (you know it’s not going to be a special day when the post arrives with several bills and no cards, not inspiring and it was downhill from there – should have stayed in bed and waited for the day to go away), passing the trees in the playground of a nearby school and more examples of how the bizarre weather is affecting plants: blossom petals appearing on the trees.

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These would normally be a March to April sight, but although we’ve been battered by gale-force storms repeatedly this month and lashing rain and floods, and despite those driving winds being bitingly cold, the actual ambient temperature has been way above what we would normally have in Scotland at this time of year. When I was home last week dad pointed out shoots of Daffodils pushing through the earth in the garden, this week I see spring blossoms in December. Strange weather, lately…

Fireside seat

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

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

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Review: If You Steal

If You Steal,

Jason,

Fantagraphics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Festive fair

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It’s that time of year when the festive market, ice rink and fair is set up in Princes Street Gardens, as well as more in nearby Saint Andrew Square, so I’ve been trying to take a few night-time photos of it all on the way home from work, some with the freshly arrived new camera, but mostly with older camera as weather has been too foul since new picture box arrived to take more than a few pics so far, rather frustratingly. The upper parts of Princes Street Gardens and the Mound by the National Gallery are where the market stalls and food and drink stalls are, while the lower part is where the kid’s funfair is:

Princes Street Gardens decked out for festive season

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I always enjoy trying to get some pics of the festive market each year, especially after dark (not a long wait for that given it is dark by about four in the afternoon this time of year) and trying to capture images of people and the items being sold. Since this means night shots but not using the tripod (too busy in the market and too awkward) and also not using the flash (too disruptive) it’s tricky to get a decent shot quite often, and a lot of what I shoot will end up being binned as useless, but sometimes they come out not half bad, like this display of metal and glass candle holders (click for the larger images on my Flickr):

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And I like trying to catch some “street” shots, candid moments of folks interacting with the stall holders and food vendors, again often find many pics simply don’t come out, too dark and they are moving, so I get blurred or shaky images, but again every now and then some of them work:

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With it being such a very long, dark night this time of year in Scotland, it’s quite a welcome sight to have so much light and life against the winter blackness. This lovely old double-decker Venetian Carousel is especially pretty:

Venetian Carousel

While this other carousel is actually an open air bar (complete with the hobby horses):

life is a carousel

Other parts of town, such as the huge Dome bar and restaurant on George Street, or Ryan’s Bar in the West End are always lit up rather brightly for the festive season:

The Dome at night

Ryans lit up for festive season

But not everyone gets to enjoy the food and drink and lights and open-air market – this homeless man was wrapped up against the cold and sitting on the pavement just a few feet from one of the entrances to “Edinburgh’s Christmas”:

not all are included in the festive spirit

Jessica Jones: Alias

AKA Jessica Jones : Alias Volume 1,

Brian Michael Bendis, Michael Gaydos,

Marvel

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You’ve all been watching the new Jessica Jones TV series over the weekend, right? A companion piece of sorts to Netflix’s superb Daredevil series, it follows Jessica Jones, formerly the superhero Jewel, now retired from the capes and tights and running her own private investigation agency, Alias. Created by the excellent Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos back in 2001, the original volumes have been getting reprinted recently ahead of the new TV series, and that makes it a pretty good time to draw attention to them for those who missed them first time round, or for those who read them years ago and are feeling the urge to revisit them (you should, they stand up very well).

When we open this first volume we meet Jessica, in her small PI’s office, having an argument with a less than happy client. A lot of PI work involves morally messy stuff – spouses who suspect their partner is cheating on them, paying Jessica to find out and then, if their suspicions are confirmed, turning their anger on her in a “shoot the messenger” style. And that’s what this fairly seedy looking bloke in the “wife beater” vest does when she shows him the evidence of his wife’s infidelity. Despite the fact he paid her to investigate his wife and find this evidence, he turns his anger on Jessica and curses all women as the same (how could his wife cheat on such a charmer, muses Jessica), then he gets violent… And oh boy, has he picked the wrong woman to get violent with. She may be much smaller than he is, but Jessica was a superhero. In the next scene the man is flying through the glass window on her office door (and yes, they did borrow this for the start of the TV show, and it works great there too). I know violence rarely solves anything, but also have to admit there is a certain satisfaction in seeing a violent creep like this being taught a lesson by someone he thought was “defenceless” and weak…

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It’s clear from the start that Jessica is a damaged character, bitter, a little self-destructive, in many ways a classic 40s/50s private eye character that Raymond Chandler might recognise, carrying mental scars from her past experiences, although where those classic Noir gumshoes were all mentally scarred by what they saw in the war, with Jessica it is events during her time as a cape. When asked by various people why she gave up being a superhero her normal answer is that she didn’t quite fit into it, she was never going to be as good as the A-list heroes, that she didn’t have that drive they have. And some of that may be true, but as the series unfolds we find out there is a much more complex, emotional (and upsetting) core to why Jessica left the superhero line.

But it doesn’t leave her. Although she runs a regular detective agency, given her past and abilities it’s hardly surprising that the world of the capes intrudes into her life whether she wants it to or not. Sometimes in good ways – she’s maintained a friendship with Carol Danvers (Captain Marvel), although in true Jessica fashion she can be a bit of an arse about it, pushing away those who like her and want to help (of course this just makes the reader feel for her all the more and become more emotionally invested in her). Or her on-off relationships with Luke Cage or Scott (Ant-Man) Lang.

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And some of these scenes really work oh so well, they ground that fantastical world of superheroes – we see Jessica and Cage hanging out in a bar, or her and Carol doing lunch and enjoying a good gossip about which superhero is seeing who and how Luke Cage is a bit of a “cape chaser” according to Carol. I thought he was a good guy, protests Jessica (who has had close relations with him herself). He is, Carol opines, but he just can’t resist superpowered women. It’s the everyday, social stuff that you don’t see so much of in the main superhero titles (although to be fair Marvel has always had an element of the everyday life for many characters included in stories). And it lends a realism to the more fantastical elements of the Marvel universe to have such ordinary events like two girl chums chatting over lunch.

Naturally there is more going on here, and even in this first volume Jessica finds herself being manipulated by shadowy forces, pushed into an investigation that just happens to include spying on a woman who it turns out is covertly dating a major superhero, an iconic figure. Who takes off his mask while she is filming the tryst. She had his secret identity on tape and panics – of course she doesn’t want to air it, in fact her first instinct is to destroy it so it can’t be used against an upstanding superhero.

Then she thinks about it and realises she has been set up. But who knew this hero was going to see this woman and why did they want her to film it? If she destroys it she might throw away something that could protect her later. And then when a murder is thrown into the mix Jessica finds herself implicated (and rather thankful that Luke Cage asks a certain Matt Murdock to go in as her lawyer and demolish the shaky cop case). But that still leaves a very shadowy conspiracy going on that Jessica has unwittingly been drawn into…

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It’s hugely compelling and immensely well-written, as you would expect from Bendis, delivering both a good introduction to Jessica Jones and her world and troubles and juggling both larger story arcs (which will reveal much more about Jessica’s past experiences as the volumes progress) and the much more believable, personal, human level. And that is just so profoundly satisfying; it also means that the creators really manage to hook the reader totally into Jessica and her life in a very effectively emotional level.

Gaydos’ art manages the trick of portraying a woman who can be incredibly powerful and strong or can be lost, emotionally hurt and damaged, and again as with Bendis’ script this makes Jessica a much more believably human, three-dimensional character. Gaydos also uses some nice visual tricks – rapid, multiple small panels for a police interrogation scene, hinting at the bewildering speed of events as the detectives try to get her off balance, or a visit to Avengers Mansion being shown from a low perspective behind her, the imposing gates towering over Jessica, suggesting her emotional state of mind on a visual canvas.

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It’s an unusual side-on view of the world of Marvel superheroes that makes it all feel more realistic and believable, delivering a good, twisting detective story with added capes now and then, and a very engaging emotional core. All centred around a female lead who is neither impervious strong hero or emotionally ravaged victim to be saved, but, like most people, has her good and bad days, days where she may just want to break down and run away from it all, or days where a boasting “man mountain” gets the hell kicked out off him by a very strong and angry woman. She’s not a glowing heroic icon of perfection nor is she a damsel to be rescued, but sometimes she has elements of both, which is much more true to life (and also much more compelling for the reader). Jessica is no cipher or archetype, she’s a wonderfully realised, complex human character, with flaws and good points, a mixture of strengths and weaknesses and conflicting emotions, and that may be the single best thing in this engrossing series, just how human Jessica feels.

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With Marvel reprinting the series in larger collections (this first volume has nine issues-worth of material, a great way to get into it) and the TV series making a good impression on viewers over the last week, it’s a good time to revisit Jessica Jones and find out why she deserves a place in your classic comics collection.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Kaiju attack disables bridge

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The Forth Road Bridge, an enormous suspension bridge which crosses the Firth of Forth, linking Fife to Edinburgh and central Scotland, has been closed due to a structural defect and will remain so while engineers work on the problem, entailing enormous traffic problems for a huge part of Scotland. Or at least, that’s what the authorities are telling us, but some cutting edge investigative journalism by the Woolamaloo Gazette (ie, we made it up) can now reveal the terrifying truth – this damage was not an engineering problem, a structural fault or even work of terrorist saboteurs. No, even more horrifying this was the direct result of a kaiju attack.

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Godzilla, on his way to pay a festive visit to his Great Aunt Nessie, took the wrong Firth on his trip, ran into bridge and caused the damage before realising he should be a bit further north and sliding back under the cold, tidal waters of the vast firth. A spokemonster for Godzilla reported that it was more of an accident than attack, and that Godzilla was “highly embarrassed” by the mistake, which was put down to a faulty bit of GPS programming.