Bizarre Romance

Bizarre Romance,

Audrey Niffenegger and Eddie Campbell,

Jonathan Cape

Now Blanche lies on the bed and waits to become a page in the book…”

I would happily read any book from Audrey Niffenegger or Eddie Campbell, so you can imagine my delight when a book collaboration by both of them turned up in the Blogcave, a collection of short stories on themes of relationships and love, some prose with illustrations, other short comic strips. As with any collection there are always stories that you like more than others, such is the nature of individual taste, but I can honestly say that while I did have my favourites, there really isn’t a tale here that I didn’t enjoy. In fact even the introduction is enjoyable here, as the pair relate a little of not just this their artistic partnership, but their real-life romantic one, once a tentative, very long-distance relationship, then full-blown romance and marriage: “now we are living happily ever after.”

That fairy tale phrase in the introduction is perhaps setting a bit of a tone – quite a few of the stories here have the scent of the fairy tale around them. Some fairly obviously are modern tales riffing on older fairy stories, such as RoseRedSnowRidingBeautyShoesHoodSleepingWhite, which starts with a sister and brother trying on last minute ideas for Halloween costumes in a store, a single splash page of the pair in front of the dressing room mirrors, costumes hanging from the racks, full of colour and hints of a chance to be someone else, at least for a while (it’s also, to those of us of a certain age, reminiscent of the start of Mr Benn’s adventures in the old kid’s animated series. And just like Mr Benn Roselyn is whisked away on a magical adventure, via the age-old portal of the mirror (reflecting surfaces long a gateway to the Otherworld). Faeries appear in other stories, with their own sneaky agendas, as the Fair Folk usually have.

Felines feature several times – Secret Life, With Cats is a short prose tale with illustrations, this one less about grand romantic love and more the warm companionships we can form, with other people and with our furry friends (and they with us, in their own manner, of course), while Digging Up the Cat is a short comic strip meditating on family, on home, on moving, on growing up, on parents getting older and of the furry members of our family, while another tale ponders the parental-child bond and the elements that changes as both grow older (and the elements that never change, no matter what our respective ages, if we are lucky).

Motion Studies plays with the still-fascinating early photographic studies of Eadweard Muybridge which showed, as if by magic, the range of human and animal motions caught frame by frame (long, long before the Matrix’s clever “bullet time” method of multiple cameras), and allows Eddie to frame the strip like Muybridge’s famous photographic studies. The model, Blanche, normally poses for the life classes in the art school, the students trying to translate her likeness through mind, hand and brush, “to transform her into art”, but here Muybridge seeks to capture her exact image in slivers of frozen time, turning, rising, bending. Brand-new science which appears as magic, and yet both her appearances as artist’s model and as photographic subject are re-rendered here as comics artwork now, another transformation (are any of them really true representations of her or does each capture just a facet?). I found this one particularly fascinating, visually, the peculiar Muybridge with his still-compelling imagery and new way of looking at people, animals, the world, science and art and magic.

There are thirteen tales, all told, and I’m not going to go into the rest here because one of the joys of short tales is that you briefly immerse yourself into another world, or see through other eyes, but their very brevity means it is far, far too easy to spoil an important element in a review, and I really don’t want to do that. The stories rotate around love and loss and grief and joy, but there is a quite delightful playfulness running through them all, a deft lightness of touch, such that even the stories that have sadness in them are never maudlin or overly sentimental but leave you with a warm feeling. Bizarre Romance is an utter delight, an artistic collaboration between two writers and artists, not just of great storytelling skill, but who are, quite clearly from that lovely, warm, light tone, sharing a very good space together, and that warmth permeates the stories quite beautifully.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Neil Gaiman at the Edinburgh International Book Festival

(Neil Gaiman and Audrey Niffenegger just before their event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival yesterday afternoon, all pics from my Flickr)

On Wednesday I had the pleasure of seeing two excellent authors of both prose and comics works in conversation at the Edinburgh International Book Festival as Neil Gaiman chatted to Audrey Niffenegger. It was, as Neil commented, a kind of continuing chat between the pair which has been going on and off for several years on different continents at different book events and here they were chatting to one another again “while we just had to watch and listen”. Of course we were quite happy to watch and listen…

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Edinburgh International Book Festival - Neil Gaiman 09

The hour-long talk to a packed audience (the event sold out within a few hours of the EIBF box office going live this summer) covered a number of writing topics, from folklore and myth to children’s books, novels, comics and screenwriting, starting off with a look at myth and fairy tale – Audrey asked Neil what he thought the difference was between them and after thinking about it he offered the thought that perhaps myths decay into fairy tales and folklore over the centuries, often starting out as sacred mysteries people were initiated into, which over time degraded into mythology, which slowly degraded into fairy tales, but that the same stories and archetypes remained and repeated (and given his quite excellent use of folklore over the years I’d guess Neil is the perfect writer to ask on that score).

Of course comics came up and it was nice to note Neil yet again commenting on the debt he owes to his friend Alan Moore for his help and advice on writing for the comics medium, and in a (somewhat long and rambling) question from an audience member later he was asked if he found being able to use parts of the DC Universe in the Sandman (especially early tales) a help in setting up that world. He explained that while he could have essentially created a pretty similar set up with only original characters he was still quite happy at getting to play with some of DC’s established characters in his own way, with a special fondness for Cain and Abel.

Look: it’s the new life-sized Neil Gaiman action figure – fully poseable!!! –

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On the books front one of the topics that pricked up my ears was Neil talking about a sequel to the brilliant American Gods novel, with the possibility of a third book much further down the line. Naturally the subject of screenwriting came up and especially being asked to pen an episode of Doctor Who. I knew Neil was thrilled to write for the show – like many of us in the UK he grew up with the original show, so having the chance to be a part of the cracking revived version today had to be pretty exciting. He told us all how it began with Steven Moffat dropping him a line to say thanks for the kind things he had said many times on his popular blog about the new Doctor Who and that next time he was in London he’d buy him a drink. As it happened he was in town the next week, he and Moffat meet up for dinner and drinks; at this point Neil had heard Russell T was due to leave the show and Moffat would be taking over, but it was still, as he put it, ‘a state secret’ (a real state secret, not like MOD secrets to be left on a laptop on the train), so they found themselves talking ‘hypothetically’ about the possibility of pitching ideas for the show, before Moffat came out and said you obviously know and I know you know I’m taking over when RTD leaves, so do you want to write for Who?

Well obviously he did and we loved the result. The story was originally going to be called Bigger On the Inside, as Neil had originally thought of an idea which involved a Nasty invading the normally safe environs of the TARDIS and pursuing the Doctor through the ship, but then he thought as the Doctor knows the TARDIS so well that wouldn’t be much of a fight, so then the idea of an entity possessing the TARDIS came to him, which suggested he had to move the TARDIS’ persona somewhere else, and the idea of putting the TARDIS mind into a human body came along. He tells Moffat who delightedly cries “TARDIS woman!” A little later, with the episode put back to the next season due to budget constraints (which worked to their advantage, he added – they got their Blue Peter competition running for kids to design the junkyard TARDIS console and he also now had Rory to add into the mix which he enjoyed), Moffat tells him he prefers another title – The Doctor’s Wife. Nice, but, Neil points out to him, that would be a good title for at least half a dozen other possible Who stories that they would do themselves out of. Ah, but Moffat points out to the other ideas, good thought they might be none would ever be really the Doctor’s ‘wife’ in the way the TARDIS is, she’s everything to him and always will be; companions come and go but the Doctor and the TARDIS are together forever, “a boy and his box exploring the universe” as Neil put it. He also went on to say that working with the Who team was one of the most pleasing experiences in collaboration he’d ever had and it was clear he was still on a roll from the enjoyment of being involved with the show and how well it all turned out, how much love and imagination the Who team add in alongside that of the writer to make that show what we love.

As ever there was a signing session afterwards and with Neil that of course means a very, very long line, inside the signing tent, snaking outside and out into the square – I even spotted a number of comics folks who had lugged along the not inconsiderable bulk of their Sandman and Death Absolute Editions to be signed. Brilliant event – thanks again to the lovely folks of the Edinburgh Book Fest for letting me attend and to Neil for kindly letting me stooge around the press tent to snap a couple of pics of him and Audrey before the show began.