Marc-Antoine Mathieu’s 3″ describes itself as a murder mystery, told in only three seconds. How can three seconds be simultaneously enough for a murder mystery to play out sufficiently or for it to be long enough to fill a whole book? One, two, three, blink and it’s over, surely? Well yes and no are the contradictory answers to that. Yes, three seconds is a short time, normally, at least to human perception, but in those three seconds, as Mathieu points out, light will have travelled around 900, 000 kilometres. And time and space, what can happen within those qualities of existence, our perceptions of those events and the unique way in which the comics medium can manipulate temporal and spatial references are all at the heart of this rather bold experiment in comics storytelling by Mathieu.
We open on a slow zoom in, a nine-panel grid (which Mathieu adheres to religiously throughout the entire book), each panel taking us a little closer, like frozen images from the frames of an old celluloid movie film. And right away Mathieu establishes his main gimmick, his MacGuffin, if you will, the device he uses both as the means of telling this story from pretty much a three hundred and sixty degree wraparound perspective and also at the same time his main stylish conceit: reflections. As we zoom in and out of each series of nine frames we realise we are following those same three seconds’ worth of light particles (and indeed waves, since light, tricky bugger that it is, manages to be both) as they move between reflective surfaces, the opening zoom into a man’s wide-open eye eventually pulls in close enough to reveal the lens of his eye reflecting the mobile phone he is holding, which the next sequence zooms towards, until it is close enough to reveal the tiny lens of the phone’s camera, which in turn reveals the reflection of the man holding that phone. The sequence zooms out and as we see more detail around the man with each panel we see right behind him is another man, grim-faced, with a gun raised in his hand, pointing towards the back of the head of the man with the phone…
It’s incredibly complex stuff at one level, as Mathieu must have spent so much time having to work out angles of reflection as he bounces each scene off another reflective surface – a camera lens, an eye, a shiny earring, each time expanding the scene out – and it is the same scene, the same three, short seconds of life or death drama we are witnessing. Each sequence reveals more from different perspectives as Mathieu expands the area around the main event, reflected light taking us spinning around that event to see partial glimpses of it from different perspectives, from around that room in the opening scene to a glimpse from another building, which leads us to the street which leads us again elsewhere, even as far as an airliner passing high overhead and even the cold, unblinking techno-cyclops of a satellite camera in orbit staring back down. All of this our light bounces around within its three second window. At the same time it is in some ways remarkably simple – one short scene, after all. But the multiple variations on perspectives create complexity from this simple-seeming scenario.
I’ll confess I was intrigued by this notion even before I received a copy of the book, but I was also wary – I’m all for people experimenting with the medium, it’s ripe for it after all, comics are such a wonderful place for creators to tell stories in remarkably different ways. But part of me worried that this might seem like a clever gimmick, but just that – a gimmick. A nice trick, interesting, clever, rewarding to the reader even, but only for a short time, perhaps too much of a reliance on such a gimmick to stretch it out to a whole book? No, that fear was unfounded. I’ll admit it took me several pages to really get into 3″ – oh for sure I liked the technique of the reflections and travelled light from frame to frame, but it was perhaps only when I was starting to get around a third of the way through that I really started to get it.
This isn’t just about a clever technique. This is Mathieu rewiring the visual part of your brain.
Let me explain a little, and bear with me, because this is a very subjective experience and not easily put into words (even more subjective than most reading, I mean). As that repetition of nine frames, each leading to another sequence of reflections and different angles on the same event builds up in your head you reach a sort of critical mass as a reader: the book is no longer a flat, two dimensional object, Mathieu has had the visual part of your brain, the same part that, often without your conscious thought, maps the world around you to let you navigate it with seeming ease, taking in his two dimensional world and recreating it within your mind’s eye in three dimensions. In fact, four dimensions, really since we must include here the element of time to the X, Y and Z axes of a three dimensional representation. As you read each new series of nine panels is giving your brain more information and it starts to reconstruct this three seconds of reality from all sides, as if you were constructing a hologram of it, a fully realised, fully dimensioned scene you could spin around to examine from any and all angles.
It’s ‘bullet time’ from the Matrix recreated in comics form. Except not just in comics form – as I indicated, Mathieu is trusting the reader, indeed relying on his reader, to do much of the work here. When you reach this threshold – and I imagine it will differ for each reader at what point in the story you do – you realise the artist has put the scene, the story, the entire book inside your head. It’s magnificent, head-spinning stuff when you grasp what he’s done and it feels so rewarding too, that no matter how cleverly he worked out his panels, his moves, his reflections, his slow reveals, it can only work with one last reflection – through the eye and into the human brain where it is reprocessed and becomes a fully realised scene within our own heads. Chris Ware at his recent Edinburgh Book Festival talk discussed ‘three dimensional comics’, that is works like his and others which used the two dimensional surface of a printed page to give the reader a real feel of a fully dimensioned world they can believe in and sense. Grant Morrison too has discussed how the flat ink and surface paper can create a form of virtual reality, a multi-dimensional space we believe in and which requires the reader’s active participation to fully realise (and that’s it, we’re not just reading, passively scanning text and images, our brains are constantly interpreting and rebuilding what we read inside our heads – all the more so with a work like this which is actively seeking to engage with those mental faculties so directly). Well, this is a grand experiment in pushing that faculty of the medium to a new level.
This is a remarkable interaction between the printed page and the reader’s own imagination and mental faculties, a true collaboration between storyteller and reader, and the more perspectives we gain as those nine panel pages progress the more we realise our interpretation of what we thought that first scene was are changing (as with anything context and perspective can always alter meaning, a good thing to remember). In any good murder mystery the reader is always a bit of a participant, trying to guess what happened before the conclusion, drawing on the evidence the author provides, but here it is taken to a whole new level. In fact Mathieu’s work demands the reader’s active participation, and there is even a complimentary website which expands this reader-author interaction. As I said I approached this intrigued but unsure it was more than a clever little conceit of a device more suited to a short tale as an experiment, not for carrying an entire book. I came away with my head rewired and the space Mathieu created now living in full dimensional life inside my brain. It’s a head-trip, up there with those visual eye and mind opening moments such as the Stargate sequence from 2001 or scenes from Apocalypse Now which similarly crack open your imagination and create a very personal-level interaction with the art. It is very hard to really articulate to someone how those experiences feel, but we all know them when they happen – a certain film scene, a piece of music, a painting we fall into – and it changes us a bit. This, for me, is one of those moments. Truly remarkable and a wonderful demonstration of the power and flexibility of the comics medium and its ability to engage with the mind of the reader in astonishing ways. You can even read it backwards, should you wish, like a comics palindrome.
this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog
Well, it’s been one hell of a weekend here in Edinburgh for the comic creators, publishers and readers. I’ve been along to the Edinburgh International Book Festival for many years, and in the last few years I’ve been covering some very fine graphic novel events. This year, however, was on a totally different scale with the Stripped strand of comics related events, from workshops for younger readers (whipping Gary Northfield into the venue full of excited young readers then locking him in with paper and pencils) to events with up and coming younger talent (from Gareth Brookes to Will Morris to Gillen and McKelvie), top-level home-grown talent (Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, Bryan Talbot) to some of the most acclaimed comics creators from round the world (Joe Sacco, Chris Ware, Rutu Modan and more). The events went from workshops to talks to quick interviews, live Twitter sessions and great events in the Spiegeltent such as a live draw and a ‘literary death match’ which included many of the writers and artists in Charlotte Square, including Neil Gaiman, Paul Cornell and Emma Vieceli. And not forgetting a two day mini comic fair that gave a brilliant stage (in a handsome historic setting, no less) to our vibrant small press creators. Then we also had the very first 9th Art Award (scooped by one of our former Commentary guests Stephen Collins for The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil). What a weekend…
While we had some Stripped events earlier in the Book Festival (which you must remember is a huge event in the world literary calender – over two weeks of events and over eight hundred authors, there really is nothing else quite on this scale), most notably the events with Joe Sacco and Chris Ware, who had individual events and then a cracking double-header event which was a pleasure to see (my report is here on the blog and the entire event, plus some short interviews, is now available to watch in video form – see here), the main concentration of Stripped events was planned around a long weekend, from Friday through to this Monday. I’ve been there for that whole busy but wonderful weekend and my head is still whirling a little bit from it and the intensity. As regular readers know I usually write up individual posts on each of the graphic novel events at the Book Fest, but frankly this year’s scale and sheer busy nature makes that impractical (besides which a team of comickers such as our own Nicola Love, DTT’s Jeremy Briggs, Edward Ross and Metaphrog have been filing reports and interviews which you can check out here) and if I tried to do so I would still be writing by the time my few days off to recover had passed! So this year instead I’m just going to post a report on my whole Book Festival/Stripped experience over that weekend and what I think it says about our medium and how it being perceived right now. Apologies if that means it sometimes becomes a little rambling, but I will bung in plenty of photos too!
(Edward Ross and Will Morris during their talk at the Edinburgh Book Festival, pic from my Flickr)
The first gig of the busy weekend for me was with Blank Slate Books alumni Will Morris, discussing his beautiful The Silver Darlings on stage with local creator Edward Ross (creator of, among others, the fine Filmish series I’ve reported on here before) and Dundee-based academic Doctor Chris Murray (in his trademark radioactive glow shirt). Will talked of his early comics reading and influences (unsurprisingly Chris Ware’s name came up several times from both the boys during this part of the conversation), while Edward noted that, like quite a few of us he read comics when younger then drifted away in late teens and early 20s, before being introduced to creators who hooked the adult reader in him back to the medium, eventually leading him to start dabbling with his own comics, using his love of films to inspire what would become Filmish. I’ve hugely enjoyed the very different work of both creators and it was a pleasure to see such up and coming talent on stage at such a major event.
My weekend then went into overdrive, after sitting in the audience and enjoying listening to Ed and Will discuss their work, then meeting a bunch of comickers in the author’s tent. And yes, being allowed access to the sacred enclosure of the author’s yurt is exactly as exciting as you are imagining it is. I count myself very fortunate that over my years in the book trade I’ve got to meet a whole range of authors and artists, and it’s one of the nicest perks of the job, especially as most I’ve met are very lovely people, very friendly to chat away to (I’m sure many of you have experienced the same when getting to chat to creators when getting your books signed) and we’ve been lucky that those contacts have often lead to us getting some of those creators on to guest here on the blog so everyone gets a taster. So I’m not unused to meeting authors, but holy drokk, this was on a ridiculous scale in such a small space! Every visit to the author’s yurt you would bump into several more comickers, then some more. Quite a few I knew already, there were more I had the pleasure of meeting for the first time (such as Robbie Morrison and Jim Murray, there with their excellent Drowntown). And then on a warm late summer evening Grant Morrison strolls into the scene. Yes, it was one of those weekends where things like that just happened (go on, those of you who were there, how often between events as you relaxed in the gardens of Charlotte Square did you spot favourite creators wandering about? It’s a great festival pastime!).
(Bryan Talbot with ‘SuperSarah’ McIntyre and Emma Vieceli)
Bryan Talbot, of course, goes way back with Grant, the pair of them being an integral part of one of the early attempts to create something new in comics for a mature readership (in some ways well ahead of its time), with Near Myths, which came out of the old Edinburgh Science Fiction Bookshop, which became the Edinburgh Forbidden Planet (our very own Kenny was often to be found in that old specialist emporium as the ‘Saturday boy’), and he was kind enough to introduce us properly. Less than an hour later and I’m walking onto a stage in a packed theatre with Grant… Yes, first time I’ve been asked to chair an event at the Book Festival and the first one was with one of the biggest names in the medium. So, no pressure there at all, eh?
You might imagine being asked to chair an event like that creates a mixture of pleasure, delight, stress and worry, and you’d be bang on. It’s a fairly daunting thing to do, especially with such a noted author; I’m no stranger to doing on-stage events with authors, but it’s been a while and what a spot to get back into the saddle. But while it is a little overwhelming to talk to such an acclaimed writer in front of a crowd I am also aware that despite the pressure that brings in some ways it makes it easier, because Grant is a professional, very experienced at such events and he genuinely loves getting a chance to relax and talk with his readers. So once we’d had a short chat we went straight to the Q&A with the audience, something I know he was keen to get to and certainly the crowd was desperate to get their questions in before the hour ran out. Before the audience Q&A though we briefly talked about his earliest work – since we were sitting in an Edinburgh venue it seemed appropriate to talk a little about Near Myths being put together in the same city several decades before. Grant, very nicely, made a point of also talking about how this was also where Bryan Talbot’s Luther Arkwright first appeared and then paid tribute to Bryan as one of the great pillars of the British comics scene (to a great round of applause for a delighted Bryan who was in the audience); a lovely wee moment of respect from one top creator to another.
We also touched on his upcoming work such as Multiversity (several issues, each with different artists working with him), returning to Seaguy and of course since he had raised the subject himself in previous Book Festival visits, I had to ask him about his plans for Wonder Woman, and how he wants to take some of what her creator put in there (including that highly sexual element) to do her justice in a new form. But I think it was the audience Q&A which was the highlight of the evening for most in the audience, and I suspect we could have been there for several hours and still not got through everyone who wanted to ask a question. As in previous years at the Fest Grant was signing away for hours afterwards, taking time to chat to each person in turn. Sitting at one of the table nearby, just outside the signing tent, every few minutes I would see two or three fans walk out, clutching their just-signed books. Almost without fail I’d see them walk out, pause, excitedly open their books and show the signed pages to their friend, all of them with huge smiles as they exited; it was rather nice to see this repeat itself every few minutes, watching very, very happy, content readers happily holding their freshly signed books. That’s one of the simple pleasures of doing book events and signing sessions, seeing how it delights readers, and you know what, it’s a simple pleasure I never get tired of seeing.
(Above: Neil Slorance and Stephen Goodall at the Stripped Mini Comic Fair, below: Coll Hamilton and Carolyn Alexander)
From then on the weekend got busier and busier for me. I did manage to fit in a walk around the Mini Comics Fair though and chat to several of the small press comickers there, including the aforementioned Edward Ross, the Metaphrog crew, Neil Slorance (whose work is fast becoming a favourite with some of our crew), Stephen Goodall, Coll Hamilton and and Carolyn Alexander, Lynsey Hutchinson, Kathryn Briggs and more, and picked myself up a wee selection of comics for later reading. I know the organisers would have liked to have the mini comic bash in the main part of the gardens alongside the rest of the Book Fest, but there simply wasn’t any more room. So they had them directly across the road, just a few paces away, in the most splendid surroundings I have ever seen for a small press fair, being in a historic heritage property directly above the Book Festival’s own offices, a magnificent Georgian town house, all 18th century wood panelling and plasterwork ceilings. I could easily have spent much more time and more money there but there was always something else happening, not to mention the matter of preparing for the next day’s schedule.
(the Stripped Mini Comics fair in Charlotte Square)
And that next day was even busier for me, several events to take in, interviews to take part in and the small matter of chairing another event. The day started with Mary and Bryant Talbot talking with Teddy Jamieson, and naturally as well as discussing their previous and upcoming work (Mary’s Sally Heathcote, Suffragette, which looks like it will see print next spring, a fourth and fifth Grandville from Bryan) the subject of their unprecedented win at the Costa literary award, a first for a graphic work, was raised. This was a topic which came up quite a bit when I was chatting to other comickers in between events, it’s really been a boost to a lot of us involved in the medium. After this I had the pleasure of hanging with Arthur C Clarke winning novelist and comics scribe Lauren Beukes and artist Inaki Miranda. The weather gods, for once, had favoured us (which is not always the case at the Edinburgh festivals! Indeed Lauren had come prepared with a new raincoat just in case) and we got to sit outside while planning how the guys wanted to do their talk, which I was chairing. Interestingly this was the first time writer and artist had met in person, their collaboration on the excellent Fairest: Hidden Kingdom story arc was conducted online and through telepathy using crystals found only in a remote series of caves in Lauren’s homeland of South Africa.
(Bryan and Mary Talbot signing after their talk)
You’d never know this from their rapport though and it was clear the two of them were having a terrific time. Lauren had been there for a couple of days, also taking part in an event discussing her prose work, for which she has garnered (deservedly so) a formidable reputation (her most recent genre-crossing novel, The Shining Girls, partakes of science fiction, crime and horror; it’s disturbing and compelling in equal measures, see James’ recent review of it here), poor Inaki had arrived just that morning and already we were prodding him to get ready, but he was game for it, driven along by endless good natured teasing from Lauren. Regular readers will know Lauren and Inaki from their Director’s Commentary guest post they were kind enough to do for us, and having talked with them before for that and then again more recently ahead of their arrival in Edinburgh we all had that nice feeling that although this was a first meeting for the three of us we also sort of knew each other already, and it made it an absolute delight to work with them, especially as they had a good idea of how they wanted to present their talk (a sort of process talk, a little similar to how they approached their guest Commentary).
(Inaki Miranda and Lauren Beukes at the Edinburgh Book Festival)
The talk went very well and took in the mechanics of collaborating between writer and artist when both live in different continents, the approach to characters and story, setting and the role of sexuality and violence in the tale. Lauren was at great pains to use these latter aspects carefully, mindful of the reputation comics get for the way they portray sex, representation of women and violent acts (sadly sometimes criticisms of how comics show these can be quite justified), and the sexuality here was more of the naturally sensual nature of Rapunzel. Some violence in comics can be too ‘consequence free’, Lauren argued, huge superhuman fist-fights that look spectacular but give a cartoony, showy view of physical violence. In one harrowing scene in Fairest Rapunzel is in a fight and she is beaten, extremely badly. Both she and Inaki wanted this to be realistic, to show the horrid brutality of repeatedly striking another person, and they talked us through this scene, with Inaki’s art fragmenting as Rapunzel is repeatedly struck and begins to fade out. They didn’t want to glamorise the violence and I think their depiction was an interesting and mature way to show the scene. During the Q&A with the audience one young woman asked for advice in developing her own work, and both writer and artist offered some very helpful and encouraging suggestions. At the signing afterwords in the on-site bookstore sales must have been very good, because they actually sold out of their volume of Fairest!
The rest of this part of the weekend saw me interviewing for the short video pieces the Book Festival has been posting up on their YouTube Channel (you may already have seen some of them as we’ve been embedding them), including one with Lauren and Inaki and another with some bloke called Neil Gaiman. Worry not, you don’t have to put up with me in the frame as I stood behind the camera crew asking the questions! But it was nice to get to take part in a couple of these events, a whole bunch of Book Festival and comicker folk have contributed to them and more will be appearing online shortly. On a related note I have to say a thank you to Neil, as a snafu over interview schedules meant our spot for the video got bumped, but he overheard and despite his packed schedule made sure to fit us in a little later so we still got it in the can. I managed to get in some questions about the upcoming new Sandman, working with JH Williams III and his Doctor Who work and other recent Neil-themed BBC collaborations, I’m sure the video will be up in the near future and we’ll point you to it, of course.
(Neil Gaiman at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, photos from my Flickr, click for larger ones)
After that for the rest of that evening and the next day I could go back to simply being in the audience and enjoying the events. Hannah Berry had the daunting task of chairing Neil Gaiman’s Sandman talk for Stripped (Neil, as is now almost customary for him each August, was at the Book Festival doing numerous events, including Stripped). It is always a pleasure to hear Neil talking about his work, and for me it was an especial delight to hear him spending an hour discussing the Sandman, my all-time favourite comics series. Poor Hannah was teased mercilessly if playfully by Neil throughout their talk, but it was all very good natured and he was clearly relishing the chance to go back and talk about the Sandman, how he got into comics writing, how the story developed, him learning more as it progressed, and now this return to the Dreaming. The hour passed far too quickly and before the end Neil asked the audience not to applaud for him but to instead give that round of applause to Hannah for being such a good sport through their talk (personally I think she did a great job and so did everyone else I talked to).
The evening for me was finished off with an event I personally wanted to be at very much, the late night Iain Banks tribute. This would have been where the mighty Banksie would have been talking about his new (and sadly final) novel had he been fit enough, but after his shockingly sudden decline and departure to join the Sublimed of his Culture this spring some of his friends and fellow Scots authors – Val McDermid, Ian Rankin and Ken MacLeod – took to the stage in his honour, and Neil Gaiman, busy with a massive signing queue in the tent next door after his Sandman talk, took a few minutes from his signing duties to nip into the theatre to share an anecdote about his younger days at a science fiction convention and a drunken Iain Banks scaling the outside of the Metropole hotel in Brighton. It was a peculiar event, readings from Iain’s older and new work, his friends and fellow writers sharing memories of the man himself and the audience too being included, asked to share their thoughts and memories of Iain. Jura, one of the festival’s sponsors, had kindly arranged for everyone in the audience to be serve a dram of their fine single malt after the event, and his long-time friend Ken MacLeod lead us all in a toast. Sad, sad, sad to think of the Book Festival without Iain’s smiling presence, and yet heartening to see him so warmly remembered, there in spirit.
(one of The Guardian’s literary deckchairs which were scattered around the gardens to relax on between events at the Book Fest, this one quoting Consider Phlebas from the late, great Iain M Banks)
A final event for me and another bright and sunny day from the weather gods, I was meeting Inaki to go to the event with Martin Rowson and Rob Davis talking with Stuart Kelly, and in a good bit of timing we found them both already chatting by the author’s yurt, along with Emma Vieceli. This constantly bumping into comics creators was a theme for this entire weekend, every time I was coming or going from events I’d bump into folks – oh look, there’s John Higgins getting ready for a panel, there’s Dan Abnett, I’d cross paths with Garen Ewing or Gary Northfield while there would be a sudden flurry of activity and everyone’s heads would turn to take in Sarah McIntyre passing by in one of her wonderful costumes (I think literary critic and comics fan Stuart Kelly was the only one who came near her with his Riddler costume for one of his talks!). Rob and Martin were discussing adapting literary classic to the comics medium, Martin mostly on his very fine Tristram Shandy and Rob, of course, on his magnificent two volume take on the Cervantes’ immortal Don Quixote.
(Rob Davis and Martin Rowson (in natty hat) signing after their Stripped event)
It was a fascinating talk, taking in not just how you approach adapting major works of literature but, equally important, why you do it. Both had their own ideas but both agreed very much on the fact that you had to be bringing something different to the work or it was pointless doing it, that you had to be able to retell the story to a new audience, staying true to the original’s theme while still bringing something fresh, a very difficult trick to pull off. Some may think that adapting an existing work is easier than having to script an original from scratch and then illustrate it, but it isn’t, and to be honest I suspect in some ways it may be even more difficult than writing new stories from scratch. Rob had planned some of his approach ahead, scripting it beginning with dialogue, while Martin said that he often didn’t know how he would handle each segment until he started it, he found himself unable to work from a script of storyboard (he said he did try it once but it simply would not work for him and he had to give that project up). It was a great talk, not least because their chair, Stuart Kelly (now out of his Riddler costume after his Batman talk), has a hugely impressive knowledge and appreciation of all sorts of literature which he could use to refer to Rob and Martin’s adaptation.
As you are probably getting from this report (which has, as usual, ended up being far longer than I planned – sorry! So much going on and I know I am still missing huge chunks out…) it was a tremendously busy four days. Some writers and artists I got to chat with for a few moments in passing, some I got to talk to for a bit longer, and there are others I missed getting to speak to altogether. This was a theme I heard from most of those present – there were so many events packed into Stripped that we were all coming and going so frequently, stopping to get a quick break and a drink and snack in the author’s yurt then back out for more, so that pretty much all of us missed some folks entirely and had to make that usual festival or convention dilemma decision of which clashing events we could go to and which we would have to miss out on. But while we all lamented this, I didn’t meet anyone who thought it a particularly bad thing, because, quite frankly, it was caused by a real embarrassment of riches. The Book Festival team – Roland, Janet, Kirsten and the rest, please take a very well deserved bow – had delivered us a huge and varied programme that really was, in effect, a mini comics festival within the main Book Fest.
Another aspect I picked up on talking to authors and artists and publishers between events was how happy most of them were to be there and at the sheer scale of the comics programming the Book Festival gang had put together. Pretty much every comicker I talked to saw this as hugely positive – the world’s biggest literary festival not just including comics (as they had for several years) but shouting about them from the rooftops. This and the Talbots’ Costa win and the media coverage of the Festival that concentrated on the comics strand all combined to give everyone a hugely positive, very optimistic feeling – there was a really great vibe coming out of this, and how many of the comickers thought it showed our beloved medium is being perceived, not just by other comics readers but by publishers, literary organisations, the media and non comics readers who have been tempted in by events like these to start trying some graphic works (just the other day I suggested some graphic novels to a reader on Twitter who had been intrigued after the Stripped events).
I’m very much inclined to share this optimistic view, and yes some of that comes from the happy energy of the event, but it was more than that – as I said Bryan and Mary Talbot’s Costa literary award came up often talking to other comickers, and the upcoming Angouleme-style Lakes festival, along with the Edinburgh International Book Festival’s events were all combining to make many comickers feel that there was a real momentum to how the wider reading and publishing world is viewing comics now, and that’s something I think we can all take and build on. Given the pre-eminent position of the Edinburgh Book Fest as the largest lit-fest of its type in the world and the influence that has, I’d be surprised if this didn’t help to open more doors for graphic works at more literary festivals, and hopefully a wider audience. One of the things I loved about Stripped, apart from the diverse nature of the creators (which mirrors the diverse nature of the authors in the main programme each year) is that although Stripped was highlighted to all and even had its own wee programme to draw attention to it, it was still very much a part of the main Book Festival. As with the Talbots’ win at the Costas, there was no ghettoisation going on here, the comics works were treated the same as all the other adult and children’s works at the festival, simply as good books and good reading by interesting creators, and I see that as a good thing.
(above: another fabulous outfit and headgear from the one and only Sarah McIntyre, here with Gary Northfield, who was fresh from several hours of comics workshops for young readers, below, another shot – how could I resist? – of Sarah’s costume along with Gary and in the hooped top in centre her collaborator, author Philip Reeve)
It doesn’t mean we stop having our own conventions, but it does, I hope, mean comics works will play an increasing role in all sorts of literary gatherings and festivals and the wider reading audience that lets creators and publishers have access to. And that has to be a good thing, surely? For the literary festivals too I see this as a good move, widening their audience base – I know many at Stripped had been at previous Book Festival events, but I strongly suspect for quite a few this would have been the thing that got them to venture into Charlotte Square for the first time, and I hope that they will be back (and going to other events there as well). We know that sometimes large cultural events and spaces like lit fests or large galleries can be a little intimidating, leading to that “oh, not for the likes of me” feeling for some folks, and anything that breaks down those barriers and encourages more folks to come is a good thing in my book.
(some of the graphic novels on sale in the on-site bookstore at the Edinburgh International Book Festival)
The Book Festival has seen another increase in both ticket and book sales this year – I don’t know what part Stripped played in that, but it’s hard not to think it must have helped, especially given the enthusiasm of the comics readers at the Festival and the piles of media attention the Festival crew helped generate that focused on the comics strand. I have no idea if Stripped will return or if it would be quite as huge as this year (so many variables – other parts of publishing demand attention too, after all, plus issues most of us never seen such as availability and costs issues, sponsorship etc) if it does, but I’d be very surprised if future Book Festivals didn’t feature a much larger graphic novel segment than in previous years. All in all, as well as being a hugely enjoyable series of events I think we can see such a large comics presence at the Edinburgh Book Fest as a confirmation of what a lot of us have been saying: it’s a damned good time to be creating and reading comics in the UK right now, and further afield. Here’s to more good comics and more good events…
This report was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog
Meet Detective Inspector Harry Absalom; Inspector Morse he isn’t. Old Harry is a bitter, tough as old boots copper with a very special beat – the supernatural and demonic and the bloody odd (with an emphasis on ‘bloody’). This isn’t some sort of X-Files inspired law enforcement agents deal with bizarre cases though, oh no. Harry’s department is above even the Special Branch or the anti-terrorism units; the people he answers to are the people, as he so charmingly puts it, that even the senior politicians and civil servants pee themselves in fear when they hear their names. This is a Britain a little different from the one we know, following the capture of a real, live demon in the 16th century, a deal is struck between the throne and Hell, which, as was the fashion for treaties of those days, was cemented by inter-marriage – several of the noble houses of Albion and the infernal regions have inter-married and inter-bred to increase their family power and influence. You think the Old Boy network is bad for hidden influence and string pulling to direct affairs of state? Imagine when many of those old boys are ancient half-human, half-demonic creatures of huge power.
Some are well-behaved, at least in public, and seem human, others are simply a Hellish mess, inhuman and uncontrollable, locked away in a secure countryside facility, others sometimes push their influence further than is allowed. And then in comes Harry, the copper charged with policing The Accord and quite delighted if that involves smashing the face of some part demonic upper class ponce. Joined by a newly transferred officer, Jemima Hopkins, we follow Harry on a series of increasingly desperate events, from small scale (mind reading tricks by low life to steal PIN numbers, a new angle on identity and credit card theft) to escaped demonic inmates from the rural facility, right through to a fracturing of history that sees pivotal scenes from the history of London spilling into the present – pursuing a villain down a street they find themselves in the middle of the Great Fire, severed heads are found in the Thames, but rather than a single murder there are thousands, and all Roman, those killed by Boudica…
It’s a world populated by grotesques where nothing is quite as it seems (Harry himself has a hidden past involving something bad happening to his family and a cancer eating at his body while a diseased doppelganger taunts him, unknown to his team), Jemima, the up and coming high-flyer has her own secrets and those who oversee and direct the team also have their own agenda. The art by new talent Tiernen Trevallion is superb and stylish, perfectly suited to the mood of Gordon Rennie’s series, while Rennie not only turns in a cracking set of tales and neatly builds up interest in the characters, he develops a feeling of far more going on behind the scenes, waiting to be explained in later tales, while also delighting in lashing out plenty of cynical, deeply sarcastic dark humour, gleefully taking swipes at pop culture and class issues. For me Absalom falls somewhere between its brilliant 2000 AD stablemate Stickleback and Mignola’s Hellboy, and believe me that is high praise. More of this, please.
Starring Jean Dujardin, Michael Youn, Sylvie Testud, Daniel Prevost, Alexandra Lamy
Lucky Luke, the lonesome cowboy who can drawn and shoot faster than his shadow has been around for a long time – 1946, in fact, since the great Morris first drew his Wild West hero. Over the decades he’s remained popular, being translated into many languages (including, now, a good array of BD albums from Cinebook in the UK) and into other media. Previous filmic outings have never proven as good as the long-running comic though – until now. I actually first saw this live action take on Lucky Luke a couple of years ago at my annual pilgrimage to the Edinburgh International Film Festival. I’d decided to go but didn’t have high expectations – to be honest I was thinking it was likely to be around the level of the live action Asterix films from France, that is to say passable but not especially good. I was pleasantly surprised – my friends and I at that Film Festival screening laughed continually throughout the film and spent a good while in the pub discussing it afterwards. All of us agreed it was so choc-full of details it demanded another viewing on DVD at home.
And then a couple of years passed and for some reason it simply never got a UK release, which infuriated me – terrible to see a great film at a festival, tell everyone about it but they can’t see it… I’m delighted to say that now that is being rectified with a DVD release at the end of this month. I was lucky enough to get an advance disc and re-watching the film I found it even funnier than the first time around. In fact it’s one of the funniest films I’ve seen in years (puns and jokes abound even in the closing credits although it might stretch your French a little to get them!). The film is loaded with humour, from jokey dialogue and characters through to more subtle jokes in the background or in the wonderfully detailed sets, which are as close as a live-action can get to re-creating the look of a comic, all the buildings looking like they have been sketched freehand without a ruler, giving Luke’s world an appropriately cartoony appearance while still remaining very Western. Visually it draws on the comics but also from a rich tradition of American Westerns, from the iconic landscapes of a John Ford flick to the Spaghetti Westerns of the great Sergio Leone (with, I think a tip of the hat to Mel Brook’s magnificent Blazing Saddles).
In fact the opening flashback of young Luke witnessing the murder of his parents by desperadoes is heavily indebted stylistically to Sergio Leone (no bad thing in my book). Flash forward again and we have our cowboy hero meeting the President in a special railroad car (comically wreathed in cigar smoke, a jokey nod to the fact our once smoking cowboy now just has a blade of grass in his lips instead of ciggies – better example for the kids!), in a scene that borrows from Leone’s operatic Once Upon a Time in the West. The railroad is coming to unite both side of the United States and make it into a full nation. But before he can drive in the golden rail spike to unite the lines to the coasts Luke’s old stomping ground of Daisy Town has to be sorted out. Once a peaceful haven it is now a riot of outlaws under the leadership of gambler and conjurer Poker; the President asks Luke to clean up the town and so our hero rides in alone to the viper’s nest. He may be outnumbered and out-gunned but Luke, with his trusty steed Jolly Jumper, is in a class of his own and the jail is soon full of villains. All seems well until Poker forces a proper, old school Western showdown in the street. Needless to say he can’t outdraw Luke, and as the shot rings out he falls dead… Luke is mortified, he uses his guns but never kills, and thinking he’s taken a life could destroy him faster than any gang of bandidos…
And I won’t tell you anymore of the plot because I don’t want to spoil it for you. But the story is only one half of the tremendous fun on offer here. The film is quickfire gags and some brilliant characters (Calamity Jane, toughest gal gun in the West, but with a girly crush on Luke under that hard as nails exterior, Jesse James constantly quoting Shakespeare like a true ham, James and Billy the Kid trying to light one of Luke’s blades of grass to smoke it and getting wasted), the cowering locals in Daisy Town will only venture outdoors in barrels for protection, the details in sets and even clothes are just perfect. It’s full of enough humour so that the younger readers the the comics are aimed at will be kept laughing, but it also has plenty of little asides aimed at the adult audiences, not to mention the plethora of references to other classic Western film that will reward the adult viewer. It’s pure, wonderfully played, wonderfully detailed fun throughout and Dujardin, here in a pre The Artist role, is perfect as a live action Luke, although of course when the French cast talk to him he sounds more like Looky Luke! But the French language in such an American genre as a Western actually adds to the good natured humour of the whole film. Unmissable fun and one of the funniest flicks I have seen in years.
This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog, where there is a competition currently running to win a DVD of the film.
It’s 1968; Jim and Rita Baker are eagerly awaiting their first child. In a sequence evoking that long-gone swinging Sixties era, Rob Davis’ lovely art sees Jim puttering around town on his scooter, a cool, hip 60s young man, trying to find a Nelson statuette for his imminently arriving child as a gift. He had a large figure of Britain’s greatest naval hero as a kid and he plans to call his son (he’s sure it will be a boy) Nelson, and he wants his wee lad to have his own Nelson figure right from birth as a keepsake, going through a succession of shops, explaining it to them, telling them he is about to be a dad (the shop assistants in turn either bored, disinterested or amused), being told to try here, there and everywhere, going to one store after the other on his scooter.
(Rob Davis’ cool art for the start of Nelson, evoking London, the Swinging Sixties, the cool young lad-about-town with his scooter, about to become more than a hip young lad, about to become a dad…)
He succeeds but by the time he returns he finds Rita has gone into labour and been rushed to hospital. All a-fluster he heads double time for the hospital and, in an amazingly simple yet touching scene opens the ward door to see his wife holding their baby child in her arms. “Nelson?” he says softly, Davis deftly conveying the astonishment, wonder and terror that comes with the arrival of a child into your life in one frame.
(new dad, gobsmacked in the doorway to the ward – is that really my child? Oh my god, I’m a dad, I have to look after this tiny life for as long as I can. Terrifying and wonderful, all caught in one simple scene by Rob)
Nelson is a remarkably unusual creature – it is an anthology, but not the sort we normally see, where each creator tells their own short tale. It takes in over 50 of the UK’s finest comics creators – Davis himself, Woodrow Phoenix (who co-edits with Davis), Sarah McIntyre, D’Israeli, Jamie Smart, Posy Simmonds, Hunt Emerson, Rian Hughes, INJ Culbard, Darryl Cunningham, Simone Lia, Duncan Fegredo, Garen Ewing. Paul Grist and many more – but they are all telling the same story and it is the one story that each and every one of us has: the story of our life. Each artist takes a moment in Nel’s life, a different day and time, each in a different style, progressing through from her birth, through the 70s, 80s, 90s and up to the present day, from birth to middle age and all that comes in between, the wonderful little discoveries (beautiful books, being able to draw, ice-cream, friends) and all the little heartaches we endure along the way (a lost sibling, trying to define who you are, failed romances, life being unfair).
You might think that changing artistic styles every few pages would be confusing, but actually it suits the story extremely well; each new artist is dealing with a different part of Nel’s life and we, those around us, and the world itself, are always in flux, constantly changing (we need only look through old family photo albums to see that; a common thread we can discern, of course, but run through the endless loom of change, because life is change), with styles ranging from Davis’ lovely rendering of a hip, cool 60s (so effortlessly evoking the era) to the delightful (and very appropriate for the age of Nel) more joyful cartoonish style of Sarah McIntyre depicting Nel’s first day at school (complete with Space Hopper – remember those?), which I defy you not to smile at. In fact the whole story has much in common with a family album, offering us glimpses into certain moments of time, leaving us to fill in the narrative in-between those moments of frozen time and memory; the reader and their imagination here are trusted to be a part of the experience. Some moments are large, but others are simply that elusive, ever-changing beast, everyday life; all are compelling.
(the early 70s – strikes, 3 day working week, cutbacks, ill-advised facial hair stylings and Nel’s first day at school, complete with Space Hopper. Sarah McIntyre, as usual, makes me smile)
It’s a bold experiment, especially from an independent publisher, but the effect is engrossing, drawing the reader into the wonder and chaos of a life and it is impossible not to identify with Nel and those around her at some points in her life, not least her quest for self identity, not just in her rebellious adolescence but for her whole life (and really, do any of us every finish with that search for who we are?). For those of us of a similar age there is a touch of warm nostalgia to be picked up in the details too – oh, I remember that style, those bikes we rode, that music we listened to – which adds a warm touch, but wisely the book doesn’t trade overly on it, they are there as details, but it never becomes mawkish (which would be so easy to do), instead the primary focus is always on Nel, on growing up, on life.
(ah, sweet nostalgia – it’s 1982, young friends, the ‘tranny’ – transistor radio to you – and the happening pop music that is the soundtrack to your young life in Philip Bond’s segment, the pop culture and teen friendships nicely contrasted with checking out the old Protect & Survive guide to nuclear annihilation, preparation for which was a popular hobby of the period)
Trying to figure out just who you are and where you fit into this crazy world is a Herculean task, made harder for Nel because she has a continual feeling of missing something. Many of us may experience that sort of feeling from time to time, but in her case it is almost literal – as her story unfolds we find out that she was one half of a pair of twins, but Sonny, her brother, passed away not longer after being born. Ellen Lindner reveals this in a beautifully moving scene where Nel’s mum is organising her wee girl’s birthday, all is cakes and balloons and fun, but she is fighting not to break down because – because if it is Nel’s birthday then it should be Sonny’s too, but her wee boy never had the chance to experience birthdays.
(Nel’s mum pours her heart out to her friend over her lost child in a scene by Ellen Lindner)
She’s tried to hold it in, but on this day she turns to her friend Marlene, who also lost a child, and it pours out. Since she was a toddler Nel has talked to this lost brother, almost like an imaginary child, and in her adult years, especially when things aren’t going well for her, she talks still to Sonny. Is the spirit of her twin with her through her convoluted life or is it only in Nel’s mixed up head? We don’t know and really it doesn’t matter, it’s her emotional reaction to Sonny that is important and the way she feels losing him damaged what she was meant to be.
It is a remarkable piece of work, highly unusual and brilliantly done – kudos must go to Woodrow and Rob and all involved, and to Blank Slate for being innovative enough to publish such a work, which I think is destined to become a bit of a landmark British comic publication (I already know it is going straight into my personal Best of the Year list) and frankly if you value quality comics work you have to have a copy in your collection, because it is the book we are all going to be talking about this season and you don’t want to be left out now, do you?
(1986 and it is birthday time, always double edged things, birthdays, especially when you are one of what should have been twins. Add in youth, drinks and sexual tension, mix and stand well back in Ade Salmon’s chapter)
Nel’s story weaves through childhood pranks and games to rejecting the straightjacket of school, exploring friendships, romances, art and herself, from art school rebellion to experiencing her first E and Rave Culture in the 90s, watching those she grew up with get on with their own lives and wondering how her life compares (don’t we all? Especially when the 2000s come along and she can compare lives with friends on Facebook – really, that guy from school is grown up, good job, married, kids? Him? Wow! We’ve all done that…), negotiating her own troubled family life (a small scene on her first school day will later come to have huge significance for their family years later), wondering if she should surrender to the daily job grind or still try and do something with her art.
(a grown up Nel wondering where her life went, who she is now, those dreams of youth battered by real life – often such a bully – drowning it in drink, lost dreams and talking to her long-dead twin Sonny. Is he really there talking to her or just in her head? Does it matter? It’s part of how Nel realises herself, for good or ill)
You may wonder why we aren’t offering as generous a discount on Nelson as we normally do with our graphic novels, especially given how much we like it. There is a good reason for that – Blank Slate is giving the profits on the first print run to the homelessness charity Shelter, and indeed a number of comics retailers, including ourselves, are also donating along with them. So we can’t offer you that little extra we normally would to make it easier to try something new and wonderful. But we can still offer you Nelson – a fascinating, unusual landmark publication in Brit comics, a moving tale that works not only as a snapshot of a woman’s life but as a snapshot of the finest comics talent working in the UK right now (seriously, look at that list of contributors, running the range of age, approach and art styles in British comics right now, and hey, we love British comics right now, we really do, it’s happening) – and as a bonus you get to support a charity that is needed more than ever into the bargain. You get a brilliant book, you support UK independent comics publishing and you get to help someone who really needs a hand too. Go on, buy one for yourself and buy one as a present while you’re at it.
Nelson has just been released by Blank Slate and can be found with other Blank Slate titles in your local FPI, on our site and a number of other quality comics stores such as Gosh!, Page 45, Plan B Books and others. Nelson Week sees some of the team at the excellent Thought Bubble in Leeds this coming weekend, there’s a signing in the London Forbidden Planet Megastore, an exhibition starting in the Cartoon Museum in London and a cracking launch night in Gosh to look forward to as well. In fact a whole brace of new titles has just arrived from Blank Slate alongside Nelson, and this week we’re going to be running a preview of a different one each day – Richard has already posted up a look at Uli Osterle’s fascinating looking Hector Umbra yesterday and we’ll have more all week, so don’t touch that dial.
I’ve been pretty delighted to see the crew at Fantagraphics translating and publishing some of the excellent work of acclaimed French BD artist Jaques Tardi over the last year or so (with more to come), but I’ve been especially keen to read the translation of his It Was the War of the Trenches, having first come across it in French a few years ago, just a few pages from it extracted in a French comics mag I’d picked up. Even those few pages made quite an impression on me and I’ve had a strong desire to read the whole book ever since, so before we start kudos to Fanta for publishing this and other works by Tardi for the English language readership.
Where do you start when your subject is the Great War? How do you approach a conflict which had casualties running into the millions? Which brought new levels of unbelievable, mechanised, mass-produced horror and slaughter to the world, which saw the fall of governments and whole empires, redrew the map, shattered an entire generation and broke social divides? The statistics from the First World War are mind-numbing; they become mere numbers after a while. Our brains simply cannot really process the fact of millions of deaths – we need the personal level in order for us to emotionally engage with the savage events and, like Mills and Colquhoun did with the classic British WWI series Charley’s War, we get that personal, soldier’s level view of events. The men in these trenches may only represent a fraction of the millions from many nations dug into the scarred earth of the trenches, but they are personalised, they’re real and that makes it much easier to identify with them and empathise with the awfulness of trench warfare.
(Tardi captures the industrialisation of the slaughter of war and contrasts the awful effectiveness of manufactured steel and explosives against human bodies and the very earth itself, a Hellish landscape where even the dead cannot rest; (c) Tardi, published Fantagraphics)
Lacking the ongoing characters of a serial strip like Charley’s War, Tardi opts for a more documentary approach, selecting scenes from the war and following a short story of a small group or an individual caught up in a collective madness beyond their control (reminiscent of Burns’ approach in the highly respected Civil War series, using personal tales and reminiscences to give us a human, personal face to vast events). Starting with an even-handed scene setter showing the daily routine of shelling from both the German and French, which then introduces the trenches and the hell of No Man’s Land, cleverly introducing the first man he will follow, Binet. Alas, when we first see him, Private Binet is already dead and rotting away in No Man’s Land, so we already know that he’s going to be one of those vast numbers of statistics. As Tardi goes back to fill in some of Binet’s life he becomes a person, not another number. I think it’s quite brave of Tardi to have as his first character a man who’s quite misanthropic and unlikeable; he’s not trying to paint all of the fallen as saints or heroic paragons of virtue and honour, they are people, some good, some miserable, some funny, some selfish. Binet is not very likeable, but he doesn’t deserve the dreadful death he will endure.
And that’s surely part of Tardi’s point, that this huge, mechanical, industrialised war swallowed all who came before it, regardless of their character, the good and the bad, the poor and the noble born. The suffering Tardi portrays is universal to all of the front line troops – on both sides – and civilians caught up in the maelstrom of events too. A scene from the earlier, more mobile segment of the war shows advancing German troops driving Belgian refugees in front of them to act as human shields, uncaring of the vicious immorality of their actions. It sounds like a piece of the (rather obvious to modern, media savvy eyes) propaganda that was circulated in Allied nations about the ‘monstrous Hun’, but actually it is based on real events. Not that Tardi paints only the decisions like this by war-mongering Prussian generals, he shows the French commanders as uncaring and immoral as the German ones, when they order their men to fire anyway because, after all, the human shield isn’t composed of their countryfolk…
(Belgian refugees caught between equally uncaring French and German troops in the early days of the war, (c) Tardi, published Fantagraphics)
A burning sense of injustice and anger runs throughout War of the Trenches, and rightly so; to anyone who has read the history of that disastrous, monstrous start to the last century it isn’t hard to see why anyone should still be angry about it ninety years after the Armistice. He highlights the sheer ridiculousness of the war, of how nations and entire empires were prepared to spend their entire wealth and resources on slaughtering millions and yet for far less they could have housed, educated and fed every single one of their own citizens (including the many who lived in squalor and poverty, ignored by their countries until their countries required them ‘to do their duty’). He sketches the global nature of the conflict, of regiments drawn from the far corners of the world empires of the French, British and others, the Sikh soldiers from India fighting for the British Empire that had happily taken their country, the Algerian and Vietnamese troops from French colonies who, as Tardi points out, were pressed into service for the glory of France and who would, only a few decades later, be killing French troops as they fought for their own freedom, making a few pages of a single war into a shorthand for the seemingly constant conflicts which litter that entire century around the world.
(past conflicts may have ranged across the world – the French and British empires fighting from the Indies to the Americas, for example – but it took the Great War to make conflict so truly global. Not the best way to bring together the peoples of the world… (c) Tardi, published Fantagraphics)
It isn’t an easy read – there are moments of humour, but it is of the gallows variety (a pair of police who harassed soldiers end up strung up in a ruined village in front of the Charcuterie – the pork butcher’s shop, a macabre pun on referring to police as pigs). But for the most part it is, as you would expect given the subject matter, often grim reading. Which isn’t to say you shouldn’t read it, quite the reverse – yes, it is grim and frequently horror-filled, but Tardi draws on history and personalises it, bring huge events down to a human scale we can understand and empathise with in a way that we don’t always get from a large history volume (although for those who do want to learn more I’d recommend the highly respected Hew Strachan’s The First World War as a very accessible single volume introduction). I have actually read quite a bit of the history over the years but the visual aspect that comics bring to the human aspect of the history adds enormously to its impact, even more so than other visual medium, such as film, can manage (the classic WWI film J’Accuse – obviously an influence on Tardi – is a masterpiece in imagery, but unlike a comic you go at the filmaker’s pace; here you can pause on a scene, a frozen moment, an expression, a detail).
(several times Tardi uses a page layout which is reminiscent of some of the illustrated gazettes of the era; (c) Tardi, published Fantagraphics)
When I was a boy, first reading comics, most of the strips of the time made warfare seem like something of a Boy’s Own Adventure, with the notable exception of Mills and Colquhoun’s Charley’s War, which left a lifelong impression on me. So when I say Tardi’s War of the Trenches is the most powerful comic I’ve read on World War One since Charley’s War, you’ll understand what a compliment that is. The black and white art is perfectly suited to the era being covered, an era we are most used to seeing in monochrome film and photographs, while Tardi, not for the first time, proves himself a master of expression, the looks on the faces of the men caught up in the war speaking absolute volumes (a hallmark of a true master comics artist, a single frame depicting men’s expressions is worth pages of eloquent prose) and some pages are laid out in a fashion reminiscent of an illustrated gazette of the era (a nice touch). It’s a hugely powerful work, both moving and horrific and filled with anger for the suffering and injustices one group of ‘civilised’ humans can visit upon another (and in some scenes on their own people); as I said it isn’t the easiest read though, but then it shouldn’t be. And it does deserve to be read; as the last voices of those who were actually there are fading into silence works like this are needed to remind us of the monstrous acts we can be capable of in service to the beasts of jingoism and nationalism and hubris, that we should read them and take cautionary lessons from them. Never forget.
This review first appeared on the Forbidden Planet blog
On Saturday I took a very pleasant trip northwards from Edinburgh to Inverness to attend the third Hi-Ex, crossing over the mighty Forth Bridge (images of the 39 Steps playing in my mind as always when crossing this huge landmark which rears from the Forth like a Steel cousin to the Loch Ness Monster), around the coast of Fife, sun glittering on the Forth and the North Sea, Edinburgh across the water glimpsed in all her magnificent, volcanic majesty in profile against the still rising early morning sunshine. And on north, through Perth, through hills becoming mountains, still retaining their snowy caps even as daffodils and crocuses signal the rebirth of the land and spring at lower climes. Highland Cows and the occassional deer are glimpsed as the train climbs through the peaks of the British Isles, ears popping to remind you that you are ascending into the Highlands as the train rolls on, clickety-clack, clickety-clack. One of the simple pleasures of attending Hi-Ex is that most basic of travelling delights, sitting back and looking out the window. We’ve now got an admirable mixture of comics events in the UK, from the Indy press events to the big guns of Bristol and Birmingham, but I’d wager few of our comic cons offer such stunning landscapes on your voyages to them, right through the Cairngorms National Park, the last, great wilderness of the United Kingdom, home to our highest peaks. Yes, I know, this is indeed a blog about comics, but forgive me for waxing lyrical on my homeland (BTW, Visit Scotland, I’ll have that endorsement check now, please), but seriously, if you are travelling northwards to Hi-Ex then enjoying some of the finest scenery in the entire kingdom is a part of the pleasure.
(“these aren’t the comics you’re looking for, move along…” Some of the 501st directing visitors where to park their landspeeders at Hi-Ex, click the pics for the larger versions on Flickr)
(Hi-Ex co-organiser Colonel Richmond Clements, with artist Alex Moore. Not pictured, leading brand of stain remover who were sponsoring Rich’s ensemble)
It’s been a great day, as anyone who followed my and other attendee’s Tweets will attest. With the Eden Court venue having a very good complimentary wifi several of us were able to log on and enjoy posting updates on Twitter and a bit of live-blogging. Several times I cyber-squatted next to Dave Evans and the FutureQuake Press table to post some updates; I have to say there’s something enjoyable about being able to sit cross-legged with a laptop across your knees posting updates on the con and even getting some photos onto the web. Gone are the days when we attended conventions, wrote up our report in the local inn afterwards then either handed the copy to a fast pony express rider to carry to the editor or used the new fangled telegraphic device. By the time I stepped off the Edinburgh train the Saturday Hi-Ex (there are many more events on the Sunday) was in full swing – after a short walk along the Ness I came to Eden Court and a plethora of Imperial Stormtroopers guarding the entrance, a whole bunch of the 501st on parade. Inside I was to find that Hi-Ex has grown – when I came to the first convention two years back most of was in the adjoining 19th century Bishop’s Palace. Now the main room in the Palace was used for the role playing gamers while the dealers and the artists now shared one much larger space than before in the main theatre, in the spot where at the first con the panels were held. The theatre seating cleverly recesses backwards into the wall leaving a great two-storey space, plenty of room for the writers, publishers and dealers to set up their tables and for the crowds to get around.
(some of the artist’s tables – Alex Moore, Gary Erskine and Simon Fraser just visible from this angle)
(Looking down into the main hall with the artists and dealers’ tables)
And crowds there were – it was impressively busy by midday and quite a few of the dealers’ table and the artists had good crowds around them. Dave Evans with his FutureQuake Press table told me that by mid afternoon he thought he’d done as much as he’d do at a busy day at the Bristol comic con, so he was a happy bunny and there was busy traffic around all the table. The artists seemed to be doing a steady trade with original artworks being browsed and sketches drawn and again I noticed that the contingent of manga artists, along with the Beano crew, were a big draw with the younger convention goers (Asia Alfasi seemed to have a constant line of folks waiting to get a manga portrait made and her mini-comics tied up with ribbon were things of beauty). Actually again, as with the first Hi-Ex, I was struck with the number of kids who were there and clearly having a ball, it’s a very family-friendly event and although I don’t have a breakdown of guests I got the strong impression a number were local families who had come in because it looked like a fun event, complete with face-painting, sketching and how-to classes. Sarah McIntyre and friends were obviously enjoying themselves with the kids and I noticed she was constantly posting up more artwork some of the delighted kids were making with her.
(Sarah McIntyre and her other half Stuart – you have to dig Sarah’s Gerry Anderson UFO-era retro SciFi costume and shiny white space boots!)
(Dave Shelton with his Good Dog, Bad Dog, part of the very first wave of DFC Library releases which we’ve been enjoying. Fortunately the dogs were all house trained)
There was a good mixture of folks in the main hall – guests ranged from some of the small press crew (I’ve come home with several fun looking mini-comics, which I will post more on later) through to very well known names. In addition to the aforementioned Sarah McIntyre, Asia Alfasi and Dave Evans there was Gary Northfield, Gary Erskine, John Higgins, Jeremy Briggs (flying the flag for Down The Tubes), the boys from the Indy Scottish superhero movie I mentioned recently, Electric Man, Simon Fraser, Cliodhna Lyons, Will Pickering (fresh from doing a stint as an extra on the John Landis Burke & Hare movie – clearly not content with just being the artist on the B&H graphic novel), Colin McNeil, Kevin F Sutherland, Charlie Adlard, Graeme Neil Reid (who I somehow kept missing), Cam Kennedy, Andi Ewing, the Com.X boys, Roger Gibson and Vince Danks and from the Harker comics (solid faves around and more. Panels included discussion on horror comics and the European scene and Kevin Sutherland managed to entertain and more than likely scandalise some with the Scottish Falsetto Sock Puppet Theatre which had me roaring with laughter (seriously, I know many of you have seen bits of the Falsettos at various cons or the videos Kev posts on YouTube, but if you get the chance to go and see the whole performance, take it, you’ll thank me. His Sock Puppet Star Wars is genius).
(Dave Evans with the latest issue of FutureQuake)
(Asia Alfasi’s manga portraits were hugely popular and despite being so busy she always seemed to be smiling)
Co-organisers Richmond Clements and Vicki Stonebridge, ably assisted by a team of enthusiastic young helpers, were buzzing around radiating a fascinating mixture of urgency, pleasure, concern, tiredness and happiness that I generally associate with convention organisers. Rich was especially fetching in his dapper three-piece white suit, somewhere between Randall & Hopkirk, Deceased and a scary Southern evangelist minister crossed with Colonel Sanders (Kentucky Fried Comics anyone?). The now annual Hi-Ex charity auction took place in the afternoon – Rich told me he was pretty pleased with the amount they had raised between the auction and raffle (we’ll get the final figure later in the week, but unofficially it was looking like £1500 quid when I had to leave) and, in a very touching gesture, a number of the artists present came up to Rich to present their own further contribution in the shape of money they had made from their sketching during the day. Since I know many artists who attend comic cons rely on paid sketchwork as part of the way they can make a convention financially viable for them that’s a really generous move on their part and huge kudos to them.
(Roger Gibson and Vince Danks, the team behind FP blog fave Harker)
(Cliodhna Lyons, Deirde and Kyle Rogers with a fine array of mini-comics – including some in Irish Gaelic they were showing to some of the Scottish Gaelic readers of the Highlands. On the basis of Mr Rogers’ mini-comics he is a very sick man and I look forward to telling you more about that later)
All in all a cracking day out for kids and big kids alike – the only small niggle for me and, as I heard later, others, was the bar staff were rather bad (I gave up after several minutes of them taking turns to ignore me, heard later there had been other problems with service, which seems downright unprofessional not to mentions self defeating given the sheer number of visitors Hi-Ex was bringing in to the venue). But other than that minuscule aside I had a great time, even better than I had at the first Hi-Ex, and I loved that. It’s grown nicely, there’s more space, more guests (guessing the arts council funding must have helped a bit too and how great was it to see a comics event getting arts council help?), but it’s still at a nice, human scale that makes it very easy to move around, talk to folks and simply to enjoy it. Congrats to Vicki, Richmond and everyone else who made the third Hi-Ex a great success and here’s looking forward to it continuing to grow in future years.
(an Iron Man fan – perhaps he should have come as Big Daddy! – with adorable but getting a bit sleepy mini-fan’ there were a lot of very happy looking kids wandering around Hi-Ex)
(hunting the most dangerous of all prey – comics fans...)
I know more of you who were there will be posting your own write-ups and pics from Hi-Ex, so please do send in links to those postings (and also the folks who were at Schmurgencon or The Thing over the weekend too) and we’ll try and post up a links round-up for them for everyone; there are more photos from Hi-Ex on Flickr here.
Well we come to our last Best of the Year for the 2009 releases and before we embark on my own selection of graphic novels, books and movies from the previous year I’d like to thank all of the many guest bloggers who took part in our annual tradition; I hope you enjoyed them as much as I did and that the diversity of contributors meant there was an interesting variety of choices on offer. I certainly saw some I hadn’t had time to read yet but now want to track down (simply click on the Best of the Year 2009 tag or category to see them all). My own selections are, I’m afraid, less than concise and more rambling in nature (which is not unusual for me), but they were works that really stood out for me in 2009 from beautiful animations to dark and disturbing horror and comics work from glowing retro science fiction settings to real world reportage. I think again in terms of comics and in terms of SF&F publishing I was again utterly spoiled for choice; these works I’ve picked out here are only the tip of the iceberg, there were many more I thoroughly enjoyed this year, but there’s only so many you can squeeze into an article and I think I’ve squeezed in about as many as I dare, so here we go:
I’ve already flagged this up on the blog while I was in the process of reading it; with it only being published in December I think Footnotes has missed a lot of people’s Best of the Year selections, which is understandable but a shame, because it is a brilliant work. Not just because of its ‘worthy’ content which is a subject matter of recent and living history which demands further attention, not just because Sacco is so good at putting the intimate, personal face onto historical events, giving us real people we can relate to and empathise with and a voice to people who all too often are just background in a news report to most of us, but because as well as his well documented comics reportage (and I hugely admire him for going and living among the people he is covering, despite the not inconsiderable dangers to get those reports), he is also, quite simply, a bloody good cartoonist.
From small, almost cosy scenes inside small rooms to larger landscapes of the city and refugee camps, replete with fine details to draw the eye in, to good cutting, from the same location right after a massacre to the present day where it is a market, both on facing pages, one large panel each, simple, powerful. It’s a terrific comics achievement and, I think, the form makes the subject more accessible to many readers than any number of in depth prose pieces from well-meaning broadsheet reporters. It will make you angry at injustices and cruelties (on both sides), it will make you sad for the losses that seem to go on endlessly, but it will draw you in.
This graphic biography of one of the most iconic musicians of the 20th century is one I had been eager to read for a couple of years, since we first blogged about Reinhard Kleist publishing it in Germany. When one English language edition seemed to evaporate into thin air I thought I wasn’t going to see it, until SelfMadeHero stepped in with what I think was their first translated work from a modern creator. It was worth the wait – Kleist uses a mixture of biographical scenes with comics renditions of some of Cash’s songs to give not a cradle to grave exhaustive biography but to give the flavour and essence of a fascinating figure and a passionate, troubled artist. Read it while listening to a playlist of your favourite Man in Black tracks. Simply brilliant. (see the full review for more)
Another work I had been eagerly anticipating – I remember seeing some art from Grandville the year before last at the Edinburgh Book Festival where Bryan was speaking. The lovely clothbound hardback is a lovely looking book and the work itself is a delightful Steampunk science fiction piece, set in an alternate history with anthropomorphic characters (our lead hero, a Scotland Yard detective, is a badger) entangled in an international conspiracy with echoes of our own troubled present. All of this is depicted in Bryan’s fabulous art, with wonderful characters, some truly gorgeous depictions of an alternative Belle Époque Paris – the eponymous Grandville. Add in a good murder-conspiracy tale and a ton of references of all sorts, from nods to famous performers of the period to Tintin to Rupert the Bear, you’ll find yourself going back over it again and finding more details and references you didn’t get before.
I was quite surprised not to see this being mentioned more in people’s favourites of the year, perhaps because of its brevity or perhaps because it was way back in April and there’s been a lot of comics since then and its easy to forget just what you read this year among so many (I know I had to think about some, did I read that this year or the end of last? Oh yes…). Its a little annoying that its so open-ended, but then again its part of a triple whammy of new LOEG work, so that’s not really a criticism. Kev’s artwork is, as always, brilliant and full of little sneaky details that demand going back over it with a magnifying glass while Alan, of course, delivers an intriguing story layered in more references than I can take in, even after he discussed many of them with Pádraig here on the blog.
I missed reading this when D&Q first did it in North America but picked it up when Cape published the UK edition in 2009. Travel Literature is a very popular genre in prose books and its surprising that relatively few comics creators work in that area because the visual element adds a lot in describing other lands and cultures. With Delisle spending a good, long time in Burma (his wife is working for Médecins Sans Frontières there and he and their baby go along). Travel Lit, for me anyway, has always worked best when the writer is immersed into a country and culture most of us won’t get to know, which is harder and harder to do in our modern era of easy global travel. Burma, however, with its dreadful repressive regime of ‘the Generals’ remains inaccessible and secretive, so as with his previous works on China and North Korea Delisle is, like the best Travel Lit writers, exploring a place largely hidden to most of us and its fascinating.
Deslisle’s artwork is fairly simple but effective and enjoyably easy on the eye, whether he is describing Buddhist monks, the friends he makes locally or the rich heritage of that troubled country. Its often laced with humour, from Delisle preparing for foreign travel by checking the language options on his Star Trek DVDs to cultural misunderstandings and the way he depicts the tyrannical Generals (small, self important uniformed dwarves) pokes fun at people who deserve to be ridiculed – a small act which would cause dreadful consequences for a Burmese citizen though. As he settles into life in Burma there are constant reminders that he can’t take for granted those freedoms we have in Western countries; giving an interview to a Western magazine he finds out later he may inadvertently cause problems for friends he is teaching art and animation to as the repressive authorities will associate his comments with them. Trips into the countryside afford Delisle the chance to draw both simple village life scenes and glorious temples at holy sites.
Throughout it all the invisible shadow of Aung San Suu Kyi looms, referred to by locals simply as ‘The Lady’, never seen in her home imprisonment but a constant presence. Its funny, its charming, its moving in places and it explores a culture most of us will never get to experience directly. Absolutely wonderful stuff and a book I’ve been recommending to non comics readers to show how diverse and accessible the medium is.
The name’s Slade, Sam Slade. That’s S-L-A-Y-E-D to you, tin head! Ah, Sam Slade, one of my earliest and happiest of 2000 AD memories. An old detective who hunts down errant robots, he is dispatched to a world built and ‘manned’ by robots in anticipation of human colonists – all of whom vanish never to be heard of again after landing. So Sam is sent by unscrupulous colony bosses, his lightspeed shields sabotaged so he arrives at Verdus some decades younger (his young pilot is regressed to a foul mouthed infant) and has to face down an entire planet of comically insane robots.
Wagner and Grant deliver a great science fiction gumshoe character with piles of often sarcastic humour (a 2000 AD trademark, SF and smartarse humour) while Ian Gibson comes up with some of the weirdest, whackiest and simply brilliant robot designs (a cast of thousands!) I’ve ever seen. Now collected into a huge, great value omnibus like the Judge Dredd Case Files series. Sure, some of this comes from it being a nostalgia trip for many of us, but nostalgia aside its still a bloody brilliant bit of Brit comics writing and art.
Okay, technically this is a children’s picture book rather than comic, but the two forms have a lot of overlap and one of our favourite comics creators, Sarah McIntyre, produced the art for Morris, a delightfully gross, disgusting monster that will make boring old adults feel sick while children (and big kids at heart, of course) will laugh and love it. Simply wonderful – and disgusting! – fun.
Like Kleist’s Cash book this is another work from Europe that I was waiting and hoping someone would translate into English and thankfully Fanfare/Ponent Mon stepped up. Its not the easiest read – the whole comic is Linthout, a hugely successful comics creator in Belgium, essentially trying to work through the turmoil of emotions caused by the suicide of his son. Losing a loved one is immensely hard, losing them suddenly harder still, but to lose a child and to suicide? How do you continue as a parent after your pride and joy has ripped themselves from your life by their own hand? Linthout’s art here is a deliberately rough and unfinished style, sharing some of the artist’s own sense of being bereft and rudderless, filled with conflicting emotions of deep sadness and anger.
His mental breakdown and increasing sense of unreality sometimes throws up scenes which seem almost humorous – a feeling emphasised by his art style, which has a humorous comic look to it – except of course, given the theme it isn’t funny at all, its sad, its disturbing. Throughout the rough artwork his son is a constant presence, but when seen its only ever as the chalk outline left by the police around his body after he leapt to his death, giving him a cartoony, almost Gumby-esque look which again, under other circumstances, would be humorous; the conflict between that humorous look of many images with the sadness of the events and feelings the portray is quite unsettling, as indeed it should be, and I’d assume that was part of Linthout’s intention, sharing a tiny fraction of the confusion and turmoil his mind is suffering as it tries to understand and process what has happened to his boy. I found it quite difficult to read to be honest; too upsetting sometimes, so I had to read it in little bursts, but I’m glad I did, its a remarkable, personal work from a European creator most of the Anglophone world (including me) won’t be familiar with, trying to come to terms with what must be every parent’s worst fear, losing their child.
Honourable mentions also go to Jamilti and Other Stories by Rutu Modan (UK edition again), which may not be up there her Exit Wounds but which still had some fine short gems in the collection of early work and a couple of nice little tricks on the reader too (not least those locked lips on the cover and what they actually denote when you read that story). I didn’t pick up Jeff Lemire’s Complete Essex County as I already had the original three volumes, but if you haven’t got those then I’ve also got to recommend the complete edition which came out in 2009 as a book you really should have.
Crumb’s The Book of Genesis also has to get a mention – its certainly not my favourite, but where I found some sections irritating that’s not Crumb’s fault, its his co-author who he is adapting (presumably Almighty God) and my own dislike of organised religion which made it difficult for me. And endless ‘this person begat this person who begat that person who lived 460 years and 460 years were his days’ is a bit wearisome (it may be the word of God if you are a believer, but man, that deity needed an editor badly). But that aside it’s a major work by one of our major, influential cartoonists and while the original stories he is drawing from (literally) may be, in my view, badly written and the religious beliefs of the characters want me to loose Richard Dawkins on the nearest Bible Class, the artwork is superb and a reminder of what a bloody good artist Crumb is. Yes, it is Crumb so there are a lot of very large bottomed women wandering the Holy Land, but still his art is a joy and the heavy black and white suits the Old Testament work very well. And he also gets props not just for the scope of the work but for a graphic novel which achieved widespread coverage well outside the comics sphere, hopefully getting some more non comics folk to dip their toes in the medium
This was a lovely surprise, a present from Leo and his wife Peggy and, I have to say, one of the most enjoyable books I read all year. I’ve been lucky enough to read Leo’s previous autobiographical works and I was delighted when he told me he was working on this new volume, which mostly covers more recent years. Leo opens with a short discourse on Comedy and his old friend, The Absurd, as if giving a cosmology lecture but instead of matter and anti-matter in the creation of the universe he discusses Comedy and the forces of Anti-Comedy and that oppressive Almighty Power, to which one should always make a certain two-fingered gesture.
This opening had me laughing out loud, rather disconcerting other passengers on the train I was on at the time, but I didn’t care. Leo makes a serious point about the events and the grim-faced, usually humourless people who can and do make life for everyone more miserable and how it is Comedy’s role to fight those forces (an assertion I completely agree with). Its not a flippant point, its serious, but delivered in a wonderfully humorous way. I could imagine the spirits of Buster Keaton, Spike Milligan and Bill Hicks nodding their agreement with him. There’s a lot of travel in this volume as Leo and Peggy are involved in various exhibitions and conventions at home and abroad. Its interesting to learn about the ways Leo has experimented with various folks over the years to achieve the best possible quality prints of some of his original work, which is too fragile and too susceptible to the ravages of age and environment (aren’t we all?) to travel for exhibitions; contemporary artists will almost certainly pick up some ideas for exhibiting their own work from his experiences.
Often these exhibitions involve more of the great and the good in the Brit comics community and it’s rather wonderful to read about some very famous names who all pitch in with suggestions and help for exhibitions. Leo also discusses his work for the Guardian and the approaches of the BBC for the Comics Britannia series, for which his presence was pretty much essential, and his own wariness over contracts with the media but how it all worked out. Its funny, it’s a nice insight into the life of one of our most esteemed comics creators, but mostly its simply a delightful read, mixing anecdotes and art, serious points and humour. It left me with a big smile on my face. The book itself is lovely – actually hand-bound, a rarity in this day and age, making it all the more special (and urging me to enjoy the tactile sense of it, running fingers along the spine, sniffing the paper). Of course this also means it is produced in a fairly small number and is quite pricey and, while its well worth it (as well as being a great read, it’s a highly collectable tome any bibliophile would love to have on their shelves) obviously not everyone who would love to read it could afford it, but don’t despair, because Leo has generously had the text placed onto his site for everyone to enjoy and you should take advantage of that.
Since Mike’s previous Felix Castor novels have all featured on my earlier Best of the Year picks it won’t be a surprise to regular readers that his latest one is again one of my faves. I admit it, I’m quite addicted to this series, although not for the first time I wonder where on earth Mike gets the time to pen multiple comics series and prose novels. Through the previous novels featuring our down-at-heels freelance exorcist Mike has provided not only a gripping story but built up the background around Castor and the other characters, a world almost like ours except the supernatural is real, the dead sometimes walk and there are other, more dangerous things out there.
Like a powerful demon welded to the soul of Castor’s best friend, kept safely caged for years and now loose and cutting a swathe through London. Driven by circumstances Castor is forced to return to his old employer, a ruthless scientist who experiments on the undead, werekind and ghosts with a total lack of morality. With more blood and guilt on his hands Mike seriously pushes Castor into events and actions which are totally gripping. I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again, its one of the best series going right now.
Another real world meets supernatural series that I’ve been addicted to and another book from a scribe also noted for his comics work, Charlie Huston’s Joe Pitt series of novels, which have taken the often cliché-ridden vampire genre and given them a real Mean Streets edge to them, more Scorcese meets Chandler than Anne Rice or Stephanie Meyer. Sadly this is the final book in the series and although I’ve been addicted to the series since the beginning I have to admit I think Charlie is right to contain it within a set limit and not simply keep going endlessly. It certainly piles on the dramatic tension – with the end coming, Pitt down and out (and indeed living in the sewers at the start), the various Manhattan vampire groups at war, the love of his life now vampirised and living in a vamp community now run by someone he despises, its all to play for and in the unflinchingly brutal world of street violence Charlie depicts you know that you can’t take the survival of any of the characters for granted, not even Pitt himself.
Its all rapidly going pear shaped in the Manhattan vampire world, with Pitt pulled every which way in his attempt to get to where he wants, making deals and double deals and all the time trying to work his own angle, his one aim to get back to his girl, knowing fine well that there’s every chance that even if he makes it to her against the odds she may well tell him to crawl right back down that sewer pipe. Add in a Romeo and Juliet romance with star-crossed mortal and vampire (Huston gleefully riffing on Twilight, perhaps, in his own inimitable style?) and you’ve got a vamp tale told in hardboiled Noir style. Many characters are going to be changed, maimed or even dead before the end of this and its hugely compelling.
Neal is one of the consistently best from the impressive roster of top class SF writers we’re lucky enough to have right now in the UK, one of my go-to writers for solid, inventive SF that also delivers a ton of action, not to mention some quite devious nastiness. Especially when Prador are involved. This follows on from events in The Voyage of the Sable Keech, with the Old Captain Orbus trying to overcome the last few centuries of his mis-spent past and personality changes brought about by the Spatterjay virus and the Prador Vrell now infected by the virus and mutating rapidly. Their paths will cross, drawing in the Prador Kingdom and the Polity, uncovering secrets, risking a new war and awakening something ancient which should be left well alone. Its fast paced, gripping, often downright brutal (although like Richard Morgan the violence rarely feels gratuitous, there’s a moral dimension and consequence to violent actions and pasts), solid right down the line.
The end of human civilisation has come, almost every single person wiped out in a short space of town. Towns and cities are deteriorating without maintenance and a few shattered survivors find a quite space in a country house, unsure why they were spared or what to do next, whiling away the time and their trauma swapping stories over some good beers at night. Ale is central to this apocalypse; it’s the social glue that helps the disparate survivors bond together and it’s the trigger for flashbacks to the better times before the end of the world. The aroma of a particular beer, its colour, its taste and how its bound in to memories of happier times, drinking a pint of this or that real ale on a warm, summer day in a pub’s beer garden, idly passing a day with the woman you love, talking, drinking, kissing…
But that world’s gone, isn’t it? And our survivors know their supplies are running low, but are loathe to face the reality of their situation or to go foraging for more because in the distance over the city there are shapes that aren’t birds… When a mysterious rider arrives and takes shelter for a few days with them he seems to know all about each of them and what they lost as the world of mankind crumbled. When he leaves they are all given the strong urge to set out on a quest – a very British quest. The world has ended and they are going to seek out the last pub in existence which their mystery guest told them about. Where there is endless food and beer and its safe. The world ended and the last great haven – if it actually exists – is a pub!
It sounds light-hearted, a bit Shaun of the Dead perhaps, but while there is humour it soon becomes dark and very nasty. Tim Lebbon is, after all, noted not only for his good tastes in fine beers but for writing some very dark fantasy works, full of horror elements and those are present here on the journey to the fabled last pub, braving the world that has passed and gone wild – and worse than just wild, there are things that simply shouldn’t be, but are… It’s a very British end of the world tale – even the chapter headings are drawn from the names of real ales – with real, creeping horror mixed with the mundane but lightened by the glow of warm memories of days now gone. Unusual and brilliant. But it will make you very thirsty.
This collection of short stories by Peter Beagle is a treasure chest of wonder; the award winning writer is probably still best known for The Last Unicorn and it is a pleasure to see Tachyon publishing more of his work. A peaceful king thinks about war as a way to be remembered, an old Jewish uncle paints an angel who comes to model for him, a middle aged American changes into the last, true Frenchman, a brother’s thoughts change the world to the dismay of his family, a criminal fleeing on a snowswept moor takes shelter by the fire of an old minister who tells him of being spirited away to Faerie… I really can’t do Peter’s writing justice; he’s not really a writer, he’s one of those rare breed of scribes who I think the old Scots term makkar suits, what Borges once referred to as a maker of words. Elegantly crafted glimpses into a variety of worlds; here is an author who gets praise from the likes of Ursula Le Guin – that should tell you all you need to know.
Jesse’s debut novel arrives with a recommendation from the quite excellent Jeff VanderMeer. Now that would be enough to pique my interest anyway, but when I picked it up I didn’t know that, but I had an instant feeling about it, I just knew this was a book I wanted to read. Taking old fashioned fairy tales long before they were cleaned up for children’s book Jesse spins a medieval, down and dirty, violent, often vulgar tale of the Brothers Grossbart, part of a line of grave-robbers, fighting, killing and stealing their way from the Germanic lands southward to ‘Gyptland’ to ransack the legendary tombs. Creatures in the dark woods threaten, demons can gobble souls, a moonlit monastery is deserted save for the dead, a witch resides in her cottage, a man monk raves in such a manner the Brothers assume he follows their own perverted form of worship… The action is brutal, the supernatural elements dealt with fairly matter of factly, the humour often vulgar, the language often very coarse – its not for the easily offended, but I loved it. Fantasy all too often can drown in clichés; Jesse takes the genre by the seat of its leather britches and kicks it solidly in the backside. An author to watch.
As I’ve noted a number of times over recent years we’re pretty much spoiled for some excellent science fiction and fantasy at the moment and space simply doesn’t allow me to list all of the other books which I really enjoyed this year, so quick honourable mentions also go to God of Clocks by Alan Campbell (a satisfying if slightly rushed end to his debut trilogy which was inventive and often disturbing), Charlie Stross’s Wireless, an enjoyable smorgasbord of his shorter fiction and Mike Cobley who moved from his fantasy roots to science fiction with the first part of a great new series, Seeds of the Earth. And throughout the year as usual that stalwart of the British science fiction publishing scene, Interzone magazine (and its darker sister Black Static), delivered some quite brilliant short SF, some from established names, some from authors totally new to me who I will be watching for in the future; still the place to check out fresh, new SF writing.
On the screen front its hard to ignore Cameron’s visually impressive Avatar; the story and characters are totally predictable, you can pretty much figure out early on how it will all work out, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially when you are dazzling the audience with astonishingly rich visuals that immerse them into another world. And JJ Abrams’ reboot of Star Trek overcame my old Trek fan cynicism at the thought of seeing other actors in those iconic roles to deliver a real shot in the arm to a tired franchise and successfully reboot it. Terry Gilliam’s Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus was not his best work, but even a flawed Gilliam movie is still more interesting than many other directors at their best and, as always, was a delight in terms of imagery and rampant imagination.
But to be honest those weren’t my favourites – actually no less than three of my favourites of the year I saw at the Edinburgh Film Festival and, sadly, two of them have still to gain general releases in the UK, while the other has gone on to great acclaim. Duncan Jones low budget British SF flick Moon was terrific; yes, I guessed the twist in advance, but it didn’t matter, it was well played and put together. I even appreciated the fact they had gone back to the old ways of physical effects even for the Lunar exteriors, giving an almost Gerry Anderson, Space 1999 feel to those scenes. Jones and his crew talked to the audience after the Festival debut and their enthusiasm for it was very clear and that carried over into the screen. (full review here)
The other two which I loved were both animated works, both quite different in style and target audience. Brendan and the Secret of Kells, a gorgeous, traditionally animated (no 3D CGI here) all-ages feature from Ireland centred around one of the glories of Western literature, The Book of Kells and like that remarkable work showcased some beautiful artwork (see the full review here). Also at the Festival I caught another traditional form of animation, this time stop motion, with the low budget Australian film, unusually an animation aimed squarely at an adult audience, Mary and Max. What could be a dodgy area – a growing long distance friendship between a lonely young girl in 70s Australia and a single, middle-aged man with mental health problems in New York, is actually a lovely, bittersweet tale and its infuriating to me that its done so well on the international festival circuit and yet is still to get a proper release in the UK — it got a fairly limited release in some US cities, I think (a full review can be found here); Kells did get a release in Europe (it was a combined Franco-Irish funded work) and its native Ireland but still, months later, hasn’t had a general release in the UK. Perhaps distributors are convinced that if it isn’t CGI and 3D then no-one will come to see it, which is short-sighted and means a lot of people are missing out on some wonderful films.
While I was in Paris I took the opportunity of browsing in some bookstores and bouquinistes (the rare and second hand booksellers with the lockups by the Seine) for some bandes dessinée (French comics, basically). Unlike the English language book world comics and graphic novels are taken more seriously as culture and art; we cover a tiny bit of the European scene on the FPI blog but what gets translated into English and republished for the UK and US markets is pretty limited compared to what actually gets published in Europe so I decided I would have a look at some BD while I was there, my basic and rusty French not withstanding and ended up writing an article out of it for the FPI blog last weekend, which I’m repeating below:
Apologies to Wim for appropriating his usual title for this post (normal continental correspondent service from Belgium will be resumed shortly), but I’m just back from a terrific break in Paris where, as well as the usual tourist pastimes of marvelling at the motoring madness that is the Circus Maximus around the Arc de Triomphe (the greatest free show in the City of Light) or wondering if it was permissible to push very loud and irritating backpackers off the Eiffel Tower, I managed to have a couple of little browses through some bandes dessinée. Sadly the first dedicated comics shop – Super Hero Libraire – was closed when we passed it (unlike the UK French shops don’t always stick to the regular 9 to 6 sort of hours every day, but many are open into the evening, so its worth checking hours if there is a specific store you want to catch) and it was too far from our hotel to make a return visit feasible.
(French one volume edition of V For Vendetta and a big dollop of Wolverine – did you know Logan spoke French?)
But this is France and unlike Britain you can find BD pretty much wherever books are sold – even the famous bouquinistes with their distinctive green lock-ups along the banks of the Seine often feature both BD albums and old comics issues, although since some of these may be rare rather than simply second hand you have to watch the prices. I came across a multi-volume series collecting V for Vendetta en Français and was quite tempted to pick them up, but at just shy of 20 Euros per volume it was just too pricey.
(one of the windows of the Super Hero Librairie; in the bottom left shelf you can see Chroniques Birmanes which Wim reviewed here last week)
Still, the bouquinistes are something any book lover will want to enjoy, whether you are looking for BD, paperback novels or any other literature; actually on a spring day simply browsing among them as the barges move along the Seine, the simple pleasure of rummaging through used books combined with being outdoors and sightseeing. One stand in particular had an interesting mix of French BD and English language titles, so you’d see second-hand Bilal albums next to a rack of old Daredevil issues. As with second hand and antiquarian bookstore here though, the bouquinistes choose their opening hours according to arcane signs among the stars and from a formula calculated using an ancient equation worked out by Diderot, so it is pure luck which ones will be open or closed when you go past at any time of day or evening, but hey, if you’re there its as good as an excuse as any for a walk long the banks of the Seine without feeling like a total tourist.
(some of the bouquinistes by the Seine, near Notre Dame)
In the bouquiniste stands, the comics stores and the mainstream bookshops it is also common to come across English language titles translated into French – the aforementioned V Pour Vendetta, of course, but quite a diverse selection, even in mainstream bookstores (some of which had graphic novel sections almost half as big as you’d find in specialist comics stores here, and that’s just adult BD, not counting the younger reader’s material). Even in the land where comics are considered the Ninth Art you’re still going to find the ‘underwear perverts’ as Boing Boing refers to superheroes, translated and nestling among the slimmer, hardback BD albums – as with any comics store its hard not to spot some X-Men titles.
Kirkman and Adlard’s excellent, Romero-influenced zombie series The Walking Dead seemed popular too and I spotted several large paperback translated collections cropping up in a number of places. There’s something fascinating about leafing through the pages of something you’ve read but now in another language (and this seems universal – plenty of the many tourists who come to Edinburgh like to pick up Tolkien in bookstores here, for example, to read in English having read it in French, German etc). In one of the many bookstores between the Saint Michel and Latin Quarter areas I also came across a very handsome, thick collection of Eddie Campbell’s early work. You’ll appreciate the irony that if I want to track down most of that work by an acclaimed British artist at home I’d have to go second hand because it’s currently out of print, yet in France I can find a very fine-looking collection in an ordinary bookstore. Then again the French probably appreciate it more; “Monsieur Campbell, sacre bleu, ‘e is a true artiste de BD.” (and of course, they are right). And I noticed quite a few artists familiar to me via their translated works which have come out from Top Shelf, Drawn & Quarterly, NBM, First Second and Fantagraphics over the years, from Trondheim to Zograf.
(just some of the BD on offer in Gibert Jeune in the Saint Michel area of Paris)
Of course while you’re there you want to have a look at some European titles. Now my French is pretty basic and those school lessons seem a long time ago, but one of the advantages the comics form offers is (usually) less actual text to comprehend (or not!) and the visual aide of sequential pictures, so even when your command of French is less than stellar there’s a lot of extra context to give you a hand. It doesn’t make the medium completely accessible and bypass the linguistic barriers (unless it is a ‘silent’ strip), but if you have even a small grasp of the language a comic is going to be a much easier way to try and interact a bit more with another tongue.
That shouldn’t be surprising to us; after all we first encourage the comprehension of written language and structure in children using picture books. And living as I do in Edinburgh, as awash with visitors as Paris, I’ve seen a number of adult tourists deliberately picking up Asterix and Tintin in English to take home because it is a great way to try and get more into another language, so I thought I’d take a similar tact and ended up coming home with some Jodorowsky – Les Technopères, with fabulous science fiction art from Zoran Janjetov which made it worth picking up just to admire – and on spotting a recent collection (just published by Air Libre/Dupuis in January) by this year’s Grand Prix winners at Angoulême, Dupuy and Berberain, Un Peau Avant la Fortune, I thought that would be worth a bash too.
(cover to Dupuy and Berberian’s recently published Un Peau Avant la Fortune, published Air Libre/Dupuis and (c) Dupuy and Berberian)
To be honest I could easily have blown more money picking up several more, but since I don’t know how well I will cope with them it seemed prudent to limit myself (and spend the remaining money on wine). But language aside it is hard to resist when you are faced with shelf upon shelf of BD, everything from the funny books to tales of daring Resistance heroines in wartime Paris (one book I randomly picked up had a scene with the Resistance heroine set on one of the Seine bridges I had just passed over to get to that very bookstore, sadly I can’t remember the title now), science fiction, biographical… Even if you aren’t going to buy yourself some, if you find yourself visiting France its still enjoyable for any comics fan to have a good browse through the BD section; its always good to try something different in your reading, as we’ve said here on more than one occasion (and will doubtless say again, because its true and there is so much out there just waiting to be read).
There is another way for those of us with only a limited grasp of the language to buy into the French BD experience a little more though, and it is much cheaper than buying new hardback albums – the journals. Paris is awash with newsstands and as in any city the railway and metro stations and the airports also have plenty of stores where among the newspapers, movie mags and copies of Elle (I was vaguely disappointed the French version of Elle wasn’t called ‘her’) you are likely to find several magazines and journals dedicated to BD and some specialising in manga. Of course the language barrier is still there, but if you are interested but wary because of the language a mag is a lot cheaper to buy and try than books – it’s also a good way of introducing yourself to different comics creators.
I settled on BoDoï – “explorateur de bandes dessinées” – which has a special edition celebrating 35 years of the Grands Prix at Angoulême. For 7.50 Euros (about five pounds, slightly pricey for a mag, but it does have a lot of colour art) I got a special edition which offered up some 40 artists, with two or three pages each of art and a short bio/interview (in French, naturellement). And just check some of the artists covered here – Robert Crumb, Enki Bilal, Morris, José Muñoz, François Schuiten, Trondheim, Hugo Pratt, Moebius, Will Eisner, Jaques Tardi, Jean-Claude Forest, Jaques Lob, Neal Adams, Max Cabanes, Uderzo… That has to be worth a fiver of any comics fan’s money, surely?
(an excerpt from Mister I, (c) Lewis Trondheim)
The art and themes on offer are as varied as the artists – Philippe Vuillemin riffs nicely on the old joke – old jokes seem to be universal, I’m pleased to note – about the young polar bear (I won’t ruin the punchline in case you’ve never heard it), Georges Wolinski offers up a take on psychotherapy which would work in almost any Western culture (especially if you’re a Woody Allen fan), Lewis Trondheim’s Mister I makes a welcome appearance with a wordless tale (so it was only the bio/interview I had to struggle to read!) and we get a quick visit to Eisner’s Dropsie Avenue.
(Rendezvous a Paris by the one and only Enki Bilal)
Personal standouts for me came from Bilal, who I’ve always admired for his beautiful, imaginative science-fiction artwork. In this case it is just a couple of wordless pages, including one spectacular full page splash set above the Eiffel Tower. Jaques Tardi has four pages first created for the magazine L’Aisne set during the carnage of the Great War which are highly effective and moving. Even if you don’t speak word one of French I think you would still grasp the scenes of French infantrymen suffering and the word “boucherie!” repeated, larger and bolder each time until it is screaming “BOUCHERIE!” at the reader while below a smug General Nivelle stands in front of a charnel house of bones of fallen soldiers. Actually looking at a couple of the frames in Tardi’s piece I’m moved to wonder if they influenced the trench scenes in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s A Very Long Engagement.
(two pages from Jaques Tardi’s segment, these are from “la BD du Avril 16″ and although very different in style seem to me to be every bit as powerful and moving as the superb art Joe Colquhoun created for Charley’s War; originally published in L’Aisne magazine and (c) Jacque Tardi)
Max Cabanes’ Francis Cabrel, les Beaux Dessins, inspired by a song by Francis Cabrel, showcases some beautiful artwork; again, if you can’t read the language you can just admire the luscious art of two lovers amid the trees. François Schuiten (with Benoît Peeters) has two utterly gorgeous pages, Hommage à Winsor McCay (I think you can translate the meaning of that yourselves!), paying tribute to the immortal Little Nemo (I just keep turning back to those pages and looking at the, superb), while back in the world of black and white there’s a great extract from Superdupont by Jacques Lob with artwork by the great Neal Adams; you just have to love the Superman clone meeting his French counterpart Superdupont in his vest, paunch and beret, a Reagan-esque president and something spooky going on at a vineyard (hence the need for the French hero).
So, if you are lucky enough to be going to France on holiday, keep your eyes open – even if you only have basic French there are still comics delights to be had; as a wise comics character once declared, “there’s treasure everywhere!” There are a number of comics jewels in this special issue and I will try to share some more scans from it over the coming days because they are too good to keep to myself.
Marko Ajdarc of the Brazilian comics site Neorama dos Quadrinhos sent us a good item to put up on the FPI blog and since it involves A) good European comics art and B) raising money for a good cause I thought I’d repeat it on here too. 95 press cartoonists and comics artist are contributing their work to auction to raise money for the homeless charity Droit au Logement in France. Some of the top bandes dessinées artist are involved, with names like Bilal and Jacque Tardi (who did the poster for it). I found it interesting that this came at a similar time to the ‘red tent‘ happening in Paris, where les Enfants de Don Quichotte (how could I resist a story with a name like that?) distributed red tents to the homeless so a tent village sprang up, rapidly covered by the European media and shaming Parisian authorities into acknowledging the problem. You can look through the art on offer in the auction here.