Aardman: An Epic Journey

Aardman, An Epic Journey, Taken One Frame at a Time,
Peter Lord and David Sproxton, with David Gritten
Simon & Schuster

Aardman Animation has, rightly in my opinion, become a national, and indeed international, treasure, a bastion of quality animation – most especially the fine art of stop-motion animation – all the while maintaining their warm, Indy, quirky, lovably eccentric British humour and sensibilities. Aardman, An Epic Journey follows the two founders, Peter Lord and David Sproxton, across more than forty years of history, and what a story it is – from schoolboy chums playing with a parent’s old cine camera, making simple animations on an old kitchen table to first early forays into television in the 1970s through to Creature Comforts, award-winning adverts that helped the young company thrive with a decent income through to BAFTA and Oscar glory and beyond to the contemporary internet era. All this from two young friends playing with an old camera and cut-out animation on a kitchen table…

The book is chronological, essentially a biography of David and Peter and Aardman itself, starting with their school friendship, a new hobby using an old camera, a home-made rostrum mount for it on a venerable kitchen table that was now surplus to requirements. What started as fun and experimentation rapidly becomes something more as the young lads find they can create their own animated shorts. In this they are hugely encouraged by their parents and others – encouragement and nurturing of talent will be a theme throughout this book, right from the start – and they are also inspired by various art books and some of those unusual children’s programmes of the early 70s, such as Vision On (a very visually-rich series aimed to cater for hearing-impaired kids).

(above and below, the book also comes with several pages of photos and illustrations from throughout Aardman’s forty-plus year history)

A family connection to the BBC and their home-made experiments gets them their first paying work with some brief animated snippets for Vision On, and then the follow-up, Take Hart. For the latter they would move away from their 2-D basic animations and start using a substance found in most children’s toy boxes, Plasticine. This time the idea wasn’t just for animated interludes but to have a character who could riff off the iconic Tony Hart, a foil to the much beloved art presenter. That wee Plasticine creation was, of course, Morph, and it would change not only the direction of their animation style but their entire career, the first of a number of Aardman characters who would become embedded in and beloved by popular culture.

The 1980s sees growth and the arrival of a young Nick Park, the arrival of Channel 4 (with a budget and remit to include more unusual works, including animation aimed at older viewers and not just for kids) and the huge expansion of well-funded advertising. Aardman had already crafted some interesting animation based around some free-range dialogue recorded by simply leaving a microphone at a homeless shelter, then working around the real-life dialogue, and this approach of using real-world, everyday people’s dialogue then building the animation around it found expression in Creature Comforts, the humans’ words now put into the mouths of animated zoo animals, to huge effect. Not only did this go down well and remain warmly regarded by many animation fans and inspire more advertisers to use Aardman (the ads being a great bread and butter income source for animators and artists between their film projects), it lead to an Academy Award nomination – and a win (amazingly A Grand Day Out was also in contention, so Nick both won and lost the same Oscar!). Aardman’s first Oscar and not their last…

As the 80s and 90s roll on Wallace and Gromit make their bow and soon become one of the studio’s most recognised and most adored set of characters (come one, who among us doesn’t love the humour, the craft that goes into those W&G films, the beautiful attention to detail, the multiple references to classic Brit films? How many of you are hearing the W&G theme music in your head just thinking about them?), feature films and co-operation with major US Hollywood studios like Dreamworks. This doesn’t always go smoothly – the smalller-scale, eccentric, people-driven Aardman style is very different from the big Hollywood system, and the book explores the ups and downs, although refreshingly there is no back-biting or snarky gossip here, just acknowledgement that the Hollywood studios and their approach didn’t really mesh with Aardman’s way of doing things, but also that those joint adventures taught them a lot about the business and helped Aardman.

Given the huge range of famous thesps who have lined up to voice an Aardman character it will not surprise you to learn the book also contains quotes from a number of famous actors about their time working with Aardman. Most, as Peter and David acknowledge freely (and almost gleefully) say their painstaking attention to details can drive actors up the wall and across the ceiling, requiring endless re-takes and re-recordings of slightly different voice techniques as the animators have a particular idea in mind to fit their characters, and they have to work the actors until they strike that note (also, as the duo admit, at first they simply were not used to directing actors). However this is all tongue in cheek – while I’m sure the endless re-takes for the voice talent does drive the actors mad, they all seem to understand that it is because of the perfectionism of the animators, and that the actual animation itself requires even more time and more excruciatingly painstaking work. And clearly they still all want to be a part of it.

There are lots of fascinating little sidebars to enjoy here too – those of you of a certain age will recognise some of the adverts Aardman made in the 80s and 90s and perhaps never knew it was their work (remember the animated skeleton advertising Scotch Video Tapes, “re-record, not fade away” or Douglas the wee man who came to life from a packet of Lurpak butter? All Aardman works). Or the fact that the Hawes Dairy in Yorkshire was struggling, until in Wallace and Gromit: a A Close Shave Wallace mentions Wensleydale, and the dairy finds demand soaring. Cheese-makers accidentally given a huge boost in sales by animated characters, there is something wonderfully Aardman about that, isn’t there? And I am sure Wallace and Gromit would approve.

(Above, the Aardman-created animated skeleton for Scotch Video Tape’s advert, below, another 80s boom for animators with the arrival of MTV demanding more visually interesting music videos, including the now iconic Peter Gabriel Sledgehammer video, shot in a remarkably short period of intense work and featuring among the crew very young Brothers Quay, now revered as giants of Brit animation)

I mentioned the encouragement very young Peter and David received right at the start of their animation experiments, even before they had made anything actually for sale. That becomes a theme running throughout this book, starting with the nurturing of teenage Peter and David’s interests and talents, then they in turn paying that forward, encouraging new animators like Nick Park and Golly, trying their best to make sure all their staff feel valued, encouraged, running mentoring schemes, becoming heavily involved in charity works, especially in their much-loved home-town of Bristol (even those Bristolians who aren’t animation fans love Aardman because they put back into their city and community).

This continues right up to the design of their latest HQ building and – as many of you may have read in the news just before the book came out – Peter and David, with one eye to how Aardman will run when they choose to retire, have put the shares for the company into a trust, effectively making all the Aardman staff shareholders of their own company, empowering the staff and rewarding them while also heading off any larger media company simply gobbling them up and changing them.

(above and below, the book has some lovely attention to detail, including these gorgeous end-papers, with original Wallace and Gromit sketches at the front and Shaun the Sheep at the back)

That note of encouragement and having fun is perhaps one of the nicest aspects of this book, perhaps even more so than the fascinating history of how this beloved company came into being and grew, of how its characters conquered our hearts. It gives this book a warm, smile-inducing quality, an utter delight, much like Aardman’s films themselves do. A lovely, open, friendly history of a great British film institution.

You can browse Aardman’s own YouTube Channel here.

Traces of the Great War

Traces of the Great War,
Image Comics

(cover artwork by Dave McKean)

In the approach to the 1914 centenary I was fortunate enough to be one of the contributors for To End All Wars, edited by Jonathan Clode and John Clark (aka the cartoonist Brick), a graphic anthology timed for the start of the centenary of the Great War. One of our aims was to tell stories from all sides, using an international group of writers and artists, to avoid the poison of jingoism, to instead go behind the horrible litany of statistics of casualties and tell stories about the actual people. If truth is indeed the first casualty of war then perhaps individuality is the second – too easy to lose those who endured those times in vast legions.

Seeing individual people, people like us, people we can recognise, empathise with, humanises those events at a level we can comprehend emotionally as well as intellectually, and in Traces of the Great War, which draws on an international array of writers and artists, and quite a diverse crew at that, from bestselling novelist Ian Rankin working with the excellent Sean Phillips to Juan Díaz Canales (co-creator of the magnificent Blacksad, for my money one of the finest comics creations of the last couple of decades) to the brilliant Dave McKean collaborating with the poet Simon Armitage, Mary and Bryan Talbot, I Kill Giants co-creators Joe Kelly and Ken Niimura, to Marguerite Abouet (author of the wonderful Aya graphic novels) and Ergün Gündüz.

As with any anthology it always feels a bit unfair to single out some stories over others, but I can’t really go through every individual story here, and of course it is in the nature of collections that some elements will stand out to different readers, so not disrespect is intended to those I didn’t single out here – in truth I don’t think there was a weak link in this chain of tales, they all had something to commend them, and all took different aspects of that century ago war and the people who took part, and played them out with interesting hooks to capture the modern reader’s attention and take them not only back to that time, but to see how linked Then and Now actually are, that we today are all part of the same great tapestry that those earlier people were already woven onto, and to do so with much emotional honesty.

The collection starts with Robbie Morrison and Charlie Adlard’s “Without a Trace”, which manages the neat trick of being a century-later epilogue of sorts to the pair’s earlier WWI graphic novel White Death, but which can be read by anyone with no knowledge of that earlier work perfectly well. White Death dealt with one of the often overlooked arenas of this global devastation – the Italian-Austrian front in the Alps, where men had to combat the mighty peaks, snow and ice as well as the enemy shells and bullets. As with the better-known Western Front, even a hundred years on remains are still uncovered from time to time. In France and Belgium it is known as part of the “iron harvest” when the plough turns up old bullets, shell casings, helmets and often bodily remains of the fallen.

(Without a Trace, by Robbie Morrison and Charlie Adlard)

As with Flanders Fields so too in the remote, sublime beauty of the mountains; Morrison and Adlard have a carefree group of teens on an Alpine walk finding the remains of an Italian soldier of the Great War. Their shock quickly gives way to an all-too-modern reaction, the urge to take photos on their mobile phones. Their brief horror is replaced with larking about, until one youngster points out that this could have been their grandad’s father, that this was a person and that someone, somewhere was waiting for him to come home and never learned what happened to him or even had the small mercy of burying their fallen loved one. It’s short but packs in a huge emotional punch, and it’s a reminder of why, as we now move out of the range of living memory of those days, that each generation has to be taught about them.

Rif Reb takes an unlikely protagonist, a young punk anarchist in Paris, at a rich friend’s party, bored, escaping the crowd to explore the house’s library, finding (and stealing) a book of WWI poems written in a Haiku form, that speaks to this rebellious teen in a way the history books had not, leaving an indelible mark. Jean-David Morvan, Scie -Tronc and Hiroyuki Ooshima’s “Mines for the Miner” took the war under the tortured earth of the Western Front, with a young Welshman, a miner in civvy street like so many back then (most of those pits, like the war itself, are now history) finds himself once more pressed into digging dangerously below the land, but this time to “undermine” the enemy positions, a centuries old tactic used from the days of besieging castles before cannon existed, except here the miners and sappers would then leave an enormous explosive charge under the enemy lines.

(Unfathomable Imprints by Riff Reb)

My grandfather was a miner, severely injured by his time in the pits in the days when Health and Safety rules didn’t exist and working men were expendable cogs in the machine. This story captures that feeling of the civilian miner, a dirty, dangerous job that took so many of their lives, then adds in the complexity of war on top of it. Aurélien Ducoudray and Efa’s “Body to Body” sees an older Lady of the Night and a mutilated soldier in the bordello behind the lines, but instead of sex for sale the pair find some sort of comfort in comparing and explaining their respective war wounds, his bayonet scar, her Cesarean scar and so on. It’s a fascinating and unusual angle to take on emotional and physical trauma, drawn in a way that is intimate without being sexualised, despite the setting.

When did war become entertainment?

Ian Rankin is best known for his international best-selling crime novels, but he has penned a couple of comics before, and I know he is a voracious reader of comics, so I was interested in seeing what he did in collaboration with veteran comics artist Sean Phillips and Peter Doherty. The result, “War Games” (from whence the above quote comes from), has a man who lost his mother young, and was largely raised by his grandparents. After losing them and then his own father he has to perform that heart-breaking duty we all have to at some point – clearing out the belongings of a loved one who has gone, and in the process finds relics from his grandfather’s service in the Great War. Right away his memory takes him back to being a wee boy, out with his granddad, being taken to visit Edinburgh Castle, where his grandfather shows him a book of remembrance in the National War Memorial there, with the names of some of his old comrades. It didn’t mean much to the wee boy, as he says he remembered the ice-cream granddad bought him afterwards more vividly. But now he is a grown man with life experiences, he thinks back to what his grandfather was trying to tell him, to pass on to him a piece of living memory. He starts to explore this past, intertwined with his work running a modern-day computer games company, with perhaps a view to using some of the settings in a new video war game.

(War Games by Ian Rankin and Sean Phillips)

“War Games” works cleverly on several levels – there’s that reminder that the elderly, frail veteran you see was not always old, once he was young and strong, and he went through experiences that thankfully most of us today never will when he was that young man. It’s easy, especially with the cockiness of youth at times, to forget that older people were once our age, once younger. The story also works on that regret at not understanding that when young, when those people were still around. I’m sure I am not alone in wishing that I could, as an adult, speak again to old family members and family friends, to try and draw from them those stories to preserve them and pass them on. But we can’t go back; I was too young to ask and write down those stories before those I knew faded away and it is an eternal regret. I suspect many of us feel that way in later life. Of course, if you do get the luxury of exploring some of that past, it may lead you to down pathways you never thought it would, to see that now-gone loved one in a very different way – could that gentle old grandfather really once have shoved a bayonet into the body of another young man and twisted it? It’s a horrible thought, but we all have a past and for those who served that often means a past they couldn’t talk about, taking their stories with them to the tomb, lost to us forever.

Space doesn’t permit me to go into detail on every story, but before I conclude I have to make special mention of the collaboration between the great Dave McKean and the acclaimed poet Simon Armitage, with “Sea Sketch” and “Memorial”. November 2018 marked not only the centenary of the Armistice which ended the War to End All Wars (while sowing the bitter seeds of the next war), it also marked a hundred years since the war poet Wilfred Owen fell, only days before the Armistice. The poetry of Owen and others is one of the ways that we still experience the visceral, emotional impact of that war; those who served are now all gone from us, but their experiences, in their own words, are still with us. I’ve always thought poetry has a certain power that even the most lyrical prose can’t quite match; verse has an ability to engage with our higher thinking but also bypass it to deliver a shot directly into our emotional core, it can speak in metaphor and magic in a way that conjures feelings and imagery. With so many now revered pieces of poetry coming from that horrendous time it strikes me as very appropriate to involve one of our better contemporary poets, and putting him together with McKean is a touch of genius, the verse combined with Dave’s artwork has such strong, symbolic, raw, emotional power.

(Sea Sketch by Simon Armitage and Dave McKean)

The ranks of those who survived the slaughter of the War to End All Wars have thinned across the long decades, until finally the last veteran has departed to join his old comrades in whatever comes after this life. A full century has passed since the guns fell silent. But the echoes of those events still follow each generation down the decades – they shaped the events which came after them, which in turn shaped the events of the world our parents grew up in, that shaped our own and in turn will shape the world we pass on to the next generation. History is never truly about the past because history is never truly over, it’s all part of that same grand tapestry I mentioned earlier, and we are part of it, shaped by it and shaping it in turn.

It’s why it is important to understand those events and to comprehend their continuing influence on our own times. It’s important to remember that the Big Events of history were made by many people, all individuals, and we should not, cannot turn them into ranks of numbers and statistics but should recall them as people, like us, because many of them were us, they were our own families. And that simply we should always Remember. Traces of the Great War brings out that history but weaves it with the present, the consequences political, geographical, economic, that we still live with, but most of all it reminds us of the living, breathing people who once thought and dreamed and loved and were taken from us. But we Remember.

You can read my own story, Memorial to the Mothers, illustrated by Kate Charlesworth, from the earlier WWI collection To End All Wars, for free here on my blog.

“I was always a mad comet…”

I was always a mad comet, a dark star...”

Phillip Hoare’s short film about the poet Wilfred Owen has a sad beauty to it:

Owen died on this day, one hundred years ago, killed just days before the 1918 Armistice would silence the guns of the Great War, into whose dark maw so many legions marched, never to return. I think of Owen often at this time of year, not just for his powerful poetry from the trenches, but because of his local connection to me. Recuperating from Shell Shock he was sent to Craiglockhart, just a short walk from my flat in Edinburgh (enlisted men were rarely so fortunate, they were told they were “cowards” if they showed Shell Shock, or if treated were given brutal regimes like ECT. Not so the officers, of course).

It was there Owen was encouraged by a pioneering doctor to use his dreams and nightmares from the trenches in his writing, and meets fellow poet Siegfried Sassoon, both of these changing his writing style, increasing the power he pours into his verse. While recuperating there he would sometimes guest as a literature teacher at the school around the corner from my home; he probably strolled right past my street. Edinburgh is like that, it has as many layers of literary history and connections as it has complex volcanic geology. Here the road Sassoon and Owen walked on their way into town, arm in arm, discussing poetry. There where Stevenson ducked out of university classes in his velvet coat, to head to the pub around the corner from my old work. There where Conan Doyle met Bell, who would become his model for Holmes, here, behind rows of tenements and houses, the school where Muriel Spark studied, where a teacher would become part of her notion for Miss Brodie. Here’s where Robert Burns stayed, there is the grave of his beloved Clarinda, in the same kirkyard as his poetic muse, Fergusson.

Edinburgh it still like that – there’s the literary salon, the regular book clubs, the book festival, there are the cafes Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter book in because it was cheaper than trying to heat her home when she had no money, there’s the pub where the fictional Inspector Rebus drinks, and his creator, Ian Rankin too. As a lifelong reader and as a bookseller it’s one of the aspects of Edinburgh that makes me love living here; the written word here is written into the cityscape…

Memorial to the Mothers

Several years ago Jonathan Clode and John Stuart Clark (who has long cartooned under his pen-name of Brick, his graphic memoir Depresso made my best of the year list in 2011) were trying to put together an interesting project, an anthology of stories to mark the centenary of the start of the First World War, To End All Wars, to be published by the fine Indy UK publisher Soaring Penguin Press. Along with others in the comics community I put out a signal boost (on the sadly now defunct Forbidden Planet Blog) for the call for contributors, with a desire to avoid jingoism and nationalism, to include writers and artists from different countries who would tell tales (often inspired by real people and events) taking in the different sides in that dreadful conflict, the many arenas, from the hell of the Western Front to the frozen slaughter in the Alps, beneath the waves, in the air.

To End All Wars 01
(cover for To End All Wars by Elizabeth Waterhouse)

As 2014 approached there were many plans to mark the centenary, more than a few in very respectful and emotional ways. But, as ever, there were those who (usually for political, ideological reasons) who tried to argue this was not an occasion for reflection but tried to claim the more “glorious” side of war (yes, Michael Gove, we’re looking at you and your ilk). Above all else none of us involved wanted that, if anything we stood by Wilfred Owen’s line about “the old lie; Dulce et Decorum est Pro Patria Mori”, how sweet it is to die for one’s country. We had no time for those who would hide horror in some imagined glory, we wanted to tell stories about actual people caught up in this vast conflagration, the people behind those awful lists of statistics of dead and wounded and missing.

In the end more than fifty writers and artists would take part, from thirteen different countries, including Brick and Jonathan who also created stories as well as herding the cats by bringing together and editing all the stories from those different creators in different countries. No-one felt comfortable with earning anything from this, we decided that monies instead would go to Medecins Sans Frontieres, the medical charity that has and continues to help  victims of wars. I’m told that overall we raised some £3, 500 pounds for that cause. The anthology got some nice coverage on the BBC site, and at the annual Eisner Awards, the major comics gongs, given out at the huge San Diego Comic Con, we found ourselves with two nominations. We didn’t win, but for an anthology like this from a small Brit publisher to get to that level of recognition from fellow comickers was wonderful (I am still happy to tell people I was in a double Eisner nominated book!).

Garden of Remembrance 04
(one of the personal crosses in the Garden of Remembrance which has just opened in Princes Street Gardens)

There were some people I knew taking part, such as Brick himself, Selina Lock, my old pals Andy Luke and Sean Michael Wilson. So many I hadn’t heard of before, some of whom would create stories here that have remained in my head ever since, such as Stuart Richards’ Il Gatto (a wordless tale following a real-life event of a cat who went between the lines in the war in the Alpine peaks), Ian Douglas and Stjepan Mihaljevic’s Dead in the Water had haunting imagery from the U-Boat war, both the sailors above and those in their steel coffins below.

Near my home in Edinburgh there is an old cemetery, the centre deliberately allowed to overgrow to offer a mini wildlife refuge in an urban area. As with many such places it contains Commonwealth War Graves. One in particular has always captured my attention as, unusually, it is a double memorial a father, Private James Allan, and his son, Pipe Major James Allan, both from the famous Royal Scots, the father killed at the end of The War to End All Wars, his son killed in the war that came after that one, during the fall of France. Eerily both were the same age when they lost their lives. I often wondered if the father had comforted himself during his battle that at least his young son would grow up safe, because who would ever be foolish enough to start another war after this one?

Dalry boneyard 05

I had shown a photo of their gravestone to Brick, who commented that there was a story in there, and perhaps I should consider trying to pen one myself. I thought about it, and the first ideas seemed too cliched. I let it sit in the back of my head until an idea just came to me – two names on there, father, son. But there was a third casualty, whose name didn’t appear there, the wife, the mother. And as I thought of that I realised by extension that all of the many war memorials, from the smallest wooden tablet in an old church hall to large stone obelisks in city centres, also lacked the name of those other casualties, the mothers, the wives, the sisters. Women who had loved those men only to see them ripped away violently from them, left with a wretched wound that went down to their very souls, the walking wounded whose names were never etched on any monument.

I had my way into the story; I wasn’t satisfied unless I could find an emotional key to it, I felt it had to have that emotional weight, partly for the reader, but also partly from respect for what those mothers had gone through. I think I channeled a lot of my own grief from the sudden loss of my own mother into the writing. I write every week, but since we lost mum I hadn’t penned a story, reviews, interviews, articles, yes, but the spark for narrative was dampened, but I had a strong urge to do this one, and wrote it in a few hours without stopping, stream of consciousness style, then did a little pruning and editing. I thought perhaps I put too much into it, took some out, but Brick and Jonathan told me not to hold back, put it all in.

Kate Charlesworth, veteran comicker, fresh from creating the art with Mary and Bryan Talbot for the superb Sally Heathcote, Suffragette, kindly agreed to do the art. The rest of the collection is in comics format, but our story, which would close the book, was prose by me with illustration by Kate. My few visual ideas weren’t terribly insightful, but as Grant Morrison once said, writers should trust their artists on the art – they know more about it than scribes. And Kate came up with some beautiful ideas I’d not have thought of, such as the little mementoes like baby boots or locks of hair that mothers keep, or the bookending of the pages with a group of women from all walks of society (because this conflict crossed all lines) seeing their men off to war with a similar image of mothers from different cultures and countries clutching pictures of their lost loved ones from all the too many damned wars we’ve had since then. It was beautiful, emotional, worked so well with the words, and I admired that Kate carefully avoided using any military or combat imagery.

Four years on and the book is almost out of print – you can’t find it on online bookstores like Amazon (except second hand), but Soaring Penguin still has a very few left, so you can buy it from there (and two pounds from each book sale still goes to MSF). We started this journey to coincide with the 1914-2014 centenary. As this November sees the centenary of the Armistice in 1918 I wanted to do something, and after seeing the Garden of Remembrance opening in Princes Street Gardens a few days ago I thought perhaps I could post the pages of my and Kate’s story online for anyone to read, and take from it what they will. I asked Brick and Jonathan and Kate, and they all were supportive of the idea, as were Tim and John at Soaring Penguin.

So here we are, from To End All Wars, prose by me, art by Kate Charlesworth, “Memorial to the Mothers” as our little but heartfelt addition to this centenary year, and, hopefully, a reminder to always, always hold those who would lead us into violent conflict to account, because it is those in power who make those decisions, but it is rarely them who pay the price in blood and broken bodies and heartbreak.

Deliciously disturbing Brit folk-horror in Lip Hook

Lip Hook,
David Hine and Mark Stafford,
SelfMadeHero

Arriving just at the right time of year, as the light retreats in the face of the long, dark, dark nights, Hine and Stafford’s Lip Hook promises a deep, deliciously disturbing read right from the front cover onwards. In fact I sometimes get a vibe on some books, before even starting them, a sixth sense (caused by a papercut by a radioactive book page) that steers me to a book that I just know I am going to love. I’ve learned to trust that instinct over the years, and Lip Hook was radiating that vibe to me before I even started it – once more I was glad I listened to my reading instincts, because it was a delectably creepy and disturbing read, awash in rich symbology, riffing on folklore twisted like a wind-gnarled coastal tree to suit the story’s own particular ends, and with a strong gender element.

Lip Hook revels in that rich tradition of British folk-horror; The Wicker Man and, more recently, Richard Rowntree’s Dogged (reviewed here earlier this year) came to my mind as I read, and in more than a few scenes that creepy short musical riff from Blood on Satan’s Claw would play in my head (horror film fans, you know that piece of music I mean), and classic Pertwee-era Who, The Daemons, also popped into my head several times while reading, and it is no bad thing when a horror tale evokes those predecessors for me.

Vincent and Sophia are on the run, high-tailing it from some unspecified crime, pursued by some group we never see but whose threat drives them to veer off the main road to Lip Hook, one of those small, all but forgotten villages that seems as if it is not only at the edge of the world, but a place caught in its own, little, twisted reality, regardless of the big world outside. Everything here is off – some things only slightly odd, others, increasingly as the narrative unfolds, are frighteningly wrong and twisted, and that feeling of unease grows and swells in the reader’s mind as they are drawn into this isolated village, surrounded by threatening marshes and the omnipresent (and apparently dangerous) fog.

Even the characters are visually disturbing – Vincent reminded me (in the good way) just a little of Marc Hempel’s interesting take on Loki in the Sandman: the Kindly Ones in terms of looks, while our first glimpse of Sophia, headscarf on as she drives, sunglasses like pilot’s goggles, long coat, made me think of a meaner, nastier version of Penelope Pitstop. In fact pretty much all of the characters here have something visually wrong and off-putting about them, including other main players that you actually like, such as local youngsters Falcon and Cal, with others among the locals looking even more unusual and unsettling.

Lip Hook is full of grotesques. It made me think of some of the odd-looking secondary characters Sergio Leone often used in his films, with strange features that he would let the camera dwell on, creating a strange mix of fascination (we can’t look away) and revulsion in the viewer. Here Stafford deploys that device to great effect – it isn’t just the crumbling village or the mist and marsh environment around it that look wrong, even the people do, and it feeds that sense of unease, that something here is simply, deeply, wrong.

In my view good horror requires an effective atmosphere as much as it does a solid, compelling narrative, and Hine and Stafford pay attention to both, allowing them to weave between each other to build a superbly creepy atmosphere; you could almost be in a crumbling old ruin in a Poe tale or wondering what lies round the corner in Innsmouth…. From larger scenes – Sophia being entirely engulfed at one early point by strange butterflies in the mist – to small details – an old portrait on the pub wall depicts a couple in Victorian finery, but closer inspection shows the well-dressed woman wearing a form of Scold’s Bride – Hine and Stafford build that sense of wrongness and unease until you are bursting for some form of release.

It’s just that what Rosie and Margot said to you… it made it sound like men mess everything up.”

Men run things. Things are messed up. Ergo men mess things up. There’s a neat logic to it.”

Traditional and folkloric elements abound, from cricket on the village green (which alters very quickly to something rather less wholesome) to the masks the locals wear to protect from the mists (some recall those horrifying protective masks worn by Plague doctors). The gender element of folklore is especially strong here, from two local women (and lovers) who still practise a feminine form of natural magic (like Wicca a type that celebrates kindness and goodwill and abhors the bad) to legends of a “hag” burned like a Guy Fawkes dummy, a perverted form of an older, female-centric belief system stamped on by previous generations of men in the area (shades of Witchfinder General and others, the men terrified of the thought of empowered women and seeing them as a threat to against their own power, to be contained).

A couple on the run, a strange, isolated, all but forgotten village wreathed in mysterious, dangerous fogs, people who have disappeared, a vile local nobleman who controls the village (or he thinks he does), hidden secrets coming out (literally and metaphorically), astonishingly grotesque characters and locations permeated with an unsettling atmosphere and a narrative that builds extremely satisfyingly towards a climax, pulling you along with it, lost in the mist with the characters and needing that resolution, whatever it may be, good or ill or both. A superbly atmospheric and deliciously disturbing slice of British folk horror. Read by firelight on the long, long nights while you wonder what lies just outside the comforting, warm glow of light from your windows…

Now you see it, now you don’t

Well, a day after my final turn at FP I go to check something on the FP Blog and… It wasn’t there. Taken down already, virtual corpse not even cold. That’s an extra kick in the pants, I thought it would be archived online so those years of articles, reviews, interviews and guest pieces wouldn’t just vanish. As one person remarked, she was upset as she had several items bookmarked to read. Just as well most of my reviews are also here on the Woolamaloo Gazette, including that final post which was up for basically a day on the actual FP blog before it was zapped. Sad to see all of that work just wiped away like that.

Meantime the search for a new job goes on – hint to publishers and arts and culture organisations out there, knowledgeable, experienced, passionate bookseller with a flair for promoting good writing and reading online, available for hire…

And it’s over – So Long, and Thanks for all the Fish

Well, the day I have been dreading for several weeks has come to pass: I’ve been living under the cloud of imminent redundancy, and as the termination date has crept closer and closer I felt increasingly bad. It isn’t just the practical side of things – having to look for a new job, the crushing feeling of not getting posts you are well suited to, the way it saps your morale and sense of self worth, the worry about being able to pay your bills – it’s the emotional side. Not just that it fuels the wee black voice, there’s also a sense of loss: having drinks with some of my colleagues yesterday was very odd, I’ve worked next to some for thirteen and a half years, I’ve known them since before some of their children were born and it is very peculiar to think we’re not going to be part of each other’s daily lives anymore, quite upsetting. We’ll see each other from time to time, but it won’t be as it was before.

Always hard moving on, even when it is by choice, when it is forced on you it makes it harder. Here’s a copy of my final post from the Forbidden Planet Blog:

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Richard has already taken his final bow on the blog (see here), and now it’s my turn. Truth be told I have been putting this off all week, and here I am typing it now, on my last day at FPI. Quite emotional, as you can imagine; I’m trying to persuade colleagues in the Edinburgh store, beneath which the Blogcave lurks, deep under Edinburgh’s ancient Old Town, right above the haunted undercity, that they should play the sad piano music from the end of the old Hulk TV show as I walk out for the last time tonight.

Thirteen and a half years: I started the blog when I began working on the webstore for Forbidden Planet International, looking after the graphic novels and books. I had pitched the idea to Kenny of using a blog so we could highlight some of the titles we sold in the stores and online, celebrate them, draw reader’s attention to them, recommend books, use it for announcing news, not just our own but news and events from others in the comics community, to give them an added voice (especially in pre-Twitter days). To his and FPI’s credit they agreed and also supported the idea that we would keep the blog pretty non-commercial – of course we’d trumpet our store events and offers, we’d link reviews to the webstore where you could buy the graphic novel we were reviewing, but that was about it, it was left mostly as a space to celebrate comics, science fiction, fantasy, horror and animation, all our geek loves. I think Kenny saw it as a nice way to give something back to the comics community, and that’s a nice way to think of it.

As time went by more contributors came onboard, allowing us not only to cover more, but also to take in a more diverse range of tastes. Richard continued from the sort of recommendations and reviews he had done when he worked in our Nostalgia & Comics store in Birmignham – it was something we had in common as I too had organised mini-reviews and staff recommendations in my old bookstore, and I knew that A) readers loved those personal recommendations and B) it often gave a new creator a chance to be spotted by readers. To be honest, as time went on Richard was less a reviewer and more a co-editor with me; I can’t imagine having run the FP blog this long without his help, as well as his articles and reviews, and while we all reviewed numerous small press works, Richard was king on those, writing up on so many small press comickers that it often felt like they saw us as “their” site, which frankly we loved.

Then Our Man In Belgium, Wim, provided us with Our Continental Correspondent columns, bringing European works and comics trends to the Anglophone audience. I think any of us who truly love the medium are in awe of the status of the Franco-Belgian comics market, where bande dessinee is seen as “the ninth art”, a respected status those of us in the UK, Canada, America and other countries could only dream of (although that has changed a lot – look at Mary and Bryan Talbot’s Costa Award win for instance – and is still changing for the better here). Wim not only brought us news and reviews of European comics, from new talents and revered veterans, he did it the way I hope everyone on the blog did, with their own personality and passion for the medium (I think we all used our own voices, kept it personal, never a house style or corporate tone, and I think that’s another reason readers liked it).

I learned a lot more about European comics through editing Wim’s posts, and it only sharpened my hunger to see more of these works translated and published in English. And, rather wonderfully, that sometimes happened because of his pieces, especially his Translation, Please columns where he would champion some astonishing new comics work he’d seen in French, Dutch, German, Spanish, Italian, and highlight why this was an author and a book Brit and North American publishers should be looking at and thinking of buying English language rights to. Several publishers told us they looked specifically for those European publishers and creators on their trips to continental conventions on the back of reading about them through Wim’s columns, and several ended up making deals and translating those books. I call that a pretty good result.

More people joined us through the years, some for a short time, others longer, but all added to a plurality of voices and tastes and subjects covered. My old Irish chum from our days on The Alien Online (early SF & comics review site some of you may recall fondly) Pádraig contributed some long, thoughtful interviews, not least with the mighty Alan Moore, Zainab brought a new perspective with her own tastes and an eye for creators and titles that were not as well-represented as they should be, especially women and ethnic creators (an increasingly happening area in comics coverage, I am glad to see, but Zee was doing it well ahead of the curve and continues to do it now), Nicola, then working at our Glasgow store (now a Grande Fromage at the Glasgow Comic Con) brought an impassioned fangirl rush to her picks from the week’s new releases (and got me reading some I would otherwise have walked past).

Matt Badham would do us some great pieces and some cracking interviews, which, in what I thought was a nice touch of solidarity and cooperation, would be published by ourselves and John Freeman’s Down the Tubes at the same time. There was something nice about that – not competition, working together, all part of the bigger community. Hannah Chapman wrote some great pieces on the Indy scene and on women in comics and webcomics, now she’s a creator and pushing the splendid Avery Hill comics. Malachy from our Belfast store and my book group chum Misti joined me in my eternal love of good science fiction and fantasy, so we could cover more of the prose side of geekdom as well as the graphic, Stephen, under his Garth Cremona pen-name, was our resident movie fiend, and another Irish chum, James Bacon, would contribute not just reviews but all sorts of interesting articles, from a gallery exhibition of comic art to some science fiction stage plays and reporting from San Diego Comic Con (along the way also chatting to local comic store owners in California and getting their views).

And that’s not counting everyone – a lot of others would contribute when they could (remember most of us were doing all of this in our own free time), and then we had numerous guest blogs. That was something I always wanted – when we ran our guest Best of the Year posts each December we would have a different writer, artist, editor, publisher, reviewer every single day in December, picking their favourites, before the blog crew chose their own; it meant we got a wider net, more reading tastes, that works we hadn’t seen or had time for got shout outs. Most sites would have a Best of the Year article around December, but I don’t think anyone did it quite the way we did with so many diferent guests getting a chance to shout out their faves.

Similarly our guest posts gave creators free reign to use the blog as a platform to talk directly to the readers about their work. We had reviews, previews and interviews, but it seemed to me there was something missing – reviews are our opinion, in interviews creators only get to answer the questions put to them… Why not have a feature where we removed ourselves from it and gave the slot entirely to them, to talk about their new work in their own words, in any way they wanted to. It gave readers some insight into the creation process, what elements of the story meant to the creator and why they worked the way they did, and at the same time served to highlight their new work and interest readers.

I remember one year we did a whole themed Director’s Commentary run with not just the winner but all shortlist nominees for Myriad’s First Graphic Novel prize, after one of the judges, Bryan Talbot, commented on the high standard of all of them, so we arranged to let each and every one of them do a guest spot about their entries. I know I am biased, but I think that was a damned good use of the platform we had to share. After the debacle of the all-male creator Angouleme shortlist a few years back a whole bunch of women writers, artists and publishers did a coperative guest spot with each highlighting women in the medium.

We loved being able to use the blog for something like that and other things, and as we’ve been seeing with certain sad groups attacking women, LGBT and ethnic creators virulently, it’s important those with a decent platform use it to defend diversity: more diverse voices means more intersting and unusual reading for us, which is a win-win situation. And, simply, it is the proper and decent thing to do; comics and scifidom are communities, and communities support and celebrate one another, and when we do that, we all win. Many are continuing that push, and all power to them; the blog here may be going quiet, but those of us who worked on it still have your back in the comics and SF community.

We’d all love to have done more, to turn the blog into a virtual journal, perhaps. But we all had work and life and other commitments, and we were all doing most of our reading, viewing and writing in our own time, after the day job. That’s a lot of hours of our own time, and always there would be more good stuff out there that we just couldn’t get time to cover. In a way though, that is a sign of how much comics, especially in the UK, has changed even just in those thirteen and a half years of the blog’s existence. When we started we had a pretty vibrant small press scene, with a couple of yearly events like Caption and then Thought Bubble celebrating them, and just a handful of UK graphic novel publishers, like Cape, or veterans like Knockabout. But then more events – mainstream and small press-friendly, from tiny local, small town events to European style comic art festivals like the Lakes were added to the calendar, and the already thriving small press scene got bigger, better, more diverse and interesting.

And the number of Indy publishers also grew in the UK: Myriad, Blank Slate (run by our own Kenny), SelfMadeHero, Soaring Penguin, Avery Hill, Nobrow and more. And many of those bloomed over those following years: suddenly UK comickers went from thinking why don’t we have our own Drawn & Quarterly, Top Shelf or Fantagraphics here to having those and seeing them prosper and reach new audiences. Just last month I chaired events with SelfMadeHero and Nobrow authors at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, the largest literary festival on Planet Earth, and there were our Indy comics presses strutting their funky literary stuff, alongside small press creators given their own comic fair on opening day. We also saw some of those new Indy publishers here translating European comics for an English language audience, and then, oh so gloriously, taking their UK titles to European festivals and seeing them picked up for translation there. Wow. So many good changes over those years.

I’m honoured we got to be a small part of those changes, that we got to enjoy reading those works, and had a megaphone to shout out those creators and publishers and watch others pick them up, other sites like Broken Frontier coming along and adding their voices to this flowering of talent and creation. It has been a remarkable time for comics, especially in the UK. And it still is; if anything it is just getting better and better, and I hope very much that lending our voices to the chorus helped those creators and publishers, and I know more than a few readers who have told us over the years they only knew about a new work because of one of our articles, that they picked up a book they would never have seen otherwise. That, my comics chums, is a very, very nice feeling when you hear that.

(I’d like to think this is Richard and I going out in a blaze of six-gun glory, but fear we are more Pooch and Sunlounger than Butch and Sundance, and no, I don’t know which of us is which)

And… well, there’s more, but I have already gone on far longer than I intended to. I meant this to be shorter, pithier, but I am writing it on my last day here as it comes into my head, and I think I’m going on so long because I am reluctant to finish, because it is my last FP Blog post. Like David Tennant’s Doctor “I don’t want to go.” But go we must, things change, and let’s face it, thirteen and a half years is a pretty good innings for a comic blog. It has been a pleasure to be able to cover so many fine writers and artists, to celebrate the success of new publishers and watch comics culture flourishing as never before, from small press and Indy to the maintream, covering every subject from adventures to gender to health to science to poetry and more, and quite wonderful to have been a small part of that. I’m sad to leave the blog, to leave FP, the thought of not seeing colleagues I have worked years beside is, naturally, upsetting. But mostly I am proud of what we did, with few resources and a bunch of book and comics readers working away in our own time simply because we loved good reading.

So long, and thanks for all the fish. And always, always know where your towel is.

And keep reading. Always keep reading.

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And there it is, the last post after thirteen and a half years. I think we did a lot within our constraints and I’m pleased we helped a lot of writers, artists and new publishers to get noticed. But it’s over, and I’m looking for new work, still. So any publishers out there, bookseller for hire with decades of literary knowledge, passion for promoting good reading, huge range of experience in highlighting good authors through events, reviews, interviews, social media and literary festivals. I’m also house-trained.

We Shall Fight Until We Win

We Shall Fight Until We Win: a Century of Pioneering Political Women,
Edited by Laura Jones, Heather McDaid & Sha Nazir,
404 Ink / BHP Comics

Two small Indy Scottish publishers, BHP Comics (who are also behind the Glasgow Comic Con and the Edinburgh Comic Art Festival) teamed up with 404 Ink to create this anthology of “pioneering political women”, We Shall Fight Until We Win, which marks the century since (some) women got the vote in the UK with an all-woman creator team (nicely diverse line up too in terms of age, orientation, ethnic background, all encouraging to see) with short pieces on women from different decades across that century.

It’s a very interesting read, some tales being several pages, others being but a single page, and I admire the fact that they decided this would not take the route of only picking subjects most can admire, it also takes in subjects such as Margaret Thatcher because, even for those who loathed that very divisive politician the book cannot ignore that she was the first woman prime minister and the effect she had on changing politics in the UK, for good or ill, and while I personally cannot stand her I think it was indeed important that an anthology of this nature acknowledged her.

The range of subjects is as wide as the backrounds of the creators here, some well-known – Emmeline Pankhurst, Nicola Sturgeon, Dianne Abbot – while others may only be familiar to those who have an interest in specific parts of history. That’s a good thing, of course, because it means even if you consider yourself fairly well-versed in history there is a good chance you are still going to find out about a remarkable person you hadn’t heard of before. I like that aspect of these kinds of works, it is no bad thing, regardless of age, to be exposed to new people and ideas and events.

I’m not going to go through each individual chapter and creators, but I must mention a few that stood out for me personally. I liked Kathryn Briggs and Heather McDaid’s The Glasgow Girls right from the first page; I loved the style, infused with touches of Mackintosh and Art Noveau, and the title, riffing on the famous Glasgow Boys art movement. While most of the entries here opt to highlight a particular individual, this one has a warm, cooperative, social, community feel to it, celebrating a group of young women – school girls at the time – who saw immigrant families being settled into their local neighbourhoods in and around Glasgow, many of whom had fled terrible circumstances.

The children of these refugee families would attend local schools and they became part of the community, so when the seemingly eternally short-sighted and cold-hearted Kafkaeque monster of the Home Office opted to eject some from the country, placing entire families (including children) into detention, these young girls acted, they organised, they protested, they whipped up support, they stood up for their friends, and by god they made a difference. I was very touched by this particular story, partly because it showed the power of good will, well directed, but also because it chimed with an element of Scottish identity which is dear to many of us, that “we’re aw Jock Tamson’s Bairns” (essentially meaning we’re all the same, regardless) and that no matter where you came from, when you live here with us, you are one of us. Which is not to say we don’t have bigotry and racism in Scotland, sadly we do have that ignorant hatred too, but there is a song social and community strand to the national identity that still wants to embrace that inclusivity and standing by one another, and it was wonderful to see such young women taking that lesson and applying it to help others.

Jenny Bloomfield and Grace Wilson’s Life and Times of Mhairi Black, the very young, working class woman who became an SNP MP and brought her blunt, no nonsense approach to the stuffy, rule-obsessed House of Commons and showed it what she thought of their arcane rituals and customs (she was there to represent her electorate and didn’t give a damn about the games and rituals older MPs played by, much to their ire), had me smiling as it summed up this firecracker. Hannah Berry told of a woman I hadn’t heard of, Jayaben Desai, who stood up not just against misogyny and racism but the simple exploitation more than a few uncaring company’s have used on their workers over the years, organising together, as a union, to fight for their rights, something that affects all of us.

Hari Conner and Durre Shahwar’s story of Noor Inayat Khan was remarkable, a descendant of Tipu Sultan, who volunteered to serve in the WAAFs (Women’s Auxiliary Airforce) during WWII, then trained by SOE and parachuted behind into Occupied Europe as a wireless operator, risking life and torture by the Gestapo to help liberate it from the Nazis, and paying the ulimtate price. I could read a whole book on that unbelievably brave woman, who was executed in the hell of Dachau, her last word reportedly a defiant “Liberte!”

I think the one that most emotionally affected me was Sabeena Akhtar and Erin Aniker’s The 60%. Like The Glasgow Girls this wasn’t about an individual, in fact this time not even about a small group, it was about, well, about most women. Not the ones in the history and politics texts who are remembered for their deeds and thoughts which changed the world, but for all the other women who didn’t have the “privilege to fight and franchise”, the mothers, aunt, the working women who then went home from that work to raise children and look after husbands. Your mother, my mother, our aunts, sisters and others who changed the world in other ways while raising us, carnig for us, teaching us, setting an example while nurturing us. I think that particular story is pretty universal “and though you haven’t read their names, I’d wager you know their faces.” Of course we know their faces, they are our own family and friends.

I was lucky enough to hear BHP’s Sha Nazir and Heather Palmer, and 404 Ink’s Lauren Jones (see below) discuss the project on the opening day of the Edinburgh International Book Festival (my report on some of the comics and SF events from this summer’s festival is here), and it was fascinating to listen to how they went about this collaboration between the two Indy publishers (404’s first forary in comics). Not just in terms of embracing creators from a diverse number of backgrounds (something BHP has a strong ethos about, to their credit), but also from the production side – much of this work from new talent and established creators like Hannah Berry and Denise Mina (and our old chum and former FP blog reviewer Nicola Love, who I must give a shout out to) was solicited and completed and edited within two or three months.

Edinburgh International Book Festival 2018 - A Graphic Novel of Women 03
(Heather Palmer, Sha Nazir and Lauren Jones signing after their Edinburgh book fest talk, pic from my Flickr)

If these were two big publishers cooperating they would still be working out a legal document before they had started at that point! But being small and nimble BHP and 404 could push ahead quickly on that deal and the actual project to have it ready in a remarkably swift time period. I’m also heartened by hearing that copies have been going out to many school libraries in Scotland, and after chairing an event later at the festival with Sha Nazir several school librarians came over to chat about the book and other titles BHP had, and to note down other suggestions for graphic works they could use to help kids learn about complex subjects. It’s nice to know that this will be read in many of our schools.

Escaping Wars and Waves: Encounters with Syrian Refugees

Escaping Wars and Waves: Encounters with Syrian Refugees,
Olivier Kugler,
Myriad Editions / New Internationalist


The children are nervous… When they hear any noise, even if you only knock at the door, they can get very afraid.”

The world is currently experiencing its one of its worst refugee problems since the Second World War, with masses of people being displaced through war, famine, economic poverty and more. You’d hope by this point, in the 21st century, humankind would have learned and moved on from this sort of wretchedness, but no. And apart from the physical and practical problems of countries coping with a mass influx of often desperate refugees, there are those who shamelessly use such an awful situation to whip up xenophobic hatred, turned to their own cynical purposes to garner political and popular support. German creator Kugler does something which is desperately needed, puts a very human, very personal face onto some of those refugees.

We see in the news regular statistics – this many drowned in a ricket boat crossing to Europea, this many in camps, this many asking for asyulm in countries that are worried about the impact of so many so quickly, even in nations who have traditionally been open and inviting. Kugler does not pretend to have answers to these enormous practical and ethical problems, what he does here is give us people, not statistics, not some politician’s ideologically driven rhetoric. People. Men, women, kids, families. People just like us, like our friends, our families, our neighbours, our communities.

The images we see from the news, even by the most well-intentioned journalists, often gives a distorted view. We see people grubbing in the mud of a camp like the infamous Jungle in Calais, or an overflowing city of tents in Kurdistan, and those images can give us the wrong impression, make us judgemental in the same we it is too easy to be when seeing someone begging or sleeping rough on our own city streets. We don’t know the stories behind those images, behind those people, what they have endured, are still enduring. Kugler gives us that, and does his level best to do so without interjecting himself – there is a very clear desire by the author to make sure that as much as possible he presents these people in their own words.

Many of these refugees are well-educated folk from a decent background, college-educated with degrees, a nice family, pretty home (one speaks movingly of missing their little vegetable garden by their home, where they grew oranges and lemons right by the house, home now gone, even the trees that grew for years ripped up by the uncaring war). There are teachers here, lawyers, computer specialists, nurse, doctors, even psychologists like Suzan who helps MSF (Medecins Sans Frontiers, the same charitable organisation many of you will remember Guy Delisle’s wife working for in his comics travelogues).

Kugler goes to various locations to talk first hand to people who have had to flee Syria, some because the war came literally to their doorstep (if they were lucky they all escaped with little more than the clothes on their backs, if they were unlucky they escaped after shells had killed some of their family in front of them), taking us from Kurdistan to the Greek island of Kos, to the “Jungle” camp in Calais, to Britain and Germany where some of the refugees have been allowed to settle, the most fortunate reunited with other family members already there, he takes us from those struggling in overflowing tented camps where charities and local authorities are overwhelmed by the sheer numbers, to those trying to make a new life for themselves in Europe.

It’s often heartbreaking, especially hearing from the children. Not for the first time I was reminded of the late, great Spike Milligan’s war memoirs, from the WWII Italian campaign when they came across a village where a child had become a casualty of the fighting; “the adult world should forver hang its head in shame at what is has done to children” commented Spike, and he wasn’t wrong. But while much of this is, as you might imagine, very upsetting, this is balanced with that quality we all need, especially these days: hope. We see the fortunate make new homes for themselves; they miss their old hometown, their country, but they are relieved to be in a place that is safe, where their children can go to school and thrive.

Several times the kids briefly forget the traumas their young eyes have seen and grow excited like any other child, telling Kugler what they want to be when they grow up and leave school (“a nurse!” “an engineer!!”). The fact they can overcome those traumas and think about a future again, to play and dream of being a doctor or an engineer when they are older, is a wonderful thing to see in those children. In an especially touching scene Kugler visits some in Germany – the kids of the family now go to his old school.

Rather than a series of sequential panels, Kugler opts more for (mostly) coloured sketches taking up an entire page, or sometimes running across two pages, with text telling the person’s own story, rather than speech bubbles. Thoughtfully these chunks of text running around the art are numbered to make it easier to follow around the art layout. The sketches themselves tend to focus on characters central in the image, they are depicted with the most detail, the colouring, and most importantly, the expressions, coming through clearly, while around the periphery details and people there are sketchier, not as detailed, perhaps not even coloured in.

It felt as if the artist was using this approach to hint that for every couple of people he talked to, centre on the stage of the page, there were so many others around the edge; he can’t talk to them all but he can infer to the reader that they are there and the too matter. There are small details added in like a little arrow pointing to something small in the background and text explaining “chocoalt bar”, “plastic flowers”. It all serves to normalise these unusual scenes, the bric-a-brac of everyday life scattered around just like it would be anywhere.

There is also a remarkable amount of hospitality and welcome shown here by many refugees. As Kugler explains not everyone wants to be drawn or photographed, understandably given their circumstances (many still have family back in war-torn Syria and fear anything they say could cause trouble for family still there). But many, even those in the regugee camps with so little to their name, still do their best to offer warm hospitality when he visits. One man who had managed to make himself a wee business while stuck in the camps, running a small stall selling coffee, drinks and other snacks sees him standing in the cold and mud waiting on his interpreter to arrive, and offers him hot, sweet coffee, refusing payment. Others, in tents or in homes in Birmingham or Simmozheim, Kugler’s home village in Germany welcome him into their homes, be they tents in a camp or actual homes in the country managed to get asylum in.

Even for those settled in Europe the scars are horribly visible, both physical (one man shows his bullet wounds), others mental (children still scared when they hear a helicopter passing overhead, or the sudden roar of a train going over a bridge as they walk under it. Again I was reminded of Milligan, how his nerves shattered by the war, he would find himself in tears of sudden fear just from the sudden sound of a car exhaust backfiring). God knows what some of them have been through – despite many opening up to Kugler, it’s obvious this is barely scratching the tip of the iceberg. We all know how bad a place we can be in when dealing with emotional upsets – illness, losing a loved one – and how emotionally hard it is to cope, and that is us with our home, rest of our family and friends around us. Imagine having those kinds of traumas and losing your home, the town you lived in destroyed, having to flee your own land and throw yourself out hoping desperately for help.

That’s what Kugler does so well here, he enables us to see these people not as a news story, not as statistics, not as demonised figures, but to show us people, people we can see ourselves in, we can empathise with. And from empathy comes compassion and more understanding, and god knows our world desperately needs those right now. This is not an easy read, it’s emotionally hard-going, but very worth making that effort; it’s a much-needed riposte to the demonising and hatred we see poured at some refugees, and a reminder of that old saying, there but for the grace of God go I. How swiftly could everything we think is normal be destroyed just as it was for these people? Home, work, school, going to a restaurant, the movies, day out with the kids? Suddenly all gone. And how desperate would we be, how much would we rely on our fellow humans to show kindness if it were us in such a situation? No, this is not an easy read, but it is, I would say, a very important read.

The doctor is in – Greta Helsing returns in Dreadful Company

Dreadful Company,
Vivian Shaw,
Orbit Books

(delectable cover art by Will Staehle)

“An absolute delight.” That was what I said about the first of Vivian Shaw’s Great Helsing novels, Strange Practice, around this time last year (see here for the review). In fact you can see that quote on the back cover of this second book; it really was one of the most enjoyable novels I read in 2017 and made my annual Best of the Year list. So you can imagine that when the second book, Dreadful Company, showed up on my desk you would have seen me shiver with anticip…. ation…. Did the that difficult “second album” live up to the promise of the first book? Nope, in fact it surpassed it; Vivian has taken all of the best elements (characters you really get to know and care about, sly sense of humour, clever references, some social commentary), allied them to an intriguing new story and along the way also nicely expanded the world Greta and her friend inhabit.

Greta is, like almost all GPs, constantly run off her feet, but her medical practice in London takes in an unusual set of patients, ones who otherwise would struggle to obtain healthcare – vampires, ghouls, werewolves, mummies and more, Greta treats any who need it. Unusually Dreadful Company takes her away for a few days, both from her practice and from London, invited to fill in at short notice at a medical conference for those with her unusual selection of patients, Greta is in Paris for a few days. Lord Ruthven returns from the first book (yes, that Lord Ruthven) and he is delighting in escorting Greta, treating her to the finest the City of Light has to offer – sumptuous hotel, elegant evening dress, a night at the opera in the Palais Garnier. Vivian has a delicious line in descriptive prose, and here the overly ornate opera house decor as possessing the “same kind of uninhibited, glittering cheer as a polished drag queen’s performance.”

The use of the opera house offers up the first in a number of references to one of the great classics of horror literature, Gaston Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera, even down to a scene on the grand staircase where Ruthven feels as if another presence is watching them close by (a nice nod to the 1920s film version of Phantom with Lon Chaney Snr, which used some remarkable early colour for the staircase scene and remains an astonishing piece of early cinema). Of course they are indeed being watched, there are local Parisian vampires at the opera – opera being one of those things that just attracts vampires, as is noted wryly in the book. And it isn’t long after Ruthven has to take his leave that Greta finds herself in trouble, snatched by the leader who has an entire coven of vampires in the infamous catacombs near the Père Lachaise cemetery (where else??), and this leader has a grudge against Ruthven, putting Greta in a huge amount of danger.


(the ball sequence in the opera house from the 1920s Phantom of the Opera)

Into this mix come new characters such as the werewolf St Germain (a nod to the famous vampire novel series?), who is effectively the supernatural protector of Paris. In a nice touch St Germain’s origins allude to the real historical mystery Beast of Gévaudan from 1700s France (still a fascinating mystery to this day), and two immortals who are very good at clearing old haunting sites, helping spirits move on, Crepusculous and Brightside, who put me in mind (in the good way) of Aziraphale and Crowley from Good Omens. The kidnapping plot is just the tip of the iceberg here though, and Vivian weaves an increasingly compelling story with many winding side-branches that twist around much like those ancient Parisian catacombs, before very satisfyingly coming together again, both the narrative and the character arcs being rounded up nicely. And no, I’m not going to say any more on the plot because I don’t want to spoil any of it for you.

There is a real sense of world-building going on here – Vivian is expanding that mix of the real and the supernatural world that Greta lives in, the history, the geography, the characters, and it is all tremendously satisfying – it reminded me of early Jim Butcher Dresden Files novels in that respect, in that each book had a self-contained tale but also built up that world with more details in each book so you became more immersed into them. As well as the expanded sense of Greta’s world and a compelling story, the wicked sense of humour in some of those descriptions there is also a nice line in geek-friendly references from the aforementioned Phantom of the Opera and Beast of Gévaudan to tips of the hat to Armand’s subterranean coven of blood-drinkers in The Vampire Lestat and how many other writers manage to work in an underground jail scene which manages to take in both “Oh whistle and I’ll come, my lad” and The Prisoner? This is the sort of book which will deserve a second read further down the road and I am sure I will spot more references, not just thrown in but nicely woven into the actual story. This is an utterly delicious read.

High tension in Adrift

Adrift,
Rob Boffard,
Orbit Books

(cover design by Charlotte Stroomer)

With a history degree and little chance of going straight from college to a nice museum job, and reluctant to take a post with her oh-so-successful older sister or parents, Hannah has, like many a young undergrad or graduate, decided to travel and take on a low-level job to pay her way, get some work experience and fund that travelling. In her case it isn’t tending a bar in Ibiza though, but becoming a tour guide at Sigma Station, a massive station which serviced trade and mining processing for the outer colonies, but which is now also a luxury hotel and tourist destination, boasting spectacular views of one of the galaxy’s greatest sights, the Horsehead Nebula.

It’s not going well though – she’s not even settled in and gotten used to the place before she is put to work, and like many low-paid jobs she gets tossed right in with hardly any training and, unsurprisingly feels overwhelmed, clumsy and out of her depth. Hardly how any of us want to feel at any time, harder still for a young woman in her first job and her first long distance trip away from home on her own, hardly a confidence booster. One of her first tasks is to be the perky, cheery guide for some of the station’s tourists who are taking a local trip on the Red Panda, a basic small vessel, the space equivalent of the wee converted fishing boat that you get at the seaside, all aboard the Mary Jane, twice around the lighthouse and back in time for fish and chips!

It’s not helped by a surly Russian captain who refers to her only as “Guide” rather than by name, or that the small group of tourists are made up of bored, or grumpy types, and several are the type who seem to like belittling anyone in the poorly paid service post below them (we’ve all seen plenty like that). Oh, and then there’s the sudden, violent destruction of the station and the mass slaughter of the thousands of unarmed civilians within just after the Panda had launched…

(the Horsehead Nebula, some 1500 light years from Earth, infrared image from the Hubble Space Telescope)

A ship of unknown origin appears and attacks the station with weapons unlike any they’ve seen before. Who are they? Why have they attacked such a huge civilian outpost without warning? The human worlds have been putting themselves back together after a costly war between the Earth-lead planets and the colonies (as with such wars throughout terrestrial history, the colonial power expands to take in more resources, but when those colonies become successful, strangely enough they start to question why they should be breaking their backs to send most of their hard-earned resources back to the motherland). But the war is over, peace returned, hence the return of tourism to the frontier. And that strange attacking ship didn’t look like anything from the colonies, or Earth, and the tech seems too high… Who are they? Why are they attacking? Are there more of them?

And meantime the small, disparate group of tourists and Hannah have to survive on a tiny ship designed only for short, local sightseeing trips – this is a small pleasure craft, not an interstellar starship, it was never meant to be far from support. Assuming they can avoid meeting the same fate from the mystery ship they’re still in desperate straits, cut off from any support, on a ship with limited supplies and systems, light years from the next base. A mixed group flung together, it isn’t long before the divisions and arguments start, making an awful situation worse. And this is all just in the first few chapters…

This is a tale that stamps on the accelerator right from the start, launching our characters from an everyday situation into a terrifying position in an instant, and then taking that situation Boffard expertly turns the crank on this emotional rack, tightening the ropes, increasing the tension in a desperate fight for survival mixed with conflict and conspiracies. It makes for a read as gripping as a hungry anaconda. It’s a story that has a lot of DNA in common with the likes of Hitchcock’s classic Lifeboat, and like that film it cleverly maximises the almost single-setting to its advantage, building tension laced with claustrophobia and rising panic, anger and division. I hate using a cliche like “page turner”, but oh boy, this is indeed a page turner…

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Reviews: Autonomous

Autonomous,

Annalee Newitz,

Orbit Books


(cover design by Will Staehl)

I’m sure many of you are familiar with Annelee Newitz’s name, being the co-founder of the major SF site IO9 among many other hats she wears. To that hatstand we can now add science fiction novelist with this, her debut from Orbit Books. An oh boy, what a fabulous debut. Robots, love, sex, pirates, copyfighters sticking it to giant mega corporations, shady morality and a future that’s drawn partly from the present and history, making elements of it sadly all too plausible. All of this wrapped up in a very well-paced narrative with flawed characters who work their way into your affections, flaws and all (perhaps more so because of their flaws).

Jack is a highly trained scientist with a lifelong hatred for the big megacorporations, especially big pharmaceuticals. In her younger days she and others pushed for free labs and works being published without copyrights, freely available to anyone to make themselves when needed, or for other scientists to take and twist and alter and enhance. It’s a stance which attracts a lot of other like-minded people and, predictably, the ire of these giant corporations, which use their agents to crush them and make an example of them, seemingly above the law around the world, able to get people imprisoned, or use coercion and violence on those who oppose them, and get away with it while authorities, hungry for the funds that can come with working with those big corporations, look the other way.

It’s a life which instead of cowing Jack has pushed her further into her beliefs – she’s become a pirate, hacking the drugs produced by these megacorps, which make obscene amounts of money and make drugs and therapies which only the well-off can afford. She hacks these, breaks them down and then makes her own versions which are distributed to a black market among various medical staff; it makes her a living (albeit one that gets her hunted) and at the same time people who couldn’t possibly afford those medications are able to get hold of them cheaply.

Except now, as her submarine nears the coast for a new drop, she is hearing news of multiple cases of problems with a drug, one she fears she sold – she checks, her work is good, but the original company’s drug she hacked has a serious flaw (or is it deliberate?), it is highly addictive. Her mission to do good has gone wrong in spectacular, if unintentional, fashion and she is going to need help to fix it. Worse, as this will draw the copyright agents closer to her – not motivated to make sure not only that her pirating is stopped but no news of their dodgy chemistry makes the news – she is going to be running from hiding spot to hiding spot to try and fix it while looking over her shoulder, and knowing she is potentially putting everyone she deals with in danger.

This is an absolute cracker of a debut – it runs along at a fine pace, keeping you glued to it. Where some may give you good heroic characters and their villainous counterparts, Newitz instead gives a much more satisfying mix of flawed characters – many of those on the “sticking it to The Man” side of things are not all entirely clean, and they are, basically criminals (even if some do it for a greater good – at least they think they do), while the agent hunting them, Eliasz, and his robotic companion Paladin, commit morally horrible acts to try and deal with some of those they are hunting, and yet neither is really a villain as such, they think they are doing the right thing, upholding rules and laws, stopping criminals, and there is a strange relationship forming between man and machine which starts as somewhat disturbing but soon becomes actually rather sweet.

It’s a disturbing future drawing on a lot of elements from our current world and our shared history, which makes it all the more terrifyingly plausible. Not only robots are indentured for years (earning their autonomy from those who created them by working off that debt), huge swathes of humanity are similarly indentured, recalling the way more than a few colonists came to the New World back in Colonial-era America, with no resources other than their own labour, selling themselves into an indentured contract, and with the erosion of worker’s rights to suit giant corporations (which have more power than national governments) it’s not hard to imagine a form of that being tried again. The hacking and pirating of chemicals and treatments from giant companies is something we have seen already – think of those Brazilian companies in the 80s and 90s making their own generic versions of big pharma companies’ AIDS drugs, illegal, sure, but on the other hand it made those drugs available to thousands who needed them and couldn’t afford them. That sort of moral ambiguity is laced throughout the book and makes it all the more engrossing. A must-read.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog