Parisian Noir: Malet & Tardi’s Fog Over Tolbiac Bridge

Fog Over Tolbiac Bridge,

Leo Malet, Jacques Tardi,

Translated by Kim Thompson,

Fantagraphics

I absolutely love the work of Jacques Tardi, from his crime tales to fantastical Jules Verne-esque yarns like the Arctic Marauder or the bitter, powerful anger of It Was the War of the Trenches (see here) and Goddamn This War (reviewed here), he is, for me, one of Europe’s great masters of the ninth art. I also have a fondness for a dash of Noir, so combine Tardi with a Noir murder featuring Leo Malet’s detective Nestor Burma and oh yes, you better believe I wanted to get my little ink-stained paws on it. And rather a handsome edition it is too, a slim hardback album, with some nice metallic highlights on the front and back cover (sadly not so obvious in the scan above, but quite striking when you see it with your own eyes), a nice addition to Fantagraphics’ Tardi library on my shelves. It even comes with nice end-papers detailing a map of the relevant part of Paris, marking the location of the main events; in conjunction with the actual comics art it gives a great impression of the place, you can feel your way around the mean streets.

Nestor receives a letter from Abel Benoit, claiming to be an old comrade who desperately needs his help, “a scumbag is planning something dirty.” He addresses Burma as both “comrade” and a “brother” and hints at their old days in their youth. There’s one problem – Burma doesn’t recall ever knowing an Abel Benoit at any point in his life, the name means nothing to me. But the detective is intrigued, and so he ventures off across a rainy Paris, the trademark trenchcoat collar turned up, heading to the hospital this Benoit is being treated in. And he’s being followed, by a mysterious, dark-haired woman; she’s behind him right from his office, on the train and the station, before finally approaching him.

It transpires she posted the letter for the ill Benoit and she tells Burma that he is wasting his time – Benoit is dead. This gypsy woman, Benita, refuses to accompany him when he insists on still visiting the hospital – he clearly doesn’t trust this stranger, for all he knows she was sent to divert him from his appointment with Benoit. But she does promise to wait across the road from the hospital for him. Benoit does indeed prove to have given up his breathing rights, just as Benita told him. And on being taken to view the body in the morgue he meets an old associate, from the police, waiting for him. Why are the police interested and why do they think Nestor know something that they want to know? It seems several people have an interest in this mysterious man and case, and they all seem to think Burma already has the inside track, while he’s left wonder who Benoit is, why he thought they knew each other and why the cops are staking out the morgue waiting on his visit…

I don’t want to get into much more plot detail – I’d rather not potentially spoil any twists and turns, after all those are part and parcel of the fun of a good crime story. I will say that it involves elements from Burma’s own mis-spent youth, and mixes in the police (who have a fairly chequered past with Burma), an old case, a femme fatale (naturally) and more, in a very satisfying ratio. And this being Tardi, the visuals and layouts are just utterly superb. 1950s Paris, the streets tramped by our rumpled detective, usually in the rain (of course), the streets of the rough XIII arrondissement – now a bustling place with a large Asian community and shiny new business cenres on the Rive Gauche, but in this period it’s a down-at-heels, tough neighbourhood that Burma sneers at (fancy street names can’t hide the poverty and shabbiness), and yet he also clearly has some dogged affection for the area.

Drawn in monochrome, which suits the very Noir atmosphere, there are some gorgeous visual throughout this book. Many scenes follow Burma in his trenchcoat, scowl on his face, through those XIII arrondissement streets, the “camera” angle often directly behind of in front of him – the effect is reminiscent of those cool and stylish handheld camera shots through the Parisian streets by film-makers like Goddard, and makes the reader feel as if they are walking those street with Malet’s detective. The rain-lashed 1950s streets are grey and chill, the pacing and sizing of the panels changing to reflect the story, smaller, more frequent during sequences where Nestor is being tailed, larger and slower for more dialogue-heavy character moments, while Tardi uses variable lettering sizes to convey emotions, shouting and other effects, a device he’s used very effectively before.

An afterword by Malet confesses he was never a fan of comics, but he saw one of Tardi’s Adele Blanc-Sec books in the Casterman shop, and was taken by it, and then later by Tardi himself, leading to their collaboration, with Fog Over Tolbiac Bridge first appearing in serial form in A Suivre. Malet was impressed, he describes Tardi as approaching his novel like a film director (which I found interesting as I had the same impression prior to reading the afterword), and how he felt disappointed in attempts to make a film of Fog, but he had better than a film he had Tardi: “No one else can so perfectly enshroud the setting with such a dampness and thickness. No one else can bring the underlying depression to the surface.”

A gripping mystery, executed with some of the finest comics art Europe has to offer, mysterious dames, tough guys with a moral centre, an old case knocking insistently on the door of the present, and an atmosphere that oozes Noir so much you’d think the fog itself could wear a Fedora. This is one to curl up with, and like a good Raymond Chandler, or Malet for that matter, this is a book that you know you are going to go back and revisit.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Review: our history in stone – A Castle in England

A Castle in England,

Jamie Rhodes, with art by Isaac Lenkiewicz, Briony May Smith, William Exley, Becky Palmer, Isabel Greenberg

Nobrow Press

Castles. There’s something wonderfully evocative about castles, our shared history in stone, some ruined, some, beautifully maintained, all evoke a sense of visual delight and a sense of wonder as we ponder what those walls have seen, great sentinels to centuries of history. They are visible history, history we can touch, walk around, take in, and in our small islands we are blessed with more than our share, from Highland tower houses to vast medieval castles. Every day on my way to work I pass a huge one, Edinburgh Castle, and every time I see it I consider how lucky I am that my commute to work – normally a mundane event for most of us – takes in this impressive piece of solid history standing above my city, still commanding after all these centuries.

Jamie Rhodes clearly understands this, and a spell in residence at Scotney Castle in Kent has doubtless impressed even further on him the fact that our castles are full of stories from across the centuries, from the everyday lives of those who lived or worked in them or around them to the Big History events of dramatic battles, they’ve marked their time through all the changes in our society across those years. In A Castle in England Jamie has written five stories, each drawn by a different artist – Isaac Lenkiewicz, Briony May Smith, William Exley, Becky Palmer, Isabel Greenberg – and taking in a different event in a different period in this Kentish castle’s life, from the medieval peasants of the castle’s earliest days through the religious strife of the reformation, the family drama of dynastic succession, smugglers and women emancipating themselves. It proves to be a lovely series of snapshots out of our shared history, and the use of different artists on each story works well here, giving each historical setting its own look and style.

One of the things Jamie and his collaborators do throughout is to give us stories which give us a sense of a distinct period in history while also showing how often events then are relevant to the here and now (which as a history buff I heartily approve of; history is never just past, it suffuses the present and is part of the tapestry of tomorrow).  The very first tale, set in 1381, as the castle is being completed, and the growing discontent of the mass of the population, the serfs, is about to explode into open rebellion (lead by the famous Wat Tyler, one of the original folk heroes). It’s a glimpse into a very hard life – today we are (justly) outraged at the inequalities in our society, the gulf between the super-rich minority and the rest of us, but for the serf it was even worse. Their rebellion, while unsuccessful, shook the small, ruling elite to the core and would in time lead to changes for the mass of ordinary folks that we benefit from today (and concerns from the powerful over what an angry mass, pushed too far, can do – still something rules and elites try to control today in their fear).

(the Medieval period with The Labourer,  art by Isaac Lenkiewicz)

The Priest, with art by Briony May Smith, takes us into Tudor period and the religious turmoil caused by Heny VIII’s break with Rome. Scotney is now home to the Darrell family; Catholics in a country where that is not just (very suddenly) a minority religion, but one suspected – to be a devout Catholic is to be suspected of being a possible deviant, a traitor, more loyal to a religious leader abroad than to your nation and monarch, dangerous, subversive. It leads to suspicion, persecution, division. It sounds, sadly, not too dissimilar to some of the troubles stalking modern Britain… William Etsey gives us a rollicking tale of smugglers – far from some cut-throat bunch though, most of these are locals, struggling in a depressed economy after losing one of their main industries, doing a bit on the side (and also subverting unfair taxes), against a background of unrest with the status quo of Britain coming from Jacobites in Scotland. Again there are echoes to some of today’s tensions, while the characters are well handled, they feel like real people, people we could know, neighbours, friends, not distant historical characters.

(above The Priest, art by Briony May Smith; below – The Smuggler, art by William Exley)

Becky Palmer’s The Widow brings us to the rational, sensible Victorians, although it opens with a rather less than rational suicide – by blunderbuss, no less… It’s an age of remodeling, the old Castle not so desirable in this modern age, the family now in a fine manor house, much more comfortable, but with that Victorian love of a romanticised past (something we’ve inherited today) the old castle is deliberately partially ruined to create a form of picturesque folly for them to enjoy on their walks round the estate, nicely depicted by Palmer with a giant figure of the lord of the manor, Edward Hussey III, pushing over blocks, blowing them down. There are some lovely scenes of Victorian domesticity too, with touches that made me smile – he showing off the fine, new manor house “this will be the billiard room” he tells his male friends, nearby his new wife chats to her girlfriends “I have plans for his billiard room”. How many couples have had that argument to this very day?!

(enter the Victorian era in The Widow, art by Becky Palmer)

The final piece, The Hunter, is illustrated by one of my favourites, Isabel Greenberg in her distinctive style, and brings us into the twentieth century, the highpoint of Empire, of the last great period of the rich gentry in their great houses before the calamity of the Great War helped hasten the end of that way of life for most. Times may have changed, but some societal rules are still stiff and divisive, the brother allowed to indulge in expensive travel  (which mostly takes the form of lording it over the natives and shooting every animal he sees), the sister stuck at home, not allowed the same privilege of travel but at the same time her station won’t allow her to join in more simple pleasures (she would like to join the working class families who come for working holidays to do the hop picking, but her mother considers this far too beneath her). Here Rhodes storytelling is playing right to Greenberg’s strengths, as the women, supposedly held in their rigid place in the pecking order, use their own guile to exploit circumstances to achieve what they want (the impish smile of success Isabel gives the sister is delightful).

(the twentieth century arrives in The Hunter, art by Isabel Greenberg)

Each story comes with a quick introduction to give some setting to the historical period, and a longer set of notes afterwards, explaining more about both the period, to give some context, and about the family resident in the castle during that time. All in all it’s an utterly charming delight, snapshots of British history viewed through the people who have lived in and around this castle for almost seven hundred years, a reminder, if one be needed, that these magnificent structures are more than just our architectural heritage, or reminders of Big History (kings, queens, civil wars) but the same everyday life each one of us, the loves, deaths, marriages, children, the struggle to get by in difficult times. These great walls have seen all of this and more. When I pass Edinburgh Castle on the way to work it never fails to spark ideas in my head, stories, pieces of history, there is, for me, a real sense of that past right there in the present, alive, not just a monument, and that’s what Rhodes et al do so very well here, remind us that these buildings aren’t just structures, they’re part of our lives and those who came before us, our collective history, our changing society (and the elements which never change, because, well, human nature…).

All delivered with a delicious variety of art styles by Rhodes’ collaborators, and bound in a handsome small hardback (Nobrow really do pay attention to the book itself as a lovely object, not just the contents), this is a lovely and unusual addition to British comics shelves, and a charming read for both those well-versed in history and those who are only dipping their toes in, curious to know more.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

The Boy on the Bridge

The Boy on the Bridge,

Mike Carey,

Orbit Books

I’ve long enjoyed Mike Carey’s writing, both his comics work and his prose, and his Girl With All the Gifts (also published by Orbit), was one of my Best of the Year selection when it came out (review here by Mal), and likewise the more recent film adaptation (scripted by Mike himself) also made my Best of the Year list. The Boy on the Bridge returns us to that post-apocalyptic Britain, but this is no straight sequel; if anything it is more of a parallel tale set in that ruined world where a fungal infection (like the one in the Amazon which infects insects and hijacks their nervous system) has brought down human civilisation, the infected – “the hungries” – a zombie-like shell of their former human selves, moving only when stimulated to feed. I think you could read this quiet easily on its own merits, without having read Girl, but really I’d advise reading Girl first if you haven’t already, because it will enrich your experience of Boy (and yes, there are some nods to the earlier story, which are very satisfying, but which I won’t blow here).

Where Girl started in the enclosed base and labs, encircled by hordes of Hungries (a deliberate nod to Romero’s Day of the Living Dead and the military-scientific besieged base), Boy is even more claustrophobic, mostly taking place in the Rosalind Franklin (Rosie, as she is known), sister research vehicle to the lost Charles Darwin expedition, a heavily-armed mobile fortress complete with onboard lab facilities, slowly traversing what’s left of Britain, picking up safely stored samples cached by the Darwin expedition and picking  up their own specimens, all in a desperate attempt to find out a way to stop or cure the infection. A dozen odd scientists and soldiers sealed in an armoured vehicle on a quest they all feel increasingly is hopeless. Even an upbeat crew would be stressed out under such prolonged close quarters, in this broken world though it is even worse, and the differences between them are becoming more and more obvious.

It’s probably not going to be a surprise that those stresses and differences are going to reach a boiling point sooner or later, you can almost cut the increasing tension with a knife. It’s a scenario rich with dramatic possibilities, and the real meat here is in how the writer takes those paths, twists those knives, turns that screw. And here, with a writer like Carey we are in exceptionally fine hands; Mike doesn’t just deliver an ever-increasing ratchetting up of dramatic tension, he weaves us into the confined, strained lives of Dr Khan and all of the Rosie’s crew. Within a few dozen pages you can practically smell the sweat of sharing a small, restricted space with others, the increasing sense of urgency mixed with desperation. Add in a new development found out in the field – after they had all but given up on finding anything new that might help them – and back at base, where the last remnants of humanity are packed in as badly as the crew of the Rosie, struggling among themselves almost as much as against the infected, and you have the Rosalind Franklin (good name) effectively turned into a pressure cooker.

Edinburgh International Book Festival 2014 - Mike Carey
(Mike signing Girl With All the Gifts at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, pic from my Flickr)

The Boy on the Bridge oozes atmosphere – within a couple of dozen pages I found myself right back in that world Mike first conjured up in The Girl With All the Gifts, so richly described, the characters’ emotive responses to this world gone to hell echoing with the reader so well that you can imagine it, feel it, smell it. The differences, from small-scale bickering to an ever-escalating level feels all to plausible, people under severe stress, in a crisis, with no seeming end in sight (save for a hideous one), the cracks appearing like emotive metal fatigue and just as deadly in the long run. The internal politics of individuals and groups fighting among themselves as the world falls seems all to possible, the descriptions of what some have had to do – awful, unspeakable acts – also far too real.

And yet this is not entirely a book of doom and despair, there is a light there, a tiny, flickering candle of a light, and that makes the despair and death perhaps even harder to bear – if it is truly hopeless then the characters are better off facing the end, shortening the misery…. But when they may be a tiny sliver of hope then they have to struggle for it. It’s a deliciously baited hook for the readers, drawing us deeply into both hope and despair. I really don’t want to go to deeply into some of those elements for fear of spoilers, but, oh boy, are they effective in totally miring the reader into this world until they feel they are right there among the Rosie’s crew. A simply superb, chillingly plausible post-apocalyptic tale.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Manhattan

I claimed a bit of owed time back and left work slightly early to catch a classic screening of one of my favourite movies at the Filmhouse on the way home from work, Woody Allen’s 1979 film Manhattan. I have it on DVD at home in my (probably way too large) film collection, but it’s a different experience watching a movie in the cinema than it is at home. Not just the obvious screen size difference – you concentrate more on the film in the cinema, you’re there in the dark, with an audience all reacting to the scenes alongside you, not at home, pausing the DVD to go and put the kettle on or check your Twitter feed.

And it was still wonderful after all these years – I think Manhattan has one of the greatest openings in cinema, Woody’s dialogue, his writer trying out lines “he adored New York, he idolised it…” over a montage of all sorts of views of the city, from the expensive fashion stores to the family neighbourhood, that iconic skyline and then, as the Gershwin soundtrack soars that skyline erupts with fireworks, all of this in glowing black and white cinematography. New York has rarely looked more beautiful on film, it’s a magical movie moment (what I call a Triple-M, just perfect scenes in a film that live in your mind’s eye ever after and always raise that reaction no matter how often you see it). And then there’s that perfectly composed scene of Woody with Diane Keaton, sitting by a bench by the river next to the Queensboro Bridge, as dawn starts to break. Sublime.

I had a little time before the early evening showing, so I parked myself in the Filmhouse cafe-bar for some food and drink before the screening. The Filmhouse is one of my “happy places”, it’s been a second home for me since I moved to Edinburgh as a student a long time ago, and being there for a movie, the film fest or even just in the cafe-bar makes me content. As I was having my drink I was, of course, reading (always a book in my bag), in this case Simon Garfield’s On the Map, a history of cartography which I picked up in a charity store recently. And right before it was time to close the book and head up to the auditorium what do I read but a paragraph on the first appearances of America on world maps, and the first mention, in the mid 1600s, of Manhattan on a map, here referred to as “Manhattes”, just as I was about to go in to see the film Manhattan. I love little meaningless coincidences like that…

Reviews: Kenstibec returns in Jon Wallace’s cracking Rig

Rig,

Jon Wallace,

Gollancz

Back in 2014 I was offered an advance copy of a novel by a writer I knew only from short stories in the likes of Interzone (still a great place for short SF). The publisher was excited and comparing Jon Wallace’s Barricade to Richard Morgan’s powerhouse debut novel Altered Carbon. Which is one of my favourite debut novels (it would also be the very first book my long-running science fiction book group covered). So it had a big claim to live up to and by the literary gods, it damned well did and then some. It went on to become one of my favourite reads of the year (in fact a quote from my review can be seen in the new book), as did the sequel, Steeple. Fast-paced and action-packed, but still managing to layer in plenty of commentary on everything from the nature of being to environmental destruction, the refugee crisis, the classic Frankenstein monster that humans make in their pride only to then turn on them. Yes, they gave us gripping, tight, rapid action but also a good deal of thought too – a perfect having and eating the cake situation.

Given how highly I rated the first two books you’ll understand I was more than happy for a chance to read the new book, Rig. In Barricade Kenstibec – often shortened to just Ken – was a Power 9, a model of Ficial, an artificial being optimised for specific work (Ken is an engineer, others are medics, soldiers, even “pleasure models” – one of several nods to Blade Runner’s Replicants). Human-looking but a little too perfect, kept in perfect repair by clever nanotech, able to heal even horrendous injuries. Which is quite handy given this near-future world is ruined, chemical and nuclear pollution, a devastated world where the few remaining Reals (actual humans) now live a short, brutal life more like something from the Middle Ages, and like our centuries-ago ancestors heir to every infection going with little or no medical help any more. But a Ficial? They can shrug off almost anything. Until Ken is hit by a special virus which destroys his nano, leaving him, physically at least, almost human. And he’s not happy about it.

Where the first two books took us from the ruins of Edinburgh to a demolished London, and saw the fall from Ficial grace of Kenstibec, Rig opens up the setting, well away from the wretched mess left of the British Isles, with a group of Reals and a couple of Ficials working together on a new plan out in the Atlantic, off the eastern seaboard of  what had been American and Canada, using a beautifully designed, hi-tech floating base – the Lotus – as a sort of ark, rescuing youngsters from the barbarous slave markets in surviving settlements on the coast, to train for a new, better world to rise from the ashes. Ironically this modern Noah’s Ark had originally been part of the Martello Project – as the more historically astute of you will infer from the name, these were a form of fort, designed to repel unwanted visitors from the coast of the UK (mostly desperate refugees – a Daily Mail reader’s wet dream, no doubt).

Ken, now sporting a hi-tech mechanical arm to replace his real one, lost in Steeple (now that he can’t regrow damaged parts like a proper Ficial) is finding himself somewhat adrift on this new ocean life (pun intended, sorry). One of the Ficials now co-operating with the Real crew calls him brother, despite the virus having stripped his Ficial physical superiority from him. But Ken doesn’t feel entirely Ficial anymore – like a human he gets sick, he has to eat, excrete and all the other messy processes of life. And feelings, he’s developing feelings that the brutal Ficial conditioning would have kept burned out of his mind as inefficient. But he’s not human either, and he knows it – like Blade Runner’s Replicants he really doesn’t understand his emotions too well, he’s simply not had the experience. Fortunately he has some of the crew who have taken to him, not to mention Pistol, a dog who has become very attached to our Ken. In some ways he’s suffering a form of PTSD, and like similar sufferers of that condition his animal chum is a powerful device for helping him to hold it together.

Naturally the new human-Ficial plan to create a new, young population trained to make a better society and world from the spoiled ashes of the old goes awry. There are disagreements between the crew as to the correct way to do this, not least from a moral point of view. But their arguments are about to be rendered irrelevant by events – someone has been watching their trips to the coastal slave markets, someone who has designs on both their population and on the Lotus (which may now be an ark, but still carries a substantial military payload from the pre-devastation days, a rare and powerful prize).

And I am not going to spoil it for you by revealing any more of what happens, because this is a beautifully-paced roller-coaster, with some gripping, tight twists and turns and some major revelations. We get a little more of the history of the final days before the world collapsed and see more of the violent, small communities which are surviving it in the finest Mad Max style (yes, including some dangerous driving, a nice nod back to the first book when Ken had become a specialist in such driving trips), and the ways in which some groups will use even the end of the world for their own ends, power, privilege and enrichment. Slightly longer then the previous two books, Rig still maintains a cracking pace, delivering a number of high-octane action scenes. As with those earlier books it still healthily mixes these with a lot of observation and commentary to chew over alongside that action, from politics to religion, taking in a number of very current hot topics, from the environment to the refugee crisis to politics (including a reference to the last US president who reminded me a little of President Booth in Judge Dredd history) to the greedy one percent.

This is a terrific slice of action-fueled science fiction, but Rig, and the previous two books, are also a journey, not just the physical one Ken takes from Edinburgh to London to the Atlantic, but a journey of the self; he’s not properly Ficial, not Optimal anymore, but he’s not quite human either. But he’s slowly learning to be himself, whatever that now is, and to realise if he does there are others who will be with him on that journey. And those people, those friends, are perhaps more important than any Ficial efficiency, more important than anything else. All this served up with brilliant post-apocalyptic action on the high seas and the roads, delivering thrills and even some outright horror along the way. The Tin Man had it a lot easier than poor Kenstibec…

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

It’s a god’s life – Hamish Steele’s Pantheon

Pantheon,

Hamish Steele,

Nobrow Press

On the great sea of Nu a pyramid named Benben rose from the water with silent purpose. Benben flowered a lotus… And the lotus flowered the sun. The sun rose up, signalling the dawn of the first day. And the sun named itself Atum. With only eternal darkness for company, Atum did what anybody would do when faced with endless loneliness. He had a wank.”

Right from the start Hamish Steele makes clear that while he is going to cover the main points of ancient Egyptian mythology, he’s going to do so in a deliciously irreverent manner. That he manages to combine a light, fun touch and plenty of humour and yet still actually respects the source myths is quite impressive; taking the Mickey out of events or beliefs is fairly easy, to do so in a constructive way that shows affection and respect while still poking at the humour is a much more difficult task, but it’s one Steele handles with aplomb. With that opening prologue he touches on the very beginning, and the act of divine masturbation which was meant to have seeded creation, an actual piece of the real myth, but also here mined for yuks, an “any excuse for a wee fiddle” comment on the original story.

And that’s one of the great strengths of this book – multi-god pantheons are most often comprised of celestial beings who frequently show all-too-human obsessions and frailties, rather than the perfect divinity of later monotheistic belief systems. The different gods with their different responsibilities, abilities and duties weren’t just a way for a pre-scientific culture to understand how or why events like the Nile flood, or famine, or disease happened, they were also human analogues, and a way of understanding our own nature. And since the basic nature of humanity doesn’t really change those characters remain a source of endless fascination – we all still love, hate, marry, get jealous, have sex, children, and so did the gods of old. And just as there is a seemingly endless amount of natural humour that comes out of everyday life there’s even more to be had here between squabbling, imperfect god-families. Some are good, some are bad, most are a mix, and more than a few are totally blind to their own failings…

…Which is a good thing for the purposes of Pantheon. I mean perfect celestial beings who never make mistakes and are full of true wisdom and a well of compassion might be nice, but it would also be damned boring. That is not a worry here! Early on we see “l’il Osriris” and the other gods being left on Earth by Ra to rule over humanity, with the principle god extolling the virtues of their mission, to maintain balance between gods and men, and instructing them “now don’t fuck it up.” A grinning little version of Set happily mutters “I’m gonna fuck it up.”

And of course he does, he murders and dismembers his own brother Osiris, he causes endless mayhem among the pantheon family, and yet he’s never actually a figure you want to hate. In Steele’s hands Set is that irascible, cheeky relative every family has that somehow always seems to screw everything up, make a mess of things, annoy the hell out of everyone, and yet still has a certain charm (and is still family) so you can never bring yourself to hate them. And with the humour Steele extracts from these gods and myths it’s even harder to hate Set. I mean sure, he dismembers his brother and throws the body parts away, and yes, he does shag his own nephew (incest being a great pastime in ancient Egypt among gods and royals) and inject him with his concentrated evil semen (leading to his mother, in a priceless scene, to encourage him loudly to fart it out before it poisons him, “fart for your life!”), but, y’know, he’s Set, it’s what he does.

Many of the other major parts of Egyptian myth are covered – the afterlife, where the souls are judged (famously the soul’s sins weighed against a feather on scales) takes the form of a TV game show, and the now deceased Osiris muttering how unprofessional the afterlife is and that it would be better if there were a written guide, perhaps a “book of the dead”, he muses. And that friendly chap Anubis gives us a cut-out-and-keep style handy guide to How To Mummify Your Friends (you never know when you might need that). We have mummified, resurrected gods (with artificial dong), giant scorpions, “bird sex with a golden zombie dick”, test, trials, battles, treachery, sex, incest (well, all the gods are related, so…) and more, and the humour – and sometimes downright insanity – inherit in these tales is mined wonderfully.

Egyptian hieroglyphics have often been seen almost as a forerunner/inspiration to the comics medium (in the splendid Radio 4 series A History of the World in a 100 Objects it was a cartoonist, Steve Bell, they turned to as a guest for the episode discussing Egyptian pictorial art and language), and in a way it makes them and the myths and histories they depict ideal for comics. And Steele makes use of that Egyptian style, not just for the look of some scenes, but for further humour –  hieroglyphs are normally seen side-on, and in one scene Horus is wounded through the eye. But my eye is fine, he protests! No, your other eye. My… other eye?? Oh! He turns from side profile to face the reader in a way the Egyptian images didn’t and suddenly oh, yeah, there’s another side of my head and, ouch! It’s a lovely touch and indicative of the differing ways Steele uses the old myths and Egyptian art styles to tell the tales but also extract maximum humour, from the straight toilet humour of evil spunk and fart jokes to using Egyptian art perspectives for more subtle humour.

Taking a subject matter usually treated with a heavier hand and solemnity and instead pulling down its pants for a light spanking (but in a loving sort of way), Pantheon is an utter, cheeky delight, delivering some lovely, colourful art, the richness of Egyptian myth but lancing any pomposity with layers of humours that had me laughing all the way through. Absolutely brilliant.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Haddon Hall: When David Invented Bowie

Haddon Hall: When David Invented Bowie,

Nejib,

SelfMadeHero

It was the end of the Swinging Sixties. That day, like so many others, the London sky was sad, like a cold cup of tea. The nasty rain rattled tediously at my windowpane. I was waiting for my new tenants to show up and inhabit me.”

It’s 1969 and dawning into the early 1970s, and it feels like things are changing, socially, politically, artistically. A young couple have come to view a huge old mansion on the outskirts of London, a vast old property well outside their then fairly slim means, except that they intend to share it with a whole bunch of their artistic friends, almost like a bohemian commune. That couple comprises a very young David and Angie – David Jones, with a genuine hit under his belt (Space Oddity) but not yet broken through, not yet Bowie. The talent is there, the love of all sorts of music, the artistic sensibility, but something’s not quite clicked yet. And that’s what this book is about – not an exhaustive biography of the Thin White Duke, but a look at a crucial short period in which the artist who would become the master of reinvention first truly invented himself for the stage. And the worlds of music and arts were never the same again…

Interestingly Nejib avoids the normal biographical form of recreating known events in a person’s timeline and illustrating them one after another. This is telegraphed right from the start as we realise that we are seeing these artistic young people – and they are oh such bright, young things here – from the perspective of Haddon Hall itself, observing these strange, new, young people living in it, not put off like others by the “discreet decrepitude” of the old mansion but instead amused, delighted, charmed by its idiosyncrasies. It’s not long before they and a group of friends are sharing this huge home – at the house-warming party a long-haired David happily showing Marc Bolan around, the house so large they even have space to turn one big room into a rehearsal space. Every musician’s dream, surely, your own space in your own home to play and record and jam…

But when the Last Judgement comes around for pop stars, I shall willingly testify in favour of our two wild blokes, for behind their outsized egos hid two true loves of music. The could talk shop till they were blue in the face.”

There’s some tension between them, a little professional and artistic jealously perhaps, as they both struggle to make it, to stand out from the musical crowd and leave their mark, but mostly what comes across here is a camaraderie, a friendship, and a deep, deep shared love of music. That sense of warmth and the love of music in so many forms suffuses Haddon Hall. There are other events going on at the same time as the struggle to make it as a musician – relationships, children, family. There’s starting a family to think of, and David’s brother Terry is in a care home because of mental health issues, while David is one of the few people he can connect with.

There are some beautiful scenes, like the brothers settling down, just the two of them, like they did when they were younger, to play records together, Nejib delicately illustrating the almost ritualistic form of this, the choosing of the albums, slipping them out of the sleeve, needle on record, perusing sleeve notes, blissing out to good music shared with someone who means the world to you, your own personal little world for a blessed few moments. It’s a scene so many of us can empathise with because most of us have done the same with friends or siblings; it’s a blissful shared moment of music and art that can bond us emotionally with someone else forever so much that each time we hear a particular song on the radio we think on that moment, laid back in our room with them and the music playing and how for a few moments everything is just right (and how even in bad times later those moments come back to us and help us cope).

Those little, very personal moments counterbalance the larger moments in the evolution of David, as he reaches towards what will become Bowie. The BBC is showing the coverage of the first Moon landing, and there’s his Space Oddity being played to the nation’s television sets as one of the most remarkable feats in human history is finally achieved. There’s the need to focus more, to stop spreading himself about, to concentrate on this next album – perhaps his last chance to make it or else be dropped by his label (and this is an era where labels largely rule the roost, very different from today’s music scene, great if you have a contract and success, nightmare if you are a struggling musician trying to get in the door, no YouTube, SoundCloud or Twitter to build a rep with for the struggling newbie). There’s a tension in the air, like the pressure just before a thunderstorm, except here the prayer is for lightning to strike.

Nejib avoids going for a realistic look, sticking instead with a much more cartoony and loose style here (not even panel borders between scenes on the pages), using only a few colours per white page. It works stylistically with covering this story in a less traditional biographical manner (and face it, Bowie is a subject that deserves a non-traditional approach), although one slight problem is there are a few times where it takes a moment or two to work out who is who in some scenes! That’s not too often though and on reflection it may also be slightly deliberate, a visual way of referring to the androgyny of some of the styles of the period.

And there are some lovely moments worked into the art using that loose, cartoony style and limited colour palette, such as David and piano, all in blue, several scenes of working away hard, struggling knowing there is something there, not stopping for a break, pushing, frustrated, the litter of empty bottles and fag ends building up around him as he pushes onwards doggedly and… And then that wonderful moment when suddenly it clicks, the Muse flows, the colour of the figure changes from blue to green and from the piano erupts, a visual flowering of colourful music growing from his fingertips to the keys and out of the instrument to fill the house: it’s the birth of Life on Mars. There are several other scenes which capture that lightning in a bottle moment of creation beautifully, the real emotional jolt and deep satisfaction that comes with creation, be it music, painting, writing, that moment when it suddenly flows and you know you’ve got it. It only lasts a short time before we have to chase it again, but just for those moments it’s like communing with the gods …

This is a beautiful homage to one of the great musical and artistic influences of the last half century of pop culture, one many of us adored and one whose loss we felt deeply just last year. And here he is, on the cusp of it all, young, trying it all, reaching out for that future, among friends, family and the music. Nejib doesn’t exhaustively document like some biographies, instead crafting the style, the taste, the flavour of the era, of changes (pun intended) of zeitgeist and possibilities and magic in the air, if only you can grasp how to control and channel that magic, and how that magic is shared with the rest of us, incorporated into our own lives and moments (can you imagine going through this life without it?). Stick on some classic Bowie on your stereo, and then lie back with Nejib’s lovely book and just groove.

This was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Edinburgh from above…

Recently on a day off the sun came out to play – a low-in-the-sky winter sun, soft and golden light and long shadows. So I decided instead of going off to the cinema I’d go for a photo-walk, originally planning to walk up Calton Hill (which Robert Louis Stevenson wrote was one of the finest spots to take in views over our city) to take some photos looking out over Edinburgh. But on the way there, on a sudden whim I diverted into Princes Street Gardens and did something I haven’t done for years – climbed the Scott Monument. Several hundred narrow, spiral stone steps winding their way up over two hundred feet. Pretty exhausting, and, especially in the final third, pretty claustrophobic – the final couple of twists of the topmost steps is so narrow I couldn’t fit unless I turned side on! Not for anyone who gets dizzy easily, or fears enclosed spaces (and obviously not for anyone with no head for heights). But worth all the effort and discomfort, because two hundred feet up you get tremendous views over the ancient, volcanic geology and cityscape of Auld Reekie:

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Jenners old department store with its richly carved facade normally towers over me as I walk along the street, peculiar to be looking down on it, rather than up…. As ever, click on the pics to see the bigger versions available on my Flickr page to see more details.

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Looking towards Saint Andrew Square and the tall column of the Melville Monument – normally I have to look up at this, but from the top of the Scott Monument I could zoom in and take a pic of the statue at the top from a straight-on perspective rather than angled up from the ground. In the background in the distance you can see some of the modern apartments which have sprung up in parts of the old dockside areas down in Leith, by the mighty Forth.

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Looking eastwards towards the huge Scots-Baronial architecture of the Balmoral Hotel, which started life as one of the great Victorian railway hotels. The clock tower, a landmark on the Edinburgh skyline, has a timepiece which is actually set a few moments fast, by tradition – to encourage travellers to hurry down the stairs in front of it in time to catch their train in the station below. As with the Melville Monument I normally have to take pics from an angle looking up from far below, but from this vantage point I could zoom in and take a photo looking pretty much straight on for a change.

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The great bulk of Arthur’s Seat, the enormous extinct volcano which sits right at the heart of the city, with the palace and parliament nestled at its feet, the whole lying in a royal park – you can go not just for a “countryside” walk but a decent bit of hill-walking here without leaving the city centre! And the views from the top are pretty spectacular too. Part of the ancient volcanic topography which gave Edinburgh its unique cityscape, it is also one of the places which inspired the modern science of geology, with Hutton wandering around Arthur’s Seat as he began to form some of the first understandings of how our planet is shaped over vast eons of time. And it’s a pretty spectacular piece of scenery to have right in the middle of a capital city – I rather enjoy looking at it each day on my way to work.

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The low, now rapidly setting winter sun casts shadows and warm tones across the western side of the New Town, with the tall, triple spires of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, more landmarks on the city’s skyline, almost silhouetted in the declining sunlight.

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And the view looking downwards towards Princes Street below!

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And here’s what I had to clamber up to take those pics – over two hundred feet of a Gothic rocket, like a stone version of Thunderbird Three. I have always thought it exceptionally civilised that this enormous monument – the largest monument anywhere in the world to a writer – is not dedicated to some king or general, but an author, a teller of tales, of stories and books. Given that my Edinburgh is built as much of the printed pages as it is history and geology and architecture (look here, Robert Louis Stevenon’s home, there the Sherlock statue marking where Conan Doyle’s family house was, there the pub where Inspector Rebus drinks in Ian Rankin’s novels, there the spot where the early encyclopedias and dictionaries were published, there a cafe where a then impoverished single mother huddled for warmth and wrote her tales of a boy wizard, here the Writer’s Museum, there the Storytelling Centre, over there the largest literary festival on the planet). The Scott Monument itself boasts dozens of sculptures from top to bottom, characters taken from Sir Walter Scott’s many books. Literature in stone.

“Seen!” – Scotland Yardie

Scotland Yardie,

Bobby Joseph, Joseph Samuels,

Knockabout

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Concise, spoiler-free review: insanely funny with a nice line in social commentary and multiple cultural references throughout. On and insanely funny. Yes, I know I said that already, but I haven’t laughed this much since I had a Space Hopper full of nitrous oxide to play with…

Okay, a bit more detail, perhaps? When I first heard this book was in the works I really wasn’t sure what to expect at all, I knew very little about it or the creators. But Knockabout has a long history of bringing some bloody good comics  creators to UK readers, and anything they’re getting behind is always going to be worth checking out. And oh, I am damned glad I did, although I think colleagues are less than amused given it had me continually laughing out loud through my lunch break while they sighed and looked over wondering what was going on.

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The main story is fairly straightforward – in a deal with Jamaican authorities Her Majesty’s Government has borrowed one of their top police officers in a drive to improve the Met’s historically poor race relations (ie their often abysmal form on that score). Well, at least the perception of trying to change and be more inclusive… As the rather bufoonish looking minister explains, this new initiative (naturally at great cost to the taxpayer) will give black people “the equal opportunity to arrest black people as well.” It’s just a bit of public relations exercise as far as the big bosses are concerned, there to make it look like they really care and no, they’re not all bigots or elitist, honest. They don’t realise Yardie has his own ideas about community policing and law enforcement… And does that minister look familiar? There are a lot more familiar faces to come…

Sent to the Brixton cop shop, Yardie is, of course, teamed up with the only other black officer in a sea of white, the overly assimilated, by-the-book Ackee-Saltfish. Who for some reason looks exactly like former newsreader Trevor McDonald. It’s made clear to both that they’re just there for show and to keep out of the way while the “real” work is being done – top example being their own pair of local supercops who have an astonishing record for busting drug sellers. Well, busting black drug sellers. Usually by killing them Strangely though, they seem unable to bring down a new Mr Big who has brought in a new and dangerous drug to the streets of Brixton. Could it be that these supercops aren’t all they’re cracked up to be? That there’s a dark reason for their amazing record? Somehow you just know that Yardie and Ackee-Saltfish are going to get tangled up in all of this further down the line…

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But while the story is solid and damned good fun in its own right, it is only part of the story here (so to speak) – the narrative is also an excuse for Bobby and Joseph to pack in an absolute ton of puns and jokes, both with words and visuals. The frequent little daydream thought bubbles showing what’s really going on in their heads had me giggling early on, while the pair also poke fun at action comics and movie tropes, such as the fetish for unfeasibly large guns (leading poor Ackee-Saltfish to wonder just where the hell Yardie keeps these things tucked away under his uniform)

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The amount of pop cultural references packed in here is amazing – there’s something in almost every page that really demands you pay attention to the background details (look at the image of a man similar to a certain former prime minister chasing a pig for, ahem, some reason) in the image above, for example. Film, TV, music, national and racial stereotypes (of all sorts, the boys lampoon overly-assimilating like Ackee-Saltfish – who of course gets no respect for his efforts – as much as they do the white is right numpties looking down on them) to media-inspired folk panics (such as seeing child molesters everywhere), all get worked into the flow.

Like a far more hip and streetwise League of Extraordinary Gentleman there are also many famous cameos to be spotted in the background, with, appropriately enough here, quite a lot of fictional cops, from Starsky and Hutch to Luther to a trio of Sherlocks (Brett and Cumberbatch with a bemused Downey Jr in the middle in one scene). Heck, this even extends to animals – again look at the scene above and notice it isn’t just a group of dogs on the street, it’s a selection of famous hounds like Lassie and Scooby-Doo (and don’t we geeks just love a bit of “trainspotting” in our comics art?). And come to think of it there is something awfully familiar about the local Big Bad Drug Dealer…. Click the pics here to see the larger versions so you can drink in the detail a bit more.

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2016 was a rough year, 2017 is just starting and doesn’t take a crystal ball to know there’s more problems ahead, but here’s a chance to at least take a break from thinking about all of that and enjoy some much needed laughs. And inventive, clever fun that does make some points, but chooses to avoid the soapbox and go for satire, punnery and a healthy dose of our old friend, the Absurd. And it remains just as enjoyable – perhaps becomes even better – with repeated readings. Terrific fun. Seen!

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Nick Hayes’ gorgeously emotional silent graphic novel: Cormorance

Cormorance,

Nick Hayes,

Jonathan Cape

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Oh where to start with this remarkable read? I was deeply impressed with Nick Hayes’ debut, The Rime of the Modern Mariner (here’s a guest commentary by Nick on that book), then a couple of years ago his engrossing Woody Guthrie totally drew me in, the man and his music, his approach to life, the gorgeous artwork (reviewed here), and both also with strong ecological themes. And after that one I had the pleasure of chairing a talk with Nick about that bookat the Edinburgh International Book Festival. So fair to say that despite knowing little about his new work, Cormorance, I was very keen to read it. Actually I read it several times – it’s one of those works you have to really immerse yourself in. And it is beautifully moving and emotional – and does so totally silently, no speech balloons, no thought bubbles, not even any dialogue boxes. This is carried entirely by the art, the layouts, the expressions.

This fairly substantial book is split into three chapters; the first two following to different children who are about to undergo the worst thing that can happen to any of us, let alone a child, losing a parent, while the third gently brings their individual stories together. Without words the art has to carry everything here, it has to imply a narrative, a sequence of events, of emotions with no supporting language. It’s a brave choice, especially for quite a long work such as this, but Nick is up for the challenge, with his stylised artwork varying from multiple small, rapid sequences of panels to suggest events to shorter sequences of close ups to let the expressions of the characters and their body language carry the meaning, both narrative and, crucially, emotional, as well as some quite wonderful full splash pages, and an utterly stunning four-page fold-out.

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In the first chapter we meet a young boy, he and his mother and father packing up to move house, both an exciting adventure for the youngster but also daunting – leaving the home he’s known, moving to a new one, a new area, a new school. But he’s got that solid bedrock any child needs, loving parents, and Nick’s art makes the affection and love clear, you can almost feel the warmth coming off the page, especially in scenes with the wee boy and his mum. And similarly in the second chapter as we meet a young girl and her mum and dad, a wee girl who loves swimming, especially because it was something her mum was so good at, winning medals and trophies, and she wants to be like her mum.

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The warmth and bonding between child and parents in both chapters is quite wonderful, and it’s easy to find your own mind wandering back to hazy memories of your own childhood days, how perfect it was when you felt loved, protected, and there was no problem so big in your world that your mum and dad couldn’t take care of. Except illness doesn’t care about love, about family bonds or what age you are, and both the boy and the girl are going to face the slow deterioration of a loved one, then their loss, and then, just as hard, trying to find a way of coming to terms with that loss, which both do, although at first perhaps they aren’t really seeing it that way, it is more that they  have something they both need to do, something that will overlap with one another as it happens, but really they’re also finding their way through the emotional abyss of loss, a way to keep going, a way that will involve challenge, the inspiration of the natural world and shared experience and friendship.

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There are so many gorgeous touches here – nice foreshadowing as we see the wee boy make his way into his new classroom, we glimpse the girl, except we don’t know it is her then, that only becomes clear as her story unfolds in the second chapter – little touches like that woven into this larger tapestry are another reason why I felt compelled to re-read the book again a couple of times, and it really does reward that attention. With it being wordless there is an onus here also on the reader as well as the author; of course there always is in any sort of reading, it isn’t a passive experience, the author summons up certain ideas and emotions, but the reader also takes those and creates a mental image and map based on the book but also their own thoughts, feelings, experiences. And in a silent work like this it is clear that the author is trusting his readers to be instrumental in creating the meaning and feeling here from the images and sequences, it’s a partnership, and a satisfying one at that.

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It’s a clever and beautifully crafted work, both the overall story it is creating with those wordless panels and the smaller, intimate, moving scenes of family life and love, the little moments that mean so much. And it is deeply, deeply emotional, especially if you’ve suffered the loss of a parent. I had to stop several times, it was just too much for me at certain points and I imagine more than a few readers will find themselves blinking away tears reading some scenes and remembering their own loss, but it’s not a depressing read, rather a hopeful one about how the love we so depend on still remains inside us, even after losing the people who gave us that love, a final, remarkable, wonderful gift they leave us. An utterly gorgeous, beautifully executed and warmly emotional book.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

One Hundred Nights of Hero – Isabel Greenberg’s wonderful new book

One Hundred Nights of Hero,

Isabel Greenberg,

Jonathan Cape

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Is it a true story?

It could be.

I’m tardy with this review, I meant to have it up a couple of weeks ago or more, but book, work, life and task juggling got in the way and I was quite adamant that I was not going to rush through One Hundred Nights of Hero. No, this is a book to be taken slowly, enjoyed, savoured, pause frequently to think about the ideas, memories and thoughts it stirs up before returning to the next part. This is a book to take your time with and it’s perhaps a good idea that it is published as the longer nights draw in over autumn, perfect time for drawing the curtains, turning on the reading lamp, curling up in the comfy chair by the fire (and a nice drink to hand, of course) and lose yourself in the pages…

After Isabel’s wonderful (and Eisner nominated) Encyclopedia of Early Earth (reviewed here by Richard) I think it is fair to say many of us had high expectations – no doubt the praise heaped upon that book and its success was welcome to the author, but it is also a burden, a high bar to set on a creator. Fortunately Isabel has taken that challenge and surpassed it admirably. I think I fell in love with this book almost instantly, within the first few pages – it’s hard not to love a book which commences with a page showing the globe and the legend “in the beginning was the world”, then you turn over the page to reveal the very Early Earth, depicted in a lovely faux-primitive style, somewhere between pictogram and Lascaux-like cave painting,s and the words “and it was weird.”

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We meet the god Birdman and his children, the boy Kid and his sister Kiddo. And while Kiddo and Kid are also gods it is clear, as it usually is in most pantheons, that there is a chief god – in this case Birdman. And again as with many ancient pantheons deities, especially the ones at the top of the heap, are jealous, capricious, insecure and over-controlling creatures (Birdman is mostly depicted with his beak wide open – always something to declare, usually over the top of anyone else; he’s a bit of a blowhard and egomaniac, not to mention a Champion Mansplainer). And after fiddling around with the rest of the universe of creation, he takes notes of a smaller creation – a world, the Early Earth – that Kiddo has crafted and peopled with beings she calls “human”. She’s fascinated by these small beings who live and love and eat and sleep and grow and die, and is content to watch over them. Birdman, however, considers this an affront – he wants changes and principally he wants these small being to worship him as he effectively co-opts Kiddo’s creation.

But while the nature of religion, Birdman, Kiddo and the history Early Earth recur through the stories (not least in the horrible Beaked Brothers, the religious fanatics from Birdman’s church who enforce dogma and societal norms), the main part of this quite substantial tome (it is a pretty impressively large work, and it comes in a very handsome hardback with cloth-bound spine and metallic, embossed lettering) is, as you may guess from the title, inspired by the classic Tale of a Thousand and One Nights. In the place of clever Scheherazade we have Hero and her friend and lover Cherry. Heroes across the millennia may sometimes rely on a strong sword arm, but the smartest ones rely more on their intelligence and wit (Achilles and Ajax may have been the strongest warriors in the Iliad, but it was crafty Odysseus who outlived them, despite his diverting problems). And what of women, kept “in their place” in a rigid society, little say in who they will be married off to, forbidden from learning to read (because we know from history when you let people read they get all sorts of ideas for themselves, and that would never do). Those heroes really must rely on instinct and wit and intellect, not brute strength and a sharp sword. And compassion and understanding. And friendship.

And stories. Especially stories…

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A foul wager by two very, very silly men (who sadly, despite being fools and bigots hold power over the lives of their womenfolk), Manfred and Jerome discuss women, Manfred in particular proving to be especially loathsome, one of those men who sees all the faults in everyone else (especially women) but not his own myriad of failings. And their discussion of “worthless” women sees them lay this aforementioned wager – Jerome is so sure of the virtue and fidelity of his young wife (who seems more like a possession to him than a partner) he bets that the vile Manfred cannot seduce her while Jerome is off on business for a hundred days and nights. The art here is fabulous, most especially the way Isabel depicts the expressions of these two men – a scene showing Manfred leering (for all his ranting about how no woman is worthy, he is clearly obsessed with them, not an uncommon pairing of characteristics) had me laughing out loud.

While the wretched and loathsome Manfred sets forth cockily to win his bet (and it matters little to either man about the woman they so cavalierly use for their sport with one another) it is the key to the spinning of a quite wonderful series of tales. Cherry, the demure, chaste and obedient wife he is to try and seduce is actually far smarter than her husband (and Manfred) and she gets her passion elsewhere – from the eponymous Hero, her friend who poses as her maid but is really her lover, both struggling to have a loving relationship and to also nurture their intellect and learning in a society which would condemn them for both. And it is Hero who determines to stave off Manfred’s unwanted advances through that tried and tested method of the spinning of enticing tales, stories that captivate and compel. Stories that stop at break of day but oh, Manfred needs to hear the end, so he keeps pausing his lustful advances to hear more. And more. And, well, you get the idea.

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It’s a lovely way to frame these stories, and no, I am not going to go into each of the tales Hero spins over the hundred nights to save her lover from Manfred, there isn’t space enough and besides, I’m not going to ruin it for you. But take it from me, they are enticing, lovely and often oh so emotional tales, taking in both love and loss, death and life, finding but also losing, and mostly with a very feminine perspective, for many of these are the stories of women, women forbidden to read and write, to touch books, so some of them take it upon themselves to acquire stories which they learn by heart and pass on, both by word and by the craft of tapestry. An all but invisible web of stories being shared in secret telling stories of love and romance and triumph and betrayal and bigotry and hatred. Of moons falling in love with humans, of sisters parted by duplicitous lovers, of princesses and the mirror fantasy worlds they escape to from a controlling king and father.

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It’s a beautiful kaleidoscope of stories, each building atop the others for a satisfying cumulative effect, each enhancing the others. There are terrific touches in both story and art – little background scenes such as the guards set to watch over Hero and Cherry becoming totally besotted with the stories they overhear them telling (which of course they tell their friends and wives and children, who then tell them to others, because stories are contagious, in the nicest way). Or simple but hugely effective techniques, such as a new wife, her expression rapt and loving as she gazes at her new husband, but while his face points towards her we can see Isabel has his eyes roving, already looking away from his adoring wife for another conquest. It’s just one tiny touch in one panel, but it’s indicative of the care and craft in this work.

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There is a serious subtext here about the way men and women see and treat one another (especially the way many men have treated women, sadly something that is, yet again, in the news for all the worst reasons – some men, it seems, are incapable of growing up and evolving, and boy could a lot of them benefit from these stories, if they were open to them, that is). But it’s also a book of adventures and wonders and romances and hopes and regrets and humour (and sassiness!) , all wrapped in some lovely, lovely artwork. It’s a collection of stories which come together to form a larger narrative and set of shared ideas and themes in a quite magical way, and it is one of those books you just know you are going to find yourself revisiting again and again (always the mark of a truly good book). I think come December this will be a very strong contender for one of my Best of the Year selections, an utterly wonderful book that I cannot recommend enough.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

A fairer world: The Red Virgin and the Vision of Utopia

The Red Virgin and the Vision of Utopia,

Mary and Bryan Talbot,

Jonathan Cape

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I’ve been eagerly awaiting this new work from the Costa Award-winning Mary and Bryan Talbot for month, and Mary and Bryan’s recent guest Commentary post whet my appetite even further. Was it worth the wait? Well let’s put it this way, I read it last week then found myself re-reading it twice over the weekend on a train trip back home; it’s one of those books that very much deserves another pass because there is so much going on here, between the history, the politics, the biography and, of course, the detailed art, that it rewards you handsomely for re-reading.

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The Gare de Lyon, Paris, January 1905; our first glimpse of Louise Michel, political agitator, feminist, revolutionary, fighter for equality and a dreamer of a better, fairer world. And it is her funeral, a full-page, appropriately with a black border, mostly black, white and grey tones, save for the deep red of the funeral flowers and the red of revolutionary flags. Thousands have turned out for the final journey of Louise, and caught up in the busy procession and arriving American writer, herself no stranger to the ideas of Utopias or the fight for more equality, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, arriving at the station to be met by young Monique. Gilman is in the middle of a European lecture tour, and while they wait for the procession to pass Monique explains that the funeral is for Louise Michel “She spoke out for the people. We loved her.” Gilman recognises the name – the two had met on a previous lecture tour and spent a pleasant evening discussing Utopian fiction. Monique offers to tell her more about Louise, and this is the clever framing device which leads the reader into the story of this remarkable, revolutionary woman.

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It’s snowing heavily in the run-down streets of Montmarte on a December evening, 1870. Montmartre today still has a slightly different look and feel to it from much of the rest of central Paris, but back then it was more like a tumbledown village. A full page gives a wonderful impression of the place, a caped figure shivering through the snow, you can almost imagine the soft runch-runch-runch of footsteps in the snow and the quiet, damped sound that comes with the snow. Inside a group, mostly women share what little food they have, huddled around a lantern, its glow uplighting their faces, including the face of Louise, a face that combines compassion, intelligence and strength. These are people in a poor district who have little at the best of time, but as the Franco-Prussian War and then the siege of Paris drags on (these are events which would lead to the creation of modern Germany after France’s defeat).

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But despite the biting winter outside, the lack of food and heat, the war, the poverty, this is a warm scene, these are people who are friends and neighbours, people who help and support one another. And while this helps introduce Louise and the conditions which helped drive her desire to change the world, it also provides some beautiful little details – a cat happily snoozing on a woman’s lap, and its indignant expression when she leaps up – which brings the scene to life, makes these not just characters in a tale but real people, people we can recognise and empathise with. And that makes this more emotional, personal, relatable, not a remote moment of history, but events involving real people, and that enriches everything which follows.

And what follows… Ye gods, what an amazing life. I knew of the Franco-Prussian War, of the changes it lead to in French government and had heard a little about the Paris Commune. But I hadn’t heard of Louise Michel. And after reading (and re-reading) this book I’m wondering why I’ve not come across her story before. Perhaps it’s one not widely known outside Francophone histories. However that just added to the pleasures of this work; that wonderful, warm feeling that comes from having both an engrossing story and learning something new and fascinating. Our modern society is still hideously unfair and unbalanced – we need look only at protests in recent years over the ever-increasing gap between rich and poor and the influence and control the former accrue to themselves, or the way people – even in supposedly “advanced” cultures are mistreated because of the colour of their skin, their gender, denied opportunities for not having gone to the “right” school… And here’s this woman in a poor arrondissement of Paris in the 1870s fighting – quite often literally – for education for all (and girls to be taught the same as boys), proper political power from the people, ensuring resources of nations are used for the betterment of their people, not just a few at the top…

The Talbots take us through the heady days of the Commune, moments of brief triumph before the brutal re-imposition of Almighty Power (a government and army that couldn’t defeat the invading Prussians but was able to turn its guns on its own citizens). Thousands are killed, many survivors imprisoned or transported to the distant colonies. And still Louise Michel doesn’t stop fighting, she doesn’t stop studying and arguing and dreaming. Even exiled to the far side of the world she takes it as an opportunity to learn more, to expand her horizons. In a period of high imperialism she instead talks to the natives, learns their ways, language, culture and in turn teaches their children just as she teaches the children of the French exiles in her makeshift school, seeing in the colonial mastery over others the same blind, greedy power which she fought in the streets of Paris.

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Having young Monique, then later her elderly mother (a friend of Louise Michel’s, and one who stood alongside her) telling Gilman their account of this remarkable, revolutionary woman is a wonderful way to frame Louise’s story, leading us in easily to the events, adding human depth and emotion to these events, and it is little surprise given Mary’s academic background that the work comes across as well-researched and boasts an appendix of notes and sources which are also quite fascinating. The artwork throughout is beautiful, as you would expect from one of our masters of the medium, from subtle use of colouring around the pages (jet-black for the funeral and opening, a much lighter page tone for the scenes in distant New Caledonia, intimating the brighter light quality.

There are some memorable images – a line of soldiers marching but with their loaves impaled on the bayonets of their hoisted rifles (something thrown up by research but which makes such a lovely visual image), to the revolutionaries ripping up the street cobbles to erect barricades, in true, traditional Parisian fashion, sudden “terrible beauty” amidst the horror as erupting cannon fire causes the spring blossoms to rain from the trees, a ghastly set of double-page spreads showing the bloody aftermath of the brutal suppression of the Commune, dark, dark, dark pages of bodies and the suffering of the survivors, seen as if through falling soot and smoke from gunfire, the bright red normally reserved in the book for the flags and Louise Michel’s scarf here given to blood of ordinary citizens pooling in the Parisian streets. Coming almost midway through the book those pages are sombre, shocking and a reminder of the bloody cost that has been paid time and again by those trying to change the world.

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This is an utterly fascinating book, a beautiful meshing of history, story and art, telling the story of an inspiring woman and of causes that are still far, far too relevant in our own modern, troubled world. There’s a lovely mixing of the Utopian science fiction of the period, of that dream that all of this marvelous new technology coming out of that period, and what will come later, will be used to finally free all of humanity from drudgery and suffering, to essentially create something not unlike the Federation in Star Trek, and a number of references are made to the SF literature of the period and how it helped inspire those dreamers wanting to change the world (as many tales today still do, and thank goodness for them, because what would we do without those dreamers pushing the rest of us to try and make things a bit better, even if we never quite get there, but we keep stepping closer at least). And this also allowed Bryan to indulge in a nice scene showing one of those imagined Victorian SF futures, a little visual treat.

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In a lovely touch I was moved to see that Mary and Bryan had dedicated this book to another writer of Utopian science fiction, the late Iain M Banks, who I imagine would have heartily enjoyed discussing Louise Michel with the Talbots over a good dram. Powerful, moving, thought-provoking and fascinating. It’s only May and I already know this will be going straight onto my Best of the Year list come December.

You can read a guest Commentary post by Mary and Bryan Talbot talking about how they came to write the Red Virgin here on the Forbidden Planet blog

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog. Mary and Bryan Talbot will be at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on the 27th of August