Reviews: Places in the Darkness

Places in the Darkness,

Chris Brookmyre,

Orbit Books

(cover artwork by Steve Stone)

Welcome to Ciudad de Cielo, or CdC, a city in the sky, orbiting high above planet Earth, a shining beacon to the blue world below. Home to the Quadriga, a consortium of four mega corporations and the brightest minds humanity has to offer, working on the most advanced research on – well, near – the planet, with the ultimate aim of preparing a generational starship. This is technology not just to better life on Earth, but to prepare the human race to expand out into the stars. An orbital city of thousands, a crime-free utopia of brilliant minds high above the Earth, bringing knowledge and technology to the world below, like some modern Prometheus, while the other foot is readying the long walk to deep space. The pinnacle of human civilisation’s evolution.

Or so the brochures and corporate PR would have it. As anyone who has ever studied utopias knows, they are rarely perfect, human nature just doesn’t allow for it. And human nature is at the core of Places in the Darkness. Brookmyre is a long-established member of the “Tartan Noir”, the brace of internationally bestselling Scottish crime writers (along with the likes of Ian Rankin, Denise Mina and more), but here he’s going science fiction, although for lovers of his more Earthbound crime novels, there’s still much here they too can enjoy.

CdC started as a floating lab facility, with the “wheels” at either end being added as it grew, that central shaft offering micro gravity facilities for some advanced research and manufacture, the wheel sections simulating gravity. And “ideal society” claim or not, like every other human city in history it is stratified and with a hierarchy from the corporate suits and top scientists at the peak, down to mass of regular workers low down. The people who do the actual work – cleaners, joiners, electricians, medics, cops (well, private corporation cops), and where you have all of this population there will be a dark economy – bootleg booze, underground clubs, prostitution, and most regualr folks working two or three jobs just to make ends meet. The side of life the CdC like to pretend they left below on Earth; this is more Babylon 5’s Down Below than Star Trek’s shiny Federation.

And it’s into this Alice Blake is sent, a representative of the federated world governments, who keep a close eye on the CdC, the corporations forever wary of too much oversight, or intrusion into how they run things. Alice, adopted child of high flying government types, has been raised and schooled to fit perfectly into her niche and she actually believes the PR blurb about this idealised society and the selfless work leading to the stars and humanity’s destiny. But she is also enough of a political animal to realise her boss is sending her to take over the security gig so she can get a close look at how the corporations are running things. But the myth of the crime-free orbital society is about to be brutally shattered – the low level crimes the CdC can hide, but murder? An especially cruel murder and mutilation? No, that’s going to leak out. Hell of a first day for Alice, paired with the security team’s Nikki Freeman, a former homicide detective and only one on the private security force with the experience to work such a case.

But Nikki is also known as “Nikki Fixx”, a go-to, a fixer, a grifter, working both sides of her badge. Everything Alice despises; Alice, in turn is looked down on by Nikki as a privileged and rule-bound type who has no real idea how things work. In the best mismatched cop-buddy tradition they’re going to be flung together and find themselves spiraling down a far deeper rabbit hole than either could have anticipated, an investigation that will snake around itself, from conspiracy theories and power politics at the highest echelons down to the dive bars and hidden underground elements of society, from criminal smugglers to secretive elite scientists and everything in between, Alice is going to get a first-hand view of the reality of the society on this orbiting citadel of humanity.

I’m not going to go too much into the murder investigation and where it leads, far too easy to blow some spoilers that way, but for anyone who has read Brookmyre’s crime novels, you’ll already know that you are in very fine hands here regarding a good murder mystery, with plenty of twists and turns. But as with his terrestrial novels, Brookmyre delights as much in the details and the way these details and the events around them can reveal human nature in all of its many facets, and that is compelling, from the highest, elite segments to the lowest, and the elements of life that connect them all, one way or the other.

It’s a story which also questions the nature of humanity, from Alice, brought up in a very different setting from the likes of Nikki, with her by the rules, idealised view of how it should all be, to Nikki, who has seen how much of it really works, the dirty, oily engine under the gleaming bonnet of the car, and then those in positions of power, from crime gangs to the corporate and scientific leadership, and what they want their orbiting society – and eventual starship colony crew – to be. And it questions if you can really make people into moulds or if human nature will always assert itself – and if that is a good or bad thing, while also, like much of science fiction, using that future society as a mirror to observe aspects of our own contemporary world, from the haves and have-nots, the corporations straining to be free of government oversight, the bulk of people waiting for the “trickle down” effect, the role of technology in society (for good and ill) and more. It’s a rich brew, giving a real feeling of a near-future society you can believe in, humanity in a warts and all way, allied to a compelling and twisting narrative of murder and conspiracy.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Reviews: Grandville comes to a magnificent finale with Force Majeure

Grandville: Force Majeure,

Bryan Talbot,

Jonathan Cape (UK) Dark Horse (N America)

To say I’ve been looking forward to this book for some time is an understatement – Bryan was kind enough to show me a few pages on his iPad when he was at the Edinburgh Book Fest last year, knowing how much I’ve enjoyed the preceding volumes (they’ve all made my annual Best of the Year lists). But I’ve also been a little reticent as well because, well, it’s the final Grandville album – as Bryan points out himself in an afterword, the art style here is very labour intensive, taking three to four days of ten working hours each to complete (not counting the original idea and scripting). And he’s given us five of these volumes now, a huge investment in time and effort and love. And my god, all of that effort, that meticulous, perfectionist attention to details, it’s all up there in the art and the storytelling and the characters, each volume building, each volume better, a trend which continues right through to this, the grand finale, and what a finish it is…

We start with high society, a very posh seafood restaurant, elegant rich diners, the snooty-looking waiters (in a nice touch most are piscine characters dining on the seafood, with the exception of a table full of cats clearly relishing a little fishy in their little dishy). The society fine dining is suddenly shattered by the steampunk version of a drive-by; this seafood restaurant is part of a ganglord’s legitimate front, the Crays (a double pun). A crime family LeBrock has a very personal grudge against, a factor which should mean this case is off limits to the redoubtable detective, and yet he has been assigned the investigation, a strange bending of the usual rules. Then there’s the fact that the regular beat coppers were all called away from the area on a command from Scotland Yard moments before the attack. It’s all rather fishy (sorry, another pun), and indicative of a more deep-seated problem than a turf war between the gangs of London.

This is the beginning of a major power play by the “Napoleon of Crime”, Parisian gang lord Tiberius Koenig (another cunning pun on his appearance – he’s a rather unique specimen in this world of anthropomorphised animals), and in his deviously thought-out plan to expand into London now he has conquered the Parisian underworld, and of course there’s the matter of revenge on LeBrock from an earlier encounter. And Koenig isn’t the kind to just bump off an enemy, oh no, he’s vicious and fiercely intelligent, and strong-willed, a seriously dangerous combination, as much Keyser Soze as he is Professor Moriarty. It’s the start of a cascading series of events aimed at giving Koening more power while utterly destroying LeBrock. Not just LeBrock’s life, but his reputation, his friends, his family, and ideally make sure he remains alive just long enough to see it all collapse before his eyes, a final twist of the knife. It will take in Paris and London underground criminal empires, political games in Scotland Yard, and a new badger, a huge Italian sailor called Tasso, but is he there to aid or thwart LeBrock?

And I really don’t want to get any further into the plot here, because this is a doozy, this is something that has been building to a head over the previous volumes, and I don’t want to ruin it. The complex plot aside, there is a huge amount more to enjoy here, to relish, not least that astonishing visual feast of the art. Not just from the large-scale, set-pieces, but in smaller scenes – something as simple as a spy making a call from a street phone is rendered beautifully, the colouring and focus from foreground to background giving a real three-dimensional sense of depth. This is one of our best comics veterans at the absolute top of his game, those long, laborious, painstakingly rendered pages that take days bearing rich fruit for the reader to delight in, the sort of art that you stop frequently, mid-narrative, to luxuriate in it, and like previous volumes it demands revisits (in fact after reading it I had to go back and re-read it more slowly before writing this).

And we’re in the hands of a master of the medium here, this is glorious, rich art but not merely for adornment or show, this is all in the service of the story and the characters. And like the sense of the world of Grandville, and the narrative thread connecting the volumes, the characters too have developed and grown through the series. The romance between LeBrock and Billie is touching, but never saccharine, while Billie herself, caught up this web, is no shrinking violet, no helpless lady waiting to be rescued by her knight errant, she’s a strong, capable and brave woman who isn’t going to just be a plot device.

We learn more about LeBrock’s origins, from a moving flashback of him as a child with hid dad, fishing in the Lake District (a moment of peace in a relentlessly building story) to his early days as a copper, his desire to become a detective (even though that branch is almost exclusively reserved for the public school types who obtain it by connections, not merit) and being trained by the great Hawksmoor, a homage to the great consulting detective, Sherlock Holmes and his methods – our badger may use his impressive strength and courage, but he combines this with keen observation, deduction and intelligence, qualities he shares with another character Bryan has drawn, the Batman. Koenig, the “Napoleon of Crime” of Grandville may be more dangerous an adversary than even LeBrock has faced before, but the flipside of that is that Koenig, who normally knows nout but triump in his schemes, has never come up against a foe a intelligent, powerful and determined and LeBrock. Fur will fly, and with this being the final volume it’s all up in the air as to who will come out on top, and what sacrifices they may endure in this struggle.

Glorious visuals, a compelling story building beautifully on what’s gone before to reach a hugely satisfying climax, characters you really care about, plus action, daring-do, romance and humour, not to mention many references layered into the story, from nods to Dr Seuss to a tribute to Leo Baxendale, what more can you ask for in a book? This is simply British comics at their very finest.

You can read an interview with Bryan hereThis review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog.

Creepy tales for the dark nights: Ghost Stories of an Antiquary Volume 2

Ghost Stories of an Antiquary Volume 2,
M.R. James, adapted by Leah Moore, John Reppion, Al Davison, George Kambadais, Abigail Larson, Meghan Hetrick
SelfMadeHero

Autumn winds blow, shaking the remaining leaves off the trees, the temperature drops, and the nights stretch out towards the direction of winter, darkness falling earlier every night – the ideal time to curl up indoors, preferably by the fireside, and read a damned good ghost story. And few ghost stories are more classic than those of Montague Rhodes James a medievalist scholar of some academic renown, but best remembered today as one of the all-time great tellers of ghostly tales, many originally designed for him to read to friends and students by candlelight on Christmas Eve. They’ve been enormously influential, and adapted to other media across the last century, including two rather fine volumes adapted by Leah Moore and John Reppion, the second of which has just arrived from SelfMadeHero.

There are four tales here, each illustrated by a different artist. Number 13 by George Kambadais, Count Magnus by Abigail Larson, Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come To You, My Lad, by Al Davison and The Treasure of Abbot Thomas by Meghan Hetrick. M R James was a master of crafting short, unsettling stories, and these are just the right length to establish the story and, just as important for a James tale, the atmosphere. Because James, as with Poe, it’s as much about that atmosphere, from the seemingly mundane to the first inkling that something isn’t quite right, then that slow building sense of unease that grows into dread then fear as those hints of movement in the shadows manifest.

The Number 13 plays on the Western tradition of that number being considered unlucky – many hotels, for example, will avoid naming a room or floor with it and go from 12 to 14, and that’s the case here, where our visitor, exploring some local Scandinavian history returns to his hotel room one evening, and find it odd that he hadn’t noticed room 13 just next to his own when he had passed it during the day. Gazing idly out of the room window as he smokes, he notices the room light casting the shadow of himself and his window on the nearby building – and that of his neighbour, in room 13, also standing at his window. Except next morning, there is no room 13… Kambadais’ art does a terrific job of slowly stretching the everyday normality of a regular hotel into something…other…wrong… threatening, nice and subtle to begin with (astonishing how uneasy just a door can make you…) and then changes in shadows and colour and… Well, read it to find out, I’m not going to blow it here!

And that is the down side of short horror tales – personally I think the shortform story particularly suits horror, but in a review it does present certain problems, most pointedly that you can’t say too much without risking a spoiler. So I’m trying to be very careful here, and talk more about the art and the atmosphere than the narrative of the four tales here. Larson’s Count Magnus (one of James’ more famous creations) has a more stylised art, the depiction of the eponymous count glimpsed in an oil painting long, angular, distinctive, the panels set in an ancient Swedish churchyard and crypts conjures up a feeling of confinement and claustraphobia, while the colouring by Al Davison is simply gorgeous, adding much to Larson’s art on the Count (a scene with the multiple colours from the sunlight streaming through a stained glass window into the church is beautifully done, or a single beam of light into an old tomb).

Davison takes on the main art duties in the next story, an old, old favourite of mine, Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come To You, My Lad, which I’m sure is a favourite with many others too, not least for the classic 1960s TV adaptation of this superbly creepy story. Again we go from the mundane, almost boringly normal – starting with a bunch of middle-aged Oxbridge dons chatting over dinner about their holiday plans – to the slowly building sense of unease, the art style and the colour palette shifting from a well-lit, realistic depiction to a cold, icy blue, night-time view of shifting shadows and strange, distorted figures and that horrible feeling that there is something there, right there, in your room close to you, something that should not be there.

Red Thorn artist Meghan Hetrick completes this volume with The Treasure of Abbot Thomas. This starts out like a conventional adventure story, our protagonist following a well-worn path of those before him who have tried to find the secret key that reveals where a fabled treasure has been hidden, a treasure most now consider to be just an old folk tale. And like any great adventure hero our clever chap stumbles across a clue no-one else has, that puts them on the trail. And that’s where this starts to diverge from an Indiana Jones or National Treasure type adventure of clues and hidden doorways and secrets concealed and uncovered, because, after all, this is an M R James story, and this rapidly goes from high adventure to something far more disturbing, almost Lovecraftian-level disturbing. The scenes of preparation and discovery take in bright, sunlit villages, grand houses with beautiful stained-glass windows, in stark contrast to the scenes where they start to uncover secret areas, panels depicting them descending spiral stones of an old well, lit only by the flickering lamp, linger in the mind after the story is finished.

In fact all of these stories linger in the mind, especially if, as I did, you read them as they – and the originals – should best be read: on a dark, autumn night, by the fireside, happily lost in the slowly-building atmosphere of fear and dread each tale crafts so perfectly, until you suddenly start back to yourself when the wind howls down your chimney and for just a moment you feel a stab of fear, the creeping fingers of the stories still stirring your perceptions, until you realise that sound in the chimney was just the wind, that the blinds only rattled because you forgot to close the window and the breeze is shaking them. Or wait, you did close that window earlier, didn’t you, and it was just a sudden breeze that blew out the candle, wasn’t it?….

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Graphic Science

Graphic Science: Seven Journeys of Discovery,

Darryl Cunningham,

Myriad Editions

Now here is one of 2017’s UK graphic novel releases that I’ve been eagerly awaiting. Quite a few years ago Darryl Cunningham was our cartoonist in virtual residence on the blog, before going on to be one of the first wave of creators from then-new Blank Slate Press, with the deeply moving, well thought-out Psychiatric Tales. Since then he has, with an industrial level of research to accompany his cartooning, carved out a fine reputation on both sides of the Atlantic for some fascinating factual comics works, such as Science Tales and Supercrash (both also published by Myriad Editions), frequently sharing glimpses of works in progress on his blog.

With Graphic Science Darryl brings us a book that isn’t just about scientific development and breakthroughs, this is as much about history and the society these seven subjects lived in, and the influence of the prevailing societal and academic norms of their time, the challenges of race, of gender. Giving us a book which explored important breakthroughs which, outside of academic science circles, are not as well known to the general public and putting them into some context, giving the discoveries and the discoverers their due respect for adding to the sum of knowledge, for helping shape the world we live in now, that would be an achievement in itself. But Darryl doesn’t just craft an accessible view into research which changed our understanding of our world, in Graphic Science Darryl gives us seven tales that are remarkably, warmly human experiences. This is as much about the people as the science, and that makes Graphic Science not just intellectually fascinating, but emotionally compelling and rewarding.

He was all too human, with flaws and idiosyncrasies. We should appreciate the man, not the myth.” Darryl on Nikola Tesla

The book takes in seven different scientists from across the last couple of centuries: Antoine Lavoisier, Mary Anning, George Washington Carver, Alfred Wegener, Nikola Tesla, Jocelyn Bell-Burnell and Fred Hoyle. Some of those names may be familiar to you already, others not so much, perhaps. Darryl has, from a wide possible array of influential scientists selected this group of seven as much for the personal interest in their lives and times, which proves as fascinating as their scientific discoveries. Born into the last generation to be enslaved before the end of the US Civil War, George Washington Carver overcomes racial prejudice (indeed, sometimes outright hatred), Mary Anning fights sexism and poverty in 19th century Britain, while even in the middle of the 20th century that gender gap still has to be faced by a new generation of scientists like Jocelyn Bell-Burnell. For German scientist Wegener the dogmatic, entrenched position of the established view stands in the path of his theory.

Darryl looks at the science, such as Lavoisier experimenting with chemicals, unlocking the secrets of the air we breathe, but he also pays attention to the world around Lavoisier. We see pre and post-revolutionary France, we we the interaction with the findings and debates with other scientists, the politics of the time (which would have a terrible price for Lavoisier), but also the domestic – home life, marriage. And rather nicely he pays attention to Marie-Anne, who not only becomes Lavoisier’s wife, she becomes an important part of his work. Intelligent, witty and social, she holds salons where scientific and artistic guests meet regularly, feeding each other’s thoughts and ideas (she even charmed Benjamin Franklin, painting his portrait). And she uses her intelligence and her skill with languages to help her husband, translating scientific papers from other countries for him, recording his own work with the meticulous detail that is the bedrock of scientific research, her contribution to helping her husband’s work given its due respect. In the chapter on Carver there’s a lovely moment, in stark contrast to the hideous racism of 19th century America, when his fellow students, impressed by his intellect and gentleness, get together to buy furniture for this young student’s rooms, or leave small gifts of money.

There isn’t room here to go into all seven chapters, but each shares this rather lovely approach – putting the human face on these events, people and discoveries. These aren’t cold facts, or distant historical figures, these are real people, people we can relate to. And while that makes the book more engaging emotionally, it also, for me, enhances the thrill of the discovery, of invention – these are not works by some remote, isolated genius, they are by genuine people, a reminder of our shared human connections, and by extension a reminder that scientific discovery is not just the domain of well-heeled, upper class white males, that all sorts of people from all sorts of origins have – and still do – contribute massively to our shared pool of human knowledge.

The art retains that nice, cartoony feel of previous works by Darryl, a style which I’ve become very fond of over the years, and which he uses well to denote emotional moments, or to illustrate and explain a complicated point. Each chapter has a limited but different colour palette for the most part, giving each its own look. There are some nice little moments of humour sneaked in their too ( for example, an explorer falls down a crevasse in a glacier, the image shows the hole and a “help!” speech bubble, which made me giggle). While many pages stock to a six-panel layout, some, for good effect, change this, such as a facing pair of two small and one large panel pages as Fred Hoyle’s mind considers the birth and death of stars, or showing the ancient land-mass of Pangea from Wegener’s thoughts on continental drift, one large panel of that long-gone supercontinent, two smaller panels showing the movement towards today, a span of billions of years covered in three panels, a pillar of modern scientific understanding, one we have all grown up with and taken for granted, illustrated as the powerful, divisive, controversial idea it once was (a reminder that our knowledge is not always fixed, that some people can give us an entire new perspective on the world, also that it is no bad thing to ask questions and explore ideas).

I’ve always had a deep interest in science, a side-effect of a lifetime of reading science fiction, no doubt, and I did actually know each of the people highlighted in Graphic Science, some only a little, others, like Bell-Burnell I knew much more about. But even with the scientists I was familiar with I learned new aspects to their work, to the person themselves, and, crucially, the social, historical and personal context, giving me a much rounder view of them, and a deeper appreciation the discoveries they made. Graphic Science is a rich, rewarding, fascinating and warmly personable view into some of those who, often against the odds, have added fuel to the shining beacon of learning and knowledge which has helped defined our species, our place in the world, our understanding of that world and the vast cosmos around us. A wonderful read.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog. You can read a guest Director’s Commentary by Darryl talking about Graphic Science here on the FP blog

The Corporation Wars come to a cracking conclusion with Emergence

The Corporation Wars Book 3: Emergence,

Ken MacLeod,

Orbit Books

(cover design by Bekki Guyatt)

I’m always a happy reader when I have a new Ken MacLeod book waiting for my attentions, he has, consistently, been one of the most interesting and thoughtful science fiction writers in these islands for the last couple of decades. As well as intriguing thoughts and gripping stories, Ken is also adept at doing what the best science fiction does – using SF to address the problems of human nature. And in the Corporation Wars trilogy that’s no mean feat, considering, for the most part, the various characters in this series aren’t actually human. We have robots who have achieved sentience, we have computer AIs which oversee much of the Earth policy in this distant proto-colony system, and we have the emulation of human minds running in digital simulations or, to interact with the real universe outside the computer reality, downloaded to mechanoid “frames”.

The first two volumes have seen these deceased humans – fighters and terrorists from two rival factions, the Axel (accelerationists) and the Rax (reactionaries, basically racist, Nazi, power-hungry types), their memories and minds digitally resurrected to man combat machines for Earth, as compensation for what they put the world through during their millennia-gone battles. But twenty light years from home and thousands of years into the future, not even in flesh bodies, these groups can’t help but revert to their previous behaviour… And yet some are starting to learn, starting to look back on what they did before their (usually violent) deaths, on how Earth society has evolved since then, and, importantly, to think about the now sentient robots they have been tasked with dealing with.

After much evolution and interaction – not to mention some spectacular action – in Dissidence and Insurgence, Emergence continues seamlessly (the overall effect, I found, is less that of reading a trilogy but one long tale with small restful pauses), all of the characters now very firmly established, developed. There are no ciphers or stock characters here, even the robots, the newest intelligent beings in the story, are evolving rapidly, showing individuality, wit, even friendship and care for others. And then there is the massive “super habital” world the colonising corporations have been orbiting for so long, finally brought fully on stage, and opening up yet another avenue for exploring how diverse and rich, and astonishing, life, in any form, can be.

There’s plenty to chew over here, from the rights of any sentient being (human, posthuman, robotic or otherwise) and how we deal with them (our behaviour to them saying much about our own moral faculties – or lack of them) to the use of economic and military power. In the Rax I thought I detected more anger than in the preceding volumes; here they are not just the far-right, but quite clearly Nazis, right down to the arm salutes as one group makes a grab for power, and I thought perhaps this was a quite understandable reaction to the hideous growth of such hate groups in the real world. But as well as the thought-provoking elements and the cracking sense of pace and action which pushes events along at a gratifying clip, there is also some humour here – the nasty space-Nazi trying to justify racial superiority when he is nothing but a digital emulation of his old mind in a robotic frame (ah, but an emulation based on a white brain! Yes, that’s how stupid and bigoted these people are). It’s a superb casserole of ingredients, building to the boil at just the right moment.

Emergence is out now from Orbit Books, you can read about the first volume here, and volume two here, while we have a recent report on some of the science fiction events Ken had as a guest selector at the Edinburgh International Book Festival here.

Reviews: Slugfest – inside fifty years of Marvel-DC rivalry

Slugfest: Inside the Epic 50-year Battle Between marvel & DC,

Reed Tucker,

Sphere

Growing up as a comics reader there was often a dividing line for many – are you DC or Marvel? Personally, even as a kid I found that a silly distinction as I read comics from both – and of course in Britain, back then, we had a huge amount of homegrown comics competing for our reading time as well (and they were easier to get hold of than US imports). But for many readers it was a real question, and that rivalry for the attentions of comics readers between The Big Two is the meat and drink (and sometimes spilled drink) of Reed Tucker’s fascinating history in Slugfest.

The comics business has changed enormously since the birth of the superheroes in the 1930s; they’ve survived (well, some have, not all) wars, depressions, civil unrest, the rise of several new media, changing societies, circulation declines and changes in consumption. And in the US the main contenders have, since the 60s, been Marvel and DC. DC, still, even by the 50s and early 60s, a staid, conservative, buttoned-down place, run by old men with pipes and leather patches on their jacket elbows, growing every further out of touch with their young readership. And with the arrival of Stan Lee’s hyperbole and energy they have a competitor they need to fight against for readership. Except the old men in charge refuse to see this new upstart as a serious rival – much to their cost.

It’s the beginning of decades of rivalry and competition – and often sniping at one another, sometimes humorously, sometimes quite nastily. And as the tired old crossover “events” pretty much always say “nothing will ever be the same again!!!”. Tucker takes us through the once-exciting characters now stultifyingly stale at DC and their initial reluctance to change – or even acknowledge change is needed – as the Marvel experiment begins to draw more and more readers and exciting new talents. It’s a heady, exciting time – Kirby, Ditko and more give readers something exciting and new, starting a whole new wave in the medium, with work that has inspired – arguably is still inspiring – new creators who, in their turn, would also explore just what else they could do with comics storytelling. And eventually that would stir changes in DC, elderly staffers finally out, new blood in, and an ongoing exchange between both publishers as one would, inevitably, follow the other on new ideas and innovations (or downright gimmicks).

Comic books were disreputable, and that was fine by me,” Denny O’Neill commenting on being part of the new blood brought in by DC in the 60s in reaction to Marvel.

Some of this will be common knowledge to a lot of comics fans, I imagine – I certainly knew many of the broad brushstrokes of the DC-Marvel rivalry, but what Tucker does here is to fill in far more detail into that picture. He discusses not just the main competition between the publishers over who had the most popular characters and titles, the best circulations, Tucker goes into more depth. Problems such as distribution, interference from the owners, self-censorship with the Comic Code, the decline in sales, the slow death of the newsstands and the establishment of the direct market and the specialist comic shops, the change in readership from mostly youngsters to adults, the rise of the “superstar” writers and artists like Miller, Morrison and others, the slow evolution of the capes and tights to the big screen (from the Superman movie of the 70s showing they could be huge box office for adults and kids through the duds to the current box office domination), the increasingly corporate nature of the Big Two and more.

Crucially Tucker has spoken to a huge number of people who have worked in the industry, and those first hand accounts and personal insights are where the book really sparkles. Writers, artists, editors, Tucker talks to a large array of talent from across those decades, giving a much more personal and relatable inside view, some working exclusively for one publisher or the other, but many going from one side to the opposition, sometimes because they lost their job, or were fed up with their treatment and walked (keeping your talent happy seems to be a lesson both side often ignored, foolishly), more than a few actively poached from one publisher to the other. The larger events here are important and worthwhile reading for anyone with a love of the comics medium, but it is these many personal touches from the numerous creators Tucker talks to which truly makes Slugfest so compelling.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Reviews: the Doctor will see you now – Strange Practice

Strange Practice,

Vivian Shaw,

Orbit Books

Oh now this was an absolute delight to read. There has been a large trend in the last couple of decades for  urban fantasies, depicting a world that is recognisably our own, everyday realm, but where, usually in the shadows, unsuspected by most people, fantastical elements secretly exist. Charlaine Harris with her Sookie Stackhouse Mysteries (True Blood as it was for the TV version), Jim Butcher’s brilliant Harry Dresden novels (a gumshoe in Chicago who also happens to be a wizard), there has been an explosion in this area of fantastical fiction. So much so that these days I find myself a bit wary of new ones sometimes, but I had my bookseller’s Spidey-sense tingle when this arrived from Orbit, and I trust that little gut instinct. And I think Will Staehle’s cover (and some nice matching interior illustrations with a wicked sense of humour) had much to do with that too, a nice mix of woodcut style, with contemporary elements that also nods to those wonderful old Penny Dreadfuls.

And I’m glad I listened to those instincts, otherwise I would not have met Doctor Greta Helsing (her medical family long since dropped the “van”), a GP in London – in the famous Harley Street locale, no less, although unlike most their Greta is not exactly well-heeled. Except Greta’s practice takes in a very unusual set of patients – she, like her father before her, offers medical care to London’t community of preternatural creatures. Vampires, ghouls, were-creatures, vampires (and indeed vampyres, slightly different blood drinkers), even creating prosthetic bone replacements for elderly Egyptian mummies or treating a ghoul leader with clinical depression problems, it’s all in a day’s work for Greta. It’s long hours, like any GP, but it is very satisfying to her that she is not only helping people, but helping creatures that would never otherwise be able to access medical care.

However, London is a city in fear – a serial killer is stalking the city, the body count is rising, each victim found with cheap, plastic rosary beads. And those are just the ones the public and police know about – there are other victims, victims hidden from society, supernatural beings also being stalked by strange, monk-like figures, seemingly human, but stronger, with oddly-glowing blue eyes and a burning desire to destroy anything “unclean” before their god. And that includes some of Greta’s patients and anyone who helps them…

I’m not going to blow any spoilers by going any deeper into this tale here – it partakes as much of the detective novel as it does fantasy, and as such I don’t want to risk revealing any of the twists or turns here before you get a chance to read it. But I will say this is – especially for a first book in a series – this is a remarkably well-realised world and cast of characters; it really isn’t very long before you find yourself not only enjoying the story but the world demi-monde Greta moves in, a world where you can take the regular London Bus or Underground but which also has ghouls in the sewers, or Lord Ruthven in his Embankment House grand home.

Ruthven is just one of a number of literary characters who populate Greta’s world (in face Ruthven is a close family friend), we also meet the likes of Sir Francis Varney – as in Varney the Vampire (aka The Feast of Blood), one of those great penny-dreadful schockers of the 1800s), although, pleasingly, Shaw doesn’t drop in such famous Gothic characters in the way say Moore would in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, they feel far more realised and realistic as actual, believable people (who just happen to be centuries-old sanguivores). That’s not me taking a swipe at LOEG, by the way, I do enjoy those too. And if, like me, you have a long-standing fondness for old Gothic novels and characters, this is a lovely extra layer to Greta’s world and its details. Vivian also gets extra vampy brownie points for me for referencing the likes of the Croglin Grange Vampire,

There is also a nice strand of social commentary running through this book – the religious fundamentlism of the “monks” who think they are doing the will of god (while overlooking breaking important commandments like “thou shalt not kill”) has more than a few echoes in the real world, from terrorists to religious zealots who refuse equal rights for those they disapprove of, those who consider themselves so right that they feel they can use bloody violence to enforce their will. The supernatural community that Shaw sketches out nicely here also hints at social problems in the real world – the segments of society that are Different, Not Like Us, Other, and therefore feared, hated, often turned on as easy targets.

There’s a lovely moment where Varney asks Greta why she does what she does, even for beings like him, a monster, damned to the Pit should he be killed. And Greta tells him he’s not a monster, none of them are, she sees them all as people, and she thinks all people should be able to access medical care. It’s a nice pairing of messages, that being a person is more than simply being physically human, it is qualities of being that define someone, and that medical care should be something anyone who needs it can obtain. In a world where many give into the darkness of bigotry and see even other humans as less than human (and therefore deserving of awful treatment) and many can’t get even basic healthcare, these are very welcome, warm, human messages to weave into the story, and nicely done via the medium of non-human beings. They also made me love Dr Greta all the more. As I said right at the start, this was an absolute delight to read. I look forward to more time spent with Greta…

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Reviews: Monkey Magic! The Epic Crush of Genie Lo

The Epic Crush of Genie Lo,

F.C. Yee,

Amulet/Abrams Kids

Genie Lo is a very driven, very organised fifteen year old Chinese-American high school student in the Bay Area. Like more than a few similar kids she’s ferociously organised and dedicated to her studies and coping with the pressure of exams, good grades and the even higher pressures of transmuting those grades into a good university (and then more exams, more organisation, more studies, more pressure to achieve the best grades there and then onto a career and…). Yes, it’s a hell of a lot of stress put on young shoulders, as anyone who has ever been a student will recall, and the target audience for this YA fantasy will be more than familiar with, I’m sure. And quite a lot of those kids will also empathise with feelings of being different, awkward. In Genie’s case this is exacerbated by being quite tall (although this has its uses on the sports field sometimes). Adding to the pressure of school, possible colleges and career choices (why do we expect someone to be able to deal with all of that at 15???) home life isn’t ideal either – her mother is uptight and precious about her achievements, her father is more easy going but now estranged from her mother.

And into this mix she’s about to discover something remarkable about herself, and find this surprise comes with even more responsibilities, the type she can’t tell anyone else about (even her bestest friend Yunie) and dangers. And she’s going to meet a boy, which sparks all of this change. No, not in the normal teen way of first finding out about the attractions of other boys or girls. Quentin may be handsome and terrifically fit (although short), but this isn’t some Romeo and Juliet deal. Quentin is… Well, he’s not human. In fact he is Sun Wukong – the fabled Monkey King of legend, as depicted most famously in Wu Cheng’en’s classic of Chinese literature, Journey to the West. I’m guessing that “Quentin”, the name he adopts as he pretends to be a new student at Genie’s school is a nod to Qítiān Dàshèng, one of the titles Sun Wukong took on in his many travels and adventures (meaning something along the lines of Great Sage). Born of a stone egg on a mountain top, who through many adventures (and misadventures) slowly became more of a hero and less selfish, more enlightened and a protector against evil. A character that those of us of a certain age probably first encountered in the bonkers 1970s TV series Monkey (“the nature of Monkey was…. Irrepressible!!!”)

What is such an ancient – until now mythical being, as far as Genie knew – Chinese celestial being doing in 21st century West Coast America? Well, he wants Genie. He thinks he knows her, knows her well of old, that she may perhaps be a reincarnation of a very important element of his own past, one that he has been watching the Earth for any sign of reincarnation in a new form. And it seems others too have similar ideas, a few good, emissaries from the Jade Emperor in Heaven, but most bad, demons escaped from hell and after power on Earth (gained through very nasty means). Many of these are demons Quentin fought and sent to hell himself centuries before as part of his penance for past misdeeds, and he is more than a little surprised to find so many of them back on Earth, a demonic jailbreak, it seems. And like it or not, Genie is at the centre of this. Just as well she’s clever and a quick study…

Teen girl finds herself chosen to be part of an eternal struggle between mythic or supernatural forces she hadn’t even dreamed were real. Yes, it does evoke memories of Buffy, of course it does, but the youngster suddenly exposed to a wider world and realising they are part of it and they have to take part in it even if they don’t want to has been a part of countless coming of age tales long before Buffy. And to be fair here, Yee does a terrific job of creating in Genie and Quentin something very different from Buffy, and indeed from a lot of the modern trend for urban fantasies where we have our regular, everyday world with some “magic is real” layer (some of which is terrific fun). Genie herself feels like a real girl, especially a real girl from that particular slice of Bay Area society, and Yee depicts her with a lot of sympathy and understanding; of course she has faults, but regardless it’s very hard not to become very fond of Genie quite quickly.

And then there is the choice of mythology deployed here, the fantasy dropped into the otherwise realistic family and school and social life of a teen Chinese-American teen. Although Journey to the West is one of the great treasures of world literature, a classic alongside Beowulf or the Iliad or Gilgamesh, it hasn’t been used as much in Western fantasies, making it ripe for drawing on its rich tapestry of characters and adventures, not to mention the coming of age element of Genie’s story being reflected in Sun Wukong’s own (rather slower!) learning curve towards being more enlightened. I was reminded a bit of Ashok Banker’s fascianting Ramayana series, which drew on the great Indian myths and tales and reworked them into a rich fantasy that Western readers, even those with little or no knowledge of the Ramayana cycle, could easily understand and enjoy.

I read this book with a huge smile over my face for most of it. Quentin is cheeky, full of himself but also heroic, funny and capable of sudden understanding and compassion, the Monkey King. Genie is self doubting, troubled but also determined, very clever and she’s not going to be pushed around, especially as she learns more about this hidden world around her, because when a student like Genie learns, she realises she can control more, and Quentin may have met his match. As an adult reader I enjoyed the heck out of this and adored mining the Sun Wukong tales for inspiration and details (sudden urge to revisit my Penguin Classic edition of Wu Cheng’en), it felt fresh and colourful. The target Young Adult audience will, I think like it even more. Yes, there are some standard elements of the Journey of the Hero in there, but those are there in so many tales over the centuries, it’s what you do with those elements that counts, and here Yee’s crafted an utter delight.

And just because I couldn’t get the “monkey magic” theme tune out of my head, the opening credits to that wonderfully madcap 70s TV version of Monkey (not as cool as Quentin tries to be but so much fun):

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

La Serenissima – Taniguchi’s exquisitely beautiful Venice

Venice,

Jiro Taniguchi,

Fanfare/Ponent Mon

A while back you may recall Wim in one of his Continental Correspondent columns discussing a series of travel comics commissioned by famous fashion house Louis Vuitton, each by a different and well-known creator and taking in a different global destination. One of those was by the late, great Jiro Taniguchi (whose work on The Summit of the Gods, also translated and published by Fanfare/Ponent Mon, was highly praised on here by Richard), and I’m delighted to see Fanfare/Ponent Mon publishing it in an edition which makes it much more easily available than the special editions created purely for LV. And it would be criminal if a work this exquisitely beautiful hadn’t been made available to a wider readership.

Venice sees the artist visiting the ravishingly beautiful La Serenissima, driven more by a recently discovered family connection to this historic city on the water than by any mere tourist impulse (poor Venice, a victim of its own success, is now so inundated with legions of tourists, while her own population declines, that it has become a huge bone of contention with remaining Venetians). Following the death of his mother, the artist finds a fine, lacquered box, and inside a series of old photographs, taking in a young Japanese couple, and some with a small child, snapped in Venice, and hand-painted postcards of the coty. One features the iconic Piazza San Marco, with the couple feeding the pigeons, and from the clothes and style it looks as if it were taken in the 1920s or 1930s. Was this his grandmother and grandfather in Italy? Is that his mother as a young girl alongside them? His mother never mentioned much about his grandparents and nothing about a trip decades ago to Venice. He decides to visit and try to retrace their steps, as best he can.

Eschewing a more common comics layout of sequential panels and speech bubbles, here Taniguchi instead opts for something more leisurely-paced, mostly taking the form of a series of individual paintings as he walks around this glorious, ancient city, ravishing watercolours that you can lose yourself in, with only a small amount of text here and there. The effect is like looking over Taniguchi’s shoulder as he strolls around, pausing to drink in the sights and sounds and scents of Venice, and there is, to my mind, something highly appropriate about this approach, given that Venice has, for centuries, drawn artists and poets to her canals and elegantly crumbling grand architecture to paint her, write about her, compose sonnets, it became an integral part of the Grand Tour.

Taniguchi, with his delicate style, gentle pace and eye not just for detail, but also, crucially for a location like this, for the quality of light, and how it changes, is simply perfect here. He’s not just depicting the city through his walks and visuals, he’s practically taking us there. You can almost smell the saltwater of the lagoon and canals, feel the texture of some of those centuries-old buildings fighting their slowly-losing battle against the tide of time and element. The ravishing richness of a marbled church interior is as lovingly depicted as the wall of a family home, you can see some of the old plaster rendering coming away and the bricks below, and you feel you could run your hand along the wall as you walk past with Taniguchi and feel its texture against your fingertips.

The quality of light changes as the skies brighten blue then cloud over, and Taniguchi’s gorgeous art reflects this, from the clear blues over the Piazza San Marco or an aerial view of the islands and lagoon, basking in the Adriatic sunshine, or the gloomier, watery grey light of a rainy day in the north of Italy. As we follow him around we get to see, as you may expect, many of the city’s remarkable landmark structures, but this is mixed beautifully with an artist’s eye for smaller details, from the swinging of bells in the church tower to close-ups of the people and wares in the local street markets, or reflections in a puddle of rainwater on a city square. It’s wonderfully immersive, the paucity of text leaving the visuals to carry us, and oh, that is such a good decision on Taniguchi’s part, because it allows us to be drawn in until the reader feels like they are walking with the artist alongside the canals, over the bridges, pausing for as long as we want to drink in the surroundings.

The fact that he is following a part of his family history he never knew adds a lovely, emotional element to this beautiful work, as he tries to recreate the routes his grandparents took through Venice, working from photographs but also hand-drawn art from the period, crafted by his grandfather. Past and present and family history connect through this ancient city and through art, old and new, and it simply wonderful to take in and lost yourself in.

I also found myself pondering family history, my own this time – quite a number of years ago one of my family visiting relatives in London looked at some very old postcards at a kiosk. Very old, black and white postcards, the types with the crinkly edges rather than straight, people feeding the pigeons, just like Taniguchi’s postcard, but here it was Trafalgar Square rather than the Piazza San Marco, and in the old postcard? My grandfather. Snapped unknowingly decades before, preserved in that instant on postcards and found decades after he was gone. A magical gift from the past, washed up on the ebb-tide of time. For me that added another, personal element to Taniguchi’s artist retracing old steps from the past, but in truth that was just an extra topping on the dessert of this delicious, lusciously-drawn work. Lose yourself in this book.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

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