Chris Ware and Joe Sacco at the Edinburgh Book Fest

A few hours after we had the pleasure of having Joe Sacco and Chris Ware doing a quick signing in our Edinburgh store (see here) I was off to see the pair of them talk at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Both had given individual talks the preceding evenings at the Book Fest as part of the huge Stripped series of comics events at this year’s Book Festival, and I am told they did so to packed crowds. So on their third night at the world’s biggest literary celebration did that mean they had exhausted the audiences? Nope, it was again packed to the rafters, a huge audience (among them plenty of comickers like Metaphrog, William Goldsmith, Will Morris, Edward Ross, Neil Slorance and our own Nicola among others). The bulk of the Stripped events take place in a huge, solid block of comics goodness over the upcoming bank holiday weekend, so this was my first Stripped gig of the Book Festival, and what a way to kick off this huge celebration of our beloved medium, with a massive, enthusiastic crowd packed into the theatre in the elegant Georgian environs of Charlotte Square and the Herald’s Teddy Jamieson (himself a major comics reader) talking to two of the most internationally acclaimed creators working in comics today. In a further bonus it was even a warm and dry evening (rain being no stranger to Festival crowds in Edinburgh!).

Chris Ware & Joe Sacco at the Edinburgh Book Fest 2013 01
(Joe Sacco (left) and Chris Ware (centre) in conversation with Teddy Jamieson at the Edinburgh International Book Festival as part of the Stripped series, photos from my Flickr, click for the larger versions)

Teddy started off the evening by asking Joe and Chris about their early influences and how they progressed into creating comics for a living. Chris replied that as a youngster he was pretty much addicted to television until he went to college and made a decision to cut most of that out of his life in favour of other things. Joe spent a part of his childhood in Australia, where he told us he was exposed to a lot of British comics in addition to the normal compliment of four colour titles from America, and some of the old British war comics had remained in his mind since then. Chris re-iterated his surprise not only at finding out when younger that you could actually draw for a living, but that he has actually made a living and a successful one from working in comics. He has, like most comics artists I know, also taken illustration commissions for companies to help pay the bills, but he said he regarded that kind of work as a bit like prostitution for the artist, work done purely for pay, with no real deep feel or love for the work you are doing, and he is happy he doesn’t really have to take on anything like that unless it is something he wants to do.

Joe, for his part, told us of drawing as a kid, influenced by his British and American comics reading, his sister also drawing with him in that competitive way siblings sometimes do (causing Chris to comment there are two main types of comics artists, the sibling rivalry driven ones and the ones who grew up alone and the comics were their outlet). Joe commented that he thought at that stage his sister was the better artist, but then she hit that certain age, discovered boys and stopped drawing. Luckily for us Joe kept doodling! On his path to the acclaimed comics as journalism genre that he has largely pioneered to such huge effect, he explained he was working on comics but it wasn’t like one day he suddenly thought right, today I shall combine comics and journalism! He was studying journalism though, and on visiting other countries he naturally did what artists do and drew some of what he saw, more like comics travelogues at that point, as he put it. But as he started to record more of what he learned from people he talked to in these places he started to think on applying lessons learned from studying journalism, and gradually the journalistic approach and the comics medium came together. He also paid tribute to some of the great photojournalists as an influence, but noted while they had to strive to try and sum up a whole story in one dramatic, iconic image, the artist is much more fortunate in that they can simply draw the scene as they wish. And then another and another…

Chris Ware & Joe Sacco at the Edinburgh Book Fest 2013 03

Teddy asked Chris about his approach to the medium, and the sense of space he creates in his work, almost like architecture as comics, as he put it (most notably in his recent and rather magnificent Building Stories), and Chris discussed how he likes to make his scenes something a reader can inhabit (in fact both he and Joe talked about the need for both the creator and then the readers to be able to inhabit the settings and the characters, otherwise they felt they hadn’t done their work correctly). This three dimensional approach to the medium was something he clearly relished being able to craft and share, and he also lavished praise on Joe’s work for also creating that three dimensional feeling of a real space and real people (some of the audience concurred, indeed one man at the Q&A session afterwards had been in Bosnia before and after the war and congratulated Joe on the accuracy of his depictions). This mutual admiration was a hallmark of the evening’s proceedings, with both artists frequently citing each other’s works and what they loved about it. This was not done in some gushing, luvvie-style fest, I hasten to add, but was quite clearly the deep-seated admiration of one accomplished artist for another’s work.

I actually found this aspect of the evening’s talk fascinating – obviously all of us who were present are enthusiastic readers of their work, or we wouldn’t have been there, and we’ve all got out own unique interpretations of their works and what they mean to us, how we view them, how they make us feel, all filtered, as any art form is, through our own experiences, previous readings and knowledge. We all see things a little differently, and artists usually even more so when approaching an appreciation of other art. So there was something quite compelling in finding out a little about how artists of this calibre viewed the work of another creator, of equal stature and acclaim to them but with a very different style and approach to the form. While I am sure I would have loved their individual events in the preceding evenings I think having the pair of them discussing parts of each others works that they each admired so much was a bonus to having both of them on stage at the same time, and was for me the highlight of the discussion.

Chris Ware & Joe Sacco at the Edinburgh Book Fest 2013 02

I came away from the talk into a crowd of fellow comickers, standing in the gardens of Charlotte Square on a balmy summer evening, crowds of book lovers coming and going past us to and from the hundreds of other events taking place this month, like a literary tide washing around us as we all stood around with huge smiles, everyone delighted and happy after such a lovely event. So my first Stripped event of this August, and come the weekend after next I will have a pile to attend (and yes, I will do my best to report on them as usual), and this year I’m actually chairing a couple of events too (one with Grant Morrison and another with Inaki Miranda and Lauren Beukes), so there’s a dubious pleasure for the audiences! And let’s not forget on the 24th and 25th we’ve also got the Small Press comic fair, with a whole bunch of Indy creators on hand with their works at the Book Festival. Those of you in Edinburgh or in easy reach of the city, please do come along and support these events, the better it all goes the more likely we are to see plenty of large-scale comics events in future Book Festivals, but as with any of these sorts of projects it requires organisation, planning, and most of all, support from the readers to truly work. And trust me, Stripped is something all of us who love our medium should be supporting. Watch this space for more Book Festival updates in the very near future. On a related note, if you missed Joe and Chris at the Book Fest or when they were signing in out store yesterday, the Edinburgh FP still has limited supplies of signed book by both of them that you can get your hands on.

This report was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

The Edinburgh Book Festival begins

Stripped at the Edinburgh Book Festival 02
Last night I was fortunate enough to be invited again to the launch party for the Edinburgh International Book Festival, and this year the world’s biggest literary festival celebrates its thirtieth anniversary. This year there is a huge and very diverse comics strand, Stripped. There have been comics and graphic novel for a good few years and I’ve been along to cover them and report on them, but this is on a vastly larger scale, practically a mini festival within the main festival. There are author talks, workshops, school outreach programmes, events for adults, event for kids, the new Ninth Art Awards and even a free mini-comics event for the small press, Indy self-published comickers to show their wares at this huge event.

Edinburgh Book Festival 2012 launch party 01
(above: the band entertaining us at the Book Festival’s swish launch party last night in Charlotte Square;below, locally based comics creators Will Morris (left) and Edward Ross (right) at the launch party last night, both of them will be taking part in the author events as part of Stripped)
Edinburgh Book Festival 2012 launch party 02

I’ve helped out a little with contacts and suggestions over the months leading up to the festival, as well as helping them with content celebrating some of the writers and artists who will be attending, with the Forbidden Planet blog sharing some of our guest posts by creators with the Stripped blog, and I am really delighted at the diversity and range of events the organisers like Roland, Janet, Kirsten and others have put together (a huge, huge effort). I’m off to my first event later this week, although the bulk of the comics events I’m going to take place over the weekend at the end of August. As well as covering several of the events I will be chairing a couple of author talks this year and looks like I may be doing an interview or two as well. Been a while since I did an on-stage author event, so hoping my old events mojo is still in there somewhere! Sure it will be fine.

Edinburgh Book Festival 2012 launch party 04
(above, EIBF director Nick Barley introducing this year’s book fest; below, to mark the 30th anniversary the EIBF’s original director Jenny Brown took to the stage at the launch party)
Edinburgh Book Festival 2012 launch party 05

And of course the rest of the Book Festival carries on around it, with some 800 authors present over a couple of weeks, the place for book lovers. Sadly one of our regular fixtures at the Book Fest, the great Iain Banks, will not be there this year. He hoped to still be strong enough to read from his new – and sadly now final – novel this summer, but even that was denied to him when his condition took him even faster than any of us thought it could, but several of his friends and fellow writers such as Ian Rankin and Ken MacLeod will be standing up for him at that event. There’s also some nice little touches so Iain is still present in spirit at the Book Festival, such as these terrific literary deckchairs their partners at the Guardian have had made up, featuring quotes from Iain’s work.

rest your literary bottom and think

You can read a short interview I did with one of the Book Festival’s organisers, Janet Smyth, about the comics strand Stripped over on the (recently relaunched and rather shiny new-look) Forbidden Planet Blog here.

The Bone Season – a seriously compelling debut from a new talent

The Bone Season (Scion 1) hardback

The Bone Season (Scion 1) Kindle

Samantha Shannon,



It’s 2059, and the United Kingdom – and the rest of the world – of this future is not just different, it has evolved rather differently from the history we know. In this world Queen Victoria was the last ‘good’ monarch, but her son is reviled as the Blood Prince, who dabbled in ‘unnatural’ practices using those with psychic gifts (known as voyants) which drove him into murderous acts (playing on the long-running legend that Jack the Ripper was actually a mad member of the royal family). Britain changes, becoming the Scion, a sort of Puritan totalitarian government (with echoes of Moore and Lloyd’s Norsefire regime in V for Vendetta), virulently anti-voyant in almost religious tones, with decades of propaganda from Scion largely persuading much of the population that all voyants are evil and must be arrested and dealt with. Secret police and uniformed patrols are all over the place, especially in the Scion heartland citadel of London, where the fortunate voyants have been recruited into criminal gangs which use voyants of different psychic abilities (from seeking information from the minds of normals – aumorotics – through to those who can channel ghosts, including even the spirit of a famous dead painter to create new works to sell). The unfortunate ones ‘busk’ in the streets, and like anyone living on the streets they are vulnerable, especially to the vigilant eyes of Scion.

Paige Mahoney, a nineteen year old Irish girl, is secretly a voyant – the daughter of a highly-regarded scientist for the regime she must keep her growing abilities hidden not only from the government and general population but even her own father. He despairs his darling daughter left school and won’t go on to college despite his entreaties, not realising she knows at college she would be too visible and it would only be a matter of time until her abilities were spotted for what they were. So instead he thinks she holds a low level job in an Oxygen bar (the good old fashioned British pub has gone under Scion, who seem to share Cromwell’s attitude to people having fun) that she travels across the city too, but actually she’s in the employ of Jaxon Hall, a mime-lord, one of those who run the voyant gangs around the city. Jaxon isn’t just some underworld figure though, he’s voyant himself and he’s spent a lot of time researching the subject and categorising the abilities and classes of psychic abilities. Paige has abilities, including being able to project herself right out of her body and into the aether (although this leaves her physical body vulnerable and in need of life support). But Jaxon is sure she has much more to her abilities, more than she knows herself yet…

It’s a far from ideal life, but given the circumstances of Scion society (a credo which is spreading to other nations) Paige is relatively content with her alternative ‘family’, despite having to always look over her shoulder for the secret police of Scion seeking out Voyants to send to the Tower and despite missing her native Ireland (now crushed under the Scion heel too, in another echo of Cromwellian times). But Paige’s settled if precarious existence comes crashing down when she is caught by a random police check on public transport and uses an ability she didn’t know she had to fend them off, an ability that puts her onto the radar of the authorities… And others…

When Paige is finally hunted down and taken she finds herself not under arrest by the voyant-hating Scion, however, but by something quite possibly worse – the Rephaites. Large, strong humanoid creatures with a strong connection to the aether and an interest in collecting voyants with skills they can use, they have been in partnership secretly with Scion since the time of Lord Palmerston, a dirty secret at the heart of the state. Supposedly in return for a supply of voyant prisoners and equipment – and the use of the sealed off, lost city of Oxford – they are protecting humanity from incursions by a vicious breed of creatures which only they, with voyant help, can combat and prevent from over-running Scion then the rest of the world through breaches in the Aether made by so many voyants interacting with it. The Rephaites despise humans and treat their prisoners brutally as they train them, discarding those who fail, ruthlessly using the ones who pass their nasty tests. Paige, with her suspected hidden talents, is taken on by Warden, a Rephaite of some standing who has never taken on a human before. Life and training in Oxford at Reph hands is vicious and brutal, most of the humans treated dreadfully, save for a few who seem to take to the life and basically become collaborators. But all is not as it seems – the Reph may have a deal with Scion but they also appear to have their own agenda, while some of the Reph may be a bit different from others, but how can Paige discern friend from foe in this secretive, brutal, closed society, and even if she can, will it be enough to help her survive?

I’m not going to potentially spoil it for you by revealing any more of the plot. However on the quite wonderful style and craft of words Samantha displays I really cannot heap enough praise – it is remarkably self-assured writing, most especially for a debut. This was one of those remarkable reads where within a few pages I felt totally drawn into the world the author drew around me. It’s an intoxicating mixture of elements – personal growth, struggle for freedom (in quite a few ways – from the puritan, authoritarian Scion regime, the vile Rephs, even her ‘family’ of criminal voyants is a form of forced control), they way society view the ‘other’,  with good use of fantasy and science fiction elements in a tight, gripping narrative that pulls us right along the journey with Paige. The settings too, from this authoritarian future London ‘citadel’ to Oxford, sealed off for centuries, it’s ancient buildings and streets still lit by gas lamps like the ghost of the Britain that was before the Blood Prince scandal and the rise of the Scion, while that setting also reminds the reader, in the good way, of Pullman’s excellent Dark Materials novels, a fully and well-realised world. It’s not difficult after reading this to see why such a new and very young author has Bloomsbury very excited, and why it has already been sold on into quite a few other countries, while Andy Serkis has taken out a film option on it. I get through a lot of books and comics, but I can say this is the most engrossing read I have had so far this year and frankly the most absorbing and compelling debut I’ve read since the superb Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. Hugely recommended.

The Edinburgh Book Fest unveils 2013 programme

Edinburgh Book Festival 2013 programme launch 01
(Susan Rice opening the programme launch of the Edinburgh Book Festival 2013)
Edinburgh Book Festival 2013 programme launch 08
(inside the gorgeous Signet Library)
Edinburgh Book Festival 2013 programme launch 09

I was fortunate enough to be invited again to the launch of the Edinburgh International Book Festival’s programme for this year, once more in the handsome and historic Signet Library in Edinburgh’s Parliament Square in the heart of the Old Town. Over right hundred events, a vast array of authors and artists on all subjects from biography, science and history to fiction, children’s books, music and this year there is a massive strand, Stripped, focusing on the increasingly vibrant international comics scene, with days of events including up and coming new comics talent, major names (Bryan Talbot, Neil Gaiman, Joe Sacco, Chris Ware to name but a few), works for adults and kids as well as workshops and even space for the excellent native small press, self published comickers and the first of the new comics awards. I don’t know any other major literary fiction which has given such a huge emphasis on the graphic arts like this, let alone the world’s biggest public literary festival. There are more details of Stripped over on the Forbidden Planet blog here.

Edinburgh Book Festival 2013 programme launch 03
(above: Janet Smyth announces the children’s programme; below: EIBF director Nick Barley talking at the programme launch)
Edinburgh Book Festival 2013 programme launch 04

Edinburgh Book Festival 2013 programme launch 06
(above:John and Sandra of Glasgow’s Metaphrog, creators of the gorgeous Louis books among others with the Book Fest’s Kirsten Cowie who is overseeing the Stripped segment, below: local comickers Edward Ross and Jeremy Briggs chatting in the Signet Library)
Edinburgh Book Festival 2013 programme launch 07

We’ve lost Iain

It’s Sunday evening, and I’ve just come home and learned that one of the UK’s most innovative and hugely bestselling novelists, Iain Banks, had succumbed to the cancer he only announced he was diagnosed with recently. The news of Iain’s illness at only 59 was a real shock to many of us in the literary world; friends and readers (and readers are often friends in our book world) were shellshocked at his announcement. To find this evening that we’ve lost him so soon, when we still held some distant hope that a treatment may help prolong his stay on this planet is devastating. I’ve had the honour and pleasure of doing many a book event with Iain over my years in the book trade, and I’m sitting here right now, like many others I expect, thinking this can’t be bloody right, trying to square my mental image of a hugely genial, friendly, good natured bloke with a love of life with this news that he simply isn’t here anymore, and it makes me feel sick to think of it.  And he was genial and friendly – the first time I met Iain I found it hard to think this smiling, open chap I was chatting to was the man who devised the disturbing Wasp Factory (one of the most astonishing Scottish novels of the 20th Century).

Iain signing at Traverse 2
(Iain signing copies of the Algebraist back in 2008 in Edinburgh’s Traverse theatre. Books to sign for readers and a pint by his hand equals contented author. Pic from my Flickr)

Iain straddled literary genres with ease, creating his science fiction (including the remarkable Culture novels) and also his ‘straight’ literary fiction (if you could call anything Iain wrote ‘straight’!) and also deviating into some non fiction for his whisky tour of Scotland (he once told me one of the few books where the research required was a genuine pleasure to undertake). Few writers get to be successful in both a genre and be equally accepted in ‘literary’ fiction (a cumbersome, imprecise term), but Iain did, and both his fiction and science fiction both were covered by the literary critics. His science fiction, in particular his Culture novels, displayed a displeasure at the inequalities of the world as it is but, like Clarke and Rodenberry, a hope and belief that humanity could be better, more evolved, more equal, more caring, more enlightened.

Iain often stuck by those principles in his own life – when Blair and his acolytes fudged ‘intelligence’ to prove why we should invade Iraq Iain refused invites to Blair’s Downing Street gatherings of various artistic worthies and instead cut up his British passport in disgust at this action and said he would do without foreign travel and getting a new passport until the wars were ended or Blair out of office. I am glad that in his last few months he got to go abroad again, having a honeymoon with his long term partner Adele (many Edinburgh geeks will know her for her sterling work in the city’s Dead by Dawn film  fest). I received an email from Iain when he was away with Adele a few weeks ago in Venice. I replied saying I hoped he wouldn’t feel compelled to emulate Byron and challenge the locals to a swimming race down the canals. No chance, came the quick reply, I’ve seen what goes into those canals… That was Iain, humour always there, even at times like that, facing what he was facing.

The very evening before I was due to start here at Forbidden Planet several years ago I was treated to a huge, slap-up feed with Iain, Adele and fellow Scottish SF author Ken MacLeod. I had a bad experience with my former bookstore and Iain and Ken had been among the writers I had worked with who stood up and defended me, which was a huge morale boost for me at a very difficult time in my life. It was to be a cheer up, could be worse night out, but by then I had met with our own Kenny who had asked me to start at FP, so it turned into a celebration night. Huge amounts of curry and wine ensued. Despite his huge bestselling status for so many years Iain remained the same friendly, open and very approachable man, the sort of bloke you could just stand in the local pub and chat to over a pint. We lose him just before his publisher, the very fine Orbit Books, one of the homes to the best in British science fiction, could get his new book out. I know they have been rushing to try and get the book out much sooner than possible, everyone thought we would have a bit more time, but again that bastard devil Cancer has had its way instead (and in the words of the current advert series “up yours, Cancer”) and now the book will come out just that bit too late. And ironically one of the main characters is a man facing terminal cancer. Sometimes when art imitates life it is interesting; in this case it may well prove interesting but also rather bitter to the many of us who loved Iain’s writing. I’ve been so looking forward to the Edinburgh International Book Festival this August, but the thought of that annual major literary bash without Iain’s usual presence seems so damned wrong.

An Iain and an Ian go into a bar
(taken just last year, two of Scotland’s bestselling authors beginning with ‘I’, Iain Banks and Ian Rankin, enjoying one of Edinburgh’s fine hostelries, pic from my Flickr)

We’ve lost one of Britian’s finest writers (held by many to be among the top 50 most influential and important writers in the UK since 1945) and a major influence in our beloved science fiction genre, and worse we’ve lost a damned good man, and far, far, far to bloody young. If you enjoy a good drink then when you have a decent ale or even better a good dram of single malt, raise a wee toast for Iain, he’d doubtless appreciate that. And maybe as well as picking up The Quarry later this month from Orbit readers may, if they are able, want to consider a wee donation in his memory to Cancer Research, still fighting fighting against this damned disease which takes too many of us (are there any of us who haven’t lost a family member or friend to it?). In a small mercy his wife Adele said that his passing was without pain.

Goodbye, Iain, your inventiveness brought so many of us onboard and you took us with you on some extraordinary expeditions into the imagination, and on a personal note you and Ken and many other writers were there for me when I needed it and stood up for me, which I will always be so grateful for. Rather than dwell on losing Iain so damnably young I prefer to remember him smilingly signing books for fans, chatting away to them and other writer friends and booksellers after the author event was over, usually in the bar over a pint, beer in his hand and big, open grin on his face. My thoughts go out to Adele, his family and closest friends who have had to endure the thought of his dreadful illness and now his sudden passing. Somewhere, in the vastly distant future, when mankind has perhaps evolved to be more like the Utopian Culture he imagined I hope one day there will be a Mind piloting a starship and it will choose to call itself after Iain.


Review: Great Pacific Volume 1

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog:

Great Pacific Volume 1 : Trashed!
Joe Harris, Martin Morazzo
Image Comics

Chas Worthington, the mega rich young heir to an enormous oil fortune, known for his womanising, his extreme sports hobbies and other wealthy pastimes. The Great Pacific Gyre, a rotation of currents that creates a relatively stable spot in the vast ocean currents, where gargantuan amounts of (mostly plastic) garbage flushed into the seas slowly accumulates over years. What does this rich young man and a gigantic, floating garbage patch have in common? What about claiming it as a new sovereign nation?

Chas may lead the playboy lifestyle expected of someone in his position, but behind the scenes he has been deviously out-manoeuvring the treacherous board of directors of his own firm (who want to take more control from him following his father’s death), funnelling vast funds into a secret tech project to do with altering the physicality of plastics and planning to get necessary equipment to the garbage patch, while also making contacts in various governments with strong UN presences who he can ask to help international law recognise his claim to set up the floating plastic continent as a legal country with sovereign state rights.

In lesser hands this could be a pretty straightforward (and clichéd) tale of rich boy who has guilt because his inherited wealth came from hugely polluting industry and wants to make amends. Joe Harris and Martin Morazzo, however, offer up a more complex and satisfying tale. Chas is not a stereotype – yes, he has done the ‘rich kid stuff’, yes, he feels guilt over his wealth coming from polluting exploitation of the world’s resources, but he’s no eco-warrior. He has multiple reasons for what he is doing, only some of which start to become apparent in this first volume. Some are indeed driven by ecological concerns, although he has seen enough of the big corporate world to know they will only back necessary changes if there is a lot of money to be made in it, hence his secretly developed new tech. Other reasons may well include the need to stand out and be his own man, make something by and of himself, not what was handed to him as a rich heir. And he’s not always likeable either, cutting others short, assuming his best friend and assistant will follow him (and not thinking too much about how much he is asking him to risk, without really telling him why) and he is impulsive, his Texan blood making him perhaps too quick on the trigger (which will have consequences).

It’s not a simple plan though; however much he thinks he has prepared and done all the relevant research, this is still something no-one has ever attempted, after all. And then there are complications you don’t expect – pirates seeking hidden WMDs, the intervention of the US government, both legally and militarily, a mysterious group of Pacific islanders who seem to have settled somehow on the garbage patch. And then there is a gigantic Octopus, which the islanders think may be a sort of god, with which he starts to form a strange relationship. The massive floating garbage patches in the gyres of the ocean were first predicted in the late 80s and are now scientific fact (see here for more), although Harris takes some science fictional liberties with it for dramatic purposes, such as making it large and solid enough to walk on and even build upon a little (very carefully!).This also allows Morazzo’s art (which at time reminds me, in a good way, of the Luna Brothers) to depict some spectacularly weird, alien landscape.

But it’s a fascinating premise, a driven and complicated young man playing at both ecology and international politics and corporate business at the same time, in a setting which only exists because of our civilisation’s own wastefulness of material and uncaring methods of disposing of our unwanted rubbish. Clever and intriguing, drawing on several contemporary global concerns, not least pollution of our environment, exploitation of dwindling resources, divisions of wealth, power and influence and corporate-goverment interests and powers (or abuses thereof). This took a very different path from what I originally thought it might be, which pleased me no end (I love when a storyteller throws me a curve ball and hits be some something I wasn’t expecting) and I’m looking forward to the second volume. Plus, y’know, it had pirates and a giant (and perhaps intelligent and aware?) octopus, what’s not to like?!

Review: Porcelain

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog:

Porcelain: a Gothic Fairy Tale

Benjamin Read, Chris Wildgoose

Improper Books

I had my first glimpse of Porcelain towards the end of last year when Improper Books’ Matt Gibbs was kind enough to give us a sneak-peek ahead of the teaser pages they were taking to last November’s Thought Bubble. There are some works where I get an instant vibe – call it the bookseller’s tingle – that tells me even before I start that a book or comic is going to be good, and that instinct rarely misleads me. And after a good wait, when I finally got to read the entire book I was pleased to see that instinct was still sharp, because this is good work. Better than good work, it’s utterly beautiful, a delightful concoction that partakes of Victorian novels, elements of the industrial revolution’s real history, the fantastical fairy tale (and even elements of Bluebeard and perhaps Little Orphan Annie) and a very elegant form of Steampunk, all woven through a tale which is by turns mysterious, charming, touching and frightening.

We begin, as any good Victorian drama probably should, in the cold, snow-bound city with a group of ragamuffin street urchins. Overseen – and indeed brutally bullied by – Belle, they are braving the curfew in order to spy out opportunities for a little light larceny. The imposing gates and wall of a large estate promise a rich, tempting target within, but none of the children are willing to go in, because they believe an evil wizard lives inside the mansion. Eventually our young heroine is forced up and over the wall against her will – as it turns out, fortunately for her, since the small band she was with are brutally apprehended by the constabulary just moments later, and thieves, the constable delights in telling them, swing for their sins…

(pages here (c) Benjamin Read and Chris Wildgoose, published Improper Books, click for the larger versions)

Inside though there are still perils for our little heroine; as she descends a large, twisted tree, winter-bare, into the snowy garden beyond the walls there are eyes watching her, glowing, red eyes. Suddenly two gleaming white beasts emerge from the snowy darkness – but not flesh and blood beasts, no common guard dogs these. Instead they are gleaming white porcelain, some form of clever automata. But like a fleshly guard dog they are dangerous and set on protecting their master from intruders – luckily he spots the girl and halts them just in time. Understandably irked by this intrusion into his grounds this very large, bearded man demands an explanation. When she puts on an attempt at a posh accent and asks oh-so innocently, oh isn’t this where the ball is being held? I must be lost… At this point the man laughs and the ice is broken. In a more amicable manner he agrees to see her out, no harm done, but when the shabbily dressed child almost faints in the cold he realises she is tired and malnourished; picking her up in his huge arms he carries her inside for warmth and food.

And so the scene is set for a tale that mixes warm charm with hints of the dangerous and unspoken. The ‘wizard’ is in fact an engineer who creates the ‘porcelains’, which just like the ‘creamware’ of Josiah Wedgwood are all the rage. Except where Wedgwood perfected porcelain tableware to royal standards our rotund engineer crafts delicate porcelain mannequins which can think and move – his household has no other human being in it, just a staff of these delicately white, mostly silent automata. He alone can make them walk and act (and in a few cases talk), and he can scarcely keep up with the demand – which has made him very wealthy. And yet he sits alone in his vast mansion under the weight of a secret sadness, until the girl comes. Realising she has no real family to return to and only the cold street to live on, he asks her to stay. Both need to get used to being in a relationship – having a roof over her head and someone to care for her is new for our untrusting street child, while our wizard has to get used to caring for a child, which involves far more than simply clothing and feeding her. She slowly starts to trust and love, his clearly once generous heart is reminded that it too can love again, and it’s a very sweet sequence as two lost souls find reason for being by caring for each other.

It has been winter within these walls forever it seems. You have brought summer back to my life and this is my thank you. Happy birthday, sweet child.”

Of course if all went on as sweetly as this we’d have a shorter and more sugary tale. But anyone who knows their fairy tales – or even their Dickens – will know that something is going to happen, that part of the girl’s past (she and the engineer are never specifically named, deliberately) will come back, and there is the question of why an eligible and kind-hearted, wealthy man is living alone with only his automata for company. We know he had a wife, but what happened? He shows her the whole mansion, gardens and even his workshop (where he begins at her insistence to train her in his delicate arts), but one locked chamber in his porcelain workshop is forever off-limits to her, and as with the tale of Bluebeard the reader wonders what is really in there and worries that curiosity may eventually drive our little heroine to look where she shouldn’t. And then there is the question of the porcelains themselves…

It is to the great credit of Benjamin and Chris that what may seem to be a nice fairytale, semi Steampunk take on the Little Orphan Annie meets Bluebeard tale, proves to be much more. While it certainly partakes of those other stories it crafts its own distinctive path and is its own beast, taking in some remarkable twists along the way, which I won’t spoil here. It’s an utterly beautiful piece of work, a charming yet sometimes disturbing and scary tale – and a fairy tale should be scary as well as magical, it’s part of their raison d’etre – which boasts some truly gorgeous comics artwork by Chris (some of the scenes demand you stop reading the tale for a moment and just drink in the art, the magical porcelain garden splash page is simply wonderful).

It can be enchanting and magical (a special birthday present crafted by the engineer is wondrous), it takes in elements of the fairy tale and Gothic and Victorian novel, mixes the uplifting with the disturbing, but really, at its core its about that aching, deep need to care for someone and to be cared for and the way that enriches our lives beyond all measure; it’s about a daughter who needs a father and a father who needs a child. This is one of those books you will keep coming back to, the sort you will find yourself recommending to others and picking out as a present to friends, and without a doubt one of the most beautiful graphic novels of the year.

Report: the free Dundee Comics Expo 2013

This report was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog:

Last Saturday the free Dundee Comic Expo, organised by Phil Vaughan and Chris Murray (well-kent faces on the Scottish comics scene), took place in Dundee University, helping to fill the springtime comics hole left by having no Hi-Ex this March, and I headed up from Edinburgh, crossing two of Scotland’s great rivers that help carve our coastline into its distinctive shape. As with the trip to Hi-Ex the actual travelling to the convention affords some beautiful views out the train window as the Scottish landscape slips by.

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(above: shot from the train going over the Tay Bridge on a cold but bright spring day to Dundee; below: Phil Vaughan and Chris Murray, organisers of the event. I had to shoot in black and white as the camera’s colour sensor was overloaded by Chris’ shirt. All photos from my Flickr, click for the larger versions)
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I arrived a little before the doors officially opened, which gave me some time to chat briefly to Phil and Chris (after paying our respects to PC Murdoch of course) as they were seeing to last moment arrangements, and to some of the comickers behind the tables in the Baxter Suite and the larger (and very airy due to lots of natural light) College Hall, where most of the small press folk and the dealers were finishing setting up. Right away as I entered College Hall I spotted Gary Erskine, having a quick natter with Monty Nero. These days wherever Gary goes at a comic con there is likely to be some representation from the Roller Derby crew nearby – the girls on skates have become a bit of a fixture at some of the Caledonian comics events these days, brightening things up, plus it’s good to know they are there to keep an eye on Gary.

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(above: Gary Erskine chatting to Monty Nero; below: setting up before the doors officially opened to fans)
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On spotting a table full of diverse works from one of our fine UK small press teams who have effectively grown into a publishing stable, Accent UK, I thought the chap behind the table might be Colin Mathieson, and so it was. As is the nature of my work I talk to a lot of folks on the comics and books scene but since we’re all in different parts of the country I don’t get to see them, and despite the fact I’ve swapped emails for years with Colin and his Accent compadre Dave West I’ve never actually met him so it was a pleasure to actually see him in the flesh and get a chance to talk to him for a while (readers in North America can see the Accent UK gang at the upcoming MOCCA gig in New York).

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I’d remembered to bring my little leather journal which I’ve been using as a sketchbook and Colin, after telling me he was planning to return to more drawing and less concentration on just writing, was kind enough to do a great sketch for me in my wee book to add to the collection. I had a funny feeling looking at the array of their titles spread out on the table, it was like looking at a slice of Richard’s reviews on the blog as he has covered quite a few from Accent over the years. Since they were sitting there so temptingly in front of me I decided to buy a few while I was there.

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Continuing round the hall I stopped to talk to writer Jim Alexander, who I hadn’t seen since Hi-Ex the previous March.

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And since he was well placed with his table at a good corner of the hall I also nipped behind his table to take a shot of the event from the perspective of the writers and artists, so here’s the view of the Dundee Comic Expo via Jim-cam:

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Being Dundee, home of the mighty DC Thomson, it’s will surprise no-one that there was a presence from some of their titles and characters, be it PC Murdoch from the long-running Oor Wullie strip greeting visitors outside the Baxter suite, numerous DCT pieces among the artwork displayed around the expo and naturally long-running titles like the Beano and Commando were available from the DCT tables.

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And indeed if you arrive by rail there’s a collection of Dandy and Beano characters such as Dennis the Menace (with Gnasher, naturally), Desperate Dan and several of Leo Baxendale’s creations like Minnie the Minx and some of the Bash Street Kids (annoyingly I only saw it on the way home, when it was evening, so excuse the poor light quality – still a great sign to welcome visitors though!):

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Moogs Kewell had her comic work – a neat wee landscape format travel work about Japan (which I had to buy for myself to read later) in a manga-influenced style, and some fabulous hand-made jewellery – I had to take a close up photo for one of my manga and anime-mad colleagues, who was especially delighted at Moogs’ supercute Domo earrings (I thought she would be) – you can check them out and order her geektastic jewellery for yourself over on her Etsy store.

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After checking in with Pete and John from Glasgow’s Indy-friendly Plan B store who had a nice array of good titles to choose from I saw David Lloyd; I’ve swapped emails over the years with David, but never had the chance to meet him so it was a delight to meet in person the man who created the art for one of my favourite books of all time. David was sketching a certain Fawkesian-masked character for a fan and we had a short chat, then to my surprise I found an entire hour had gone past already and I had to scoot off to the lecture hall to listen to David giving his talk, which mostly concentrated on discussing Aces Weekly, the interesting new digital-only take on the traditional British anthology style weekly comic, which boasts a hugely impressive talent roster.

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David discussed the digital model, how there was no up-front payment but everyone took equal shares from anything made (he himself put his own dosh into starting it up) and, as he said, there’s no middle man like a distributor to take a cut, so anything made goes to the people who actually made the strips. With a talent pool that is obviously busy with other professional engagements it isn’t the money that’s the draw though, it’s the huge amount of creative freedom they have. David seemed quite happy with Aces as it passes its second volume mark and plans to keep it going, but as with other digital-only comics he added that there’s always a need to drive for more subscribers (and if you are thinking that sounds interesting then check David’s guest Commentary on Aces we ran here a few months ago), so do have a look.

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The vagaries of rumbling tummies and lunch meant I unfortunately missed a chunk of Laura Sneddon‘s talk on the hidden history of women in comics, but did manage to get to the second half and what I heard was interesting, some of it I had heard of before but a good bit that I hadn’t come across (always good to find out new things), and it reminded me of a similarly themed and equally fascinating talk I attended at Edinburgh’s Central Library from the Glasgow Women’s Group last year. Hannah Berry‘s talk followed and she was, as ever, delightfully animated and passionate about the medium. The only drawback for me was that in the relatively low light of the lecture hall it’s hard to get a decent picture without using the flash (which is a bit intrusive), and Hannah is so animated I had a virtual roll of picture of her obscured by the blur or rapidly gesticulating arms. I haven’t seen Hannah since she was at the Edinburgh Book Festival a few years ago so it was good to see her again and hear her talking about her latest work, the excellent and creepy Adamtine (you can read a guest Commentary by Hannah on that book here on the blog).

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(above: Laura Sneddon’s talk on the hidden history of women; below Hannah Berry’s talk)
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Bryan and Mary Talbot also gave a talk, still aglow with their win from the prestigious Costa book award (the first time a graphic novel has won that major UK literary gong, competing directly against the prose works, a great achievement for them and a nice acknowledgement of the medium and its potential). Bryan decided that Mary should do most of the talking. Most of the talk concentrated on their award-winning Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes (one of my own picks for Best of the Year), and it was, appropriately for a book which has so much autobiography in it, well illustrated not only with projections of finished and work-in-progress artwork from the book but with plenty of photographs, some general reference works for the art and design, but many from family photo albums used to help in creating the work. Mary and Bryan also talked a little more at the end about Mary’s next work, which she had mentioned last summer at their Edinburgh Book Festival appearance, which will use a fictional character to explore the era of the Suffragettes. And yes, we have another guest Commentary post to point you to if you missed it last year, where Mary and Bryan talked us through making Dotter (obviously we’ll hope to bring you more on the new work further down the line too).

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Sadly I had to miss Nigel Dobbyn‘s talk so I could get a last turn around the two rooms where the creators and dealers had their tables, and managed to get brief chats with some more folks and see how it had gone for them – the general consensus was that it was a nice event, small but very accessible and nicely scaled for folk to chat to each other, and they seemed pleased with how they had done on the tables too. For my part I had a great time talking to folks (annoyingly I only found out later on Twitter I had missed a couple of folks I know online who were there and who didn’t know I was, c’est la vie), getting to meet others for the first time, picking up some small press comics for my collection, and the nature of the event lent it a very accessible and friendly, open feeling with readers, dealers and the writers and artists, both professional and self published, all mixing freely, a very nice vibe to the day.

Nursery Rhymes for the modern audience

Many nursery rhymes have been passed down for generations, but in our modern, wired-up, interconnected age where youngsters are more savvy to trends and tech than ever,  perhaps many of them are losing their relevance to contemporary children, so we need to modernise them a little:

Pat a cake, pat a cake, baker man, bake me a low-fat, high fibre muffin, as fast as you can (and a skinny latte to go with it, please)

Little Jack Horner, sat in his corner, thinking when I grow up I will be a famous paleontologist

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall, Humpty Dumpty had a great fall, then called Injury Lawyers For You and sued someone to cover his own clumsiness

Mary had a little lamb, it used to send out her email spam

Old Mother Hubbard, went to the cupboard, then decided it was more convenient to order her grocery shopping online

There was an old lady, who lived in a shoe, because the mean bailed-out bankers wouldn’t give her a mortgage

Georgie Porgie, pudding and pie, his high-fat sedentary lifestyle made him die

Jack and Jill went up the hill, as part of their daily cardiovascular exercise programme (didn’t want to end up like Georgie)

Little Miss Muffet sat on her tuffet, which she had assembled herself from an Ikea flatpack using an Allen key

This isn’t just any half a pound of tuppenny rice and half a pound of treacle, this is M&S tuppenny rice and treacle

Interview With the Vampire – Claudia’s Story

Interview With the Vampire – Claudia’s Story

Based on the novel by Anne Rice, adapted by Ashley Marie Witter


I’ll start by confessing straight up that Anne Rice’s Interview With the Vampire is one of my favourite novels. Originally published in the mid 70s it has sold in the millions and spawned a connected series, the Vampire Chronicles as well as a beautifully shot film by the very fine Neil Jordan. It is also one of the most influential novels in the vampire literary cannon, arguably as important to the genre in the 20th century as Stoker’s Dracula was to the 19th; both books are landmarks in the genre. I’ve re-read it several times over the years and in fact re-read it again just a few weeks before this adaptation arrived on my desk. It isn’t the first time the Vampire Chronicles have been adapted to the comics medium – I still have some of the Innovation comics adaptations in my collection (see here). However this is not a straightforward comics interpretation – instead Ashley Marie Witter has taken the original tale, which saw the 200 year old vampire Louis de Pointe du Lac narrating his life story to a young reporter, from his mortal life in the late 1700s plantation near New Orleans to the present day, and retold it, but this time from the perspective of one of the most singular characters in the novel – and indeed in all of vampire literature – the child vampire Claudia.

Ashley begins the story with a seriously ill Claudia – a beautiful young girl with a doll-like face and golden curls – being brought across by Lestat, the older, dominant vampire who made Louis into his immortal companion. As a shocked Louis watches, Lestat gashes his own wrist and offers it to Claudia, telling her she has to drink to get better from her illness. The human child drinks from Lestat and is transformed into an immortal vampire, endless, unchanging, in an incorruptible body that survives on a diet of human blood each and every night. Lestat has his own motivations for his actions – knowing that Louis is increasingly unhappy living with him he creates Claudia to be their ‘daughter’, her diminutive size and appearance making her as dependent on their support for her survival as any mortal child would be to its parents, locking Louis to him and their lifestyle, effectively forming an immortal, blood-drinking family unit. Realising what he has done calls Lestat a bastard and a fiend, while Lestat merely smiles in satisfaction, “such language in front of your daughter,” he mocks. I’m not your daughter, the little voice pipes up, I’m my mama’s daughter. Not anymore, Lestat informs her, now you are mine and Louis’ daughter…

As obvious and transparent as this gambit is, it works – Louis, the sensitive soul who finds immortal life difficult, wrestling with the morality of his existence, of the need to feed on human beings to sustain immortal life, cannot bring himself to leave with Claudia there, for her to be left only with Lestat to look after her. And so the trio settle into an uneasy family life – as with any family the child learns from both her carers. From Louis she learns an appreciation for the arts and the finer things of human existence, while from Lestat she learns the art of hunting and killing her human prey, something she takes to with great enthusiasm. Louis, the more nurturing of the two, is the one she loves, Lestat less so, but she still pays attention to the lessons he can teach her, until as the years pass she realises that he isn’t prepared to answer some of the deeper questions she starts to formulate, particularly regarding their own existence – why are there vampires, how did they come into existence, which vampire made Lestat and why does he never mention him? He becomes regularly enraged at her questions and when he refuses to explain she decides he simply doesn’t have the knowledge she desires but is reluctant to let her or Louis know, preferring to pretend to have access to secrets about their vampire nature that they may need for their survival.

At this point it becomes clear that she enjoys provoking him over such points and at first it might be easy to see this as the actions of a child. But Claudia, despite her deceptive appearance, is no child – decades have passed since she received the Dark Gift, and while like all vampires her body is forever fixed as it was at the moment of her mortal death, her mind has grown. She is now a mature, experienced woman, realising that while she may be a swift, immortal predator, she is trapped inside this child’s body – forever. She cannot physically grow up and this, along with her growing desire to know why ‘her kind’ exist and the fact that, denied a real childhood, she has grown up with a lack of empathy and human morality (unlike her ‘parents’ she did not have the luxury of experiencing human life for long to ground her for later life), will trigger an explosive, bloody rupture in their artificial family…

There’s much more, but I don’t want to spoil it for you if you haven’t read the original novel (and indeed if you have read it, you may know the major events, but I don’t want to spoil how they come across when viewed from Claudia’s point of view). Ashley handles portraying both Claudia’s childhood innocence and her later knowing, determined adult personality with a deft touch – since her physical body cannot change much of this has to be conveyed through gesture, expression and body language, a task the artist achieves magnificently, moving from beautiful child to cold-hearted, century old immortal killer with the small change of facial expression. In one scene the panels move closer and closer to Claudia’s doll-like face (and indeed despite the decades passing both her fathers still treat her like a beautiful doll), until the perspective zooms into a close up of her eyes, which are the eyes of a predator, of a cat, glowing, shining, luminous – beautiful yet dangerous because you don’t know if the mind behind them is regarding you with amused condescendion or if they are sizing you up as dinner.

Reframing the original events from Claudia’s perspective raises this beyond simple  adaptation (not that there is anything wrong with a straight adaptation) and to someone like me who has read the original series it seems kind of fair – the novel of Interview is from the point of view of Louis, the second novel, The Vampire Lestat, allows Lestat to comment on those events from his perspective, but Claudia, until now, didn’t receive such treatment. Ashley’s artwork is absolutely delicious – you may remember quite some time ago I posted a piece of art from the book when it was first announced she was working on it, and it was a gorgeous looking piece of work. Well the finished book is even more beautiful, the artwork mostly sepia-tinted (except for expressive scarlet splashes of blood dripping from fangs, or in blood tears from the eyes, which stand out with the vibrant hue of the blood in the early Hammer films when they were introduced to audiences more used to black and white), and wonderfully delicate and as lush, sensual and decadent as the original novel itself; this is one of those comics works I will find myself going back through again to pore over some of the delicious artwork. The erotic subtext of the original is preserved and, as with the novel, delicately layered through and hinted at rather than too obvious. The book itself is a very handsome small hardback, good stock glossy paper that shows off Ashley’s beautiful artwork to great effect – not just a good read but an attractive addition to your shelves; much recommended.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog

Hipster Hitler

Hipster Hitler,

James Carr and Archana Kumar,

Feral House

I’ve flagged up Carr and Kumar’s clever webcomic Hipster Hitler on here before; I first came across it online a couple of years back and then, as many of you will doubtless know, it appeared in the comics pages that the fine Stool Pigeon includes. Humour, of course, is a very subjective taste – when Richard covered the Stool Pigeon strips this was one that didn’t so much appeal for him, for instance, while I was consistently cracked up by it, so obviously I was pretty happy to get my hands on this collected print volume of the strips.

As you may infer from the title the main idea for this satirical take on the Nazi Fuhrer is conflating one of the 20th century’s most evil dictators with the poseur douche figure of the self-obsessed, style over substance (but pretending to be all substance) hipster figure. And while that does offer up a good comedy image, it’s not quite enough to sustain it by itself for strip after strip, and it’s to Carr and Kumar’s credit that they don’t rely on that idea exclusively; it forms the basis, the format for the series, but there are clever little tricks all the way through, most notably the very changing T-shirts Hitler sports throughout (often very funny if you know your history to get the references – one T proclaims “Triumph of the Chill”, another has “1941: a Race Odyssey”, “Weimar Guitar Gently Weeps”) and the little text introduction at the top of each strip, which manage to combine a bit of actual history with the comedy, one strip on his virulent anti-Semitism starting with the introduction noting how Hitler “blamed the Jews for Germany having lost World War I and further  accused them of degenerating the arts, trying to take over the world and causing the breakup of the Smiths.”

The collected edition is arranged chronologically, sampling the webcomic’s run in historical order, from Hitler’s early life, leaving his rural Austrian home (he is too poor to afford stylishly distressed clothing, he explains to his family) to try his luck in Vienna, before joining up in the German army for the First World War (this allows for some good lines about his changing his moustache style and a nice M*A*S*H* reference when he’s wounded and taken to a military hospital), the inter-war years, and then Hitler in power and the Second World War. The art is pretty simple and clear, rarely bothering with much in the way of background detail, but combined with some clever wordplay it’s pretty effective.

I found something to giggle about throughout all the sections, and more than a few that had me guffawing, and the duo make good use of the real, historical Hitler’s (and a number of other leading Nazis’) penchant for superstition (he consults a fortune reader and is horrified to find she predicts a later dictator who will come after him and who will appropriate his moustache – cue a good dig at barking Bob Mugabe) and his well documented eccentric behaviour (which none of those around him dared to question) in real life here is pastiched perfectly as being because of his hipster values and lifestyle (he tells Goering they will have air superiority for the planned invasion of Britain, but he means he will ground the Luftwaffe to reduce their carbon footprint and pollution, thus ensuring their air is ‘superior’, he likes the idea of a tripartite pact between him, Italy and Japan because it makes “a perfec triangle. Silly, but no sillier than some of the other beliefs of the real Nazi heirarchy). The rest of his rogues’ gallery of henchmen (and women – Leni Reifensthal and Eva get a look in too) are present – Goebbels, Goering, Himmler et al) and we also get a nice line in who’s the coolest dictator between Hipster Hitler and his one-time friend, a very party-on Stalin.

I’m sure some will object and claim this is bad taste, but I can’t agree with that at all. I probably came well primed to appreciate this – it’s a period of history I know well, and I was also geared to comedy lampooning of the characters and events of that period, as the late, great Spike Milligan’s war memoirs (beginning with the brilliantly titles Adolf Hitler: My Part In His Downfall), read way back in my teens, had me well prepared. Personally I don’t find this in bad taste, nor do I think it cheapens or lightens awful events and indeed hideous crimes against humanity, it does instead what good cartooning often does, takes the very serious and lampoons it mercilessly, along the way taking a vile real character and reducing them to utter ridicule, and that’s something satirists were doing actually during the war itself to bolster morale (and even before the war – consider Chaplain’s remarkable The Great Dictator) and afterwards – again think of British comedy genius Milligan (who noted in one volume of his war memoirs that he was convinced our sense of humour about it all was a major part of why we eventually won, it kept us going) or the great Mel Brooks who has delighted in any chance in his comedy career to ridicule the Third Reich. Hipster Hitler does what any good satire does, it takes some of the real aspects of the events and characters, then gleefully distorts them to ridiculous levels for comedy gold. And along the way it takes a vile, hideous dictator and mass murderer and through cartooning and comedy exposes the pathetic little man he actually was, inviting us all to laugh at him.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog


Discordia: Six Nights in Crisis Athens

Laurie Penny and Molly Crabapple

Vintage Digital

This digital only book from Vintage is billed as “the first feminist-art-gonzo-journalism ebook ever published, and the best you’ll ever read”. Well I can’t say I’ve double-checked the claim to be first, but it is certainly a fascinating read – and one that is likely to make the reader progressively angry. This may be a little outside our normal sphere of reading coverage, but a chum at Vintage was kind enough to zap over a copy because they knew we’d covered some of Molly Crabapple’s work, and I’m very glad they did as the combination of well known journalist Laurie Penny’s text and Molly’s quite excellent illustration work combine to create an engrossing insight into current events in Greece.

Anyone who has followed either Laurie or Molly’s work will know that both have been actively involved in the raft of protests which most Western countries have seen in recent years, most notably the Occupy movement, and both have documented a number of events in those protests in their own style. Discordia grew out of those experiences and with Greece suffering even more than many other economies and contemplating yet more severe austerity measures to add to the miseries already being endured they decided that this was where they should head to try and dig behind the frankly rather uninformative (at best) or downright misleading (at worst) reports we’ve seen on the situation in our own media through the revolutionary approach of talking to some of the people involved and listening to their first hand accounts. Yes, I know, that’s one of the basic 101 rules for investigative journalism, but it seems far to often to me to be a rule that too many hacks and their editors ignore in favour of a simple write-up that questions little and offers nothing of substance. Hurrah then for those like Laurie and Molly who still follow that time-honoured, venerable yet still indispensable rule.

“In Athens, the writing is so thick on the walls that it blots out the street signs. As you lug your suitcase downtown from Syntagma Square, graffiti covers every hoarding, every pillar, every shopfront. Angry words in red and black and Greek and Spanish and English plaster the streets, ghostly faces in hoods and skulls and stick figures contort over the brickwork and spill onto the pavement.

The words ooze over the street furniture and lamp posts. They crawl up the monuments and statues that attempt to remind travellers that this is still a classical city. ‘Fuck heroes – fight now’ is sprayed in spiky black letters over the base of a statue of Theodoros Kolokotronis, a general in the war of independence against the Ottoman Empire.

One of the designs that crops up again and again is a stencil of a girl with a suitcase. She is in her early twenties, and she’s a real person, which is to say that for a cartoon woman her waist and hips are of a biologically plausible ratio, and she wears plain old jeans and a T-shirt, her hair scraped back. Sometimes she is dragging her bags behind her and sometimes she leans against them and into the distance, always leaving or just about to leave.

That’s what a significant tranche of Greek youth are doing right now: abandoning a country which has told those of its young people it hasn’t tear-gassed to go fuck themselves if they thought they’d get work. The slogan on her suitcase changes with every image. Sometimes it says, in Greek – ‘In Spring We Rise Up’. Sometimes it says, in Greek – ‘In Autumn They Fall.

And Molly and Laurie do talk to people, all sorts of people – left wing activists, former party members who have given up on the established parties because they realised the mainstream simply wasn’t capable of representing ordinary citizens properly anymore, journalists (many of whom continue to try and report on unfolding events despite not being paid in months), immigrants, older folk, younger folk, and it’s hard reading. Times aren’t exactly rosy for most Western economies, goodness knows, but the tales these Athenians tells to our intrepid travellers are frequently upsetting and many of them will leave you angry – and you should be angry at the suffering and injustice, and the increasing feeling that money is more important than people’s lives. The feeling of despair is palpable, and Laurie and Molly talk and listen to many locals, those native born and those who emigrated to Greece. Most media reports here seem to me to present the protests in Greece, such as the recent general strike, as a general discontent at troubles brought on because many dodged paying their taxes and their politicians cooked the books to join the Eurozone (while EC officials largely turned a blind eye for political expediency). This gives a much more informed, nuanced view of what’s going on and the causes of it, far too much of which hasn’t been reported very widely in the English language press.

And for those of us who read our history there are far too many disturbing similarities to the 1920s and 30s, the Great Depression – not just in terms of terrible economic hardship, poverty and the dashing of hopes, but in the seemingly relentless growth of ‘hunger politics’. The black shirts are marching again and people who are suffering are sadly only to eager to have someone to blame, even if those they pick on have nothing to do with the nation’s woes, and the far right groups, then as now, exploit that fear during the lean, hungry times, stoking prejudice and bigotry in the guise of doing something positive and constructive, while their party leaders attempt to portray them as genuine democratic political parties, while their members are actually often out on the street attacking unionists, immigrants, homosexuals and anyone else who they deem different. Sadly Greece isn’t alone in this – many countries have variations on these quasi-fascist organisations who pretend to be acting out of ‘patriotism’ but who are really small-minded hate-mongers happy to exploit the situation to gain any power they can.

The difference in Greece is that the main far right party, the Golden Dawn (now infamous for one of its politicians physically attacking an opponent during a televised debate, which gives you an idea of the thuggish roots of this group) operates openly in the streets, intimidating, attacking, like something from the rise of Nazism in Weimar era Germany, while some in authority, especially in the police (who despite the massive cutbacks in the rest of government spending can still spend millions to buy stocks of CS gas to use on their own citizens), where it is estimated about 50% of officers supported the Golden Dawn at the last election, and have frequently been seen to turn a blind eye to their violence, arresting victims and doing nothing about the fascist bully boys who attacked them. And while some may think that can’t happen here both Laurie and Penny compare this to some of the Occupy protesters in the US who have found themselves manhandled roughly, arrested, pepper sprayed in the face (often right under the lens of the media, with little or no come back to the officers involved) – and they’re not talking left wing agitators, they’re talking the sort of college educated, middle class people who would normally trust and support the police and suddenly finding those same people they trusted are willing to turn on them when they try to use their right to protest. It’s a terribly bleak prospect and it’s no wonder Molly depicts the Greek police in such a monstrous manner, like some warped form of human and animal that came through a lens of  Steadman and Gilliam.

For those of us who have always valued Classical culture there is something especially poignant about these dreadful events occurring in the birthplace of democracy, from the ancient city-state that has influenced the development of the whole of Western civilisation – politics,philosophy, the rhetoric of reason, the arts, architecture – and seeing it not only buckle under the economic hardships but the society turning on itself, the splintering of the left, the rise of, let’s be honest, neo Nazi right wing hunger politics (right down to a logo that is quite obviously a variation on the swastika and black-shirted hoodlums marching in the street) and the oh-so easy targeting of anyone different (immigrants, homosexuals). What Molly and Laurie present here is a view of that old beast History knocking on the door to repeat some of itself, seen through the eyewitness accounts of the people trying to live through it and trying to deny it entry to the world once more. Sad, but why be concerned with it when we have our own problems? Again as History shows that was an attitude many had to the rise of the Nazis as Weimar Germany crumbled and eventually faded into dictatorship. Which isn’t to say Greece would go that way, but it has too many alarming parallels to be comfortable for anyone reading this, and besides, the way all of our world economies are interlinked in the modern world huge upsets in one nation have knock on effects on others; we all have similar worries and problems and being informed is always preferable to ignorance.

Both ladies offer up a very accessible view into the Greek situation, along the way taking in the austerity and Occupy and other related movements and protests in the US, UK and elsewhere, exploring economics, corruption, incompetent authorities, racism, sexism and the damned mess these negative qualities lead us into and showing how those problems in one nation relate to those in another. Laurie’s prose is, even when describing terrible scenes, enjoyable to read, while Molly’s artwork adds another dimension to the whole book. Molly herself notes that in an age where journalists and citizen reporters armed with digital cameras, web enabled phones and the like can beam photographs and video of events as they happen she wondered about the role of the artist; determined to be out of her studio and recording it in the field, she felt in a digital photo-rich world there was still a role for an artist in recording events and the thoughts of those involved, and I agree (in much the same way  - much as I admire photography there is still much to be said for illustration in reportage, in filtering through the human mind via the brushes, and Molly delivers a mix of rougher sketches carried out on the spot and more polished, finished works, more than a few of which I thought showed a Steadman influence, which I mean as a compliment. Well written prose or well executed art can be powerful, but combine the two successfully and you create a work that becomes more than the sum of its parts. Much recommended, thought provoking reading.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog