An incredibly rare first edition of Frankenstein, signed by the author Mary Shelley to Lord Byron. That stormy night in the villa Diodati (a summer made wet and stormy by atmospheric disruption caused by a volcanic eruption on the other side of the world) saw two great literary births as Byron, the Shelleys and Polidori encouraged each other to come up with chilling tales to pass the wet evenings. The literary model for the vampire for the best part of the next two centuries would be created (based partly on a fragment written by Byron, then expanded hugely by Polidori who used Byron, who he had fallen out with, as his model of the cold-hearted, aristocratic vampire, a standard model for so long afterwards in the genre), and of course Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. An outstanding tale, part horror, part early science fiction, part cautionary tale on knowledge trying to push into areas perhaps we simply were not meant to know about, part analogy to her own awful losses (children lost to mortality, who haunted her thoughts), a tale that has a seemingly endless fascination for each new generation from 1818 right through to our own modern, highly technologically advanced society, where even today we take morals and themes from it and apply them to new developments that worry us, always the mark of good writing when themes remain immortal and forever adaptable and relatable to passing decades and centuries (link via K A Laity):
There’s a very nice new independent small bookstore opened up in Edinburgh, Looking Glass Books, in one of the new structures in the Quartermile, the redeveloped former Royal Infirmary (which is a mix of the old buildings which have been renovated into high-end apartments and brand new, modern structures, mix of apartments, offices, cafes and now a wee bookstore). I liked the way the shelves were arranged to make the books much more browsable and encourage you to pick them up, rather than just trying to shove as many as possible onto a shelf. They also did something I used to do a lot in my former bookstore, lots of personal staff recommendations, with little personal mini-reviews on bands around the books from the staff, which I know from personal experience appeals to a lot of readers. Very nice cafe in the bookstore too, with very yummy cakes!
Yesterday I was fortunate enough to be invited along to one of the highlights of the UK’s literary calendar, the launch for the programme for the world’s biggest literary festival, the Edinburgh International Book Festival. This year the team held the launch in the gorgeous historic splendour of the Signet Library next to the old Parliament hall. There was a mixture of looking back to the beginnings and towards the future; director Nick Barley paid tribute to the Edinburgh Writer’s Conference in 1962 and great Scottish scribes like Hugh MacDiarmid and others who helped to reshape the cultural landscape in a city and country that was still struggling with the post-war place in the world and the decline of traditional strong areas like heavy manufacturing and a seemingly declining interest in our rich culture. Fast forward to 2012 and a very different Edinburgh (and Scotland and the rest of the UK), home to the biggest arts festival in the world, the largest literary festival, home to many great writers past and present, a UNESCO City of Literature… Well, you get the point, the richness of our artistic culture has become far more celebrated and has also given a practical boost in terms of bringing in visitors,and it makes me happy to think that books are at the core of that change. To mark that early 1962 beginning the EIBF has teamed up with the British Council and will be recreating those writer’s conferences, not just here in Edinburgh but in various nations around the world, celebrating the importance of writing and reading and publishing.
The programme for the adult and the children’s section is, as always, stuffed to the gills with events – over 800 authors I think Nick said during his introduction. On the children’s side there will be an artist in residence, none other than the very fine Chris Riddell, who will be doing various events and classes throughout the festival, including discussing his political cartooning for the Observer and he will be working with his regular collaborator Paul Stewart and also with a certain Neil Gaiman, who had such a ball last year at the EIBF he’s back again this August, I am delighted to say (he and Riddell will have an event marking the tenth anniversary of the delightful Coraline, a children’s book which is far, far too good to be left just to children, I think, discussing the interaction of writers and illustrators).
Also on the extensive kid’s programme those Etherington Brothers are again being allowed out (under responsible supervision) for a comics workshop, the Tolkien Society celebrates 75 years of the Hobbit (especially appropriate with the first part of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit movie on the way later in the year), the Genomics Forum folk will be doing a piece for younger readers on science in fiction (which should be good, they have held regular science-literature crossover events in recent years in the city which have been fascinating and informative). The actor McKenzie Crook has not only written a book it turns out that illustration is his first love and he’s returned to it, providing his own artwork to his book The Windvale Sprites, Jenny Colgan and Steve Cole discuss writing Doctor Who novels, top illustrator Axel Scheffler will be there, as will his regular collaborator the wonderful Julia Donaldson.
In the adult programme one of our finest science fiction writers, Ken MacLeod, continues his work bringing together art and science as part of the festival’s Science Meets Fiction strand (on a related note if you haven’t read Ken’s recently published novel Intrusion you should – an absorbing near-future UK slice of SF very much dealing with some of today’s issues in a clever manner, much recommended). The inventive Jasper Fforde returns once more, local lad Iain M Banks will be there, of course, the excellent reviewer, cultural commentator and writer Kim Newman will be talking about the very welcome new editions of his Anno Dracula series (huge fun), Flame Alphabet writer Ben Marcus will be part of the Science Meets Fiction series, and the brilliant China Mieville will be in Charlotte Square talking about his new novel Railsea.
On the comics front as well as Neil Gaiman returning another of last year’s guests returns too – one of the medium’s best known scribes and one who has just recently been ennobled in the Queen’s birthday honours list, no less: Grant Morrison, MBE (how cool is it that one of our top comics scribes should appear on that kind of list? Not something I ever expected to see, well done, Grant!). Grant will be following up from last year’s sold-out event where he discussed his new Supergods book; he will continue on from that work to discuss the place of superheroes in the modern multimedia age. Bryan Talbot pays a return visit to the EIBF and this time he is joined by his wife and now artistic collaborator Mary to discuss their fascinating graphic novel Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes, which intersects Mary’s childhood with a noted Joycean scholar for a father and the life of Lucia, daughter of James Joyce (an excellent work and again highly recommended – you can read a guest commentary by Mary and Bryan about Dotter here on the FP blog). Another welcome returning face is one of the finest editorial cartoonists working in the UK today, Martin Rowson (I was lucky enough to get into his last talk at the EIBF with Steve Bell, one to try and book if you can); Martin will be discussing his updated take on Swift’s superb fantasy satire Gulliver’s Travels.
(above: Grant Morrison at last year’s EIBF, below Neil Gaiman at the 2011 EIBF, pics from my Flickr)
Naturally with such a vast programme I can only bring you a little taster of some of the comics, illustration and science fiction folks out of a much larger, incredibly diverse programme featuring literally hundreds of writers, not to mention many other events – debates, live readings and performances, masterclasses and more. You can now get hold of the programme in print or browse online: this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival runs from 11th to the 27th of August in the New Town’s splendid Charlotte Square (box office opens on June 29th), right slap bang during the absolute madness of the Edinburgh Festival and Fringe exploding all over the city. Despite how incredibly busy it is though, the Book Fest also offers up a nice oasis of calm among the greater festival madness, also being a nice place to sit back in a deck chair (if the weather stays nice) with a book and an ice cream or of an evening into the Spiegeltent, or browse the very well stocked bookstore. It’s a book lover’s dream tucked away into one historic square and has to be experienced. As always I’ll hopefully be reporting later in the year from a couple of the events.
(this report was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog)
I enjoyed a visit to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery this afternoon, the first time I have been in for years as it was closed until recently for a huge refurbishment. Many spots now much more open and lighter, including the nice room they have an old friend of mine, in an old favourite from before the refurbishment, Sandy Moffat’s Poet’s Pub. Always loved this piece depicting some of the most important and influential writers of mid 20th century Scottish culture (including, as you can see on the far right, Captain Picard!). In the new display room it is in an airy, light filled space with a comfortable big padded seat right in front of it so you can sit there and regard it, with a touchscreen interface angled into the armrest so you can tap it for more information while sitting comfortably in front of the painting, touching the individual writers lets you hear them reading some of their own work in their own voice. Lovely.
The work itself is a composite as they were never all in the same pub at the same time and the location itself is a combination of elements from three different Edinburgh pubs, the Abbotsford, The Cafe Royale and Milnes. All still exist, although sadly Milnes these days is an awful chain-operated place with lousy service that I long since gave up on (complaints to company who runs it made it clear they never gave a damn about standards or customers so sod them), although the Royale and Abbotsford are still firm favourites of mine. In fact I was in the Abbotsford just a few nights ago and bumped into a number of contemporary Scottish writers I know, including two of our bestsellers, Ian and Iain:
This was originally penned for my traditional Best of the Year, part of an annual series I run on the Forbidden Planet blog, following on from a month-long series of guest Best Of posts that ran daily from the first week of December:
It’s been another quite superb year for good reading and, like last year’s Best Of selection, I’ve been delighted at the diversity and quality of comics work coming out of the UK publishing scene, which seems to be going from strength to strength and like the more established science fiction and fantasy publishing in the UK, it’s putting out works that are getting worldwide attention. SelfMadehero and Blank Slate especially have had a cracking year. I’ll apologise in advance – as usual I’m going to go on longer than I meant to, but I blame all those too damned talented writers and artists for that, made trying to narrow down my selection extremely difficult and I must apologise to some because I know that there are some I have probably missed out, but we better get on with this list:
The Corporate Skull, Jamie Smart (webcomic)
The new chapter has just started this very week online, but over the last few months few things have made me laugh out loud as much as Jamie Smart’s Corporate Skull, taking the mickey out of big business and corporate office culture, loaded with cynicism and sarcasm, decorated liberally with bad language, foul behaviour and violence and bodily excretions. It’s everything rude and crude but expertly and cleverly crafted. I said several months ago that it was “arse splittingly funny” and I stand by that comment, mostly because the aforementioned bum is still recuperating from the previous comedic splitting. Sick genius. The doctors say it is good therapy for Jamie to work it out of his system.
The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec Volume 2, Jacques Tardi, Fantagraphics
For my money Jacques Tardi is one of Europe’s great comics creators, a true maestro who can turn his hand and alter his style to suit almost any genre, from gruesome, angry It Was The War of the Trenches to hardboiled 70s crime and, of course, his famous Adele Blanc-Sec series. A plucky heroine writer who investigates the bizarre and always becomes entangled in the oddest conspiracies and plans. This second helping collects two of the original French albums and serves up a heady cocktail of conspiracies, secret societies, black magic practiocners, mad scientists (and boy does Tardi do a great, cackling mad scientist – he even brings in some from his brilliant The Arctic Maruader into this) and all set against a beautifully realised backdrop of Belle Epoque, pre-war Paris. Fantagraphics are translating a huge swathe of Tardi’s work and in fact I’d recommend and and everything they have so far translated and republished, but for the sake of this piece I’ll go with the wonderful Adele.
Hair Shirt, Patrick McEown, SelfMadeHero
This is a superb, dark piece from SMH, a labyrinthean maze of childhood memories and how they shape and influence the character and outlook of the protagonists as adults, set in one of those depressing, featureless “it could be anywhere” type of towns, with emotional paths triggered by the reconnection between childhood friends and almost-sweethearts John and Naomi, it’s a fascinating through a glass darkly tale that I could see making an engrossing film in the hands of someone like Guillermo del Toro. Dark, brooding, intense and fascinating.
MetaMaus, Art Spiegelman, Penguin
Spiegelman’s Maus must be about the most famous graphic novel on the planet, known not only to comics readers like Watchmen but to the wider reading public because of its reception and the Pulitzer Prize highlighting it even to readers who normally don’t read in the comics medium. That, however, is also something of a millstone for a young artist to carry around for the next few decades of his career and Spiegelman talks about that, as well as how he came to make the original comic, discussing the craft, the family history, his relationship with his father, the approach to the art and layout, it’s a truly exhaustive (it comes with a DVD packed with more material) look inside one of the major literary works of the 20th century, but it is also deeply personal too, not just in terms of discussing Spiegelman’s relationship with his father, the man whose tale he is telling, but also how the book has affected his own children growing up in its shadow. Penguin also republished the original Complete Maus in the same hardback format as MetaMaus to mark the anniversary of its publication, they make a very handsome set.
Don Quixote, Migeul de Cervantes with some help from Rob Davis, SelfMadeHero
Several years ago a poll of some of the best writers from many countries picked out this masterpiece of Spanish literature as the favourite novel for most of today’s respected international authors. They were right. It’s an astonishing book that has crossed centuries, influencing artists, writers, playwrights, poets, painters, film-makers and readers; several centuries of readers have fallen in love with this mad knight who dreams of a golden past of chivalry and adventure. Is Quixote a dreaming madman in a cynical age or is it the world that is wrong and his vision which is the more wonderful? Is it a Quixotic madness to even attempt to adapt this great work into comics? Perhaps, but as one who has loved this book for years I think Rob too has supped from the same cup of divinely inspired madness that made our tottering knight charge at windmills; it’s a wonderful madness we all need to embrace from time to time to rise above the mundanity of the everyday. Rob has put a Herculean effort into this adaptation – a read of his blog shows the effort and thought and love he’s put into each frame, how to approach the characters, even the effect of changing colours and shadows, and it shows in the finished work.
Quixote is one of those books that belong to the world and to the ages, given that immortality that belongs to few books across the long centuries, the few that become immortal, the Poes, the Dickens, the Austens, that will be read for as long as there are books and stories. If you’ve loved Quixote you will delight in this joyful adaptation of the work, if you haven’t had that pleasure yet then Rob’s is the perfect, accessible introduction to it, and afterwards you’ll want to read the book itself and treasure it. As a bookseller and booklover I can’t think of a higher compliment than that.
Hector Umbra, Uli Oesterle, Blank Slate Books
Much acclaimed on it’s German language release I was delighted to see Blank Slate translating Uli Oesterle’s brilliant Hector Umbra, his first full length work to make it into English. A brilliant mixture of buddy movie, religious conspiracy, science fiction and dark magics, with more than a tinge of the excellent Mike Mignola flavouring it as Hector, between drinks, tries to find his missing DJ friend Osaka, stumbles into a megolomaniac attempt to subvert humanity, even finds himself, in an almost Hellboy moment, entering into Hell to be given information from a recently dead friend. Stylish and funny as we see bizarre sights, drinking, shagging, lunacy and more around Munich and strange realms hidden away from normal sight. Think Mike Mignola meets Quentin Tarantino meets Wim Wenders.
Rime of the Modern Mariner, Nick Hayes, Jonathan Cape
Coleridge’s famous poetical work, inspired in part by the great age of exploration as ships sailed to undiscovered corners of the world, is reworked visually here to great effect by Guardian cartoonist Nick Hayes, who follows the rhyme and beat of Coleridge but refashions the work to a more contemporary topic of the environment and man’s disastrous effect on those great, world-spanning oceans, the cradle of all life. The book itself is unusual for a graphic work, being similar in format to a thick hardback novel rather than the normally larger album format, but this is perfect for the few frames on each page, designed to work in time to the beat of the verse. There’s some lovely work in there too – Nick did a Director’s Commentary for us back in the spring, where he talked us through some of the work in his own words, go and have a look.
Vignettes of Ystov, William Goldsmith, Jonathan Cape
Another unusual work from Cape in 2011 was this first major work from Will Goldsmith, whose work can also be seen in the Imagined Cities anthology Karrie Fransman put together. Ostensibly a series of short, two-page tales, each taking in a different story of a different (and usually eccentric and odd) dweller in a fictional, roughly Eastern European city, although the stories slowly start to become interlinked as you progress through, a little like Carver’s Short Cuts. Visually it is unlike anything else I’ve read in recent years, it’s a remarkable, unusual art style that demands re-reading to take it in. Unique.
Insurrection, Dan Abnett & Colin MacNeil, 2000 AD/Rebellion
I’m a 2000 AD boy, no question about it, original generation there right for the very first Prog and I still like to dive into the tales from the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic today, with a special fondness for the Dredd-verse. This story from veterans Dan Abnett and Colin MacNeil is set in Dredd’s universe but doesn’t feature him, taking place on a Mega City colony in deep space, fighting for independence. Following an alien attack where the Judges ignored pleas for aid everyone, including sentient robots, genetically uplifted apes and mutants, were given citizenship in return for fighting to save the colony. War over they judge marshal is told to revoke that citizenship, which he refuses, leading to a colossal showdown with the feared SJS, the Special Judicial Squad we first really saw way back in The Day The Law Died years ago, the Judges who investigate the other Judges. It’s a great future war tale, seemingly good guys against bad, but Abnett deliberately muddles the morality to make it more dramatic while MacNeil creates some brilliant B&W art (see my review here for more).
Batwoman – the New 52, JH Williams III & W Haden Blackman,published DC Comics
Over the years I have largely slipped out of the habit of picking up monthly or weekly issues – yes, I know, sounds sacriligeous for someone in my position, but I have collected them for more years than I care to recall and these days I generally prefer to wait for the collected trade edition. But along with the rest of the blog gang I had to have a look at DC hugely ambitious New 52 experiment, effectively rebooting the main DC Universe, all re-starting at issue 1, a great spot to leap on for anyone new to them, or, like me, who had missed out several years of continuity. It was a great success for the most part and now 5 issues later I find myself still checking the racks for some of them, most notably Batwoman.
I can’t help but go back to it every month – interesting storyline with Kate Kane’s Batwoman facing a supernatural, very creepy threat as well as a more natural world threat from a government agency and a screwed up wannabe sidekick. But the team also deliver a good personal side to Kate’s non superhero life – the problems with her sidekick being emlematic of her her problems with relationships in general, like her missing, presumed dead, twin who returned as a psychotic villain, her estranged father, her detective lover who doesn’t know she is Batwoman… But mostly it is JH Williams III’s art. Simply fabulous, probably some of the best artwork you will see in a mainstream comic right now, achingly gorgeous, atmospheric and with some fantastically kinetic layouts across double pages that as well as looking great scream out to me this is comics and this is the sort of wonderful visualisations of a story only this medium can do.
And as a bonus we have a very strong female lead, every inch the equal of the Batman, quite independent of him, strong but with doubts and troubles but a tremendous determination to do her ‘duty’ honourably. And the fact that she is a lesbian is, I am glad to say, simply a part of her character, played for emotional nuances but not for titillation or exotic allure. Kudos to the guys for that too. And on the New 52 front I also need to give shout outs for Gail Simone’s Batgirl and Francis Manapul and Brian Buccellato’s The Flash. And boy, am I surprised to find myself reading Flash again after all these years, but there you have it…
Nelson, edited Rob Davis & Woodrow Phoenix, published Blank Slate Books
It’s been an outstanding year for comics work again, and especially for the UK scene. Nobrow, Blank Slate, SelfMadeHero and Cape have all distinguished themselves and it feels to me like the UK scene, both professional Indy presses and the self published small presses, are just getting better, more diverse and more intersting. Good time to be a reader – the only drawback is more good books than I have time to read and it is murder trying to make a list like this out of so many fine candidates! But, hand on heart, I have to stick with what I said in my review (see here) of Nelson, where I called it:
“a fascinating, unusual landmark publication in Brit comics, a moving tale that works not only as a snapshot of a woman’s life but as a snapshot of the finest comics talent working in the UK right now.”
In a year of quite brilliant works Nelson still stands out for me, a bold experiment by Messrs Phoenix and Davis and all at Blank Slate to craft a single tale covering decades of a woman’s life, each segment by a different artist yet all coming together as more than the sum of it’s parts. I think it is one of those books we will still talk about looking back from future years, a major moment in the renaissance of UK comics publishing. And we even got to raise money for Shelter just by buying it. I’m running up my flag and saluting Nelson as my best graphic novel read of 2011.
Sea of Ghosts, Alan Campbell, Tor/Macmillan
First book of the Gravedigger Chronicles from the Scottish author Alan Campbell who impressed with his previous debut series, the Deepgate Trilogy. As with that debut his new series is an inventive, different and often disturbing take on a genre which can all too often fall into formulaic generic tropes. What starts as a fantasy on a world in which magic is real mutates throughout until it becomes half science fiction, half fantasy, with a compelling, driven lead character and a world where even the oceans have been poisoned by magica;/scientific meddling to become The Brine, the simplest splash of which is toxic and has horrible effects on the human body – and Campbell excels in grisly fates in a manner equalled only by veteran SF scribe Neal Asher. Compelling but not for the faint hearted.
The Ascendant Stars, Michael Cobley, Orbit
Book three of the Humanity’s Fire series sees Michael Cobley really coming of age – I enjoyed his original fantasy series he debuted with, but I think Mike’s switch to grand space opera science fiction was a wise one and this entire series marks him really growing into a much more assured, mature writer, with a brilliant tale of lost human colonies, major intrigues among major alien powers, a strong evnironmental thread and an exciting mixture of the big scale (major starship battles) and the personal (we get to know our heroes very well as they struggle for freedom), and his main planet with a colony composed of Scots, Norwegian and Russian descendants sharing their world with a friendly native species makes for a great and memorable cast of characters. Enjoy Ken MacLeod and Iain M Banks? Then you should be reading this.
The Reapers are the Angels, Alden Bell, Tor/Macmillan
Years ago a papercut from a radioactive book gave me special bookseller senses – sometimes a publisher will send me a book I know nothing about, the author is totally new to me, the book I know nothing about other than the blurb on the PR handout, and yet I get the tingle. And when I get that tingle it means I just know that this book is good, that I am going to like it and I trust the tingle because that instinct rarely leads me astray when it comes to reading. And I got the tingle for Reapers are the Angels and it was, again, pointing me to some bloody good reading. Both zombie tales and post-apocalyptic SF are ten a penny, it takes something to do either sub genre in a fresh way – Bell’s book combines both sub genres and it does so superbly, with his young girl wandering the remains of America after a zombie outbreak, trying her best to survive in a lethal, brutal world (where the remaining humans can be as dangerous as the walking dead), yet she has evolved her own quite moral code and a unique way of looking at the world and still seeing some wonder in it. It’s an amazing piece of work and – thank you – Bell is assured enough to keep it to a decent length and not feel compelled to bloat it to some 600 page monster as too many modern writers do. Beautifully self contained work.
Germline, T.C. McCarthy, Orbit
Another book that gave me the tingle is TC McCarthy’s Germline, a tale of future-war which draws on elements of the contemporary war on terror campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq with the historic (like Vietnam) with science fiction (parts of it are reminiscent of 2000 AD’s Rogue Trooper, including regiments of genetically created super soldiers). This is no war for ideal, not even pretending to be for ideals, it is purely for the remaining resources on the planet, and for every hi-tech future weapon there is the down and dirty tunneling and trenches of the Great War. Our main character is a reporter, but this is a war where you can’t stay an observer and our drug loving hack finds himself going through an Apocalypse Now like journey into the heart of darkness, along the way finding some strange buddies and even falling for one of the genetic infantry women. It’s dirty, gritty, very realistic and utterly gripping.
Echo City, Tim Lebbon, Orbit
I’ve been reading Tim’s work for a good while, he’s a brilliant, very unusual writer, coming from a horror background that also permeates his fantasy and I’ve often found it galling that he wasn’t published by a major imprint in his own country. Well this year Orbit fixed that and gave us his Echo City, a bizarre conurbation, totally self enclosed, wrapped around by an impassible, toxic desert, ruled over by a despotic family, political dissidents banished to a ghetto strip between the city walls and the desert proper. But someone has created a genetically manipulated being to cross that desert – and return. And on the return they learn that something – something unspeakable – is happening. Not just the fight between dissidents and the ruling elite or old and new ways of thinking, but something is rising from beneath the city. A city built endlessly on the bones of it’s own past, layer upon layer of new city built atop the old, vast undercity beneath, the river running through to vanish into the shadows below, where the city’s dead are fed into the falls to vanish – something is rising from deeper than even these dark levels… Scary, different, disturbing, mature dark fantasy from one of our very best.
Rule 34, Charles Stross, Orbit
Charlie is another writer I have admired for years, endlessly inventive, with a great take on using technological and societal trends to great (and cynically funny) effect. In Rule 34 he gets to indulge in the Great Edinburgh Detective Novel along with some near future science fiction, with a unit dedicated to policing all the weird cases that are spawned via the web, and our long suffering but tenacious female detective finds a bizarre murder case rapidly spinning into something much larger, going well beyond the city and even the country. It’s fast-paced, well delivered, clever and darkly humorous stuff from the guy who has become one of the best of the UK SF crop.
Supergods, Grant Morrison, Jonathan Cape
Half a potted history of the superhero comics and half a form of biography, Grant’s Supergods is an interesting read for anyone who’s grown up reading the four-colour pages. The earlier chapters dealing with the history of the early capes is fine but not anything you don’t really know already, although it has the benefit of having someone who has himself written many of these characters commenting on them and their creators. But for me the book really becomes much more interesting when we get to the 60s and Grant talks not only about the comics from then but on the ones he as a youngster was picking up and what they meant to him personally, then on to his early work (an anthology put out by the old Edinburgh SF Bookshop, which would eventually be the Edinburgh Forbidden Planet), constantly changing his style as the years pass, it offers an interesting insight into his own creative processes as well as his views on other trends in comics publishing and other writers and artists – you won’t always agree with them, but it’s always interesting.
Film & TV
The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec
Luc Besson’s big screen adaptation of Jacques Tardi’s Belle Epoque heroine takes elements from a couple of the original bande dessinee to make it to it’s running length, but despite mashing together different story elements from different books it cracks along at a good pace and delivers much of the same joy of adventure and gorgeous visuals (especially of Paris in the 1910s), a very fine comics adaptation and sheer fun throughout – here’s hoping he adapts some more.
One of my highlights of my annual sojourn at the Edinburgh Film Festival was this Indy monster flick from Norwegian director/writer André Øvredal. Made on a budget of only three million Euros it uses the found footage device like Cloverfield or Blair Witch, but much better (and less annoying) than either of those, supposedly recordings by media students doing a video project, reporting on a licensed bear hunt when they find a loner who follows the hunt for the rogue animal but never takes part. Tracking him night after night they find out he is actually a member of a secret government department tasked with keeping the public safe from (and ignorant of) trolls. And we get to see all manner of trolls, from forest to cave to gigantic beasts who roam above the Arctic Circle. Funny and very inventive, never showing its tiny budget, it is sheer fun and the film fest audience gave the director a huge cheer at the end. (see here for a spoiler-free review)
The brilliant Martin Scorcese adapts Selznick’s wonderful tale, his first foray into 3D (and surprisingly not annoying in 3D), turning the book into a fairy tale – an orphan living within the walls and tunnels of a 1920s Parisian train station, mending and maintaining the clocks while avoiding the station police who will bundle him off to the orphanage, working on restoring a 19th century automation his father was trying to repair before his death. Befriended by a young girl (Kick-Ass’s Chloe Moritz), menaced by a grumpy toy shop owner (her godfather) the pair are lead not only into the mystery of the clockwork mechanical man but of one of the great magicians of the 19th century, a curator of automata and wonders and the first, great genius of the early cinema. The dawn days of the film become part of the magical, fairy tale like story. 20s Paris in winter is a magical, enchanting land, and Scorcese makes much of the giant cogs and wheels of that era’s engineering and machinery while celebrating the first wonders of the silver screen. A pure joy.
The Borrower Arrietty
Another gem from the Film Fest for me was the new Studio Ghibli – I know I’m far from alone in being a huge admirer of Myazaki-san’s studio and their wonderful animations and the chance to see this tale, adapted from Mary Norton’s classic book The Borrowers, is a visual wonder as we see the tiny Borrowers living hidden in the human household, and how one Borrower girl and one seriously ill human boy come together despite the vast difference in sizes. The art is a delight showing our world at the Borrower’s tiny scale (so small when they pour tea from the pot it doesn’t flow like our water does, it comes out as large droplets), even the sound is used to convey the scale, the rustling of shirt fabric enormously loud to Arrietty’s miniscule ears. It is charming and a pure visual feast of traditional animation (with a few CG elements). See here for a review
Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Maverick director Werner Herzhog gained exclusive camera access to the Chauvet caves of southern France, one of the great historical discoveries of the last couple of decades, a series of caves used by our ancestors for rituals, for art… For the oldest human artwork we know of, a glorious series of cave paintings over 32, 000 years old. Just consider that for a moment – human artwork many times older than any beautiful work that survives from Rome, Ancient Greece or even Egypt or Ur or Babylon. These may have been stone-age people, but they are modern humans, just like us physically, and in their art we can see they are much like us mentally, spiritually. Art paintedin darkness lit only by flickering torches, which would have made the animals depicted seem to move. The artists are clever, using their material wisely, using the surface qualities of the rock and the curves and undulations to emphasise the art, making a horse seem dynamic as it curves around a bend in the wall. The work is far too delicate to be open to the public, only scientific teams are allowed in to a now sealed, climate controlled environment, Herzhog’s access therefore as close as we can get to this miraculous find. It’s a treasure in paint and stone and human effort and cleverness reaching out of the darkness across long millennia to us. It’s so beautiful it will make you cry with wonder. The human spirit and art eternal…
As usual I have rambled on far, far too long and been a bit self indulgent, but again my excuse is that I read far too many extremely good comics, books and saw some fabulous films again through the year, and this is me missing out many I would have liked to include as well (I haven’t even managed space to give proper mentions to the Big Bang Theory – much improved this year with a stronger female strand to the regular male geek cast – or Doctor Who or the surprise that was The Fades, the brilliant adaptation that is A Game of Thrones, the growing pleasure of Fringe (one of the best SF shows of recent years, I think), SyFy’s Haven, Warehouse 13 and Lost Girl).
Looking forward to in 2012
Okay, as I said I have gone on too long already, but what the smeg, a very brief look at some books and comics coming up that I’m looking forward to this coming year: Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes, Mary & Bryan Talbot, Jonathan Cape. Bryan was kind enough to give me a peek at some of this collaboration with his wife Mary some months ago and I’m eager to read the finished book – Mary was kind enough to to pen a Director’s Commentary about Dotter for us and I’m delighted to say you will be able to read it on the blog tomorrow. Kochi Wanaba, Jamie Smart, Blank Slate – I love Jamie’s work and adored what I saw of Kochi online. It’s an amazing mixture of the supercute and the bizarre, almost grotesque and I’m chuffed to see him getting this lovely hardback edition from Blank Slate.
One of the great European classic has been promised in new English editions to use several times over recent years, but never appeared – now, at last we’re going to see it again: Corto Maltese: the Ballad of the Salt Sea, Hugo Pratt, Universe. Hopefully this summer sees the third part of the League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen Century by Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill, Knockabout/Top Shelf. This final part brings us up to contemporary times after we last saw the League in the Swinging Sixties (with a coda in the punk era of the 70s). Peepholes, Laurie J Proud, Blank Slate Books looks absolutely fascinating – it was due late 2011 but will now be this year, but a pleasure delayed simply increases the final satisfaction (and I hope to have Laurie also doing a Commentary for us too in the near future).
And I’ll leave you with a couple of 2012′s science fiction works that caught my eye – Empire State, Adam Christopher, Angry Robot. I was treated to an advance copy at the end of 2011 but the book is out this month – if you follow our Twitter feed you’ll already have seen me singing the praises of Adam’s novel – set in a 1930s/40s city that seems like New York but is actually the Empire State, like an alternative version of the New York we know, with gangsters and speakeasys and superheroes in rocket boots like characters from the old Republic serials of the day. A city that is all that exists, surrounded by a mist around its rivers, and yet there is a mysterious enemy ships sail off to fight… Somewhere. Hugely stylish, with elements that reminded me of hardboiled noir of the 40s and 50s, the old serial movies, Rocketeer and Dark City- probably the first really interesting SF book of the New Year for me. And this year also sees the return of one of my long-term favourites, Ken MacLeod, with Intrusion (Orbit) – Cory Doctorow has seen it already and described it as “a new kind of dystopian novel: a vision of a near future “benevolent dictatorship” run by Tony Blair-style technocrats who believe freedom isn’t the right to choose, it’s the right to have the government decide what you would choose, if only you knew what they knew. ” Ken told me a little about it recently but to be really honest all I need to know is it is a new Ken MacLeod and that means I’ll be reading it.
Today I’m the guest blogger on the major science fiction publisher Tor’s blog, in my guise as the editor of the Forbidden Planet blog (which just this week I learned had jumped up in the Technorati blog ratings, which was rather satisfying, especially given the difference in sizes and contributor numbers between us and major sites in the top ten for that area). Tor has been asking folks from independent comics and science fiction stores to guest and pick some of their recommended reading from the month’s new releases. With December being a slow month for new releases (most publisher get the big rush of releases out in September, October and November to catch the Christmans market and catalogues) we decided to split my recommends so half are new December publications and the other half are a sneak peak at some of the science fiction and graphic novels that will be appearing on my Best of the Year list later this month on the FP blog, after the run of our traditional daily series of guests picking their faves (that starts this Monday). I’ve tried to pick a diverse selection, from Leslie Klinger’s Annotated version of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman to brilliant UK Indy comics graphic novel Nelson to Mike Cobley’s latest SF novel, Alan Campbell’s brilliant (and disturbing) Sea of Ghosts and one of my surprise finds of the year, Alden Bell’s The Reapers are the Angels.
This review first appeared on the Forbidden Planet blog:
Edited by Rob Davis and Woodrow Phoenix, contributions by over 50 UK based creators.
It’s 1968; Jim and Rita Baker are eagerly awaiting their first child. In a sequence evoking that long-gone swinging Sixties era, Rob Davis’ lovely art sees Jim puttering around town on his scooter, a cool, hip 60s young man, trying to find a Nelson statuette for his imminently arriving child as a gift. He had a large figure of Britain’s greatest naval hero as a kid and he plans to call his son (he’s sure it will be a boy) Nelson, and he wants his wee lad to have his own Nelson figure right from birth as a keepsake, going through a succession of shops, explaining it to them, telling them he is about to be a dad (the shop assistants in turn either bored, disinterested or amused), being told to try here, there and everywhere, going to one store after the other on his scooter.
(Rob Davis’ cool art for the start of Nelson, evoking London, the Swinging Sixties, the cool young lad-about-town with his scooter, about to become more than a hip young lad, about to become a dad…)
He succeeds but by the time he returns he finds Rita has gone into labour and been rushed to hospital. All a-fluster he heads double time for the hospital and, in an amazingly simple yet touching scene opens the ward door to see his wife holding their baby child in her arms. “Nelson?” he says softly, Davis deftly conveying the astonishment, wonder and terror that comes with the arrival of a child into your life in one frame.
(new dad, gobsmacked in the doorway to the ward – is that really my child? Oh my god, I’m a dad, I have to look after this tiny life for as long as I can. Terrifying and wonderful, all caught in one simple scene by Rob)
Nelson is a remarkably unusual creature – it is an anthology, but not the sort we normally see, where each creator tells their own short tale. It takes in over 50 of the UK’s finest comics creators – Davis himself, Woodrow Phoenix (who co-edits with Davis), Sarah McIntyre, D’Israeli, Jamie Smart, Posy Simmonds, Hunt Emerson, Rian Hughes, INJ Culbard, Darryl Cunningham, Simone Lia, Duncan Fegredo, Garen Ewing. Paul Grist and many more – but they are all telling the same story and it is the one story that each and every one of us has: the story of our life. Each artist takes a moment in Nel’s life, a different day and time, each in a different style, progressing through from her birth, through the 70s, 80s, 90s and up to the present day, from birth to middle age and all that comes in between, the wonderful little discoveries (beautiful books, being able to draw, ice-cream, friends) and all the little heartaches we endure along the way (a lost sibling, trying to define who you are, failed romances, life being unfair).
You might think that changing artistic styles every few pages would be confusing, but actually it suits the story extremely well; each new artist is dealing with a different part of Nel’s life and we, those around us, and the world itself, are always in flux, constantly changing (we need only look through old family photo albums to see that; a common thread we can discern, of course, but run through the endless loom of change, because life is change), with styles ranging from Davis’ lovely rendering of a hip, cool 60s (so effortlessly evoking the era) to the delightful (and very appropriate for the age of Nel) more joyful cartoonish style of Sarah McIntyre depicting Nel’s first day at school (complete with Space Hopper – remember those?), which I defy you not to smile at. In fact the whole story has much in common with a family album, offering us glimpses into certain moments of time, leaving us to fill in the narrative in-between those moments of frozen time and memory; the reader and their imagination here are trusted to be a part of the experience. Some moments are large, but others are simply that elusive, ever-changing beast, everyday life; all are compelling.
(the early 70s – strikes, 3 day working week, cutbacks, ill-advised facial hair stylings and Nel’s first day at school, complete with Space Hopper. Sarah McIntyre, as usual, makes me smile)
It’s a bold experiment, especially from an independent publisher, but the effect is engrossing, drawing the reader into the wonder and chaos of a life and it is impossible not to identify with Nel and those around her at some points in her life, not least her quest for self identity, not just in her rebellious adolescence but for her whole life (and really, do any of us every finish with that search for who we are?). For those of us of a similar age there is a touch of warm nostalgia to be picked up in the details too – oh, I remember that style, those bikes we rode, that music we listened to – which adds a warm touch, but wisely the book doesn’t trade overly on it, they are there as details, but it never becomes mawkish (which would be so easy to do), instead the primary focus is always on Nel, on growing up, on life.
(ah, sweet nostalgia – it’s 1982, young friends, the ‘tranny’ – transistor radio to you – and the happening pop music that is the soundtrack to your young life in Philip Bond’s segment, the pop culture and teen friendships nicely contrasted with checking out the old Protect & Survive guide to nuclear annihilation, preparation for which was a popular hobby of the period)
Trying to figure out just who you are and where you fit into this crazy world is a Herculean task, made harder for Nel because she has a continual feeling of missing something. Many of us may experience that sort of feeling from time to time, but in her case it is almost literal – as her story unfolds we find out that she was one half of a pair of twins, but Sonny, her brother, passed away not longer after being born. Ellen Lindner reveals this in a beautifully moving scene where Nel’s mum is organising her wee girl’s birthday, all is cakes and balloons and fun, but she is fighting not to break down because – because if it is Nel’s birthday then it should be Sonny’s too, but her wee boy never had the chance to experience birthdays.
(Nel’s mum pours her heart out to her friend over her lost child in a scene by Ellen Lindner)
She’s tried to hold it in, but on this day she turns to her friend Marlene, who also lost a child, and it pours out. Since she was a toddler Nel has talked to this lost brother, almost like an imaginary child, and in her adult years, especially when things aren’t going well for her, she talks still to Sonny. Is the spirit of her twin with her through her convoluted life or is it only in Nel’s mixed up head? We don’t know and really it doesn’t matter, it’s her emotional reaction to Sonny that is important and the way she feels losing him damaged what she was meant to be.
It is a remarkable piece of work, highly unusual and brilliantly done – kudos must go to Woodrow and Rob and all involved, and to Blank Slate for being innovative enough to publish such a work, which I think is destined to become a bit of a landmark British comic publication (I already know it is going straight into my personal Best of the Year list) and frankly if you value quality comics work you have to have a copy in your collection, because it is the book we are all going to be talking about this season and you don’t want to be left out now, do you?
(1986 and it is birthday time, always double edged things, birthdays, especially when you are one of what should have been twins. Add in youth, drinks and sexual tension, mix and stand well back in Ade Salmon’s chapter)
Nel’s story weaves through childhood pranks and games to rejecting the straightjacket of school, exploring friendships, romances, art and herself, from art school rebellion to experiencing her first E and Rave Culture in the 90s, watching those she grew up with get on with their own lives and wondering how her life compares (don’t we all? Especially when the 2000s come along and she can compare lives with friends on Facebook – really, that guy from school is grown up, good job, married, kids? Him? Wow! We’ve all done that…), negotiating her own troubled family life (a small scene on her first school day will later come to have huge significance for their family years later), wondering if she should surrender to the daily job grind or still try and do something with her art.
(a grown up Nel wondering where her life went, who she is now, those dreams of youth battered by real life – often such a bully – drowning it in drink, lost dreams and talking to her long-dead twin Sonny. Is he really there talking to her or just in her head? Does it matter? It’s part of how Nel realises herself, for good or ill)
You may wonder why we aren’t offering as generous a discount on Nelson as we normally do with our graphic novels, especially given how much we like it. There is a good reason for that – Blank Slate is giving the profits on the first print run to the homelessness charity Shelter, and indeed a number of comics retailers, including ourselves, are also donating along with them. So we can’t offer you that little extra we normally would to make it easier to try something new and wonderful. But we can still offer you Nelson – a fascinating, unusual landmark publication in Brit comics, a moving tale that works not only as a snapshot of a woman’s life but as a snapshot of the finest comics talent working in the UK right now (seriously, look at that list of contributors, running the range of age, approach and art styles in British comics right now, and hey, we love British comics right now, we really do, it’s happening) – and as a bonus you get to support a charity that is needed more than ever into the bargain. You get a brilliant book, you support UK independent comics publishing and you get to help someone who really needs a hand too. Go on, buy one for yourself and buy one as a present while you’re at it.
Nelson has just been released by Blank Slate and can be found with other Blank Slate titles in your local FPI, on our site and a number of other quality comics stores such as Gosh!, Page 45, Plan B Books and others. Nelson Week sees some of the team at the excellent Thought Bubble in Leeds this coming weekend, there’s a signing in the London Forbidden Planet Megastore, an exhibition starting in the Cartoon Museum in London and a cracking launch night in Gosh to look forward to as well. In fact a whole brace of new titles has just arrived from Blank Slate alongside Nelson, and this week we’re going to be running a preview of a different one each day – Richard has already posted up a look at Uli Osterle’s fascinating looking Hector Umbra yesterday and we’ll have more all week, so don’t touch that dial.
Via A Moment of Moore comes this brilliant short parody, riffing on the plot of the Watchmen but also on Alan Moore’s own, understandable antipathy to the way Hollywood has dealt with his books. Genius.
The very fine chap and author Paul Cornell, who has penned some excellent science fiction, scripts for numerous television shows (including some of the better episodes of the new Doctor Who) and a whole brace of comics, signing in the Edinburgh Forbidden Planet recently.
Another of my almost-lost reviews from years ago – tis review of Frank Barnaby’s science/history book was first written for The Alien Online back in November 2003 and was quite pertinent at the time as rows over the claims for WMDs in Iraq pre-invasion then the failure to find any post-invasion and the idea that we had largely been lied to by governments to justify the war was growing.
How to Build a Nuclear Bomb and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction
By Frank Barnaby
Published Granta, September 2003
How I learned to fear the bomb and start worrying more
Okay, first off, despite the cheeky title this is not a manual on the construction of thermonuclear devices. So those of you who were technically minded and looking for a project to occupy you over the long winter nights can stop reading now. What this little book actually does do is act as a handy-sized, easy to understand primer on Weapons of Mass Destruction – those WMDs all the cool kids are talking so much about these days.
Barnaby, a nuclear physicist who worked at Aldermaston, amongst other places, lays out concise explanations in a language easily accessible to the layman, describing each of the three main WMDs: atomic, biological and chemical (now you know where 2000 AD’s ABC Warriors got their name from).
The section on each type of weapon system is then broken down into brief overviews explaining the history of the weapon’s development, how they work, how they can be deployed by governments or small groups, what effects they have and, even more depressing, the history of their actual use, from chemical weapons on the fields of WWI Flanders to nuclear annihilation over WWII Japan.
This is not to say that Barnaby is an alarmist. Far from it; in fact he seems to have written this sensible book in order to counteract the souped-up hyperbole of the mass media in our post 9-11 world and the dreadful spin (if not actual misleading or even lying claims) about WMDS from governments. He has aimed to cut through this and produce an effective introduction to let the thinking person understand some of the real history, possible effects and uses of WMDs. In this respect I’d say he was extremely successful. For example, I now know that WMDs are not in fact invisible. Which does make me wonder why the US/UK can’t find all those ones in Iraq.
Although very informative, this book is, almost by its nature, disturbing reading. Describing how simple it is for someone to create chemical or biological weapons is frankly terrifying, and the example of the Tokyo subway attack using Sarin (the group responsible also had produced Anthrax) highlights the danger. The fact that immensely wealthy and powerful international pharmaceutical companies have used their might to stymie effective checks on production facilities in case someone is using them to secretly create bio or chemical weapons is even more alarming. There is no international system of checks – as exists for nuclear facilities – because the companies are too worried about possible industrial espionage and are prepared to put the lives of others at risk to protect their profits.
This is unlikely to be of surprise to anyone who has followed these same companies’ years of trying to block cheap, generic drugs to third world nations, but it is still more than a little astonishing that even in the current political climate there is no body to check up on chemical and biological facilities world wide. Given their history – look how many such weapons were created by IG Farben in Nazi Germany alone – you’d think the industry would be a little more safety compliant.
There was one aspect of this book that was even more horrifying and disturbing than this however. This dealt with the history of the deployment and use of WMDs. Often by the same ‘responsible’ governments who now act out military adventures to supposedly save civilization from madmen armed with WMDs. Chemical agents dropped in Vietnam, gas weapons used by Germany, Britain and France in World War I and, of course, the nuclear fires over Hiroshima and Nagasaki that burned the horror of WMDs indelibly into the public mind for all time in much the same way as they burned people’s shadows into the walls.
And before anyone argues that these events are being taken out of historical context, Barnaby discusses the vast destructive arsenals Russia, Britain, America, China and France hold to this very day and are reluctant to get rid of, while trying to ensure other nations do not possess similar weapons; although to his credit he does not take a political stance on this, merely reports the facts.
So, yes, this is disturbing material, but if you follow current events then you should know this stuff so you can try and cut through the spin and scare-tactic headlines. Information is a weapon every bit as effective as WMDs and its one weapon we should all have access to.
(Pat Mills on the left and Rodge Glass on the right signing after their talk at the Edinburgh International Book Festival at the weekend; all pics from my Flickr, click for the larger versions)
The Edinburgh International Book Festival for 2011 came to an end last night and over the final weekend I was lucky enough to catch not one but two final comics-related talks, both of them double headers, with Rodge Glass, author of Dougie’s War, talking with Brit comics godfather Pat Mills about the portrayal of conflict in comics and the aftermath of various effects on the men and women who have to engage in real warfare. This was followed later on Sunday evening with two of Jonathan Cape’s latest alumni, Nick Hayes and William Goldsmith discussing their recently published works.
My Sunday at a soggy but still happily buzzing Book Festival started with the Rodge Glass and Pat Mills event, where the focus was on the depiction not only of warfare in comics but the effects the events and stresses of combat have on real life soldiers, especially after the conflict is over and they find themselves on their own, away from the support network of the comrades in their unit and the infrastructure of the armed forces and back to ‘normal’ on civvy street. Rodge wrote the recent Dougie’s War, the title itself a nod to the influence of Pat’s earlier work (and one of the great classics of British comics) Charley’s War. Where Charley’s War shoved us into the brutality of the mud and blood of trench warfare in the First World War Dougie’s War deals with a contemporary conflict as our protagonist has to deal with his return to everyday life back home after fighting in the dust of Afghanistan, with an admirable focus on having to cope (or failing to cope) with the emotional and mental after-effects from the intense strain of combat situations, seeing and being involved in violence and death.
And as we know men in general are rather poor at seeking medical help at the best of times, with a proud former soldier, meant to be self reliant and tought, it can be even harder to ask for that help (if it is available) but if they don’t the effects can spiral – it’s a very sad thought that quite a number of veterans in the UK, USA and elsewhere will end up with a broken family, homeless or with a criminal record all from the effects of what they called Shell Shock in the war Pat and Joe Colquhoun so clearly documented and what by the time of Rodge’s book would be known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, soliders who have performed often heroic acts at great peril, unable to reconcile themselves back to normal life afterwards. The pictures on the AV display flicked between the earlier and later comics works and some documentary photographs, from the bizarre electrical and optical devices scientists cobbled together to try and treat Shell Shock in the Great War to modern psychologists who mean the best but usually can’t totally relate to the soldiers they try to help because, simply, they weren’t there… Both Charley’s War and Dougie’s War both took pains not to varnish the truth or to make warfare look glamorous and both have been well received by actual veterans as well as readers and critics.
In the evening I was at the Jonathan Cape double-header with William Goldsmith and Nick Hayes, both of whom had some very interesting debut works out from Cape this spring, William with the visually unique and fascinating Vignettes of Ystov (there’s also a sample of his style to be found in the Karrie Fransman-inspired Imaginary Cities anthology from the London Print Studio) and Nick with the massive Rime of the Modern Mariner (you can read a Director’s Commentary with Nick talking us though Mariner here on the blog).
William’s Vignettes of Ystov is a series of interlinked short stories, each only two pages, set in a fictional city with a central/Eastern European feel to it, each story standing on its own but also, as you progress through the work, building connections, weaving up a tapestry until, like the acclaimed Raymond Carver in Short Cuts, the stories of various seemingly unconnected individuals in a big city come together to show the connections we all, often unknowingly, share in a large urban environment, all with a very distinctive, loose art style (William said he experimented with different styles at art school but the final, loose art came to him when he realised he only had a few weeks to his project deadline!) that is, visually, one of the more unusual and unique (not to mention interesting) looking comics works in the UK this year, with the mutliple short stories set in the same city allowing us to take in a large cast of quirky, eccentric and sometimes wonderfully absurd characters (which may be why he said the short story form appealed to him so much, despite the fact that it demands a real economy of storytelling on the part of the creator). I’m happy to report that he is planning further Vignettes in the future.
Nick explained some of how he approached Rime of the Modern Mariner, which, inspired by Colerdige’s original verse, uses clever rhymes with the comics frames to deliver a contemporary take on the classic poem which takes a much more environmental bent. In fact Nick explained that he was originally inspired by reading about some of the horrific messes humans have made of our planet, such as the North Pacific Gyre, a vortex where many worldwide ocean currents converge, which also means it has become a focal point for the garbage we’ve dumped into our seas, mostly especially plastic that refuses to biodegrade but does, as Nick explained, photo degrade, slowly shrinking until small particles of it float in this large mass of plastic and are consumed by marine creatures… and then later in the food chain by those who consume those marine creatures, including humans. It isn’t all doom and gloom, thankfully – Nick takes his repentant mariner on a voyage both literally and metaphorically, which eventually opens his eyes and mind and soul to the natural world, and showcases some fabulous imagery, not least a beautiful depiction of a blue whale. Published in a format similar to a hardback prose novel it is a huge but very satisfying work.
The event went very well, I’m pleased to say and there was, despite it being late in the evening and rather cool and wet (ah, the joys of the late Scottish summer! But rain is no stranger to Book Fest veterans and doesn’t stop us!) and both writers/artists being fairly new to the scene, with a good line of readers eager to get their books signed (I had to kick myself for leaving home with my books, carefully left on the table near the door so I would remember them, left behind… bugger…) and those readers all having a good chat with the Cape boys. Great night and both books much commended for your reading delight.
And so ends another year of the world’s biggest book bash, just under 800 authors have graced the graceful Georgian environs of Edinburgh’s Charlotte Square and thousands of book lovers, with folks from the comics community playing their part in the diverse make up of the festival, from talks to comics workshops (in fact I bumped into Metaphrog’s Sandra and John during the Pat Mills signing as they were on their way to run a comics workshop for kids, still obviously delighted at their earlier chairing of a masterclass event with Shaun Tan at the Festival). Again it is great to see such a major literary event embracing the medium so happily, backed up with a good display of graphic novels in the on-site bookstore as well. Many thanks to the organisers and especially to the lovely folks in the press office for sneaking me into the events. You can read reports with photos from the Grant Morrison and the Neil Gaiman talks at the Book Fest earlier on the blog.
(Grant Morrison in conversation at the Edinburgh International Book Festival at the weekend, all pics from my Flickr)
This weekend I enjoyed a late evening literary bash at the Edinburgh International Book Festival as Scots superstar comics scribe Grant Morrison took the stage in front of a packed audience, which, I’m delighted to note, had a pretty good gender mix (so much for the oft-repeated but simpyl wrong mantra that comics are only for boys…). In fact later on when I was getting my own copy of his new Supergods book (part history of superheroes, part autobiography, very interesting – out now from our friends at Jonathan Cape) I mentioned to Grant how well his recent signing at our Glasgow store (a location he knows well) had gone (he spent over three hours happily signing for everyone who patiently lined up round the block to see him) and he commented that there too and at other events to promote the new work he’s been really pleased to note how large a proportion of the audience are female.
It was, as you’d probably expect from one of the more consistently inventive writers in the medium, a pretty interesting talk, with Grant elaborating on some of the themes in Supergods, such as taking the superhero figures that have been the industry mainstay for eight decades as ‘real’. By this he didn’t mean real as in actual superbeings walking (or leaping tall buildings) among us, but that the effect and inspiration such characters can have on readers, that is real. And as Grant continued he brought together one of the arguments he’s proposed before and in the book, that with the convergence of humans with their constantly progressing technology it may only a matter of time until ordinary people in future generations will have ‘superpowers’ and abilities beyond those natural evolution gave us, with a look at one of the possible causes of recent unrest we’ve witnessed in UK cities, pointing out that some youth don’t care about society because they feel no connection to it, abandoned by it and with no future – what of a future where those kids grow up to have these new scientifically enhanced powers? Surely, he argued, the heroes we’ve grown up with, Superman, Batman and the rest, offer up a decent role model of how to behave responsibly with powers and abilities. Perhaps one day when superhuman abilities are commonplace that generation will look for role models and guidance on how to deal with their enhanced abilities and they could do worse than look back to our superheroes.
(cover to Supergods: Our World in the Age of Superheroes by Grant Morrison, published Jonathan Cape)
With DC’s imminent reboot of their universe with fity two new issue ones he was asked about reworking classic characters and why it seemed that Superman seems to be remade fairly frequently while Batman, for all the ups and downs creators have put him through (including Grant himself, of course) still tends to retain his backstory more. Grant put this down to the fact that Superman seems to require more re-imagining than Batman and as a character seemed more open to it as well, while Batman’s more complicated back-story and universe simply serves the character so well that although every generation makes changes, it doesn’t need radical overhauling, it works too well. He was also asked about Wonder Woman; in the book he discusses how the earliest strips of our Amazonian were rife with S&M elements, many of which reflected her creator Marston’s own sexual interests (having had a look at a memo Marston wrote, usually locked in a secure DC vault, Grant’s opinion was that Martson was certainly a bit bizarre on some of his sexual preferences and kinks). And yet it seemed these bondage and sexual elements were clearly an important part of her make-up, he said, noting how quickly Wonder Woman faltered after Marston’s passing, how that took something important out of the equation that makes her work. Asked about how he intended to approach this classic but often very hard to write for character, Grant couldn’t elaborate too much for the obvious reason that it is a work in progress. He did tell the audience that he was fairly confident he had found a way to incorporate those original sexual elements back into the world of Wonder Woman but without being sleazy or exploitative – not an easy trick to pull off, he acknowledged with a smile, but he feels he has a handle on how to approach her and hopefully 2012 will let us all read that result for ourselves.
It was a great event, taking in iconic characters that have lasted decades (as Grant said, you can’t kill the superheroes, even in the wake of Watchmen in the ‘Dark Ages’ of comics of troubled, screwed up characters, when a lot of folks thought that was game over for the traditional hero, they came back. And they always will, the superhero was designed to take on all assaults and problems, after all), treating the comics universes as real, almost like a virtual universe but made of paper (a theme he elaborates on in Supergods), magic and meta fiction, the influence of Hollywood’s interest in comics (perhaps making too many writers try to show that they can write a Hollywood style script for their comic with one eye to being optioned and maybe being asked to become a screenwriter; part of his response has been to try and devolve more power to the artists again on layouts and design of pages, rather than the writer dictating too much on that, telling his artists to to go back to enjoying using those devices that only comics can do rather than trying to be ‘cinematic’ – play with the perspectives and slicing up of time that only a comic strip can do convincingly), gender and just why we still feel compelled to tell and read tales of superheroes. The talk was pretty good natured throughout, with plenty of humour and the queue for the signing afterwards stretched out the tent and down the walkway; it took me almost an hour to get my own books signed and when I left the end of the line still hadn’t even made it into the signing tent! Undaunted Grant was happily signing away and chatting to each and every reader. Hugely enjoyable talk from one of our best writers. Thanks to the press crew at the Book Fest for being kind enough to sneak me into the talk.