Art versus reality – The Electric Sublime #1

The Electric Sublime #1,

W. Maxwell Prince, Martin Morazzo, Mat Lopes,

IDW

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I really enjoyed W Maxwell Prince’s unusual, thoughtful and intriguing Judas: the Last Days back in early 2015 (reviewed here), and Morazzo I was familiar with from the fascinating Great Pacific (first volume reviewed here), so I’ve been looking forward to this. We open with a guide conducting a tour through the Louvre in Paris, leading them towards that great museum and gallery’s crowning glory, La Jaconde – da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, and vainly trying to persuade the flocks of tourists to put away their cameras and phones and instead actually look at all this art with their eyes, and, please, no flash photography, it isn’t good for the art (a long-lost war, I fear, tourists from every nation stand right in front of priceless paintings flashing away without a care in their heads, sadly).

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But their tour ends abruptly – something is wrong, very, very wrong. La Joconde still has her enigmatic smile on her small painting (it’s remarkable when you see it in person just how small this most famous artwork actually is), but now, somehow, she is winking at her admirers. The art guide runs, shocked, from the scene shouting “we’re going to need the Dreampainter! We’re going to need Art Brut!” The latter turns out to be an actual painter – in an asylum – called Arthur Brut, a nice little bit of word-play on an artistic term. Director Margot Breslin of the Bureau of Artistic Integrity has come to see this strange man, “dreampainting” in his padded cell. On various medications and art therapy, he seems to be out of touch with reality, mind warped by artistic excesses, unanchored in the real world, drifting, sifting, exploring the imaginary (some especially nice touches by Morazzo here, the way the asylum is almost monochrome, the colours so subdued, except for the vibrant art Brut is creating).

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But Breslin is desperate and even this seemingly wrecked psyche could be of some help, he may, in his fractured, kaleidoscope lensed view of the world have more understanding of what is going on than her team. Because it isn’t just that the most famous painting in history has suddenly, inexplicably altered to depict a winking Mona Lisa, there have been numerous other incidents around the entire globe, suicides, bombings, in one memorably horrific incident a couple who cast their own children in bronze, literally, killing them as well as transforming them into art, “claiming Neo-Dada conventions as their only defence.” And in each case a very simple image was found, the same image at each scene, in different nations, continents, a very simple line drawing of a human face, winking… Meanwhile we are also introduced to a young woman with a troubled child, Dylan, taking him to a new therapy home where art is used to help youngsters with mental health issues. There may be a connection growing here to what is happening in the wider world.

I really don’t want to say too much more about this first issue because I’m trying to tapdance around any potential spoiler landmines. And also because this is one of those stories that while I can summarise it a bit for review purposes to give you a rough idea, it is only the very roughest, this is really one of those works that you simply need to experience. It is only a first issue, so we’re only getting the briefest glimpse into what promises to be an unusual tale, but already it is pretty darned compelling – the idea of taking notions of what constitutes art, how we make it, how we react to it, the power it has, are all fascinating (as is the idea of using an artform – here the comic – to explore other ideas of art), and it reminded me in the good way of Doom Patrol-era Grant Morrison. Art has always been connected with ideas of power and even magic – even our oldest artworks, cave paintings some thirty to forty millennia old evoke not just our visual senses and our emotional states, they whisper of magic, of somehow capturing and conveying the power or essence of something else. And there’s also the sense of life within some art, or sometimes whole vistas of alternative realities.

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It is strange how sometimes the universe throws up variations on closely related themes around the same time, occasionally. In recent months I’ve been reading Shaun Simon and Mike Allred’s Art Ops for Vertigo (first issue reviewed here), and just in the last few days I have been lucky enough to be reading an advance copy of China Mieville’s next novel, The Last Days of Paris (out from Picador in February, James and I will be doing a joint review/discussion of it in the near future), in which resistance fighters in occupied Paris also interact with and use Surrealist art manifested into the real world in the desperate fight, the Surrealist art and manifesto being invoked like magical summonings almost. And then this first issue of Electric Sublime arrived on my desk… Of course all three would have been created by those different creators around the same time, without knowledge of the others, and by coincidence they would appear within a year or so of one another. Perhaps the art world is tapping on our window and trying to tell us something…

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This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Reviews: dark goings on in the Arctic night in Hellboy & the BPRD 1954

Hellboy & the BPRD 1954 #1,

Mike Mignola, Chris Roberson, Stephen Green, Dave Stewart

Dark Horse

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It’s always a good thing when the New Comic Book Day releases include Mignola and his merry group of collaborators bringing us fresh Hellboy stories. Although the main Hellboy narrative arc has finally finished with the Hellboy in Hell series, over the last couple of years we’ve been treated to these “young Hellboy” stories, starting with Hellboy and the BPRD 1952, which filled in some back history and gave us a view of Big Red’s very first time out as a field agent (1952 reviewed here, and you can read the 1953 review here). This week the latest mini-series kicked off with the 1954 installment, and, rather appropriately given the era it is set in Mignola et al have happily – gleefully, I am sure – raided some of the science fiction of the period, notably the 1951 classic film The Thing From Another World, adapted from Campbell’s Who Goes There novella and decades later the inspiration for Carpenter’s iconic The Thing.

As you will have guess from that, this tale is set in the frozen wastes, a great frozen ice-island in the Arctic, with a small scientific base on it. When one of their number is attacked in the almost-perpetual night of the Arctic winter the BPRD sent out Hellboy and Woodrow Farrier, a doctor specialising in cryptozoology. The ingredients are all here – remote location, small group under stress and threat, the fear of whatever the unknown “it” is, the claustrophobia of the small Arctic base. The men argue – some insist it was just a very large polar bear which tore apart their missing colleague, others, experienced in this climate, say no, a polar bear doesn’t reach that size. And then there was the awful stench which came with the creature…

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There’s only so much information Hellboy and Farrier can glean from the men’s descriptions though – it happened suddenly, in the dark and snow and of course they were also attempting to escape with their lives, so they’re not really going to give any conclusive eyewitness accounts of just what attacked them (and one in particular seems inclined to be uncooperative, mostly because he doesn’t like the fact Farrier is black. Even with death circling them some still cling to bigotry and racism, although he seems less concerned with the fact that Hellboy is red and non-human than he does with the dark tone of Farrier’s skin, which makes him seem even more ridiculous, which I imagine was the effect the creators intended). And so with only one volunteer willing to go back outside with them, Hellboy and Ferrier embark on a creature hunt…

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There’s a good bit more going on here, including some revelations a good bit later into this first issue, but there’s no way to talk about those without also blowing some (very cool and fun) plot points to anyone who hasn’t had a chance to pick this up yet, so much as I enjoyed those elements I will restrain myself. The approach and setting here, homaging those older sci-fi/horror tales is a geek pleasure – I’d guess most of us who love Hellboy would also love those tales, so seeing something in that period vein but starring HB is going to make us smile. Farrier is all wonder and excitement – an academic, he doesn’t get out into the field too much and he is so excited at the thought of a possible unknown species that he’s almost like a kid, oblivious to the danger, while Hellboy, for all he’s only been a field agent for a couple of years by this point, is already experienced and a bit more jaded (probably just a mutation, he tells the over-excited Farrier). And there are later elements which nod both to more sci-fi of the era and also to some old Hellboy opponents too, but again I will keep my big mouth shut on those for fear of spoilers.

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It’s never easy for any artist to approach Hellboy – Mignola’s visuals over the first couple of decades of the character’s life are pretty much iconic in style and palette, and it cannot be easy for any other artist to come in and draw the character in their own way but also maintain a visual cohesion to the years of previous art. Green, however, pulls it off nicely, right from the opening of the Dakota rumbling into a frozen airstrip and Hellboy jumping casually out and lighting up, to the bursts of action and then (well, then those other parts that I am not going to mention for fear of ruining the surprise).

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This is an absolute pleasure, especially for those of us with a love for some of those old pulp sci-fi tales and films of that era, and it seems clear to me the creators are also having fun, and that always comes across to the reader.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog

Masked wrestlers! Monsters! Tequila! Hellboy in Mexico!

Hellboy in Mexico,

Mike Mignola, Richard Corben, Mick McMahon, Fabio Moon, Gabriel Ba, Dave Stewart,

Dark Horse

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We’re still partway through the Hellboy in Hell story arc at the moment in the main, ongoing HB series, but Mike Mignola has been leavening those tales of poor old Red being dead and wandering the afterlife with some stories set in Hellboy’s early career with the likes of the Hellboy and the BPRD 1953 (see here for review) and now this enormously fun Hellboy in Mexico collection of short stories, which sees Mignola collaborating with some fantastic talent – Gabriel Ba, Fabio Moon, Richard Corben and Mick McMahon (with the redoubtable Dave Stewart on colouring duties once more). I think many of us would consider those names alone worthy of the price of admittance.

Here we have a young Hellboy in the year 1956, and a lost period in his life, which as Mignola notes in his introduction (as with most of the other Hellboy short story collections Mike does introductions to each of the stories which I’ve always found almost as much fun as the stories themselves), started almost by accident when a few years ago he drew a sketch of Hellboy with some masked wrestlers and the caption “Palenque, Mexico, June 2, 1956”. This left an enticing door open for Mignola to return at some point to his creation and a “forgotten” era in his history, when Hellboy and a couple of other BPRD operatives were sent to Mexico to investigate a rash of supernatural disturbances and monsters. In fact there’s such a mess of monstrous events that his companions can’t take it and leave, but Hellboy stays behind. But the events take a toll on this young, rasher, less experienced Hellboy and he essentially vanished from the BPRD’s radar for five months (slight shades of Ambrose Bierce). He himself claims not to recall much of what happened – traumatic events mixed with far too much drinking. Or perhaps he simply doesn’t want to remember it…

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(Richard Corben’s excellent art illustrates Hellboy and his trio of masked wrestling monster hunters)

One event in particular is a painful memory for Hellboy, introduced by a later BPRD mission to Mexico in the 1980s with Abe Sapien. Awaiting pick up they find some shelter from the sun in a small, ruined, lonely church. On one wall, among the ruined religious artefacts Abe spots old photographs tacked to the wall – one curling picture is indeed that one of Hellboy with the masked wrestlers, and naturally he asks HB about it, and so we start on these five “lost” months of his younger life. The three masked wrestlers in the 1950s photograph were three brothers, travelling the small town wrestling circuit until they are granted a vision in a church, that they are to help fight this plague of supernatural monsters. Hellboy teams up with them, fighting monsters by day, drinking tequila, singing and dancing in tavernas by night, until inevitably this catches up with them. After one night’s post beast-hunting drinking session, their luck turns sour, and in this world of damned creatures spewed up by the Pit and ancient Mesoamerican mythological monsters there are worse things than being killed…

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(The Coffin Man – complete with demonic donkey! – art by Fabio Moon)

As this is a collection of short stories (as many of the best Hellboy books have been over the years), I don’t want to get into the actual stories too much as it is way to easy to accidentally let slip a potential spoiler. But I will say this whole collection has a terrific atmosphere to it, partly reflective – a glimpse of a younger, less seasoned Hellboy learning both adventure but also consequences the hard way – partly though it is just a terrific excuse for a series of adventurous romps, filling in a part of Hellboy’s life we’ve not seen before. And of course there is a huge amount of fun in seeing Hellboy teamed up with masked Mexican wrestlers battling vampiric beings, old Aztec gods and others, with many nods to the local mythology and also to the rich pop-cultural seam of horror films from the region.

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(“Hellboy Gets Married” – too much drink, some music, a pretty face and it’s easy for a young lad to go astray… Art by the brilliant Mick McMahon)

It’s an absolute delight, and with Richard Corben, Gabriel Ba, Fabio Moon and Mick McMahon as artistic collaborators it’s as great a visual as it is a narrative pleasure, while Mignola’s trademark introductions before each story add nicely to the appreciation of them.

Reviews: Cthulhu horror meets racial bigotry in the Ballad of Black Tom

The Ballad of Black Tom,

Victor Lavalle,

Tor

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In recent months top SF&F publishers Tor have bee putting out a series of rather tasty wee novellas covering fantasy, science fiction and, here, straying into Lovecraftian horror, and indeed urban horror, the sort that is generated as much by the more vicious, ignorant elements of humanity as it is by supernatural and magical threat. Charles Thomas Tester – Tommy Tester, the eponymous “Black Tom”, is a black man in early 20th century America; it may have been decades since Lincoln’s Emancipation Declaration, but even in urban New York (let alone the Deep South), discrimination and intolerance is rampant, the Civil Rights movement and hard-won battles of the 60s are a long, long way away.

This is an era of know your place, and if you are a young man of colour then that’s even more important – keep to your “own areas” (such as Harlem), don’t get in the way of the white folks (especially the rich ones), and avoid the attention of the police. And given Tommy grafts a living from a mixture of playing a simple repertoire for busking in the street and from running slightly dodgy errands, which can take him outside his comfort zone of Harlem. And we see him early on running one of those errands, delivering a strange manuscript to a mysterious woman in a richer (and whiter) part of town, a book which may have esoteric learning in it, possibly dangerous knowledge. Despite keeping his head down and often adopting the servile and simple stance expected of him though, Tommy’s no idiot, he’s sharp, sharp enough to deliver the book and take his payment, but to ensure an important page is held back so that its knowledge can’t be fully used.

There’s a little hint of the John Constantine around Tommy, not so much a streetwise magus like Constantine, but a man who knows there is more about the world than just what most people see, and this knowledge and his esoteric errand-running bring him to the attention of a very wealthy man who asks him to play his music at a private party at his large house. And it is there that Tommy Tester learns that there is even more behind the everyday scenery of the stage we call the world than he suspected, and he thought he knew a bit. That there are other realms, and dark, ancient beings to whom human civilisation is but an ant hill. But living as a black man in that era of US history, being seen as unimportant, beneath notice almost, is something Tommy knows all too well, and his perspective on the ancient, dark beings is coloured (no pun intended) by how the simple fact of his own skin tone has seen him treated in his own society.

This is a superb read – Lavalle, even in the brief length of a novella, conjures up a superbly atmospheric story, both in terms of the atmosphere of dark, Lovecraftian dread and unease building throughout and also in the way he so wonderfully brings out a real feeling of New York in that period, the different areas with different ethnic cultures overlapping, each with their own ways and districts, and the realism of those streets – all now so changed, entire subcultures and communities moved and changed in the intervening decades – works perfectly as a contrast against the darker fantasy elements. And the aspects dealing with they way race, class and wealth  dictate how someone is treated – does the policeman respectfully raise his cap to you or does he wallop you over the head with impunity – and viewed have many parallels to modern society.

In a mere 149 pages Lavalle crafts an increasing air of menace an unreality lying just beyond the seemingly solid walls of our reality, just waiting to break in, and at the same time does what the best writers do, uses the fantasy to draw parallels to social problems of the present day. This is the first time I’ve read Lavalle, but I’ll be happy to pick up anything else by him after this.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Reviews: Thor, Goddess of Thunder

Thor, the Goddess of Thunder Volume 1

Jason Aaron, Russell Dauterman, Jorge Molina

Marvel

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Following the events of Original Sin, Thor has been badly affected – since Nick Fury whispered a secret into his ear, a secret stolen from the Watcher, Thor has not been the same man (or god). Mjolnir, his famous hammer, lies on the surface of the Moon and no-one, not even Thor, can pick it up. The hammer decides who is worthy, and it seems the Odinson is no longer worthy to wield it with the power of Thor. Broken, devastated, he has little idea of what to do, and matters are further complicated with  the return of his father, Odin, who now assumes that his wife Freyja and the council will simply roll over and return control to his arrogant hands as if he had never been away.

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And then as the Asgardians are both weakened and in a demoralised, confused, divided state, a horrible, vicious attack by Frost Giants takes place on Earth, on a deep sea research based owned by the villainous billionaire Roxxon, with much slaughter. Odin shows no interest in defending Midgard. Thor finally snaps from his torpor by his now off-limits hammer, arms himself with a favourite axe instead and mounts his ram to fly into battle. But without Mjolnir he lacks so much of his power, and his added bitterness and anger has unbalanced him. The Frost Giants are being lead by an ally, a scheming Dark Elf who wants something Roxxon has, and who is perfectly aware of the turmoil in Asgard and that Thor no longer wields the hammer. And Thor is no match for him – he loses, and he loses badly, defeated and his bodily badly mutilated. Others try to lift the hammer – including the incredibly arrogant Odin – but none can. And then a slim woman, features concealed by a silver helmet, steps forward after the rest have gone. And she picks up Mjolnir… A hero is always needed, and if the Odinson has been judged unworthy of Mjolnir, then another must step forward to take his place, the hammer lifted, the lightning unleashed.

There must always be a Thor.

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This new Thor has little time to try and come to terms with the vast power of Thor that Mjolnir imbues her with (she even finds herself speaking like Thor, “thees” and “thous”) – how does she even use it to fly? Oh yes, she’s seen Thor do that twirl it around then throw and zooommm. Hel, yes, that works! And it’s fun! Fortunately Mjolnir’s relationship with her seems to be almost symbiotic; this is no mere tool or weapon, the enchantment which allows it to judge who is worthy also seems to work with the new Thor, guiding her, helping her, it wants to help her, wants her to succeed, to be the best hero she can be. And as she arrives at the scene of the Frost Giant invasion she will need all the help she can get, literally thrown in at the deep end into a huge fight against the odds deep under the ocean. And then a partly recovered Odinson, dragged back to Asgard for treatment after his defeat, turns up. And he is not amused that someone else wears the mantle of Thor. Who is this unknown usurper? Now she has a Dark Elf, Frost Giants and and embittered, furious Odinson to deal with. Hel of a first day…

Aaron and Dauterman (with Jorge Molina on art duties for the final part) deliver one of the best Thor story arcs for ages here, giving us not one but two very powerful women who have to use their power and influence while navigating a very male-centric world, both the new female Thor and also Freyja, queen of Asgard. Often wiser and a better ruler than her arrogant husband, and also more understanding of the new Thor. The All-Father sees a thief and usurper – despite the fact Mjolnir chose her and rejected him – but Freyja sees nobility and honour in this new Thor, of a woman who has stepped up because if the Odinson can no longer be the heroic Thor then someone must be. Because Thor is needed. It’s pure, selfless heroism. And to Dauterman and Molina’s credit even when powered up by Mjolnir the new Thor doesn’t suddenly become some ridiculously proportioned uber-Amazonian caricature, she remains the same, slim woman (thank you for not going down the six foot legs, gravity-defying bosom and revealing costume route, this shows far more respect for the character and what she will need to undergo to be worthy of the mantle).

It’s a steep learning curve for this new Thor – she has to learn to control her new powers, to wield Mjolnir effectively (although the hammer seems happy to help her – in fact it does things in battle it never did even for the old Thor, much to his amazement, helping him to start realising that perhaps this woman is no thief but is truly worthy to hold it). She has Frost Giants to deal with, Dark Elves plotting with more clearly threatening to erupt on both Midgard (Earth) and Asgard at any moment. And she has to somehow convince the Odinson that she is not his enemy or an usurper. And then there are the everyday battles a superhero has to fight, including a wonderfully drawn and scripted fight with the Absorbing Man and his other half, Titania. And as well as fighting supervillains she has to fight his condescending, macho, misogynistic attitude too:

Thor? Are you kidding me? I’m supposed to call you Thor? Damn feminists are ruining everything! You wanna be a chick super hero? Fine, who the hell cares? But get your own identity. Thor’s a dude. One of the last manly dudes still left.

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And the female Thor rather satisfyingly beats the living tar out of this chauvinist pig, using Mjolnir in a way he has never seen, making him gasp, “what kind of Thor are you?” And as she punches him in the face she replies “the kind who just broke your jaw!” while in a thought bubble we can see her also thinking “that’s for saying “feminist” like it’s a four letter word, creep.” Titania arrives to bail out her defeated husband, but decides this one time she won’t fight. Call it a superwoman to superwoman nod of respect for the sorts of attitudes they have to face. It’s a wonderful scene an it’s not hard to detect in it a rebuke, not just to sexist attitudes in general and those extra hurdles many women are forced to jump to be successful (like life isn’t plain hard enough already for anyone), but also to the well-known problem of sexism in the comics industry, among publishers, creators and some readers. More than a few male readers howled, outraged at the idea of a female Thor, as if it somehow emasculated them. Goodness knows what they’d make of the actual Norse Sagas where Thor has to dress up as a blushing bride at one point!

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The identity of this new Thor isn’t revealed till a later volume, but it is someone we know well from the Marvel Universe and it is taking a huge toll on her, and yet she will keep doing it because in her innermost core of being she is a hero, and that hero is needed. It’s pure Joseph Campbell Hero With a Thousand Faces stuff, mining the very nature of what makes a hero, the trials, the ordeals, the sacrifices, male or female, and as such it fits the mythic-rich  idea of Thor perfectly, while the gender issues and the politicking in Asgard add more layers (often inter-related layers – would Odin be so outraged if a male hero had been chosen by Mjolnir?), upping the interest and hinting at more to come. I won’t spoil things by revealing who the new Thor is – I’m sure some of you have heard already, but for those coming fresh to this new chapter in Thor’s life I’d rather let you find out at the pace the creators decided. Solid superhero action, strong female characters, slowly building larger story arc in the background, cracking artwork, shining heroism, mythic heroism and as bonus dealing with gender issues in a positive way, this is one of the best Marvel superhero tales going right now.

Reviews: Tim Powers returns with Medusa’s Web

Medusa’s Web,

Tim Powers,

Corvus Books

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Tim Powers has been one of my favourite authors for many years – I tend to have a tottering tower of books and graphic novels waiting to be read at any one time, but Tim is one of the authors I will shove everything else in the queue out of the way for. Ever since the remarkable Anubis Gates back in the early 1980s I’ve been addicted to his work, which frequently takes real historic events and characters then slips them in and around the fictional characters, not contradicting the established histories of real people he uses, rather taking areas where there are gaps in their lives or parts we simply have no knowledge of, and then using those as an area where he can spin story elements, be it the Romantic poets in Anubis Gates or the spies and counter-spies like Burgess in the Cold War era Declare or the spirits of Edison and Houdini in Expiration Date. It makes for an intoxicating, immersive read, and the historic details leave you wanting to go and seek out some books on those people and periods to learn more (always a sign of a good book, I think, one that inspires you to want to read several more books).

Madeline and Scott Madden are sister and brother, living in Los Angeles, orphans, their mother and father having vanished in mysterious circumstances when they were young, leaving them always wondering what happened and why their parents just left without a word, never tried to contact their children again. Growing up somewhat damaged, they were raised by their Aunt Amity, alongside their cousins,  Ariel (who seems to harbour some grudge against Scott for reasons he doesn’t understand) and reclusive, wheelchair-bound Claimayne in her sprawling old mansion, Caveat (and with a name like that you already know this isn’t going to be a happy family home…). His aunt had been a writer for decades, although in later years her books had gone out of fashion, and the estate and house is rather run down, permeated with that faded glamour of long-gone better days. Once it was almost rural, a large house and estate with small guest cottages that were often rented out to Hollywood starlets back in the earliest days of the movies, but these days LA’s great sprawl means it is surrounded by dense neighbourhoods and the nearby log-jam of the eternally blocked LA Freeway.

After their aunt’s death (by a bizarre supposed suicide method that I will leave you to discover for yourself) they are summoned to Caveat, their first return in many years to the odd home where they grew up, a home with connections to the Hollywood of the 1920s and 30s, even having a corridor lined with doors salvaged from old Hollywood homes of famous people (they’re just doors, of course, fixed to the wall but opening onto nothing, just decorative architectural salvage. Or are they? Somehow you suspect there may be more to them than that…). Apparently their aunt had changed her will just before her death, leaving Caveat to them rather than her son Claimayne or Ariel, who both still live there and are, understandably, not happy about this state of affairs, although none of them, including Scott and Madeline, expect the will to be upheld when challenged as the nature of her suicide would indicate their aunt was clearly mentally unbalanced when she changed the will.

Or was she? Did she have an ulterior motive for changing the will? Is it a slight against her son? Sudden late affection for her troubled wards? Or did she have some plan which involves Scott and Madeline, something they have no knowledge of, a plan designed to work even in the event of her death? And where do the “spiders” fit into this? Strange patterns of lines which went glimpsed send the viewer into a strange state, as if different dimensions are crossing one another, and also connecting different parts of time together during a trance-like state. What did their aunt use them for? Why has she left some for them to discover, why do Claimayne and Ariel use them almost like a drug and who are the people in a shadowy, secret underworld of spider-users and what is their interest in all of this? Scott and Madeline seem increasingly to have been maneuvered into multiple labyrinths, some of which they aren’t even aware of, can’t even see, closing around them, while others are planning and stalking around them with purposes they can’t even guess at yet.

It’s a wonderfully mysterious story, each new, hard-won revelation illuminating fragments of this multiple-level conspiracy, but also offering more questions. Who is out for what and who means ill to Scott and Madeline is frequently hard to tell, Powers refuses to spoon-feed the reader with simple answers, but instead teases us into walking the labyrinth with the character. The spider viewing open up connection to other people and times – Caveat doesn’t just have many historical links to early Hollywood, in some ways it is still connected to it, and those connections are not just one way…

Early Hollywood history leaks into the present (as history so often does), and real historic characters like Rudolph Valentino (arguably the first great star of Hollywood) are tangled with the modern day characters, while closer to the present the family history of Scott and Madeline, their missing parents and aunt are all woven into the narrative, making it a century-long mystery and linked conspiracy, full of rich historical details and how that past shapes the present still as well as a satisfyingly emotional family history tale, arrived at through a wonderfully confusing and intoxicating puzzle across history, time and dimensions. The modern day story arc is compelling, while the historic elements pushing their way into the present are rich and evocative.

This post was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Achingly beautiful new fantasy comic: 8house: Arclight

8house #1: Arclight,

Brandon Graham, Marian Churchland,

Image Comics

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Shine like an arclight,
Sing like a bird might sing,
When he was higher than heaven,
Higher than every other thing,
Some kind of arclight,
Sparks in the street,
I know that you’ve no answers,
All I need is for you to shine.” Arclight, The Fat Lady Sings

Short review: the most gorgeous looking comic I’ve seen in this week’s releases.

OK, for those who want slightly more than that… It’s the start of another new creator-owned series from Image, and as I’ve noted a a bunch of times recently, they’ve had an impressive record in interesting series over the last few years. And then there was that lovely fantasy cover artwork, an androgynous (almost young Bowie-like) figure in a costume that partakes of bits and pieces from real history but which just screams elegant fantasy. I think I liked this before I even opened the pages, truth be told, between that cover and the familiar old bookseller’s Spidey-sense I sometimes get that just tells me I need to read something even though I know nothing about it.

And then I did open those pages… And oh my… Eschewing the usual inner cover page where all the copyright and publisher and creator information is normally printed, and indeed what would normally be page one of the actual story also not marked by lettering for the writer and artist’s names, this literally opens with a glorious double-page spread, right from the inside cover page, a gorgeous hilly landscape tinged creams and browns and rust and orange and red from the lowering sun. Right from the opening two-pager we’re being immersed into a fantastical realm, and that’s no bad thing. In my book a good fantasy has to win over the reader, make them feel this alternative world, so they feel like they can touch it, feel it, smell it – again I return to using the word “immersed” because, simply, that’s something the best fantasies do. It’s like weaving an enchantment.

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We meet Sir Arclight and the robed, hooded Lady, who have travelled far over those hills and mountains and on into dark forest lands (there should always be some dark forest lands in fantasy and fairy tales, they’re a powerful part of our shared dreamlands), sensing something wrong, something alien, passing through their kingdom. Whatever it is, “it shaped the trees as it passed. It’s big,” observes Arclight, regarding a line of trees bent over to form a tunnel of their branches. Finding a dying border creature the Lady works a spell to keep it alive in the hopes it may reveal something of the strange and unknown magical creature that has passed this way; if they find they have to take action against it, obviously it makes far more sense to have foreknowledge of any potential adversary. They return to the city, Arclight happy, being an urban person, the Lady less so, but it is where she needs to be, so they set off.

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And again we are treated to some wonderful fantasy art from Churchland, with a vast stone bridge spanning a valley, with great stone staircases to lead one up or down from it, the design seems to hint at an overland cousin to the great stone stairs and bridges inside the Mines of Moria, while the straightness and length recall the marvels of the mighty Roman aquaducts. And then another double-page spread, Lady and Arclight on this great, straight stone line of bridge, the landscape below and beyond spread out and the walled city with towers and spires and domes rising from the plains, the sun hanging behind. I remember back when I would pick up each monthly issue of The Sandman, and how even though I was eager to read quickly through the next part of the tale after waiting for a month I would still often be brought to a halt by certain scenes, the art just so beautiful my reading would pause and I would simply drink it all in, feasting like an art-vampire who hungered for paints instead of blood. And it’s a truly wonderful feeling when that happens.

It’s also very hard to articulate exactly why some pages can stop you like that and leave you simply wallowing in an emotional warm state. It’s like when you read a perfectly crafted stanza of poetry, or a prose line that was shaped just right, or hear certain lyrics, they stop us because they have an emotional resonance above and beyond the cognitive aspect of reading and understanding, yet they are an intuitive component of reading, and they richly compliment the more logical parts of our brains which are interpreting the actual narrative, the story’s rhythm, perhaps, to its melody, neither part whole without a feeling, a grasp of the other. You can try to say why exactly certain pieces do that to you, and talk of the phrasing, the colouring, the imagery, but really it is simpler than all of that, the part of your mind which is where stories and storytelling dwell (and humans are creatures of story, our language makes us so, even though many seem to let that remarkable gift atrophy), it chimes at such moments, in sympathetic resonance; you just know and feel it.

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The pace of the story here is slow, almost languid, and that suits it perfectly – this shouldn’t be rushed, we should be slowly immersing ourselves into this world as we would into a cool pool on a hot day. We only find out fragments here, hints more than anything, of what may be going on that has piqued Lady and Arclight’s attention, and also who and what they are, with small glimpses of their lives in the city to hint that they may not be all that they once were, but we don’t know the bones of any of it yet. And that suits me just fine – there is nothing wrong with packing a whole lot into an opening issue and I’ve read many terrific series that started that way and left me impressed with how much they accomplished in a small space of pages. But this feels like it needs to go more slowly, let the reader breathe, absorb colour and feeling and fuller understanding and explanation will follow. I think it is also a mark that Graham and Churchland are treating their readers as intelligent, that those who get it will understand the pacing, that this beautiful but slow opening is just a precursor, an overture to the great symphony to come, and it’s always rewarding as a reader when you feel the author and artist are colluding with you, that they expect your interpretation of their pages to be an important part of how a tale will look and feel.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog

Some fantasy and horror from the Edinburgh Film Festival

While I was off enjoying a week at the Edinburgh International Film Festival naturally I sought out some of the SF&F and horror flicks in my feast of festival screenings. I was a bit busy going from movie to movie to do full write-ups, so thought instead I’d do a brief round-up of a handful that really made an impression on me. They’re still doing the international film festival circuit, so I have no idea when (or indeed if) they may get a general release, but do keep an eye out of them if they get a screening near you, especially Therapy For a Vampire and Liza the Fox Fairy, which are films I think anyone who loves fantasy will enjoy and which I think deserve some support (distributors, if you’re reading, these films all got big rounds of applause with the festival audiences, always a good sign, and well worth considering picking up for distribution):

The Hallow,
Director: Corin Hardy,
Starring: Joseph Mawle, Bojana Novakovic, Michael McElhatton, Michael Smiley

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Corin Hardy’s debut Irish Indy horror arrived with impressive credentials – it did well at the Sundance Festival, and Edinburgh’s own hugely respected horror flick fest Dead By Dawn (the UK’s longest running horror film festival) had selected it for the Edinburgh Film Festival (London peeps, I hear it is also getting a screening at Fright Fest this August). The central notion of a young, successful couple moving into the middle or rural nowhere and finding the surly locals to be less than welcoming is not a new one in horror, of course – film academics have filled many essays on the urban-rural horror tropes. But Hardy delivers some menacing, creepy rural locals here largely as a bit of a red herring. As Adam Hitchens (Joseph Mawle) and his wife (Bojana Novakovic) and infant move into a creaky old dwelling in the middle of an ancient bit of Irish forest, it isn’t long before things start happening. Things go bump in the night, strange leaks appears, stones are thrown and the nearest neighbour has made his loathing for them quite clear. But quite why the locals wish them gone and Adam’s forestry job to be axed (pardon the pun) isn’t terribly clear. It feels a little Straw Dogs – the isolated rural home, the disgruntled, hostile locals surrounding the incomers. But this changes quite quickly…

Edinburgh International Film Festival 2015 - Corin Hardy 04(Corin Hardy in a post-film Q&A at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, pic from my Flickr) After several incidents the police make a half-hearted investigation, although it is clear they really care little. But the local sergeant does let slip that some of the locals do – silly superstition, you understand – believe that these very old woods are home to very old beings, a form of the fair folk, pushed back millennia ago by the spread of the towns and cities of man to these few isolated woodland refuges. And they do not care for anyone trespassing on what is left of their territory, and if you cross into their borders then they have carte blanche to cross into your own space too. Naturally the Hitchens don’t believe this talk of of fairy belief at all (despite learning their unfriendly neighbour lost his young girl in the woods decades before, he maintains spirited away by odd beings – perhaps he’s not just unfriendly but worried their presence will disturb the area once more). Hardy slowly ratchets up the sense of unease and we, along with the Hitchens, start to realise perhaps it’s not badly behaved locals reacting to incomers but that there may well be something else in those woods. A something that’s now targetting their home, and most especially their baby… Despite the low budget Hardy and his team use their scant resources well, making maximum use of the locations and a tight script to generate ever increasing levels of suspense and tension. What elevates it above that classic rural horror though is weaving in multiple elements from Celtic myth and folklore into the tapestry, which gives it a nice Hellboy-ish vibe in places, using some nice, creepy, disturbing effects. And in an era where so many horror films seem to rely far too much on jump-shocks, “torture-porn” or over-gore for the sake of it (I have no problem with a bit of gore, but some weak film-makers rely on it to overcome poor storytelling) it’s always good to see someone putting the effort in to build atmosphere and let it permeate out into the audience – and also to trust their audience to go along with that slow-burn, rewarding approach. I saw this at a late night screening, with a packed festival audience, which is probably the best way to enjoy a good horror movie.


Therapy For a Vampire,
Director: David Ruehm,
Starring: Tobias Moretti, Jeanette Hain, Cornelia Ivancan, Dominic Oley, David Bennent, Lars Rudolph

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This Austrian flick was one of the first films I saw at the festival this year, and it pretty much ties with Hungarian fantasy Liza the Fox Fairy as my favourite festival movie this year. It’s Vienna, in the early 1930s, and the Count Geza von Közsnöm is having the vampiric equivalent of a mid-life crisis. He’s lost all his lust for life, the long, endless nights of immortality weighing down upon him till little seems worth it anymore. In fact he doesn’t even bite his victims any longer, he gets his (increasingly bolshie) “Renfield” henchman to bludgeon them on the streets of nocturnal Vienna then use blood donation equipment to siphon off his “claret” into a bottle. His wife – a proper 20s/30s vamp, both in the vampire sense but also in the period use of the word to mean a dark femme fatale – is also adding to his world-weary feeling. She’s also finding their vampiric condition a little restrictive and is tired of not being able to see herself (we see her patting her face with a powder puff in a vain attempt to catch a glimpse of her face in the mirror), and her endless demands to him each night of how is my hair?, how do I look tonight? is driving him to fantasies of staking her in her coffin. In desperation who does the vampire count turn to? Why to Sigmund Freud, of course! And perhaps the famous father of psychoanalysis can also help him with his other problem – Freud is collaborating with an up and coming young Viennese artist who is illustrating his book, just the person to send the countess to for a portrait. Naturally Freud doesn’t know they are vampires, he’s too busy analysing all of their problems as a scientific challenge and assumes her inability to see herself is a mental problem, not that she literally has no reflection. The artist, meanwhile is having problems of his own – his girlfriend is a thoroughly modern Millie (she even wears – gasp! – trousers!), but he has a troubling penchant for always painting her not as she is but as he wants her to appear (rather more “girly”), which understandably is not helping their relationship. And into this come the count and countess, and oh, while the countess is distracted with the artist and her portrait, the count is drawn to his girlfriend who bears a striking resemblance to his long lost love (beheaded by dervishes many years ago, I’m sure we’ve all had relationships end like that). If Woody Allen did a 1930s tale of crossed-wire romantic misunderstandings in Vienna with vampires it may look a little like this… Edinburgh International Film Festival 2015 - David Ruehm
(Director David Ruehm talking after the Edinburgh International Film Festival screening of Therapy For a Vampire, pic from my Flickr)

The comedy-horror flows brilliantly, the 30s setting used nicely, both for style and also for referencing films (there is some lovely cinematography here) and art of the period, while there’s a fine lacing of various vampire myths through the story (such as the compulsion for counting small objects) and relating that to the emerging field of psychoanalysis (two different ways of understanding the human brain, one ancient, one new), and there’s a nice bit of relationship and gender stuff going on there too. The film is replete with lovely little details and references – the count, lying on the psychiatrist’s couch, a picture of middle-aged-man-misery, until Freud asks him when he was last happy, and as he talks of his lost love he starts to float upwards off the couch (Freud is too busy taking notes to see this), but as soon as they return to the subject of his wife, bang, straight back down on the couch (no prizes for guessing that that symbolised!). For every reference I picked up on though, I am sure there were several I missed – this is one of those films that will happily bear repeat viewings and deserves a wider audience. It also makes for a fine European shelf-mate to the Kiwi genius of What We Do in the Shadows.


Liza, the Fox-Fairy,
Directed by Károly Ujj Mészáros,
Starring Mónika Balsai, Szabolcs Bede-Fazekas, David Sakurai, Piroska Molnár, Zoltán Schmied

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It’s Hungary in the 1970s, but not quite – this is, as director Mészáros explained in a post-film Q&A, a slightly fantasy version – for starters the town looks like Budapest but isn’t (the name is slightly changed) and in his version of the 70s and all its tacky, beige style (or lack thereof) Hungary isn’t oppressed behind the Iron Curtain and a totalitarian Communist state but is enjoying the (sometimes dubious) pleasures of Capitalism. Which includes the Makky Burger chain of Japanese fast food diners, which is one of the few places Liza (Mónika Balsai) treats herself to with her swiftly diminishing pool of money. Liza is a nurse, engaged for several years now to look after the bed-bound wife of the late Japanese ambassador. From her elderly employer she’s picked up the Japanese language and a love for the literature and pop culture too – she endlessly, obsessively re-reads the same Japanese novel, especially a scene detailing a lonely woman who finds true love over the crab-burgers at Makky’s on her thirtieth birthday. And with Liza’s thirtieth imminent this isolated woman is convinced this is a Sign for her to follow for True Happiness. Leading her into a series of attempted liasons with mostly inappropriate suitors. And also to a series of bizarre accidental deaths which soon lead the police to suspect her…

Why the string of deaths? Ah, well, that, you see, will be Tomy Tani, the spectral form of a deceased 1950s/60s Japanese crooner. Her employer and Liza love his music, but only Liza actually sees him, and once her elderly employer is gone, leaving her the apartment as a thank you (cue jealousy from the family, who add their suspicions to the police’s), the ghostly Tomy is her only real companion. But is he just an invisible friend, a figment of her imagination conjured up by an unfilled woman to ease her isolation? Or is he a real supernatural entity? And if he is, is he really her smiling, singing friend? Or does he perhaps have his own motivations? What’s behind that smiley J-pop facade? Could it be he likes Liza to be so isolated, so he receives all her attention? Could it be that poor Liza is like the fox-fairy women of Japanese myth, lonely, craving love, but when they do sometimes find a man on their wanderings that man is usually doomed to die? Is she cursed?

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(Károly Ujj Mészáros speaking after the screening of Liza, the Fox-Fairy, pic from my Flickr)

Imagine early-period Jean-Pierre Jeunet (around his Delicatessen era), but if he’d been Hungarian and with a penchant for (deliberately) bad 1970s style and with that delightful fusion of comedy and horror, the touching and the ludicrous, fantasy and real. The film glows with details – it’s clearly a labour of love, with much attention paid to making scenes appear just-so, using real locations, sets and some CG augmentation (which I have to say I didn’t really notice, it was blended in well, and being on a tiny budget took the film-makers months to complete in post-production), giving the film a particular, individual look, feel and even sense of light that’s jsut pitch-perfect. An absolute delight of a film, which deserves a cult following.


I should also give a quick shout out for Simon Pummell’s British-Irish-Dutch co-production Brand New-U, another film working with a small budget and overcoming it by the use of some clever science fiction elements, which despite the five minutes into the future type of setting does what most good SF does, and uses those tropes to address the concerns of today – relationships and identity becoming mere commodities and services we purchase like a new smartphone or holiday thinking they will solve everything. And Takashi Yamakazi’s first in a series adapting the popular Japanese manga horror Parasyte was another late night slice of fun, some bonkers J-Horror, riffing on post-Croneberg body horror (intelligent parasitical creatures taking over humans) and also, by dark reflection, on the nature of human relationships in busy, urban city settings, “pod-people” given a J-Horror twist.

This article was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog

God of Thunder (and rock and roll*): Thor, the God Butcher

Thor, God of Thunder Volume 1 : the God Butcher,

Jason Aaron, Esad Ribic,

Marvel Comics

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893 AD, the Icelandic coast. The Norse settlement has been bedevilled by a Frost Giant, and had prayed to their gods for relief; the god of the thunder answered their prayers. Thor, the Odinson has already battled and slain the Frost Giant by the time we pick up this story, and is now drinking and feasting (eating more goats than the rampaging giant did, we are told) with the locals as they tell tales of the battle. But this isn’t the Thor we know, this is a much younger Thor, the Thor before he was worthy enough to wield the mighty hammer Mjölnir. This is a much more cocky, undisciplined Thor, overly sure of his own power and ability, and the praise of the local Vikings isn’t exactly dampening his already large ego. But when they spot wreckage and body parts in the sea nearby, Thor’s self-belief may be shaken by what they uncover…

As they gather to examine the remains, most are pulped beyond recognition, save for a head. And from the head they realise this is not some fellow Viking whose ship was wrecked, this is the head of one of the “feathered” natives of the semi-mystic land to the west of Iceland, across the dark ocean, the Vinland precious few Norsemen claim to have visited. An old, wise woman examines the head, but she sees something else beyond the severed head of a man from a distant land. She asks Thor to look into the eyes and say what he sees there. And suddenly Thor is startled from his complacency (beautiful character art from Ribic here) – he sees a god. This is the head of a dead god; a dead god who died with absolute terror in his eyes. The question is, who or what kills gods? But this is just the first taste of deity murders to come.

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We move to the present day, in deep space, the Thor we know today, Mjölnir in hand, answering another prayer, but this time on a distant world. He aids these desperate aliens, bringing a storm to quench their long drought, then asks them (over some of the local ale, naturally) why they didn’t pray to their own gods for help. We have none, they answer, older among them vaguely recall tales from their parents before them of gods, but they are long gone. Curious, since almost all worlds and cultures have stories of gods, Thor investigates, soon finding the sky palace of this world’s gods. And there he finds them butchered inside, every last one. Not just killed, butchered and clearly tortured, their deaths made to last a long time. Thor has a growing sense of unease – he has seen this millennia ago and thought the God Butcher long dead. But this looks like his work, and if he has somehow returned then he knows many more gods – perhaps entire pantheons on every world – will be slaughtered…

Then we glimpse the far future – beyond even the time of Ragnarok itself, towards the end days of the universe. And in a ruined, shattered Asgard only an old and weary Thor remains, grey-haired, one-eyed, slumped upon the throne in the great hall, looking very much like his father Odin once did. His hall besieged by the God Butcher’s creatures, all other gods, even his own kith and kin, gone, fallen. He summons enough energy for one final battle, knowing he probably can’t win, but wanting to die like a Viking, on his feet and in battle. But even this may be denied to him; the God Butcher wants him beaten again and again, but not killed. Much more painful for Thor to live, the very last god in the entire universe of time and space (the Butcher even finds a way to move through time to find and kill more deities), knowing he failed – the God Butcher has kept him till last just to add that extra level of pain upon the Thunder God, to hurt him even more than he could with physical torture. The Butcher has a very “special” relationship with Thor…

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The triple timeline viewpoints Aaron constructs here aren’t just a clever narrative device to allow him to give us overlapping events eons apart, or to remind us that Thor and his fellow gods are to all practical purposes immortal, going on age after age, although they certainly function on both those levels. But that three-part structure also allows Aaron and Ribic to indulge both themselves and the reader by giving us not one but three versions of Thor at different ages. We get the not terribly smart and far too damned sure of himself young Thor, certainly powerful, brave and able, but way too cocksure and smug with it. No wonder this version has yet to prove himself worthy of Mjölnir. The thing is that young version of Thor, in a Viking setting, leading longships of Norsemen on a mission, is terrific fun and the closest to the great Norse myths of the sort of Thor who would fly up north when bored just to pick a fight with a few Frost Giants. But that Thor is also, let’s be honest, grating too, so it is perhaps as well that this tripartite story structure means he never outstays his welcome to go from brash fun to annoying. And the triple timeline approach also gives us a nice view of the Thunder God’s life, from youthful boisterousness to more mature, thoughtful, responsible hero to finally the old king, seeing him across his long lifetime, how he changes through his experiences and responsibilities (and what remains the same).

The main plot, despite the clever three-timeline structure, is essentially straightforward, a seemingly unstoppable and truly vile evil being who goes from world to world seeking gods, any gods (gods of war, gods of poetry, he doesn’t care) and who doesn’t just want to kill them, he takes pleasure in it, even more pleasure in drawing out their deaths. And as Thor uncovers more he discovers from an ancient library that records all to do with every god anywhere, gods and entire pantheons have vanished many times over the life of the universe. And yet until Thor encountered the God Butcher nobody has ever bothered to investigate why – not even Thor. Gods are jealous creatures and care little for other gods, the librarian chides him, and Thor knows it to be true and ponders what this says about his fellow deities. And then realising until his battle with the Butcher he had never given the disappeared gods a single thought, he thinks, what does it say about me?

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It’s a cracking tale, perfect Thor-fodder, mixing high fantasy with ancient myth, just as Thor should. And it’s engrossing, remorseless; we’re driven along, even Thor, by the pace and demands of the relentless God Butcher, chase, pursuit, evasion, battle. But there’s more than hunt and action here, there’s a theme about the nature of gods and those who worship them, and of belief itself, of faith but also hubris. What they are, what mortals think they are and what the gods believe of themselves, and how this shapes the realities of many mortal species on endless worlds.

In one scene we see a brave group of Viking warriors attempt to rescue Thor from the clutches of the God Butcher, who is enraged by the fact that even now these warriors will fight in his name, that they won’t see him as defeated but instead fight to the last to free him. Bravery or faith (real or misplaced)? Both? It’s a fast-paced, visceral (sometimes literally) story, well-constructed, immersive, with both Aaron and Ribic clearly relishing the story (which itself sounds like it belongs in the old Sagas) and in getting to show such different aspects to Thor across the ages. The later volumes expand on this mix of fantasy and myth and draw the reader in even deeper. Thor isn’t always the easiest character to do properly, to balance enough realism against the mythic and fantastical, but here it is done perfectly. One of the finest Thor series in years and, if you’ve been meaning to get back into the Thunder God for a while but were not sure where to start, here is your perfect way in.

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(* = okay, he’s not the god of rock and roll, but some of us can’t say line “god of thunder” without adding that line)

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Judas: the Last Days

Judas: the Last Days,

W Maxwell Prince, John Amor,

IDW Publishing

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I’ve very much been looking forward to reading this book, every since I saw it in IDW’s solicitations a few months ago. Knowing little about it or the creators save what was in the description, it was one of those books that triggered that vibe I get sometimes that tells me I want to check out a particular book. I was also intrigued enough by the idea of a book exploring a long life of an undying Judas Iscariot to ask the author, William Maxwell Prince, if he would like to do one of our guest Director’s Commentary posts (where we give the space to the creators to talk about their new work in their own words, any way they want), and what he said in his guest post just confirmed my bookselling Spidey sense that I really wanted to read this. I was not disappointed; in fact I found Judas delivered rather more than I was expecting.

He had forgiven me before the first lie even spilled from my lips. And that only makes it worse… There was this just this way… He concentrated on you, loved you, even at your worse.”

When we first meet Judas, it’s fair to say he is not a terribly happy bunny – his immortality weighs heavily on him, along with his infamous betrayal. Two thousand years of wandering the world since he betrayed Christ, lamenting a world and people who don’t really change, who keep making the same awful mistakes again and again. And he himself, despairing, wishing dearly to simply end it, but he can’t – he can’t die, he doesn’t even bleed, as we find out in several flashbacks to parts of his two millennia history, including, notably, one scene with the infamous Doctor Mengele in the death camps of the Third Reich as he experiments on prisoners (also dovetailing nicely with the well-documented Nazi fascination for occult secrets and their eagerness to gain any powers for their own ends). We soon see him entering a secret place, a hidden library, staffed with gnome-like librarians, who keep all the stories of the peoples of the world, including his. Surely they can tell him how he can simply die? But no, his story is fixed.

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And so he goes to seek out old friends – very old friends, as it turns out. Judas isn’t alone, each of the apostles is also immortal, and each has found a different way to adapt to their unending lives. And spreading the Word, even if that was what they most wanted in the earliest days, doesn’t really seem to figure in most of their lives today. Matthew is a cross-dressing lover of carnal delights (including pimping for demonic and other supernatural beings) and Paul (the Lesser) is a bloated mountain of a man, gorging on food, drink and drugs. Except with his immortal physique he can swallow, snort or inject as many drugs as he wants but never really gets high. And Paul… Well, let’s not spoil anything, other than to say Paul, by his own admission, “loves a pulpit” and prefers a high place from which to preach. Except these days his preaching seems to be more about remaking things in his own view and boy has he picked a high position indeed… And all of them know Judas wants to end his immortal existence. And some of them know that even among twelve immortal disciples he is rather special…

And I’m not going any deeper into the narrative, partly because I don’t want to spoil things but also because discussing the main plot points here wouldn’t really do the book justice; Judas does indeed have a fascinating narrative, but it is really one of those reads to be experienced rather than just absorbing a story. In fact in many ways this is a story about stories, about the world, faith (religious or in another person, or sometimes both), it’s about how some special peoples – some might call prophets or even extensions of a godhead – become so remarkable because they have learned to start seeing the world in a different way. And not just see it in a different way but realising that their thoughts and beliefs, especially shared with others, can alter and change the world, change people, change reality. And that’s a process that never ends, because this is about the power of stories and ideas, and ideas, the truly good, important ones, are not static, the Word is not just what was inscribed on a tablet millennia ago, never to be changed or deviated from, it’s just a tool, a key, a device to help expand your own doors of perception and develop your own ways of seeing a different world. It’s fascinating.

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What if I told you there was no such thing as a truth? That anything, any idea, can be turned on its head and made into something better… A single loaf of bread can be multiplied into infinite pieces. A man can walk on water. You, me, those men you’re after, we can all live forever. You just have to know how to change a story.

The story manages an intoxicating mixture of religion, philosophy and fantasy, with an added dab of conspiracy theory, and yet I didn’t think it was disrespectful to the source religion, if anything it highlighted the remarkable nature of Jesus and the love the disciples had for him, but also their feelings of loss when he was removed from their presence (and poor Judas, damning himself for his role in that, but at the same time, wasn’t his role a necessary part of that narrative, a requirement to enable this changing shape of the world to the new, better story that The Word promised, to allow Him to be reborn, even more powerful, transfigured?). John Amor has to handle a huge amount of variety in his artwork – Biblical scenes, various other historical scenes, the present day world and some flights of pure fantasy and changing realities, (and he has to keep the main immortal character recognisable in each of those historical segments), a tall order, but one which he pulls off well. It’s a fascinating work, and one which will demand repeated readings (I’ve already found myself going back over it a couple of times), and one of those intriguing books that plants nice little idea seeds in your brain that will tickle away, tantalising your mind. It’s also one of those books where, because it is about the ideas and concepts it is conjuring up in your mind, maddeningly difficult to do justice to in a review, because each person will see those ideas a bit differently. Judas is a book which, I think, will especially appeal to those who enjoyed works like Gaiman’s Sandman, Mignola’s Hellboy and Carey’s Lucifer. Much recommended.

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This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog

When the nightmares leak out into the streets: Lauren Beukes’ Broken Monsters

Broken Monsters,
Lauren Beukes,
HarperCollins

broken monsters lauren beukes harpercollins cover

There’s a short version of this review which runs something along the lines of South African writer Lauren Beukes has been sent personally by the Dark Forces from the Infernal City to scar the mind’s inner eye with a scalpel of sharpened words. Although if Lauren is sent by demonic forces she’s very personable and has excellent taste in footwear. And besides, joking aside, from me saying a writer can scar your inner eye is a compliment. In Zoo City then more particularly with her last novel, the intensely brutal and powerful The Shining Girls (which made by 2013 best of the year list), she has displayed an uncanny knack for not just being able to conjure up images and scenes which stick in the reader’s mind long after finishing the book, they really get under your mental skin. In Broken Monsters she develops this skill to peel back the reader’s cognitive functions with a fine blade: the compelling main narrative flows over the cognitive components of the brain but the imagery leaks beneath the foundations of that logical faculty and seeps into the parts of our mind where imagination and it’s twin offspring Wonder and Terror live. This is a book which works as much on the logical strength of a powerful detective tale narrative but simultaneously works by engaging the darkest parts of our imagination; the combined effect is devastatingly powerful.

It seems pretty much everything in Broken Monsters is a struggle. The lead detective, Gabrielle Versado, has had to struggle against macho misconceptions about gender roles in the homicide department, as well as racial ones, while also struggling with a broken marriage and trying to be a single parent (her clever, determined but impulsive daughter Layla is also struggling, to come to terms with no longer being a happy family, with her mother often being dragged away by work pressures and the usual coming of age problems any teen in any city has). She and the entire department are in an eternal struggle, not just against crime in a city riddled with violent acts but with trying to bring order to a city that itself is struggling to hold together – Detroit. And then into this comes Clayton Broom, a man who has failed at relationships, at fatherhood, work and art, a man struggling to try and make sense of his life but lacking the ability to really understand and fit in. Until a car accident changes his perspective and he begins to start using his ‘art’ to reshape the world to how he thinks it should be. It’s not long after this that the first murder victim is found, his first attempt to bring his ‘message’ to the world and try and change it.

A body of a young boy.

Or, more accurately, half a body. The lower half is gone, replaced with those of a young deer, fused to the boy’s torso, then left posed to be found.

The scene is described in terms that really bring home the horror of this, not just of the deliberate, wanton taking of a life – a child’s life at that – but desecrating the corpse in this manner. Beukes captures the mindset of a group of big city detective battling to develop any possible clues into something they can work with, to take the monstrous but categorise it into areas of logical enquiry they can use, at emotional arms-length, to focus on the case and start working out why the killer did this, what it tells them, how they can use this to hunt him. Serial killer? Twisted trophy hunter fed up stalking animals, now turning to people? Is it race-driven? Sexual? Could it be some sort of ritualistic thing – a Satanic cult, Voodoo? You can almost hear the mental clicking of gears as the detectives take a situation that should never happen and try to apply their tried and tested methods on it to make sense of something that may be beyond sense, to categorise it, analyse it and follow those clues. But what if it is something else altogether?

What starts as a brutally compelling police-procedural story soon starts to morph – it will surprise no-one who has read Beuekes’ other books to learn that no single genre label can contain her work, and this is as much a horror story and a dark fantasy novel (reminding me sometimes of the dark horrors the likes of Tim Lebbon can conjure) as it is a detective story. When we see some of the events from Clayton’s increasingly disintegrating point of view we see that to him his horrific murders and bodily mutilations and alterations are not killing – they start as a sort of art, but not just art, this is primal art, art as a form of magic, as it was in the earliest days, when painting a deer on a cave wall was not just art but sympathetic magic, trying to capture something of the essence of that creature being depicted and to use it for understanding, shaping the world and power. The writing is deliciously dark – these are nightmares leaking out of the darkest places of a twisted, delusional mind of a man turned murderer, but as we are drawn deep into this heart of darkness it becomes increasingly difficult to tell nightmare fantasy from hard, cold reality in the semi ruined streets of Detroit. How much of this is the warped imagination of a sociopathic killer trying to somehow justify what he is doing to himself? And could it be real? What if others start to feel the awful, dark presence of what he is doing and how it can change the world around him and his ‘art’? It this shared delusions? Is there something else here? Psychotropics? Or something far worse, darker and unnatural…


(Lauren Beukes with artist Inaki Miranda at the 2013 Edinburgh International Book Festival, pic from my own Flickr)

I won’t delve any deeper into that, save to say Beukes manages to both have her cake and eat it in the very satisfying manner in which she explores the escalating situation and offers up different aspects for the readers to draw conclusions (and doubtless to argue with one another over aspects of what was what). Running through this main narrative thrust there are other elements – a sexual predator her daughter and friend bait with the aim of publicly shaming, her daughter’s friend in her seemingly perfect family but nursing her own dark secret, the burned out, failed journalist Jonno, come to the decaying city of Detroit and trying to reinvent himself as a new media guru, feeding off the increasingly bizarre murders. The scenes where Beuekes depicts various forms of new media and social media circling these events, exploiting them (and traditional media trying to feed off it like carrion) are bitingly realistic – the instant rush to judgement on comments online posted by people who don’t know what really happened but straight away have to shout loudly about their opinions (often in banal, badly spelled ways, frequently in vile, violent form) are sadly far too realistic. But those elements aren’t just added for a bit of detail or verisimilitude, oh no, Beukes is too good for that, she also starts weaving these new and social medias into the story in an unusual form that contributes to the main narrative, and how those changing media and technologies alter our view of the world around us, and our morality.

Even for an old hand at horror like me (happily raised in the pre-legislation era of the Video Nasties where you could watch anything) this is a deeply disturbing read. Somehow Beukes manages to craft not just the awful horrors of the brutal world big city detectives have to deal with on a daily basis (and she depicts the toll it takes on them) but then make this worse with an almost Lovecraftian atmosphere of some unspeakable, un-knowable, un-nameable horror that is leaking out from realms that should not exist except in our collective nightmares, bleeding into the real world on an artist’s palette that uses blood and body parts instead of oils and brushes. And it is utterly, utterly compelling while making parts of your brain twitch, you simply can’t pull away from it.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog