The Last Man on the Moon

The Last Man on the Moon,

Directed by Mark Craig,

Featuring Eugene Cernan, Alan Bean, Dick Gordon, Jim Lovell

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That whole time, that’s the time I call ‘sitting on God’s front porch.”

Those are the words of Gene Cernan, naval aviator, engineer and NASA astronaut, on his three days on the Moon as commander of Apollo 17. The last of the spectacular lunar Apollo missions. Gene was, quite literally, the last man on the Moon. Astronauts, cosmonauts, taikonauts, they’re a select cadre, a group who even now, more than fifty years after the first manned space flight by Gagarin, are composed of only a tiny group of people, the few who have flown above the clouds, above the very air we breathe, to enter space, to float around our glowingly blue world and see it as no-one else in the history of the world could have before space flight.

But among that select group the trailblazers of that first era of manned space flight stand out – Gagarin, Glenn, Shepherd, Leonov. These men really did go where no-one has gone before. Spaceflight is incredibly dangerous – you ride into orbit at vast velocity atop what is basically a carefully controlled series of explosions with a thousand things that can go wrong, to enter an environment Earthbound life was never meant to survive in, where a small mistake or fault can lead to death. And in the first years it was all entirely new – nobody even knew for sure if humans could live in space, could you even eat and digest while weightless in your orbiting capsule? Would cosmic rays kill you or fry your electronics leaving you adrift before you could do anything? Could you survive re-entry?

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(Above: Cernan poses for an official portrait in his spacesuit; below: Cerna in a less formal pose with his young daughter)

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Cernan was there right in the earliest days, one of those elite pilots recruited for the astronaut corps, starting with the Gemini programme, and this film draws principally on his autobiography. Cernan starts as the reserve crewmember but after an awful flying accident to the main crew he is moved up to  the mission – rather mixed feelings, to say the least, getting his dream tickets, a chance to soar into space, but getting that first chance because his friend and fellow flyer died tragically. And that part covering the early years of Cernan’s life at NASA , sets the tone for this entire film – this isn’t just about those first astronauts, about the setbacks and the triumphs. Those have been documented many times – deservedly – but here we have a much more personal and importantly a much more emotional film. This is still about those gloriously heady days, pushing to be the first to reach the Moon, but it is just as much about the emotional and psychological cost for the astronauts and their families.

If you think going to the Moon is hard, you ought to try staying home” – Cernan’s wife on hearing of a flight mishap during Apollo 10.

Cernan, to his credit, does not try to paint himself or his fellow Apollo astronauts who take part in this film as the simple, heroic figures history likes to portray. Which is not to downplay in any way the risks they faced, the amazing science and engineering it involved, the boundaries they pushed, the new frontier they charted. It was heroic. And like most things heroic it is too easy to forget behind those stories there is just a normal person – doing the extraordinary, to be sure, but still a person, like any of us. A person with loved ones around them who have to share that dream with them, who also have to sacrifice, who suffer emotionally. Not just the obvious worry over whether husband/dad/brother will come home safely. We’ve all seen those prim, seemingly serene NASA wives of the period watching the mission on TV with their kids and projecting the expected image of pride and confidence when really they were terrified of what could happen, but would never show it in front of the camera.

Cernan pulls no punches on that front – he comments that in many ways the astronauts were quite simply selfish; oriented totally on their goal, the mission, the training. Meanwhile real life was rolling on and it was the wives who had to make sure the kids were looked after, got to school on time, the bills were paid, household chores and repairs were done. Wives essentially had largely absentee husbands, children absentee fathers; they couldn’t stop training or being focused on the mission, there were only a few flight slots and only the best of the best would get that chance. And so they sacrificed – on the job, Cernan paying his dues flying Gemini then Apollo 10, the last flight before Armstrong’s historic landing, so close he could almost touch the Moon but knowing that first landing was not to be his (his respect for Neil shines through any disappointment at that). And it was a vital part of proving they could get men there and fly home, critical to the success of Apollo 11. As Cernan notes of those preparatory missions – “Not many people remember Apollo 10, but I do. And I’ll tell you someone else who did – Neil Armstrong.”

The Last Man on the Moon -Trailer from Mark Stewart Productions on Vimeo.

And later he gets his ultimate reward – and what a reward, what the calls his “personal moment of reckoning”, command of Apollo 17. With cutbacks looming after several successive lunar missions, it will be the final one leaving some who trained and were ready for their mission to never reach that goal. Where Armstrong and Aldarin have a short time on the surface the later missions had several days and the remarkable Lunar Rover, a hi-tech, Space-Age dune buddy for the Moon, so they could travel further and explore more, pick up more diverse samples to study back on Earth. And in an incredibly touching moment Cernan recounts how he parked the Lunar Rover for the last time, a little away from the landing module (LEM) so it could remotely film their take off.

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(Cernan on the Moon, by the Lunar Rover, the red commander’s stripes marking this out as his suit; below, the view from the trip round the Moon, the Apollo missions the very first time any human being had been far enough away to see the entire disc of our world, and to to share that image with all of us. We’ve grown up knowing what our entire globe looks like hanging in space, something all the thousands of generations before the late 60s never got to see)

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And as he dismounted to walk back to the ship for the final time he paused. And there in the ancient, dusty surface of the Moon he wrote his young daughter’s initials. Which, like Armstrong’s footprints will, in that airless vacuum, essentially remain there forever. As far from home as any humans have ever been, sacrificed so much home and family life to be there, to land on the Moon, and suddenly all he can think of is home and his wee girl. It’s beautifully touching. If any future mission – and who knew back then that almost four decades on we’d still not have returned – lands and visit the Rover, those initials will still be there.

Walking up the ladder was probably one of the most memorable moments for me, because I looked down at my footprints and I knew I wasn’t coming this way again. Why were we here, what did it mean? I looked over my shoulder: there’s the Earth, there’s reality, there’s home. I wanted to press the freeze button, I wanted to stop time, I really wanted to reach out, take it in my hand, stick it in my spacesuit and bring it home to show to everybody, this is what it looks like, this is what it feels like.”

And the last man to walk on a surface not of our Earth climbed the ladder to the LEM and Apollo 17 headed home. But it still wasn’t over, not really. Hard to recall now, but the early astronauts were global figures, international celebrities in a way the preening media darlings of today could never dream of, with tens of thousands lining routes to wave to them on visit. From Gagarin through to the Apollo crews, they travelled the world – presidents, celebrities, scientists, millions of ordinary people, all wanted to see them, to hear them speak, the glare of media followed them, and as Cernan’s then wife notes it becomes too much. They sacrificed for years for his training and the mission, and now it is over, but still they are in the spotlight – when do they get to be a regular family, have an ordinary life again? Too much for many – some sixty percent of the Apollo astronauts, including Cernan, would end up divorced due to the stresses and strains. The physical return to Plane Earth was relatively gentle, a splashdown in the ocean, but the emotional and psychological effects of having to come back to Planet Earth, to real, daily life, was far bumpier.

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(tired and covered in Lunar dust – making history can be dirty)

This emotional core is absolutely central to director Craig’s film here, and it gives a much more satisfyingly rounded and human insight into some of the most remarkable moments in recent human history, and those who made them happen. He doesn’t stint on the astonishing nature of the Moon missions or the glories of Apollo – period film, both NASA and family home movies and photos, all create visuals for both the missions and the families dealing with the effects of training for those historic flights, while some very well-done CG effects are added to the visuals, giving us a view we otherwise simply couldn’t have. But he balances this constantly with what it cost in terms of emotional and family life to do what they did.

And there are some wonderfully emotional scenes from the present day – Cernan returning to the Cape, to the old Apollo launch pad. It looks like the sort of thing any good film-maker would shoot – the subject returning to the scene of their greatest triumphs, where it all happened, where the roar of the awesomely powerful Saturn V rockets lifted men not just into space but all the way to the Moon and back. Except towards the end it is clear Cernan has not entirely enjoyed this stroll down memory lane, looking at the now empty, unused Apollo launch areas and thinking that he really doesn’t like seeing it like this, that perhaps he should not have come back to see it this way.

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(Cernan as he is today, re-visiting the Apollo launch pad, where world-changing history was made, now all silent – a bittersweet moment for the astronaut)

And in another immensely touching scene we see Cernan visit the Johnson Space Center, Houston. And there is the capsule from Apollo 17, from that defining, historic mission, the peak of his astronaut career. And it’s a museum piece, viewed by school children not born until decades after he flew in it. He looks at the capsule, still showing the raging fires of re-entry on the shell, and the dummy astronauts inside. Did we really do it, he muses, did we really reach out and do what humans have dreamed of forever, to touch the Moon? What was it all about? How do young people today see this item in a museum and the old man standing by it, looking just like anyone’s grandfather (and indeed he is). Was it all a dream? Did he really once fly in that small spaceship? What will people in another forty years or a hundred or a thousand think looking back at the Apollo days?

I’ve been in love with the idea of spaceflight since I was a very small boy, born at the height of the Space Age; I’ve read and watched so much of the history of those times and those world-changing events. Despite all the documentaries I’ve watched, the books I’ve read, this film still stood out, largely because of that very emotional core, giving a hugely satisfying new insight into those remarkable Apollo days, the human side to the heroic giants who rode fire into the heavens. For fellow space geeks like me this is essential viewing, but for those who just enjoy seeing epic history being presented at a very human level, this is also a remarkable film.

The Last Man on the Moon opens in the UK on April 8th, and there is a special screening with live link up for a Q&A with Gene Cernan on April 11th in many cinemas around the country.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

City built on books

Reading today that the vast knowledge the great consulting detective Mister Sherlock Holmes displayed was due largely to his Edinburgh author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle attending classes at the Royal Botanic Gardens in his teens. One hundred and forty year old records show a young Conan Doyle’s signature for attending his classes, where he would have learned about a number of interesting plants, including the deadly Belladonna, which would prove very useful several years later when he began writing the Sherlock Holmes tales, along with the already very well-known inspiration for Holmes himself which Doyle had in the shape of the remarkable Edinburgh lecturer Doctor Joseph Bell.

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This is one of the things I most love about living here in Edinburgh – not just the very long, rich history, not just the culture (like having the largest arts festival in the world), the amazing architecture, perched in turn on top of even more astonishing geology (giving Edinburgh a skyline like no other and wonderful walking opportunities along streets which curve down and up, and around), it’s the books: this is a city built on literature as much as its geology. Books are everywhere here, and I’m not just talking about the obvious form of bookstores or the Edinburgh International Book Festival (again largest in the world), it’s the way so many corners of this old city are deeply tied to authors and writing, from Robert Burns, Hume and Scott, Stevenson and Doyle to publishers like Chambers with their great reference works.

Robert Burns on the Mile

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Home of Robert Louis Stevenson

Today you can still see Robert Louis Stevenson or Conan Doyle’s childhood homes, drink in pubs they visited… And it goes on, from the mid 20th century “poet’s pub” in Milnes, where rhymers and bards got together (the Portrait Gallery here has the wonderful painting of them all together in the pub, for where else should a Scots bard be?) to the cafes where a struggling single mother was writing what would become the Harry Potter novels which so galvanised the reading habits of millions of children (and adults!) or a drink in the Oxford Bar where Ian Rankin’s bestselling Inspector Rebus enjoys a jar or three, and indeed it is not unknown to bump into contemporary Edinburgh authors when out patronising one of our city’s many fine drinking establishments, enjoying a small refreshment. It’s a book-lover’s city.

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A serious head-trip through billions of years: Jen Harder’s Alpha

Alpha Hardcover,

Jens Harder,

Knockabout

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I’ve very much been looking forward to Knockabout publishing Jen Harder’s Alpha, the first of a projected three graphic works which aim to take in one of the grandest themes a book can tackle: life, the universe and everything, from the fizzing, bizarre microseconds around the Big Bang when even the universal laws of physics and nature hadn’t yet taken effect (in fact they didn’t yet exist as we know them) through the slow birth of stars, planets, whole galaxies, then the molten lumps which would grow and reform to become one planet in particular, our own beautiful Earth.

In Alpha Harder takes us on a mind-blowing head-trip through some four and a half billion years (give or take) from the “let there be light” moment to formation of the Earth, the endless ages of changes, the first sparks of life, the astonishing spectacle of evolution, of great geological processes, from the beginning right through to the Anthropocene era, the “human era”. And as a subtle reminder that humans are not as special as we like to think we are, we come in only at the very end of this volume, comparative latecomers in the great book of life on Earth.

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The Beta and Gamma volumes are aiming to look at the rise of humans, form primitive ape-like forms to modern humans and establishing civilisations then potential futures, but those are stories for other days, and while I very much want to read those, Alpha offers up more than enough imagery, spectacle, amazement and food for thought for any reader to mentally digest.

At first only a germ exists, the singularity. From this infinitely hot and dense original state, no bigger than a football, the Universe expands. An inflation commences. The beginning of Space-Time.”

The breadth and scope of Alpha is remarkable, and Jens has the confidence to trust his readers and their own ability and knowledge, frequently giving us entire pages without text, just images, trusting his readers to participate with him, to be an active part of this story telling experiment. And what a story – the great story, the one philosophers, sages, religious leaders and scientists alike have explored since… Well, for as long as humans have been capable of thought. The first section come across very much like a fantastic voyage, spectacular images splashed across our retinas, from the infinitely small world of sub-atomic physics, quarks, of matter and anti-matter springing into being and annihilating one another, then to the much larger scale, to the cosmological scale. Hydrogen gas accumulating, gravity starting to exert its power billions of years before Isaac Newton would lay down his laws. Atoms are formed, stable substances, they start to group together under the influence of gravity.

As they clump together they are changed, enlarged, spinning, turning, growing. From simple dust and gas will come the most massive of structures: swirling gas spins before our eyes, faster, faster, heat generated by the friction, the rotation, pressures building from being so squashed together until heat and pressure pass the point of no return and this accumulation of matter ignite: nuclear fusion takes place at their heart and the first stars burn into existence, fuelling in turn the creation of more elements, while around these new stars more rocks come together, slowly, oh so slowly forming what will become the planets. It will take billions of years, but these cold rocks smashing together will one day become vast, complex ecospheres of their own, especially our own remarkable world.

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We move from the cosmic to the Earthly, to a world we wouldn’t recognise, one we couldn’t actually live on – the atmosphere, such as it was, poison to us and to most other life we know of, no water yet, the surface crust just the thinnest covering over raging magma, constantly bombarded by debris from the formation of the solar system. And yet this volcanic hell-world is destined to become the richest and most diverse source of life in our entire solar system. Wind and water start to form on this embryonic planet, shaping it as much as the geological movements do, that spinning metal core starts to generate a magnetic field, deflecting the worst cosmic rays, an invisible umbrella that will encourage and protect the endless variety of life to come.

And that life too will change the form of the Earth, the earliest lifeforms breathing the foul atmosphere and excreting oxygen. We can even still see some of those incredibly ancient lifeforms, such as the Stromatolites off the coast of the great island continent of Australia. We know that mighty oaks come from a humble acorn, but here Jens graphically shows us the almost miraculous formation of worlds, stars and life, from the most primitive bacteria which would eventually lead to swimming creatures, then backbones, eyes, legs. Giant sea scorpions, massive dinosaurs, the rise of the mammals, the waves of extinctions and the new forms which would emerge to take their place, a never-ending cycle of death and new life while around that life the Earth itself, seemingly so solid to short-lived beings like us, is continually changed, altered, mountains rise, erode, entire continents move and reform…

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Jens doesn’t just offer up imagery of these events though – throughout the entire book he constantly inserts frames from much, much later, from our own human culture era, into the events. The slow coalescing of gases into the spark of nuclear ignition that forms a living star comes across like a NASA countdown. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, we have ignition, and appropriately this sequence is intercut with the mighty blast of human-built rockets defying gravity to launch a spacecraft beyond our world. The growing power of the young sun bathing the early planets is intercut with more human imagery, Egyptian pharaohs and their children beneath the all-powerful sun-god Ra (or perhaps it is the Aten sun-god of the heretic king Akhenaten). Early creatures experiencing celluar division are contrasted with mythological beings from Incan and Mayan civilisations.

Sequences depicting the first order out of chaos as the laws of physics establish themselves following the Big Bang are intercut with human desires to impose order on nature, the swirl of the subatomic coming together to form the larger-scale reality intercut with the creation of the great Pantheon and its wondrous dome by the Romans. The embryonic seas form in a sequence intercut with Hokusai’s famous Great Wave artwork. Depictions of continental drift are contrasted with delightfully inaccurate and yet still so beautiful medieval Mappa Mundi, the amazing new life forms of the great beasts contrasted with woodcut images from a bestiary, the era of the giant “terror birds” with Alice meeting Dodo, the evolutionary adaptation of skeletons to move from sea to land with the structure of the mighty Forth Rail Bridge, nature and human culture and invention entwined repeatedly.

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It’s a remarkable experience; this journey across unbelievably vast tracts of time and creation is mind-bending. It puts me in mind of The Light of Other Days, a collaboration between Stephen Baxter and the great Arthur C Clarke, in which wormhole technology allows humans to look anywhere in time and space, one character following his own family line back, back, back, his mother, father, grandparents, following them visually all the way back to early hominids and further back. But here, unlike Clark and Baxter, we are moving forward, not back, sailing through space-time and history and evolution.

And while the concepts are as vast and complex as the timescales and lifeforms they depict, this counter-cutting the story of creation with human images puts a scale on it we can understand, while also reminding us strongly that we’re not different, we’re not apart from all of this, we are an integral part of this magnificent chain of creation. It also subtly hints that out of all of those billions of years and different lifeforms, we are the only ones we know of who have established an understanding of these things, and even then only comparatively recently.

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It’s only a few hundred years since Hooke explored the microscopic world we never even knew existed before that period, even more recent since we started to understand world-shaping concepts like continental drift or stellar physics or sub-atomic physics or the Darwinian notions of evolution, barely half a century since we discovered DNA or set foot on a surface that was not part of our own world, but another celestial body. And yet all those new discoveries and knowledge are all connected with what went before, standing on the shoulders of giants, our precious knowledge showcased so wonderfully here also part of that same great chain of circumstances across billions of years which allowed the conditions for these things to happen, these creatures to be, these people to exist, to think…

It is both incredibly humbling, putting us in our place, just another part of a long cycle of life, and yet also exalting humanity for being the only life on Earth to be able to comprehend and celebrate this knowledge. Humans are a part of this creation, not aside from or above it, but a part of it, the latest in a long, oh so long chain of events leading to the conditions for life, then for that life to slowly evolve into beings who could regard this universe and start to read it’s history like a book, to start lifting back the heavy curtains of Dark Matter to peer at the very structures of the universe or to explore the book of life through DNA or the extensive fossil record our remarkable world has furnished us with and start putting together those stories. Which are our stories, the stories of all life.

This is a spectacular book, a ride through the creation of everything, leaving the head spinning, flooded with ideas, imagery, offering new lenses to look again at the world around us and marvel at it all. It’s combination of physics, cosmology, geology and evolutionary sciences is like a terrific mixture of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and David Attenborough’s Life on Earth. Ultimately though, Alpha offers readers something truly special, that beautiful feeling that comes simply from the sheer sense of wonder.

Don’t ask me and don’t tell me. I was there.
It was a bang and it was big. I don’t know
what went before, I came out with it.
Think about that if you want my credentials.
Think about that, me, it, imagine it
as I recall it now, swinging in my spacetime hammock,
nibbling a moon or two, watching you.
What am I? You don’t know. It doesn’t matter.
I am the witness, I am not in the dock.
I love matter and I love anti-matter.
Listen to me, listen to my patter.

Oh what a day (if it was day) that was!
It was as if a fist had been holding fast
one dense packed particle too hot to keep
and the fingers had suddenly sprung open
and the burning coal, the radiant mechanism
had burst and scattered the seeds of everything,
out through what was now space, out
into the pulse of time, out, my masters,
out, my friends, so, like a darting shoal,
like a lion’s roar, like greyhounds released,
like blown dandelions, like Pandora’s box,
like a shaken cornucopia, like an ejaculation –

I was amazed at the beauty of it all,
those slowly cooling rosy clouds of gas,
wave upon wave of hydrogen and helium,
spirals and rings and knots of fire, silhouettes
of dust in towers, thunderheads, tornadoes;
and then the stars, and the blue glow of starlight
lapislazuliing the dust-grains –

I laughed, rolled like a ball, flew like a dragon,
zigzagged and dodged the clatter of meteorites
as they clumped and clashed and clustered into
worlds, into this best clutch of nine
whirled in the Corrievreckan of the Sun.
The universe had only just begun.
I’m off, my dears. My story’s still to run! ” Planet Wave, Edwin Morgan (excerpt)*

(* = apologies for such a lengthy quote, but Alpha put me in mind so much of the poetry of the great Edwin Morgan, who often showed a fascination for real science and for science fiction in his work, and I had to include the opening of his Planet Wave verse, which celebrates the creation of the universe, the world, people and life, much as Alpha does, although in very different ways. Carcanet have it in his collected poems, should you wish to read the full thing)

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

The Longest Day – Robert Capa and Omaha Beach

Omaha Beach on D-Day,

Jean-David Morvan, Severine Trefouel,

Photographs by Robert Capa & Magnum, translation by Edward Gauvin

First Second

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It’s not always easy to stand aside and be unable to do anything except record the suffering around one.”

I’ll be honest up front – Robert Capa has always been one of my photography heroes, a fascinating character who reinvented himself several times in his early life as he was forced to flee from one country to another, until he crafted the person of “Robert Capa”, which he thought sounded a bit more American and would help him make contacts for his work as a pioneering photo journalist (this at a time when photo-heavy magazines were just becoming common, a rich source of images for many in the days before television reporting). Despite being only a little over forty when he was killed covering the early stages of the Indochina war (which would later snowball in the murderous morass of the Vietnam War) in the mid 1950s, he was by then one of the most famous photo journalists in the world. Even before the Second World War he had been dodging bullets, armed with a camera rather than a gun, recording the Sino-Japanese war and the Spanish Civil War (where he became firm friends with Ernest Hemingway, but would also lose his partner Gerda Taro). During this period he took one of the most famous images of combat ever seen, the “falling soldier”.

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Iconic though the Falling Soldier image has become though, Capa’s “finest hour” was still in the future, on a grey, cold morning on the coast of France. The 6th of June 1944: D-Day, the greatest armada in the history of the world set sail from Fortress Britain. The Allies are about to attempt the impossible, to land a vast force of men and equipment in the face of an entrenched, determined, fortified enemy. Gold, Juno, Sword, Utah and Omaha: the invasion beaches divided between the British, Canadian and American forces. Many brave men would fall on this morning amid explosions and machine-gun fire or simply drowned before they could even touch boot to the soil of Occupied France. Intricately planned and arranged as it was, it was still a massive throw of the dice on which the fate of the free world would depend, and Capa, an inveterate gambler himself, couldn’t resist that. He managed to get himself assigned to the American troopships, destination Omaha Beach. Bloody Omaha, as it became known, the worst of all the D-Day landing beaches (half the entire casualties from the first day for all five beaches came from Omaha alone, it was that bad, thousands fell), and plans going wrong as men desperately improvised a way through the Nazi defences as their friends went down around them.

And Capa was there, camera in hand, in the very first wave, wading ashore as bullets ripped beach and men alike, soaking, cold, terrified, seeing American soldiers falling all around him, storming onto the beaches with the very first troops (from the famous Big Red One division). And he shoots his camera. Again and again he snaps picture after picture: one of the most pivotal moments in the history of the twentieth century is happening and Capa is right there, recording it, bearing witness as bullets bounce around him. He shoots four rolls before he makes for a landing craft carrying wounded back to the waiting ships, and even then the horror doesn’t end – there’s guilt at being able to leave, unlike the soldiers (I’m a coward he tells one injured GI, no, you volunteered to do this, you’re no coward the man tells him), the sight of the dead and wounded… The rolls of film make it to the Time-Life offices in London, but in an absolute disaster the rush to develop them leads to an accident. Three rolls are mangled, unusable. After all Capa went through, those images are gone. But that final roll? The developers pull ten images from that. Amazing images, our eye on the Longest Day, history recorded in grainy black and white, with hand-shake from movement and from terror (Capa used to joke that a combat photo should always have a little blur or shake in it), but filled with the enormous power of the image, reproduced endlessly, tiny moments of major history frozen forever by the camera.

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And that’s what Jean-David Morvan and Severine Trefouel explore here, in this fascinating and unusual book, a long, landscape-format hardback which is half comics story and half photography book, the first half using the comics medium to explore the events leading up to and during those astonishing, world-changing moments of the 6th of June, 1944, the second half is a rich helping of wartime photographs by Capa and from the famous Magnum photography co-operative which he co-founded (not unlike Chaplin et al’s United Artists, it was a way for the talent to retain some independence but also to have support; it would produce some amazing images and nurture superb talent) and prose discussing Capa and his life and work and death. Both halves are compelling, fascinating and often seem like something made up for a film, but it’s all true…

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The artwork is in a nice, clear line style for the segments before and after the events of D-Day: Capa preparing for the big push, a last moment party with friends and lovers in war-torn London (including Hemmingway – his girlfriend mistakes the writer for Capa’s dad when he calls him “Papa” until she is told it is Hemmingway’s nickname). And the landscape format allows for some good use of wider images – smaller, traditional frames for intimate moments of friends talking, then bigger images filling the whole landscape page, like a movie camera pulling back in a reverse zoom to show scenes like the busy harbour as the invasion forces prepare to leave Britain for their destiny, or in some cases those large, landscape-filling scenes continue onto the next page with a few regular frames over the top, again very filmic, like cuts between internal scenes between characters and wide-screen shots of the exterior around them. This also effectively suggests both the individual nature of the people involved but also how they are part of one, massive group effort about to do something truly Herculean.

And then there are the pages dealing with D-Day itself, which are, quite frankly, staggering. Much of the art here takes on dark, sombre, grey tones to match the dismal weather (too dark for good photos, quips Capa, preparing to wade ashore), and washes of monochromatic watercolour effects render much of this far muddier than the preceding clear line work, quite deliberately so, I think, an attempt to imitate the “blur” and “shake” of Capa’s photographs, shot while running, ducking from fire, shaking with fear and adrenalin and horror (decades on Spielberg would use these as his inspiration for the shockingly powerful opening to Saving Private Ryan). Several scenes draw directly on those legendary ten photographs, while others, when you pause and take them in more closely, reveal themselves to be those same scenes from the opposite perspective, such as the famous “man in the surf”, a GI crawling forward through the waves, seen as he is in the photo but also seen from a perspective behind him, looking to the hell of the beach, and amid the chaos, on one side, Capa, kneeling behind an anti-tank barrier for cover, camera held up, shooting the scene.

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The landscape format also allows for an astonishing double-page spread, the vast invasion armada appearing out of the grey dawn, filling the entire horizon, And then something even more spectacular – a four-page gatefold, those four pages unfolding their long, landscape pages to reveal an enormous panorama of the invasion beach, sweeping from a Nazi gun emplacement on one end firing on the invasion, to one just captured at great cost by the GIs at the other end, the sweep of imagery between taking in ships lurching in high waves, being blown up, disgorging more men, bodies in the water and over the beach, men fighting, running, dying. It’s perhaps the most stunning single image in any comic work I have seen this year. I keep coming back again and again to take it in. It’s a piece of art that I know will be burned into my memory for a lifetime. It was too large to fit on the scanner, the only way I could get an image was to lay it out on the desk and stand over it on a chair with my camera, so apologies, this isn’t and ideal picture of that magnificent fold-put, but it was the best I could manage (click on it for the larger view below):

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If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”

The second half of the book detailing his life and work is richly illustrated with his photographs from the war. Of course those iconic ten D-Day images are there, and it is fascinating to flip back and forth between the comic images and the actual photographs of that event. But there are many other images, still radiating power across the decades; bodies of the fallen on the beaches, burned out tanks and landing craft behind them, images of oh-so-young lads boarding ships in Weymouth harbour for the invasion, a young German soldier being taken prisoner, uniform and hat askew, piercing eyes and blonde hair, he would normally be a handsome young man, but here he looks like a young boy who has seen too much (which I suppose he was, really), the thousand yard stare of his face haunting, physically unharmed but clearly wounded somewhere deep inside. And there’s a detective story piecing together the true identity of the blurry “man in the surf”, the actual soldier, still alive, finally identified.

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Although really, while nice to know, it doesn’t really matter who the man in that D-Day image was, he stands for all of his brothers-in-arms, he’s symbolically all of them, the ones who fell and the ones who came home bearing scars physical and mental. I’d like to think both Capa and those who served would see those images not just as individuals but as standing for all who did what they had to do on that long, long day.

Capa was a pioneer in believing that a few still images could tell a moving story, and to me it seems highly appropriate that a medium that does just that, the comics medium, should tackle this moment in his life. As with his photographs the comics medium allows us to perceive both a frozen moment, to take in all the details at our own speed in a way real life of moving film cannot, and yet is part of a sequence, connected to other still images, creating a narrative in our minds. Even in our media-saturated modern culture where anyone can shoot video which ends up on global news, the power of a few static images, photographs or comics panels, can still be tremendously powerful and effective in a way nothing else can.

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The book uses some of his own lines from his autobiography Slightly Out of Focus, and is also framed by the device of having Capa relating the story to a journalist over the phone. The journalist is talking to him for an article to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the D-Day landings. Capa was killed by a landmine while covering the Indochina war in May 1954, as former French colonies asserted themselves after the Second World War and made their bid for independence (in what would escalate later to the quagmire of the Vietnam War). It was just a couple of weeks before that tenth anniversary, a date he wouldn’t live to see – he was only forty year old. A camera was found in his hand; he recorded the world right to the last moments of his life.

American-Middle East relations throughout history: Best of Enemies Volume 1

Best Of Enemies Volume 1 1783 -1953 Hardcover,

Jean-Pierre Filiu, Davide B,

SelfMadeHero

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During a war the kind of “evidence” people are looking for usually doesn’t exist.”

Our world, especially since the murderous events of 9-11, has been dominated by the relationship of the West to the “Middle East”, an often nebulous and catch-all terms applied to a wide geographical area and divergent peoples (although to be fair “the West” is a similarly catch-all term). And in particular modern international politics have been centred heavily on how the United States interacts with the Middle East, and the different ways the countries in that region interact with the US, some openly hostile, some allied (but always for a price of some sort), some can be a friend one day and a deadly enemy who must be fought to the death the next, as changes in administrations, ideologies and military and economic power (the two are often synonymous) dictate new policies and directions, decisions made in seats of government that will have huge ramifications for millions who really had little say in matters. Sometimes it’s a new oil refinery or rights to a naval base, sometimes it leads to all out war, and afterwards the shattered, pained aftermath of civil strife, more civilian deaths and desperate refugees trying to flee events they had no hand in, while in the West innocents are threatened by terrorism and fellow citizens become suspect simply because of their religion.

It feels like a very modern problem, this “clash of civilisations” as it has been called, or also “the clash of ignorance” as the great Edward Said noted. Of course it is not and those who read history will doubtless already be aware that there is a long and quite utterly sordid and immoral history lying behind those current events and situations. In fact there is much, much more than most of us probably know. I’ve read a lot of history over the years, and while there were elements in here that I had some familiarity with – going right back to WWI and Lawrence of Arabia, and British, French, Russian and Turk machinations over the region for strategic and resource control – Jean-Pierre Filiu (former French diplomat, historian and academic) and the award-winning David B’s collaboration here exposes so much history, from the European-facing shores of North Africa (now staging post for waves of desperate refugees and god knows how many drowned on the way, these lands have always been a focal point for events) to the Persian Gulf to Israel and Lebanon. It’s a hugely complex jigsaw over overlapping interests from various powers, from religious fundamentalist leader to greedy corporations with the ears of their governments and competing military and economic interests.

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But it’s a complex subject which Filiu and David B make far, far for accessible using the comics medium (at a recent talk at the Edinburgh Book Fest Filiu mentioned in some of his university classes he also uses comics, such as Sacco’s Footnotes in Palestine, to teach his students about the history of the region). Filiu is a very thoughtful man with vast first-hand experience as well as academic learning on this subject, while it will surprise no-one who knows of David B’s work to learn that he creates some remarkably powerful and efficient imagery to communicate this subject which sprawls across decades and nations – from the devilish grin on the incredibly disturbing-looking US spook-master Kermit Roosevelt (cousin of the famous wartime president) gleefully working in shadows to change regimes (his techniques would later be applied by the US to regimes they disliked in South America too),  to stylised images of cannons with legs to denote military force (or cannon with hands coming out holding money bags or diplomatic scrolls to denote negotiation), while leaders, Arabic and Western, sprout oil pipes for arms or Islamist terrorist and US soldiers alike are shown as human bodies clutching guns, but their faces are just huge, projecting cannon barrels.

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David B’s imagery is quite astonishing here, sometimes referencing older, period art styles (a few panels almost like woodcuts) and varies from realistic to surrealist images, and he plays often with perspective and sizes, powerful figures, be it a Western Admiral or an Eastern Pasha, shown as huge compared to the figures of those he is dealing with, or the giant turbans of 17th and 18th century pashas morphing to become a globe around which all the various parties orbit, or an image of the Grand Turk, his curling moustaches now curving blades of Turkish scimitars, diplomats are shown literally bending so far over to meet their aims that they are facing backwards, while others lie with mouths agape as a warren of oil pipes criss-cross the page, terminating above their open mouths which suckle greedily and insatiably on the oil. The imagery is quite magnificent, this is no simple depiction of events, this is the artist doing what a truly great comics artist does best, working with the author’s words but in a way which doesn’t merely illustrate or compliment, it enhances, tells a whole other aspect of the tale in its own right, making both words and pictures far more together than the sum of their parts. This is the work of a master, and I can see why Filiu mentioned that there will be a gap between the second book and the third, as the process is so exhausting to the artist.

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Space here does not allow for me to go heavily into the details of a century and a half or so of US interactions with the region (in which they actually coin the term “Middle East”) and besides, as I’ve already inferred, it’s far too complex to sum up in a review. Suffice to say it is a fascinating, compelling slice of history, laid out in an accessible, highly intelligent manner (and still retaining at certain points a playful sense of humour here and there to leaven the weight of other events), going right back to the newly independent US in the late 1700s encountering the infamous “Barbary” pirates that the European navies had long been battling (indeed the great Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, was once captured and forced to be a galley slave for these pirates who used the mask of religious jihadism to cover acts which were more for their own material gain than any true religious observance – not unlike many today misusing religions as supposed justification for attacking one group or another).

It is just as dangerous to take action as it is to do nothing. There are thing we know and we know we know them. These are Known Knowns. There are also things we know we don’t know. These are Known Unknowns. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know. What does this tell us? That the world we live in is vast and difficult, a complicated world where denial and manipulation are common currency.” Enkidu and Gilgamesh speaking Bush and Rumsfeld’s words – astonishing that anyone who speaks such gibberish could be taken seriously and allowed to make important decisions…

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And the opening prologue is a wonderfully cheeky delight, taking the oldest written story we humans have, the great Epic of Gilgamesh, born out of those same lands we’ve so recently bombed to dust (the cradles of human civilisation, no less), but reworks that great tale that has been retold for four thousand years around the world, inserting actual speeches by George W Bush and Rumsfeld into the mouths of Gilgamesh and Enkidu to justify their warlike raids on neighbouring, resource-rich lands. This isn’t just history repeating itself (and repeating and repeating…), it’s myth and folklore and culture and history and the same mistakes over four millennia, and we still don’t seem to be learning.

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An image of an ancient Sumerian stele unearthed in Iraq (now in the Louvre) depicts a pyramid made of the bodies of enemies, piled atop each other, then cuts to the infamous human pyramid of masked prisoners US soldiers arranged in Abu Ghraib for their own amusement. The ancient stele is called “the stele of the vultures”, the modern image from Abu Ghrain “a stele of the vultures for our century”. For anyone who admires the way in which comics can open up such complex subjects, and who admire world-class comics art, this is a must read. And for the simple fact it puts in context so much of what has shaped our troubled, modern world, it is also a book everyone should read and then sit back and consider. A modern classic.

An Edinburgh View…

It was the annual Doors Open Day at the weekend and as I usually do I went out exploring. Walked from the lower east end of the New Town back up through the Old Town and to Tollcross before going for a break, several hours of walking, exploring and of course taking photos as I went. I shot a gig of pics, still culling out the duff ones, but one set I processed quickly and uploaded to my Flickr, a set shot from a vantage point I didn’t even know existed. One of the places taking part in Doors Open was the old India Buildings, which used to be offices, including the civic registry office (so there was often a lot of confetti outside the doors). At the moment it is mostly empty, plans in hand to redevelop it into something cultural hopefully, so there wasn’t a huge amount to see inside (apart from a lovely central atrium). However once through a suite of empty, dilapidated rooms on the topmost floor there was a narrow spiral staircase in a corner, only wide enough (just) for one person), which lead up to a small attic room. And as I was thinking, is that it?

I noticed outside the open window a very, very small stone balcony, invisible from the streets way below, so narrow it was only wide enough for one person, so I clambered out the window and along it, and oh, what a hidden and wonderful surprise… Views across half the Old Town of Edinburgh… Including this view of Edinburgh Castle:

An Edinburgh View 01And down into the old Grassmarket area, which contains inns that were old even when Robert Burns came to stay in them, and beyond to the large bulk of the Edinburgh College of Art An Edinburgh View 04

And historic Greyfrairs church and kirkyard, witness to some pivotal moments in Scottish and British history

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Nearby across the roofs was the lantern top of the enormous Central Library – I’ve been to several literary events in that space (multiple level library room with all those windows so high up flooding it with natural light), but I’ve never seen it from this perspective before

An Edinburgh View 07Herriot’s School, looking very much like what you would expect to see if Hogwart’s had an Edinburgh branch An Edinburgh View 012

North over curving Victoria Street to the Royal Mile and the distinctively coloured historic structure of Riddles Court, which I’ve visited on previous Doors Open (amazing interiors)

An Edinburgh View 015And a view down into Victoria Street, which curves downwards from George IV Bridge down into the Grassmarket, and which is a splendid spot for observing the multiple levels Edinburgh’s Old Town architecture exists on as it straddles the steep slopes of the great volcanic ridge which runs down from Castle Rock to the palace. Normally I am looking up at this scene of multiple levels curving around and above me, but this time I got to look down into it all – quite wonderful experience to see it all from the perspective of the eagle’s eyrie An Edinburgh View 016

An Edinburgh View 018Ah, Edinburgh, you can still surprise me after all these years living here and give me such lovely presents to point my camera at (coincidentally I noticed I just passed the 12,000 images mark on my Flickr photo stream over the weekend). There’s history and geology and literature and more embedded into this hilly, volcanic terrain and towering, ancient structures which rise from the rocks (and often cut deeps into them too, to a world below…), such a remarkable city, no wonder I love living here. Edinburgh Old Town panorama vid

Cityscapes…

Last weekend Edinburgh basked in glorious, golden autumnal sunlight, so I walked up Calton Hill, not far from the east end of Princes Street and the spot the great Robert Louis Stevenson regarded as one of the finest for taking in picturesque views of the city. It was very busy with locals and tourists enjoying the fine autumn weather, and I decided to take some cityscapes looking out over Edinburgh. I’ve taken shots from there before, of course, many times, but Stevenson was right, it’s a wonderful spot for taking in panoramas of Edinburgh, and even though I have taken pics there before, the autumn light was so beautiful I couldn’t resist taking more. I find that happens often here, there are some elements of Edinburgh I have taken photos of many times over the years, same area or building, but different time of year, different light quality (and the light quality here is constantly changing, daily, not just the major shifts with the seasons). And anyway, can you blame me for taking more views of my city when it looks like this?

Palace of Holyrood, autumn dayThe Palace of Holyroodhouse – the palace is mostly a sixteenth century structure, home of the monarchs of Scotland and today the official residence of the UK monarch when in Scotland. It is, unsurprisingly, filled with Scots history, from Mary Queen of Scots to the mighty Robert the Bruce who held a parliament in the nearby (now ruined) abbey in the 1320s. cityscape, autumn day 04

I’ve always loved the oddness of this Playfair-designed building on Blenheim Place – it’s a typical neo-classical structure of the type common in the New Town (and this area was to be essentially an eastern extension to the New Town), but look how unusual it seems, pillars and steps leading down not to ground level but to the town houses below it…

cityscape, autumn day 07Looking northwest across the New Town, in the closer zoom (below) you can even see the tall palm houses of the Royal Botanical Gardens in the upper right background cityscape, autumn day 08

cityscape, autumn day 05Looking down eastwards, the fine buildings of London Road in the foreground, Leith and the docks then the mighty Firth of Forth in the background. In the closer zoom you can clearly see some of the industrial structures around the docks area, such as the tall flour mill, then the Forth beyond cityscape, autumn day 01

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Looking south, towards the bottom of the Royal Mile in the Old Town, this is the Canongate Kirk, a 17th century church near the palace – the cemetery includes residents such as Adam Smith, Dugald Stewart and “heaven sent” Fergusson, the poet who died young and was claimed by Robert Burns as one of his main inspirations. In fact Robert Fergusson’s grave there unites three different literary Roberts – Fergusson himself, Robert Burns who campaigned for a better memorial for his brother poet, then much later Robert Louis Stevenson who planned to restore the then-crumbling memorial, “one Edinburgh lad to another”. He didn’t manage before his early death, but a literary society later did restore it and now a plaque on the grave notes all three writers. That’s Edinburgh for you, it’s built as much on writing and books and words as it is geology and history…

Canongate Kirk, autumn day

Pastoral scene of the Gallant South: Jones & Waid’s Strange Fruit

Strange Fruit #1,
Mark Waid, JG Jones,
Boom Studios

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“Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.” Billie Holiday, Strange Fruit

This first collaboration between two highly respected creators, JG Jones and Mark Waid, caught my eye on the racks this week. Actually it caught my eye earlier than that, truth be told – I saw it the day before as colleagues were unpacking and preparing the new releases to go out on New Comic Book Day (best day of the week, of course!), and was drawn to it right away, partly because of the creators but largely that cover art and that evocative title grabbing my attention, the allusion to that darkly bittersweet song by the great Billie Holiday, oh so beautifully sung in her distinctive, sultry, emotional voice, yet the lyrics detailing a scene of horrific racism, violence, even lynching. Given some of the issues highlighted worldwide by the multitude of highly suspect police shootings of people of colour and the furore around them, and the backlash from certain groups against the Black Lives Matter campaign, some might say that race relations in the US have not improved as much as we had all hoped from Billie’s time, and it means Strange Fruit arrives laden not only with historical baggage, but with an awful lot of contemporary resonance (a scene with thugs in those ludicrous KKK pointy-headed costumes in a car festooned with Confederate battle flags feels like it leapt out of the newspapers of the last few weeks, although this art would have been painted long before those events).

Opening in rural Mississippi in 1927, the first of this four-part series offers up a setting drenched not only in relentless rains and floods, but with Jones’ use of colour, especially his background skies, all dark but pale blues and greens, or by evening bruised purples, giving the sense of storms gathering, his art even catching that reflective quality the puddled ground water takes on, even at night, moonlight or car headlamps bouncing off the standing water in silvery brightness. A group of cars full of very angry looking and armed white men pulls up outside a wooden shack cafe with a sign declaring it caters to coloured people, one man cautioning his young boy, riding in the back of the truck with his dog, to stay there or go play with his dog, but not to follow him because “this ain’t no place I ever wanna see you in.” Before they enter we see a flashback to the same man talking to a very dapper black gentleman in suit, bow tie and boater hat, epitome of 20s style. The black man is an engineer sent from Washington to help beef up their flood defences – the rains, he explains, have already breached many levees further up-river, flooding entire towns.

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The white man is less than impressed to be talking to a black man who is clearly far more knowledgeable and articulate than he is. The engineer’s explanation is interrupted by a single panel, wordless, of the white man glaring at him, until the engineer adds “sir” to any sentences addressed to him, a tiny moment but one which speaks volumes. As the engineer continues to outline possible contingency plans he also describes the problems they face. “Our problem is that we got too many n*****s ’round here wearin’ suits,” is the reaction of the white man. In a later scene we find that even though he is clearly a loathsome racist, he’s actually one of the more restrained of his group, holding back one of the others who pulls a gun in the cafe for coloured people as they force them occupants back out into the rainy night, insisting they continue with the levee reinforcements. As one black man in the cafe points out, this isn’t a job – sure they are paid for the work, but poorly, even less than on the plantations, and besides they were forced into it, coerced, slavery in all but name, “let that ol’ man River take this whole damn delta” is his response. Unfortunately this leads to exactly the sort of scene you might think, a bunch of angry, white redneck bigots grab their white sheets, shotguns and ropes to pursue him out into the rain-filled night.

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But something is about to happen – more than rain is falling from the skies (warning, possible spoilers), as a fireball streaks across the night, crashing, of all places, right into the already strained levee, causing a breach. As the men rush to try and plug the gap with sandbags, the lynch mob pursuing the black man who dared to stand up to them in the cafe are about to find out what that fireball contained, in a scene with obvious and heavy connotations to the origins of a certain much-loved comics figure, something that even their baying hounds will shy away from (you see why I warned of spoilers – I debated not mentioning this at all, but it’s an important part of the first issue so I thought it had to be covered, with appropriate spoiler warning alert first).

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The atmosphere here is beautifully handled, the entire issue is permeated with that sense of the time, the place and the issues, to the extent you can almost feel that uncomfortable mix of humidity and heat as the rains keep pouring down on the land, and as I noted earlier the colouring is especially effective in helping conjure that scene, used as diligently here are a cinematographer would frame and light a scene for their camera. Jones once more employs fully painted artwork, and it is gorgeous to behold, even when depicting scenes of awful events unfolding, detailed, realistic, beautifully posed, lit,coloured, just wonderful to look at, and it doesn’t hurt that Boom have decided to publish this with a card cover instead of paper, adding to the quality feel. I’m interested to see where this goes in its four-issue run, and also interested to see if it helps plant more thought in readers’ heads about the issues it confronts, issues which should damned well be in buried in the overgrown cemetery of history but which sadly still keep raising their ugly heads even in the supposedly more enlinghtened, advanced society of the here and now.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog

A quiet, forgotten hero: Le Train de Michel

Le Train de Michel,

Jed Falby,

Halsgrove Publishing

le_train_michel_jed_falby_halsgrove_coverIt’s 1944, and after years of desperate struggle, the tide is finally turning in the battle against the once seemingly invincible Nazi hordes – Russians advance in the east, the Allies are working their way up Italy, liberating Rome and then comes D-Day, the greatest amphibious armada in history, the bloody beaches marking the start of the eventual liberation. In Great Britain, endlessly battered by Nazi bombs in the Blitz, there’s a sense of excitement and relief – it’s not the end of the war, but they can feel that end getting closer, perhaps the worst is over… And then something new appears in the world, the first proper guided missiles, the new “vengeance” wonder weapons, in the shape of the V-1, the notorious Doodlebug. And once more bombs shatter homes and lives in the British Isles. A terrifying new robotic weapon, capable of much destruction.

And yet, terrifying as this new technological killer was, it would have been much, much worse, if not for a French man most people in the UK or France have heard of these days, and the brave group he organised. Jed Falby was a wee lad in London when the V-1s started falling on the city, and this book is his record and also his tribute to Michel Hollard and the vital role this unassuming, forty something husband and father took upon himself. Like many of the best heroes Hollard is not some highly-trained superspy, or skilled man of action. He’s just an ordinary man trying to look after his family in a France now occupied by the victorious Nazis. And that’s an aspect of the Second World War we don’t often think of – once the Battle of France was over, what did the ordinary citizens of the defeated France do? Despite everything, despite the occupation of the hated Nazis, life still had to go on – people still had to make a living, go to their jobs, open the schools, run the railways… And against this background Hollard and his family settle in, he gets new work, like many ordinary people they hate what is going on, but what can they do, except keep their heads down and endure?

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But this simply won’t suffice for Hollard. He cannot bear the fact that his homeland is now under the rule of the German conquerors, and that while the Allies hold out in nearby Britain (with help from others, including Free French forces helping the RAF resist the onslaught, as Falby makes clear), he has to go on as normal? No, it’s not right, others are fighting and dying for the freedom of all of Europe, and this very ordinary man does that thing which takes them from being an ordinary, everyday person to being that extraordinary thing, the hero – he decides whatever he can do, he will do, despite the enormous risks. His new work for an automative parts company allows his free travel, and like many industries the occupying forces are placing orders with that company for their war effort. Perhaps if he can get that information to the Allies and anything else he can pick up on his travels, it might help? But how?

And that’s a damned good question – I mean, with no training in ‘trade craft’ as intelligence agencies call it, how do you know what information to gather and how do you get it to the right people? Slowly Hollard starts working some ideas out, often having to take a chance and trust to luck, fortunately for him often encountering others who feel as he did – these are not members of the famed Resistance, just normal citizens, all doing little bits here and there to help, some graduating to much more dangerous missions as Hollard not only works out a dangerous but do-able route over the border into neutral Switzerland to pass information to the British Embassy, but starts to prove his worth to British intelligence, so they start requesting he and those he has recruited start trying to gather more information. Naturally every new attempt to gain new information to feed back to the Allies puts them at huge danger of discovery, capture, torture and death at the hands of the Gestapo (not to mention a chance their families may also suffer in retaliation). And yet, despite this, Hollard and his friends start to gather information, fragments at first, of major operations happening all around coastal France.

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(cutaway diagram of the V-1 Flying Bomb, borrowed from the Wiki entry)

As they build a larger picture with more and more information, they’re still not sure what they are discovering, and no wonder, because nobody has seen anything like this before in the history of the world. These are launch sites and ramps for the forthcoming V-1 rockets, like something from one of the Flash Gordon movies of the period, science fiction, about to become a horrible, death-dealing science fact. Unsure what they are but knowing they are important, and, worse still, taking compass bearings and realising the ramps for whatever this new device is are all aimed in the direction of London, Hollard and his friends get more information to the Allies, and soon the bombers come, starting with the mighty Lancasters and others, but they are too high to hit these small targets precisely, so in come the remarkable De Havilland Mosquitoes, those amazing balsa-wood framed fighter-bombers with an amazing turn of speed, executing a strategy the RAF would become famous for doing for decades (indeed they still did it during the first Gulf War), low-level, high-speed, precision strikes. Insanely dangerous, of course, roaring across the countryside, practically on the deck, at huge speed with massed enemy fire pouring up at you? But the precision this gave in strikes in the years before laser guided missiles was incredible, and despite casualties the Mossies hit the sites Hollard and his group identified, and hit them again, and again. The Germans rebuild and the RAF strike them once more.

We know from history that this did not stop the V-1 menace. That’s not the point of this story. But what the airstrikes on Hollard’s targets did achieve was to identify a mortal threat early and to cause such damage to it that for all the damage those launched did, it was a fraction of what the Nazis could have unleashed, if not for the bravery and inventiveness of Hollard and his friends, and the air crews who acted on their hard-won information. Imagine the carnage if those wonder weapons had been launched en-masse at the D-Day invasion fleet? And as Falby notes, he was a boy when those V-1s started hitting London. For all he knows one of those missiles stopped because of Hollard could have been the one that hit his family home – he himself may have lived to grow up because of this unbelievable bravery and heroism behind the lines.

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In a rather touching move Falby uses those personal memories, injecting himself into this history, both as his younger self, out for a picnic with his mother when a Doodlebug attack happens, but also as “Old Jed”, retracing some of Hollard’s routes and locations, talking to locals about the events (often making some good friends who are clearly delighted that this piece of admirable resistance took place on their patch and that it was being honoured and remembered). Remarkably he even finds the barn Hollard used before his hugely dangerous crossing of the border to pass on his latest intelligence, still there (now converted into a friendly auberge). While most of the narrative history here follows Hollard’s growing espionage efforts, with some glimpses of young Jed to show life on the British home front, as the story unfolds Falby also starts to put himself directly into the story “talking” with Hollard, asking him questions, about why he did something so fraught with peril, how he managed it, and these all combine to give this slice of history a very personal quality that’s often lacking from heavier tomes written by professional historians, and it’s that personal quality that makes this not just a slice of history, but a personally engaging tale – Falby makes Hollard not a historical character but a real person we can identify with.

The artwork and the book’s format (looking very much like a Franco-Belgian bande dessinee album) are clearly inspired by the European classics such as Tintin. Falby himself carries sketchbooks and those form the basis of some of Le Train de Michel. The artwork is fairly simple, I think, and the flow of the panels isn’t always quite right – in some ways some parts feel more like sketches lined up than a linear sequence of the art panels that allows a comic story to flow naturally. However, that’s a fairly minor criticism, and in fact I think this slightly more basic art approach works very, very well here – this is a hugely compelling story of immense bravery during desperate times, and frankly a much more detailed, fancier artwork approach would have likely detracted from the story. And Falby takes those simple sketches and in several memorable scenes delivers some powerful moments.

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The unmistakable drone of a V-1 overhead, that old adage that “as long as you can hear it, you’re safe” given a starkly simple but powerful visualisation, “a Doodlebug!” goes up the panicked shout”. That distinctive engine noise burbling overhead, then sudden silence. And silence means it is about to drop. It means imminent death. Panel after panel, each a second ticking by as the V-1 drops, each a panicked face, running in fear, trying to reach a shelter, death coming from the skies and nobody can stop it… 10, 9, 8… Each panel ticks down to the inevitable detonation of a one ton bomb among innocent civilians. Or in an earlier case a mother, singing to her baby, unaware of what that engine noise means, thinking it a passing motorbike, but not, it’s one of the brand-new vengeance weapons… It’s simply done and it is powerfully horrifying.

Early on we see older Falby with his family, walking through the St Denis area of Paris. He wants to pause by a cafe which he tells them is a location in the story he is researching (the great Emmanuel Guibert inspired him in this and also contributed a double-page of art), there is a small historic plaque by the cafe, but it is closed and his family see no point in lingering and instead continue to the nearby Gare du Nord for the train home. It’s just a few panels, but it’s a reminder not just of the many hidden histories in our cities that most folk – natives and tourists alike – walk past regularly without every noticing (I know my city well, taken thousands of photos of it, but I am still discovering histories hidden in areas I passed a thousand times), but of how often those almost forgotten histories had a vitally direct impact in shaping the future that became our today. As with all history, this isn’t just about the past, it’s about how the events and people of that past influenced the future; history isn’t a static past, it’s alive and interactive because it breathes directly into today and beyond.

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In that respect Falby’s wonderfully personal, highly engaging book isn’t just celebrating the bravery of a much-overlooked hero, it’s reminding us of how many individuals, all but forgotten to the bulk of “big history” and the acts they committed shaped the events that in turn shaped the world. How many of those ordinary people did something extraordinary in those dark days, putting the hope of a better tomorrow when the lamps would be re-lit across Europe ahead of their own safety, giving their today for our tomorrows?  An unusual and compelling slice of history, remembering an almost forgotten hero, and a reminder that there are some, like Falby himself (and his children, and their children in turn and so on, a chain of ongoing life), who may only be alive today because of Hollard’s wartime work. No bad thing to remember and honour such courage.

“And now – over to Normandy…”

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(my copy of the BBC War Report, published 1946, collecting front line dispatches from BBC reporters from D-Day to the fall of Berlin, full size pic on my Flickr)

Seventy one years ago today, on the beaches of Normandy, ordinary, everyday blokes from Britain, America, Canada, France, Norway, Poland and more walked into legend. Not some semi mythic great heroes like Achilles, these were regular men, bakers, plumbers, butchers, bank clerks, called on to do something extraordinary, while behind the lines who knows how many Resistance fighters fell, vanished in the dark, shot down during vital sabotage missions to help the landings, or worse, taken alive to face certain torture and only then death. Ever since I first read about it as a wee boy I’ve never been able to quite grasp the sheer bravery and desperation and terror of that day – impossible for us to really imagine what it was like to be in a small landing craft, rolling in the waves, men throwing up, seasick and also terrified at what was to come, shells and bullets exploding, the metallic clank as they hit the sides of the ship. Then the thump as the craft hits the sands, the large, flat bow door falls down, exposing the men within to withering fire from concrete gun emplacements, and they still run forward, into that fire, some of them never even making it out of the water, more would make it, some marching into battle under the sound of the bagpipes, like something you’d make up for a film or book, but it actually happened.

BBC War Report 1
(my copy of the BBC War Report, published 1946, collecting front line dispatches from BBC reporters from D-Day to the fall of Berlin, full size pic on my Flickr)

And I’ve never been able to imagine what it must have been like on the other side – for every die-hard Nazi zealot there must have been a dozen men who were there because they were made to be there, and as with the Allied side many wouldn’t even really be men yet, just boys really, who hadn’t tasted life but had been shoved into the endlessly voracious war machine (you’ve barely lived yet but you’re old enough to die, son, get out there for the glory of the fatherland). Imagine being an eighteen year old recruit drafted into the army, waking up early, yawning, looking out of the slit of your pillbox and seeing the largest armada in history, sitting right off shore, the massive guns of US Navy and Royal Navy battleships pointing right at you. Imagine firing, firing, firing, the smell of cordite and fear in your enclosed fortification, the raw horror of knowing that those bullets chopping into the soft bodies of men bravely advancing up the beaches are being fired by you, you are sick with fear and horror at what you are doing but you can’t stop, and neither can they, and they keep coming, and you’re screaming inside your skull because you don’t want to die like that, please, god, mother, father, don’t let me die like these poor men I am shooting down, please make it stop, I don’t want to die, I don’t want to kill them, why am I here, how did this happen…

And then, away from the bullets and shells and blood, but never away from the fear, the home front, the families. Where is my son, my father, my uncle, my brother, my husband on this day? you know they are on active service but they can’t tell you where – loose lips sink ships – and you wonder if they are among the thousands storming the blood-splashed shores of Occupied Europe? Are they among those brave men? Did they make it, did they fall, are they alright, are they horribly injured? And you simply wouldn’t know, trying to go through the daily routine but your mind elsewhere in worry all the long, long day, your heart skipping a beat every time you see a post office messenger coming towards your street, no, please, not that telegram, not for us, please no. Imagine living with that day in, day out, but especially on that day, and knowing you could do nothing about it, you couldn’t help your loved ones on the front, you couldn’t protect them, you could only hope and get on with life here, do “your bit” on the home front because that helps those at the sharp end of the spear. And on the other side, imagine the mother in Hamburg or Cologne, who had thought her young lad safe in his French posting, at least he’s not on that awful Russian front, then hearing of the invasion and her heart skipping like the mothers on the other side in horror and terror, my boy, what about my boy, is my boy alright…

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(photo from one of my photographic heroes, Robert Capa, taken under fire during the D-Day landings)

We remember the big events like D-Day, the unbelievable heroism and acts of valour that were committed for the benefit of every generation that came after, and so we should. But we should always, always remember those events were made up of individuals, every one of them with hopes, dreams, fears and every one with someone back home in Berlin or Glasgow or Chicago or Toronto who lived in constant fear and hope for them. Some of them given the relief of a loved one returning home finally, when it was over, others that awful, awful telegram, “I regret to inform you…”. And the men and women who did come home, always marked by it, never the same, always bearing guilt because they got to come home, to marry, to have kids, to live, to grow old, and their friends never did. And they know their mates would want them to live that life, but still they’ll feel that guilt till the end of their days. And these ordinary people doing extraordinary things are what shaped our world, preserved our freedoms, so many individual people each doing their bit to create something enormous and world-changing. There are fewer now, each year, time slowly finishing what the war didn’t and claiming them, but those women and men who remain will be thinking on those friends who never came back today.

“With a Rebel Yell…”

Rebels #1,

Brian Wood, Andrea Mutti, Jordie Bellaire,

Dark Horse

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It’s 1775 and the world, as one commentator of the time noted, was being turned upside down. Revolution is brewing among the colonists of the thirteen British colonies in America, a gathering storm that will not only take in the military (with spectacular wins and blunders by both sides) but the political and ideological (not just freedom from imperial rule but democratic, republican rule – well, for the men, anyway, not the women or the slaves, but that’s another historical discussion). Something new in a world which has often known turmoil, and out of this will eventually rise an enormously powerful nation, stretching from “sea to shining sea”.

But as Rebels starts no-one could predict that destiny. Some are protesting British rule and taxes, others only want the tax regime altered but remain a loyalty to the crown (a loyalty the crown doesn’t seem to reciprocate), others are in open revolt, even men who only a few years before willingly fought against the French with the British troops in North America, here now taking up arms against those same redcoats. And others are remote from it, like young Seth Abbot, working on his family farm, seen in flashbacks in the opening pages, where he comments how his father almost never spoke more than a couple of words to him at a time. Until one day he takes him into the woods with a group of other men, teaching him woodcraft and hunting skills, how to see in a mass of trees and other vegetation and pick out his target. In this case British redcoats, sent to remove them and neighbouring farmers from their land. It’s a pivotal moment for the young Seth and symbolic of how some militia groups on the revolutionary side combated the superior power of the British army with their intimate knowledge of the countryside (some with great efficiency, their tactics still studied at military academies to this day).

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Moving forward a few years we see Seth, now in the company of his best friend, Ezekiel, who by coincidence had been the young messenger boy among the redcoats Seth’s father attacked in the earlier scene (the young lad was spared since he wasn’t a soldier doing anything to them, he promptly follows the rebels instead). “He was one of us now. A New Hampshire man. And a brother to me,” Seth recalls in his adult years. Returning from a mission they pause on the edge of the Tucker’s farm where we’re introduced to Mercy Tucker, who will be important later on in Seth’s life, a farm lass who’s not afraid to pick up a musket herself. They learn from her that the crown has been forcing more unwanted attentions on the locals and her father has had to sign away his land, becoming a tenant on what was his own property, living in shame but unable to do anything about it. Seth and Ezekiel promise to get the document back and visit the local town of Westminster’s courthouse, only to find redcoats stopping any more citizens going in, while a group of disgruntled farmers, there to protest the taking of their land, are trapped inside. Violence is in the air and it’s clear that soon blood is going to be spilled…

I’ve admired Brian Wood’s work for a number of years, especially Demo, DMZ and Channel Zero, and it is interesting to see him taking a historical slant on some of his regular themes such as politics here. Especially given how radical and important some of the political ideas that came out of the revolution would be. In a nice move he’s not going for the grand moments and big players of the wars of independence here, he’s deliberately showing us local events that had global importance and effects, and how everyday, ordinary people were caught up in those events, often the most unlikely people to become revolutionaries, but time and circumstances can put us all through changes. And while we remember the big names like Washington or Ben Franklin, it’s that citizen army and the civilians who backed them who actually did the dirty spade work of changing the course of world events. Ordinary people, people just like the rest of us, forced into extraordinary times and actions, Mutti capturing the everyday with the sudden bursts of action, his art contrasting the local rural population with the uniformed, disciplined redcoats.

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Wood explains in the first issue that some of the settings come from his memories of his own Vermont childhood, playing in similar woods and the history he was taught at school filling his head. Although I should add he mentions at the start that he may take some odd liberties with the actual history to make the stories in Rebels work – but this is a story, not a history book, albeit a story steeped in American history (for those of you with a yen to learn more about this fascinating period, which helped shape the world we live in now, I commend the exceptionally fine Revolutions podcast, which has an entire series on the American Revolution). I’ve a deep love of history, and as an aside I enjoy a decent foray into historical fiction too, if done right, and here it is done right, Wood and Mutti portraying the way much of the American situation was escalated from formerly loyal subjects to all out war not so much by grand strategy leading to an inevitable conclusion, but but endless, foolish rules and unfair pronouncements, building up resentment after resentment until boiling point was reached, with enormous consequences. An interesting introduction, done on a personal level that gives us our empathic ‘in’ to huge events happening around our characters.

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this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Night Will Fall

Back in the autumn I went to my second home, Edinburgh’s wonderful Filmhouse, to watch a remarkable documentary, Night Will Fall. Actually it’s more a documentary about a documentary – as World War Two faded into its final days in 1945 and the Allies liberated the concentration camps, camera teams were sent in to record and document the hideous atrocities, partly for evidence for the planned war crime trials, partly because even then they knew some people would say it never happened, or it had been exaggerated. The British team had film reels from British, American and Soviet teams and decided to also make a full length documentary film (appropriately, given British cinema in the 20s and 30s was the birthplace of modern documentary film). Sadly for various reasons, some political, the plug was pulled just after the war and the film, which was two thirds complete, was left in limbo, unseen, for decades, despite a script by Richard Crossman (later the famous politician and diarist) and having involvement by Alfred Hitchcock. Seven decades on and Andre Singer has made Night Will Fall, telling the story of this project.

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And while I note this as one of the most impressive films I saw in 2014, I must also say it was, quite simply, the hardest film I have ever sat through. I’ve watched every kind of horror film there is over the decades, but this was true horror, the sort it is hard not to turn away from, the sort that makes you spiritually and physically ill. I have never seen an audience leave a cinema in a silence that roared so loud. Obviously given I knew this was about the Holocaust I knew to expect this going in. But you can’t really prepare yourself for it. In one scene we see captured German guards forced to clear up the piles of bodies of the murdered they hadn’t had time to bury or cremate before the Allies reached their camps (the soldiers could smell them long before they saw them, the stench of the dead and of the diseased, weakened survivors, giving lie to German civilians nearby who pretended they didn’t know what was going on). You see them picking the bodies off of piles, hoisting them over their shoulders, the arms and heads loll horribly, like a marionette with the strings cut. This was a person. This obscene thing was once someone’s dad, mum, aunt, sister, brother, son, daughter, reduced to this thing after abject, long suffering… It’s beyond vile. And those are just the remains that can be seen, not including the ones who went up the chimneys from ovens designed for human bodies…

Why the hell did I subject myself to watching something like this, you might ask? A few days before I saw this in the cinema Nigel Farage and his odious Ukip band of bigots made a deal with a far right Polish party. A party whose leader denies the Holocaust (among many other reprehensible beliefs he holds on women and other groups). This was not even for ideological reasons, Farage cosied up to this bastard and his party simply for money-grubbing reasons, to get funding for a group of like-minded parties in the European parliament. I was already considering going to see this, but that decided me – when a British politician is making deals with right wing Holocaust deniers it makes it all the more important more of us see this film, not matter how horribly hard we find it to watch what monsters in a human skin can do to others. Because we need to be reminded where their kind of bigotry leads to – first of all it is treat them different because they are ‘different’ from us, so it becomes acceptable to talk about them like that in public, in the media. Then demand legislation to legally differentiate their rights from other citizens. And then what? Smashed windows? A new crystal nacht? Then it is okay to treat them any way you want, remove them from society, put them in camps… We have been down this road. We know that small starts like that sort of xenophobic bigotry can lead to the most awful acts imaginable.

The documentary makes the point that this happened in a civilised, educated, Western society in the heart of Europe, and given the right manipulation of people’s opinions this could happen anywhere, again. And right now every country sees a rise in these right wing movements attacking immigrants, multi-culturalism, the place of women, gays, anyone who they think is ‘different’. And there is Farage, his “cheeky chappy with pint and ciggie” mask revealed for what it is, an odious little creature who happily makes deals with a party of Holocaust deniers, for which there can be no forgiveness (and why has this not been more widely debated in the media?? How can any UK politician get away with doing that in this day and age??). There is an old adage about dreadful events which we, as individuals are powerless to prevent – but if we cannot stop it (and obviously we cannot stop an even that happened decades ago) we can still bear witness. We bear witness so that it will be remembered and not allowed to happen again. And so I watched Night Will Fall, all the way through, hard as it was. On January 24th, as part of Holocaust Memorial Day, Channel 4 will be screening the film on British television. It is difficult to watch, I know, but please try. And Farage, perhaps you should watch this then explain to the entire British electorate why you are making friends with scum like your Polish Holocaust denying party chums.