Hertzko (later anglicised to ‘Harry’) Haft tells his son these words in the bright Florida sunshine of Miami in 1963. But it would be decades before his son actually found out why his father insisted he accompany him on this Florida road trip and what it was he wanted to tell him but simply couldn’t. That promise to tell his son everything circles The Boxer, the latest work by Reinhard Kleist, one of the brightest stars on the German comics scene. Kleist first came to our attention with his remarkable graphic biography of Johnny Cash, which was the first European comics work SelfMadeHero translated and republished in English (thankfully the first of a number of excellent foreign language works they have brought to English language readers). If, like me, you really dislike boxing, don’t be put off by the title and the pugilistic pose on the cover – yes, there is boxing in here, but in truth that sport isn’t really what the book is about, despite the title. This is a story about survival against the odds, from wartime, Nazi-occupied Poland to the nightmare of the death camps to reaching America after the war and finding that yes, you can make it there, but it too is full of tricksters and scammers and people out to make a buck out of you.
Part of what makes The Boxer so fascinating is that Kleist, bravely in my opinion, has chosen a pretty unsympathetic subject for his later graphical biography. Harry is really not a very likeable character, even as a young lad in Poland, he’s aggressive, loud, quick to anger, quick to resort to force. Sure, life is tough in their village, especially for Jews (even before the Nazi occupation, as Maus documented years ago, there was a lot of anti-Semitism there already), but although it is tough going Harry seems to take it worse than his siblings, the chip on his shoulder is large, right from the start, and in truth he never really shakes it, even when he settles in America years later, beating all the odds that saw so many millions die horribly, reduced to ash and leftover personal effects.
But this nature is also part of what drives Harry, that makes him survive – of course there is luck in this too, why one man is picked and not others for one detail or another in the camps, but he works hard, and he hardens himself still further to endure what will come because it is the only way he can even hope to make it out the other end of this hell. And for a while he is in hell, a hell even Satan would have shaken his head in despair over, a hell made by men who had become worse than any demons. Shave-headed, in the striped, thin prisoner uniform, he and others chosen for work rather than immeadite extermination are marched to the building housing the ovens to clear them out. It’s one of the most horrific scenes in the book, executed in very heavy sweeps of black ink as the horrified prisoners are shown the ovens, and what it is burning there, exiting the chimney as nothing more than black soot now – human beings. Even stoic Harry breaks at this point:
“We were lead to the building with the chimney that darkened the sky… I regretted being alive…”
But he does make it through – an SS guard takes a shine to him, and uses Harry’s natural talents to his own ends. Before being caught he and his brothers regularly smuggled black market goods and in exchange for better treatment and food this SS officer uses his services and makes himself a good bit of money on the side. And then comes the boxing match. Seen as a fighter Harry is supposed to fight a guard, a spectacle to entertain the SS men at the concentration camps. Except it isn’t a guard, it is an other prisoner, half-starved – a mirror of him if he hadn’t entered into this deal. And if he doesn’t fight the poor man he knows both can expect a pistol shot to the head, so he fights, and he hates himself for it, but he fights, he wins, he lives, he has to do it again and again… What will we do to survive, what price will we pay? This is no easy choice, no coward’s way out, this is another horror he has to endure.
After the war finding little sign of his family or the girl he was hoping to marry before the war he manages to flee to America by himself, to start a new life, and his boxing seems, as it has to generations of working class lads, to be a way out of the bottom of society, to make something of himself, stand out, be a man, earn both money and respect. But even here there are goons with guns and muscle and Harry, struggling to make a rep for himself and get those big fights that can make his career, finds it is all run by gangsters are cruel and lethal as those SS guards cheering the boxing in the camps. You take a dive when they say or your body will be found floating in the Hudson. Make a stand, make that name for yourself. But maybe also end up dead very quickly too… After enduring and surviving so much Harry has to ask himself what’s more important, making that career or making sure he lives…
It’s a hard read – not just because of the subject matter like the death camps, which is horrific enough, but, as I said, with Harry not being terribly sympathetic as a character. But with what he goes through you still root for him. You wish he would open up a bit more, lose those rough edges which are surely holding him back from enjoying life more once he is free, but then again those are the parts of him which helped him survive… It’s also about a father’s inability to talk emotionally with his son – men historically not the best at that emotional truth thing, even with their own flesh and blood, and of course in that era it was even more unusual for a man to open up like that, even to his oldest son, not just because what he has to say is awful but because it simply wasn’t what men did. And the mystery of that Miami trip with his son? That you have to read for yourself, but suffice to say it offers up a serious emotional punch. Yes, it’s a hard read, but a very powerful and deeply moving one too, a remarkable work from one of the finest young talents coming out of the European comics scene right now.
Well we come to our last Best of the Year for the 2009 releases and before we embark on my own selection of graphic novels, books and movies from the previous year I’d like to thank all of the many guest bloggers who took part in our annual tradition; I hope you enjoyed them as much as I did and that the diversity of contributors meant there was an interesting variety of choices on offer. I certainly saw some I hadn’t had time to read yet but now want to track down (simply click on the Best of the Year 2009 tag or category to see them all). My own selections are, I’m afraid, less than concise and more rambling in nature (which is not unusual for me), but they were works that really stood out for me in 2009 from beautiful animations to dark and disturbing horror and comics work from glowing retro science fiction settings to real world reportage. I think again in terms of comics and in terms of SF&F publishing I was again utterly spoiled for choice; these works I’ve picked out here are only the tip of the iceberg, there were many more I thoroughly enjoyed this year, but there’s only so many you can squeeze into an article and I think I’ve squeezed in about as many as I dare, so here we go:
I’ve already flagged this up on the blog while I was in the process of reading it; with it only being published in December I think Footnotes has missed a lot of people’s Best of the Year selections, which is understandable but a shame, because it is a brilliant work. Not just because of its ‘worthy’ content which is a subject matter of recent and living history which demands further attention, not just because Sacco is so good at putting the intimate, personal face onto historical events, giving us real people we can relate to and empathise with and a voice to people who all too often are just background in a news report to most of us, but because as well as his well documented comics reportage (and I hugely admire him for going and living among the people he is covering, despite the not inconsiderable dangers to get those reports), he is also, quite simply, a bloody good cartoonist.
From small, almost cosy scenes inside small rooms to larger landscapes of the city and refugee camps, replete with fine details to draw the eye in, to good cutting, from the same location right after a massacre to the present day where it is a market, both on facing pages, one large panel each, simple, powerful. It’s a terrific comics achievement and, I think, the form makes the subject more accessible to many readers than any number of in depth prose pieces from well-meaning broadsheet reporters. It will make you angry at injustices and cruelties (on both sides), it will make you sad for the losses that seem to go on endlessly, but it will draw you in.
This graphic biography of one of the most iconic musicians of the 20th century is one I had been eager to read for a couple of years, since we first blogged about Reinhard Kleist publishing it in Germany. When one English language edition seemed to evaporate into thin air I thought I wasn’t going to see it, until SelfMadeHero stepped in with what I think was their first translated work from a modern creator. It was worth the wait – Kleist uses a mixture of biographical scenes with comics renditions of some of Cash’s songs to give not a cradle to grave exhaustive biography but to give the flavour and essence of a fascinating figure and a passionate, troubled artist. Read it while listening to a playlist of your favourite Man in Black tracks. Simply brilliant. (see the full review for more)
Another work I had been eagerly anticipating – I remember seeing some art from Grandville the year before last at the Edinburgh Book Festival where Bryan was speaking. The lovely clothbound hardback is a lovely looking book and the work itself is a delightful Steampunk science fiction piece, set in an alternate history with anthropomorphic characters (our lead hero, a Scotland Yard detective, is a badger) entangled in an international conspiracy with echoes of our own troubled present. All of this is depicted in Bryan’s fabulous art, with wonderful characters, some truly gorgeous depictions of an alternative Belle Époque Paris – the eponymous Grandville. Add in a good murder-conspiracy tale and a ton of references of all sorts, from nods to famous performers of the period to Tintin to Rupert the Bear, you’ll find yourself going back over it again and finding more details and references you didn’t get before.
I was quite surprised not to see this being mentioned more in people’s favourites of the year, perhaps because of its brevity or perhaps because it was way back in April and there’s been a lot of comics since then and its easy to forget just what you read this year among so many (I know I had to think about some, did I read that this year or the end of last? Oh yes…). Its a little annoying that its so open-ended, but then again its part of a triple whammy of new LOEG work, so that’s not really a criticism. Kev’s artwork is, as always, brilliant and full of little sneaky details that demand going back over it with a magnifying glass while Alan, of course, delivers an intriguing story layered in more references than I can take in, even after he discussed many of them with Pádraig here on the blog.
I missed reading this when D&Q first did it in North America but picked it up when Cape published the UK edition in 2009. Travel Literature is a very popular genre in prose books and its surprising that relatively few comics creators work in that area because the visual element adds a lot in describing other lands and cultures. With Delisle spending a good, long time in Burma (his wife is working for Médecins Sans Frontières there and he and their baby go along). Travel Lit, for me anyway, has always worked best when the writer is immersed into a country and culture most of us won’t get to know, which is harder and harder to do in our modern era of easy global travel. Burma, however, with its dreadful repressive regime of ‘the Generals’ remains inaccessible and secretive, so as with his previous works on China and North Korea Delisle is, like the best Travel Lit writers, exploring a place largely hidden to most of us and its fascinating.
Deslisle’s artwork is fairly simple but effective and enjoyably easy on the eye, whether he is describing Buddhist monks, the friends he makes locally or the rich heritage of that troubled country. Its often laced with humour, from Delisle preparing for foreign travel by checking the language options on his Star Trek DVDs to cultural misunderstandings and the way he depicts the tyrannical Generals (small, self important uniformed dwarves) pokes fun at people who deserve to be ridiculed – a small act which would cause dreadful consequences for a Burmese citizen though. As he settles into life in Burma there are constant reminders that he can’t take for granted those freedoms we have in Western countries; giving an interview to a Western magazine he finds out later he may inadvertently cause problems for friends he is teaching art and animation to as the repressive authorities will associate his comments with them. Trips into the countryside afford Delisle the chance to draw both simple village life scenes and glorious temples at holy sites.
Throughout it all the invisible shadow of Aung San Suu Kyi looms, referred to by locals simply as ‘The Lady’, never seen in her home imprisonment but a constant presence. Its funny, its charming, its moving in places and it explores a culture most of us will never get to experience directly. Absolutely wonderful stuff and a book I’ve been recommending to non comics readers to show how diverse and accessible the medium is.
The name’s Slade, Sam Slade. That’s S-L-A-Y-E-D to you, tin head! Ah, Sam Slade, one of my earliest and happiest of 2000 AD memories. An old detective who hunts down errant robots, he is dispatched to a world built and ‘manned’ by robots in anticipation of human colonists – all of whom vanish never to be heard of again after landing. So Sam is sent by unscrupulous colony bosses, his lightspeed shields sabotaged so he arrives at Verdus some decades younger (his young pilot is regressed to a foul mouthed infant) and has to face down an entire planet of comically insane robots.
Wagner and Grant deliver a great science fiction gumshoe character with piles of often sarcastic humour (a 2000 AD trademark, SF and smartarse humour) while Ian Gibson comes up with some of the weirdest, whackiest and simply brilliant robot designs (a cast of thousands!) I’ve ever seen. Now collected into a huge, great value omnibus like the Judge Dredd Case Files series. Sure, some of this comes from it being a nostalgia trip for many of us, but nostalgia aside its still a bloody brilliant bit of Brit comics writing and art.
Okay, technically this is a children’s picture book rather than comic, but the two forms have a lot of overlap and one of our favourite comics creators, Sarah McIntyre, produced the art for Morris, a delightfully gross, disgusting monster that will make boring old adults feel sick while children (and big kids at heart, of course) will laugh and love it. Simply wonderful – and disgusting! – fun.
Like Kleist’s Cash book this is another work from Europe that I was waiting and hoping someone would translate into English and thankfully Fanfare/Ponent Mon stepped up. Its not the easiest read – the whole comic is Linthout, a hugely successful comics creator in Belgium, essentially trying to work through the turmoil of emotions caused by the suicide of his son. Losing a loved one is immensely hard, losing them suddenly harder still, but to lose a child and to suicide? How do you continue as a parent after your pride and joy has ripped themselves from your life by their own hand? Linthout’s art here is a deliberately rough and unfinished style, sharing some of the artist’s own sense of being bereft and rudderless, filled with conflicting emotions of deep sadness and anger.
His mental breakdown and increasing sense of unreality sometimes throws up scenes which seem almost humorous – a feeling emphasised by his art style, which has a humorous comic look to it – except of course, given the theme it isn’t funny at all, its sad, its disturbing. Throughout the rough artwork his son is a constant presence, but when seen its only ever as the chalk outline left by the police around his body after he leapt to his death, giving him a cartoony, almost Gumby-esque look which again, under other circumstances, would be humorous; the conflict between that humorous look of many images with the sadness of the events and feelings the portray is quite unsettling, as indeed it should be, and I’d assume that was part of Linthout’s intention, sharing a tiny fraction of the confusion and turmoil his mind is suffering as it tries to understand and process what has happened to his boy. I found it quite difficult to read to be honest; too upsetting sometimes, so I had to read it in little bursts, but I’m glad I did, its a remarkable, personal work from a European creator most of the Anglophone world (including me) won’t be familiar with, trying to come to terms with what must be every parent’s worst fear, losing their child.
Honourable mentions also go to Jamilti and Other Stories by Rutu Modan (UK edition again), which may not be up there her Exit Wounds but which still had some fine short gems in the collection of early work and a couple of nice little tricks on the reader too (not least those locked lips on the cover and what they actually denote when you read that story). I didn’t pick up Jeff Lemire’s Complete Essex County as I already had the original three volumes, but if you haven’t got those then I’ve also got to recommend the complete edition which came out in 2009 as a book you really should have.
Crumb’s The Book of Genesis also has to get a mention – its certainly not my favourite, but where I found some sections irritating that’s not Crumb’s fault, its his co-author who he is adapting (presumably Almighty God) and my own dislike of organised religion which made it difficult for me. And endless ‘this person begat this person who begat that person who lived 460 years and 460 years were his days’ is a bit wearisome (it may be the word of God if you are a believer, but man, that deity needed an editor badly). But that aside it’s a major work by one of our major, influential cartoonists and while the original stories he is drawing from (literally) may be, in my view, badly written and the religious beliefs of the characters want me to loose Richard Dawkins on the nearest Bible Class, the artwork is superb and a reminder of what a bloody good artist Crumb is. Yes, it is Crumb so there are a lot of very large bottomed women wandering the Holy Land, but still his art is a joy and the heavy black and white suits the Old Testament work very well. And he also gets props not just for the scope of the work but for a graphic novel which achieved widespread coverage well outside the comics sphere, hopefully getting some more non comics folk to dip their toes in the medium
This was a lovely surprise, a present from Leo and his wife Peggy and, I have to say, one of the most enjoyable books I read all year. I’ve been lucky enough to read Leo’s previous autobiographical works and I was delighted when he told me he was working on this new volume, which mostly covers more recent years. Leo opens with a short discourse on Comedy and his old friend, The Absurd, as if giving a cosmology lecture but instead of matter and anti-matter in the creation of the universe he discusses Comedy and the forces of Anti-Comedy and that oppressive Almighty Power, to which one should always make a certain two-fingered gesture.
This opening had me laughing out loud, rather disconcerting other passengers on the train I was on at the time, but I didn’t care. Leo makes a serious point about the events and the grim-faced, usually humourless people who can and do make life for everyone more miserable and how it is Comedy’s role to fight those forces (an assertion I completely agree with). Its not a flippant point, its serious, but delivered in a wonderfully humorous way. I could imagine the spirits of Buster Keaton, Spike Milligan and Bill Hicks nodding their agreement with him. There’s a lot of travel in this volume as Leo and Peggy are involved in various exhibitions and conventions at home and abroad. Its interesting to learn about the ways Leo has experimented with various folks over the years to achieve the best possible quality prints of some of his original work, which is too fragile and too susceptible to the ravages of age and environment (aren’t we all?) to travel for exhibitions; contemporary artists will almost certainly pick up some ideas for exhibiting their own work from his experiences.
Often these exhibitions involve more of the great and the good in the Brit comics community and it’s rather wonderful to read about some very famous names who all pitch in with suggestions and help for exhibitions. Leo also discusses his work for the Guardian and the approaches of the BBC for the Comics Britannia series, for which his presence was pretty much essential, and his own wariness over contracts with the media but how it all worked out. Its funny, it’s a nice insight into the life of one of our most esteemed comics creators, but mostly its simply a delightful read, mixing anecdotes and art, serious points and humour. It left me with a big smile on my face. The book itself is lovely – actually hand-bound, a rarity in this day and age, making it all the more special (and urging me to enjoy the tactile sense of it, running fingers along the spine, sniffing the paper). Of course this also means it is produced in a fairly small number and is quite pricey and, while its well worth it (as well as being a great read, it’s a highly collectable tome any bibliophile would love to have on their shelves) obviously not everyone who would love to read it could afford it, but don’t despair, because Leo has generously had the text placed onto his site for everyone to enjoy and you should take advantage of that.
Since Mike’s previous Felix Castor novels have all featured on my earlier Best of the Year picks it won’t be a surprise to regular readers that his latest one is again one of my faves. I admit it, I’m quite addicted to this series, although not for the first time I wonder where on earth Mike gets the time to pen multiple comics series and prose novels. Through the previous novels featuring our down-at-heels freelance exorcist Mike has provided not only a gripping story but built up the background around Castor and the other characters, a world almost like ours except the supernatural is real, the dead sometimes walk and there are other, more dangerous things out there.
Like a powerful demon welded to the soul of Castor’s best friend, kept safely caged for years and now loose and cutting a swathe through London. Driven by circumstances Castor is forced to return to his old employer, a ruthless scientist who experiments on the undead, werekind and ghosts with a total lack of morality. With more blood and guilt on his hands Mike seriously pushes Castor into events and actions which are totally gripping. I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again, its one of the best series going right now.
Another real world meets supernatural series that I’ve been addicted to and another book from a scribe also noted for his comics work, Charlie Huston’s Joe Pitt series of novels, which have taken the often cliché-ridden vampire genre and given them a real Mean Streets edge to them, more Scorcese meets Chandler than Anne Rice or Stephanie Meyer. Sadly this is the final book in the series and although I’ve been addicted to the series since the beginning I have to admit I think Charlie is right to contain it within a set limit and not simply keep going endlessly. It certainly piles on the dramatic tension – with the end coming, Pitt down and out (and indeed living in the sewers at the start), the various Manhattan vampire groups at war, the love of his life now vampirised and living in a vamp community now run by someone he despises, its all to play for and in the unflinchingly brutal world of street violence Charlie depicts you know that you can’t take the survival of any of the characters for granted, not even Pitt himself.
Its all rapidly going pear shaped in the Manhattan vampire world, with Pitt pulled every which way in his attempt to get to where he wants, making deals and double deals and all the time trying to work his own angle, his one aim to get back to his girl, knowing fine well that there’s every chance that even if he makes it to her against the odds she may well tell him to crawl right back down that sewer pipe. Add in a Romeo and Juliet romance with star-crossed mortal and vampire (Huston gleefully riffing on Twilight, perhaps, in his own inimitable style?) and you’ve got a vamp tale told in hardboiled Noir style. Many characters are going to be changed, maimed or even dead before the end of this and its hugely compelling.
Neal is one of the consistently best from the impressive roster of top class SF writers we’re lucky enough to have right now in the UK, one of my go-to writers for solid, inventive SF that also delivers a ton of action, not to mention some quite devious nastiness. Especially when Prador are involved. This follows on from events in The Voyage of the Sable Keech, with the Old Captain Orbus trying to overcome the last few centuries of his mis-spent past and personality changes brought about by the Spatterjay virus and the Prador Vrell now infected by the virus and mutating rapidly. Their paths will cross, drawing in the Prador Kingdom and the Polity, uncovering secrets, risking a new war and awakening something ancient which should be left well alone. Its fast paced, gripping, often downright brutal (although like Richard Morgan the violence rarely feels gratuitous, there’s a moral dimension and consequence to violent actions and pasts), solid right down the line.
The end of human civilisation has come, almost every single person wiped out in a short space of town. Towns and cities are deteriorating without maintenance and a few shattered survivors find a quite space in a country house, unsure why they were spared or what to do next, whiling away the time and their trauma swapping stories over some good beers at night. Ale is central to this apocalypse; it’s the social glue that helps the disparate survivors bond together and it’s the trigger for flashbacks to the better times before the end of the world. The aroma of a particular beer, its colour, its taste and how its bound in to memories of happier times, drinking a pint of this or that real ale on a warm, summer day in a pub’s beer garden, idly passing a day with the woman you love, talking, drinking, kissing…
But that world’s gone, isn’t it? And our survivors know their supplies are running low, but are loathe to face the reality of their situation or to go foraging for more because in the distance over the city there are shapes that aren’t birds… When a mysterious rider arrives and takes shelter for a few days with them he seems to know all about each of them and what they lost as the world of mankind crumbled. When he leaves they are all given the strong urge to set out on a quest – a very British quest. The world has ended and they are going to seek out the last pub in existence which their mystery guest told them about. Where there is endless food and beer and its safe. The world ended and the last great haven – if it actually exists – is a pub!
It sounds light-hearted, a bit Shaun of the Dead perhaps, but while there is humour it soon becomes dark and very nasty. Tim Lebbon is, after all, noted not only for his good tastes in fine beers but for writing some very dark fantasy works, full of horror elements and those are present here on the journey to the fabled last pub, braving the world that has passed and gone wild – and worse than just wild, there are things that simply shouldn’t be, but are… It’s a very British end of the world tale – even the chapter headings are drawn from the names of real ales – with real, creeping horror mixed with the mundane but lightened by the glow of warm memories of days now gone. Unusual and brilliant. But it will make you very thirsty.
This collection of short stories by Peter Beagle is a treasure chest of wonder; the award winning writer is probably still best known for The Last Unicorn and it is a pleasure to see Tachyon publishing more of his work. A peaceful king thinks about war as a way to be remembered, an old Jewish uncle paints an angel who comes to model for him, a middle aged American changes into the last, true Frenchman, a brother’s thoughts change the world to the dismay of his family, a criminal fleeing on a snowswept moor takes shelter by the fire of an old minister who tells him of being spirited away to Faerie… I really can’t do Peter’s writing justice; he’s not really a writer, he’s one of those rare breed of scribes who I think the old Scots term makkar suits, what Borges once referred to as a maker of words. Elegantly crafted glimpses into a variety of worlds; here is an author who gets praise from the likes of Ursula Le Guin – that should tell you all you need to know.
Jesse’s debut novel arrives with a recommendation from the quite excellent Jeff VanderMeer. Now that would be enough to pique my interest anyway, but when I picked it up I didn’t know that, but I had an instant feeling about it, I just knew this was a book I wanted to read. Taking old fashioned fairy tales long before they were cleaned up for children’s book Jesse spins a medieval, down and dirty, violent, often vulgar tale of the Brothers Grossbart, part of a line of grave-robbers, fighting, killing and stealing their way from the Germanic lands southward to ‘Gyptland’ to ransack the legendary tombs. Creatures in the dark woods threaten, demons can gobble souls, a moonlit monastery is deserted save for the dead, a witch resides in her cottage, a man monk raves in such a manner the Brothers assume he follows their own perverted form of worship… The action is brutal, the supernatural elements dealt with fairly matter of factly, the humour often vulgar, the language often very coarse – its not for the easily offended, but I loved it. Fantasy all too often can drown in clichés; Jesse takes the genre by the seat of its leather britches and kicks it solidly in the backside. An author to watch.
As I’ve noted a number of times over recent years we’re pretty much spoiled for some excellent science fiction and fantasy at the moment and space simply doesn’t allow me to list all of the other books which I really enjoyed this year, so quick honourable mentions also go to God of Clocks by Alan Campbell (a satisfying if slightly rushed end to his debut trilogy which was inventive and often disturbing), Charlie Stross’s Wireless, an enjoyable smorgasbord of his shorter fiction and Mike Cobley who moved from his fantasy roots to science fiction with the first part of a great new series, Seeds of the Earth. And throughout the year as usual that stalwart of the British science fiction publishing scene, Interzone magazine (and its darker sister Black Static), delivered some quite brilliant short SF, some from established names, some from authors totally new to me who I will be watching for in the future; still the place to check out fresh, new SF writing.
On the screen front its hard to ignore Cameron’s visually impressive Avatar; the story and characters are totally predictable, you can pretty much figure out early on how it will all work out, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially when you are dazzling the audience with astonishingly rich visuals that immerse them into another world. And JJ Abrams’ reboot of Star Trek overcame my old Trek fan cynicism at the thought of seeing other actors in those iconic roles to deliver a real shot in the arm to a tired franchise and successfully reboot it. Terry Gilliam’s Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus was not his best work, but even a flawed Gilliam movie is still more interesting than many other directors at their best and, as always, was a delight in terms of imagery and rampant imagination.
But to be honest those weren’t my favourites – actually no less than three of my favourites of the year I saw at the Edinburgh Film Festival and, sadly, two of them have still to gain general releases in the UK, while the other has gone on to great acclaim. Duncan Jones low budget British SF flick Moon was terrific; yes, I guessed the twist in advance, but it didn’t matter, it was well played and put together. I even appreciated the fact they had gone back to the old ways of physical effects even for the Lunar exteriors, giving an almost Gerry Anderson, Space 1999 feel to those scenes. Jones and his crew talked to the audience after the Festival debut and their enthusiasm for it was very clear and that carried over into the screen. (full review here)
The other two which I loved were both animated works, both quite different in style and target audience. Brendan and the Secret of Kells, a gorgeous, traditionally animated (no 3D CGI here) all-ages feature from Ireland centred around one of the glories of Western literature, The Book of Kells and like that remarkable work showcased some beautiful artwork (see the full review here). Also at the Festival I caught another traditional form of animation, this time stop motion, with the low budget Australian film, unusually an animation aimed squarely at an adult audience, Mary and Max. What could be a dodgy area – a growing long distance friendship between a lonely young girl in 70s Australia and a single, middle-aged man with mental health problems in New York, is actually a lovely, bittersweet tale and its infuriating to me that its done so well on the international festival circuit and yet is still to get a proper release in the UK — it got a fairly limited release in some US cities, I think (a full review can be found here); Kells did get a release in Europe (it was a combined Franco-Irish funded work) and its native Ireland but still, months later, hasn’t had a general release in the UK. Perhaps distributors are convinced that if it isn’t CGI and 3D then no-one will come to see it, which is short-sighted and means a lot of people are missing out on some wonderful films.
“If you wanna save your soul from hell, cowboy, then change your ways today. Or you’ll ride with us through these endless skies, forever on the hunt for the Devil’s herd...” Ghost Riders in the Sky
To say award-winning German comics creator Reinhard Kleist’s graphic biography of the late, great Johnny Cash arrived with a fair weight of expectation – mixed with anticipation – on my part is an understatement. Those of you who’ve been reading the blog for a good while may recall that we first talked about this work nearly two years ago when the original made a big splash in Germany. In fact it sold out its original print run from Carlsen and among the awards it picked up was the prestigious Max und Moritz, before going on to be picked up and translated into other languages by publishers like Dargaud in France and an English language version was apparently on the cards from Dark Horse. Since many of us were eager to read it in English we were pretty happy at this, but then it went quiet and seemed to vanish off the radar until Blighty’s Self Made Hero stepped forward. Home of the Manga Shakespeare and some fine literary adaptations we’ve been very much enjoying this seemed like quite a departure for them. Was it worth the wait? Was it worth the effort? Oh yeah. It was.
(The Cash family, including young Johnny, singing in the cotton fields)
Anyone who’s listened to Cash’s music over the years knows his songs came out of his life; the darkness and the light were both there, he lived through them, he pretty much lived his songs. And that’s part of the point Kleist makes here, how so many people (including people like me who’d normally run a mile from anything remotely labelled C&W) bought into Cash because his singing is honest; you feel the raw emotion in his voice, in the early work and even in the final years (his cover of Hurt is immensely raw and powerful, for example, it could have been made for him to sing at that age in his life).
But since Cash’s songs often deal with loss and the struggles against the forces that can all too easily grind us all down in everyday life, living those songs means he himself never had an easy life and Kleist selects segments of Johnny’s life, from the childhood days on their New Deal sponsored cotton farm, struggling to fight their way out of the Depression, singing to keep up their spirits during back-breaking labour, marrying too young, his self destructive, amphetamine and booze fuelled behaviour touring on the road as his success grew, the love between Johnny and June Carter, the famous music gig at Folsom Prison.
(Folsom Prison; no fancy sets or theatre, just Johnny, June and the boys in the band in front of hundreds of hardened prison inmates; a gig that’s passed into musical legend)
Its a long work as comics go, over 200 pages, but even so there is no way it can pack in as much in depth detail as a prose biography and Kleist wisely avoids the temptation to simply jam in as much of Johnny’s life as he can. Instead he opts for a roughly chronological approach which takes in elements of the life that shaped Cash and his music, interspersed with comics interpretations of of some of his songs. In fact the book itself opens with one of these songs being acted out – almost the equivalent of the dream sequence in a movie, where the protagonist drives a car with number plates reading ‘HELL’ through the streets of a gambling city where he “shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.” While some of the song sequences have a slightly different style about them Kleist keeps the differences in style mostly small so on a first reading it isn’t always obvious you’re in a song/dream segment and not an actual ‘proper’ biographical chapter, until the penny drops and you realise this is based on one of Cash’s songs.
At first I thought this was a bit of a failing on the artist’s part, not more clearly differentiating between biographical and song-based chapters. But as I was drawn further and further into the book I changed my mind and decided that this was actually a good decision on Kleist’s part; as I said earlier you can’t really separate the man and his music; he sang life as he saw it and lived it, they were part of him and he’s in each of them, so although the song chapters are a sort of fantasy they are also, in their own fashion, biographical.
The art through most of the book, both the biographical and the interpretations of the songs, is mostly in a suitably moody black and white with some gray tones for effect, although occasionally for the songs Kleist uses a more cartoony style (such as he uses for ‘A Boy Name Sue’). There are a couple of distinctive exceptions to this, however, a section where June and his mother try to help Johnny kick his dependence on drugs that’s leading him down a dark highway, executed in negative: white lines on a black background, an eerie sight of a human nervous system arced in pain, a glowing ball emerging from within, darkness and light, black and white, drugs dependency and love all warring within his body in a couple of wordless but very powerful pages. A song segment for The Ballad of Ira Hayes is again in a totally different style, much more symbolic and cartoony but equally powerful and, given the contrast they make with the principally more regular style through the rest of the book their impact is much stronger.
“Call him drunken Ira Hayes
He won’t answer anymore
Not the whiskey drinkin’ Indian
Nor the Marine that went to war
There they battled up Iwo Jima’s hill,
Two hundred and fifty men
But only twenty-seven lived to walk back down again
And when the fight was over
And when Old Glory raised
Among the men who held it high
Was the Indian, Ira Hayes” (the Ballad of Ira Hayes)
The music itself is normally presented in long, winding strips, reminiscent of the stretched out, long, narrow proto-speech bubble you see on say, 19th century cartoons, before the more common, modern speech bubble developed. Here Kleist uses speech bubbles for, well, speech, the long, thin ribbons for the songs. Its simple but very effective, giving the reader something of the feel of music, the way it doesn’t always seem to come from one source but moves through the air, reflecting, echoing, drifting, carried on the wind, almost an elemental force. It also allows Kleist to visually display something of the power of music; for me he achieves this most powerfully in the chapter on Folsom Prison, as the music drifts out seemingly on the wind, across the echoing, depressing halls, through the bars, the razor wire and out into the trees beyond. Its hard not to think of the opera scene in The Shawshank Redemption and like that remarkable scene of modern film this too has a simple, elegant power to it about the ability of art to touch lives and reach through barriers.
(Cash and Dylan jamming in a studio; how much would you love to have been in that room??)
Its a wonderful read; in fact I found after I’d finish I had to go back and re-read it more slowly and enjoyed it even more on the second reading and I know its going to be one of those special books that I go back to every so often and read once more. Its a story of a 20th century icon, a man who bestrode pretty much all normal boundaries of genre to appeal to a far wider audience and a remarkable life. Its a story where the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan are just supporting characters (let me say that again: Lewis, Elvis, Dylan – I mean come on! Great flawed gods of music). But mostly its about a man, the darkness he sees around him that almost swallows him and the lights that lead him back out the edge of the darkness (although he’d never be completely free of it), the love of his mother, his lost brother, June. This will be going on my books of the year list.
Reinhard Kleist will be one of the guests at the excellent Comica festival in London this year; He will be in conversation with (appropriately enough) someone well known to Brit comics and music fans, Charles Shaar Murray on November 22nd; details here.