The collected Monsieur Jean

Monsieur Jean : From Bachelor To Father Hardcover,

Dupuy and Berberian,

Humanoids

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French comic creators Philippe Dupuy and Charles Berberian are somewhat unusual – instead of the normal writer-artist collaboration, both creators write the plots, dialogue and share duties on the pencils and inks, making their acclaimed Monsieur Jean series a truly collaborative body of work (indeed it’s pretty hard to tell which of them created which elements, which is rather nice actually). I’ve had a huge soft spot for their Monsieur Jean series for many years (even struggling through a couple in French) and their track record is impressive, with multiple nominations and awards at the prestigious Angoulême bande dessinee festival, including being awarded the Grand Prix, an award chosen by a jury of former winners to honour a body of work by creators and generally held by many who love quality comics work to be one of the highest honours in the comics world.

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(the busybody concierge who runs the apartment block and her low opinion of Jean – until she sees him on television being interviewed as an acclaimed author!)

This large, new collection from Humanoids is a most welcome English-language compilation of the early Monsieur Jean works – some five comic albums in one volume – by Dupuy and Berberian. One of the aspects of Monsieur Jean I have always enjoyed is that he ages with the reader, each new album seeing him a bit older – rarely wiser! We may learn more but we also make more mistakes as we get older! – seeing his friends and family growing and evolving around him. Reading a large collection in one go like this really brings that aspect home and I found it increased my appreciation for the series and also it made this fictional character far more real to me, more easy to empathise and sympathise with as he goes through all those ups and downs that life throws up.

Jean himself is a writer, living in Paris, a confirmed bachelor, happy to dive into romance – and like many of us, perhaps to quick sometimes, too rapidly smitten – but obviously rather hesitant when it comes to serious commitment. Which is fine when you are younger, but as he goes through his twenties and into his thirties and he finds most of his friends are now married and then – oh the horror! – they start having children, he sometimes finds himself with that peculiar ennui. Not especially wanting to be married and have kids himself yet, but feeling odd as all the people he grew up with have moved on to that stage of life he’s not really ready for himself yet. A scene where he tries phoning around a lot of the friends in his little phonebook only to find each of them is too busy with various domestic engagements to simply go out with him for drinks and a movie at a moment’s notice is one that many singles will identify with, as they too find old friends who used to live for going out are now simply too busy with ‘domestic bliss’.

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(oh dear, sounds like she may be wanting more commitment than Jean is happy with...)

We meet the whole gang as these various volumes collected here unfold – old chum Clement, who is now the seemingly successful, confident businessman and married man, but who can also be a bit full of himself and like other married friends of Jean’s, enjoys teasing him about his romantic life and sometimes trying to set him up with someone when they go away on a trip (while you also sometimes get the impression he might slightly envy Jean’s single life and success at making a living by writing rather than at business). There’s Felix, of course, who is pretty much Jean’s best friend, but who is frequently a bit of a disaster. Everyone has a friend like Felix – a good guy, well-intentioned, but the one who turns up hours late for things, who seems to float through life without really taking responsibility (work, parenting), and yet because none of this is done with malice, more a sort of dream-like absent-mindedness, and because of his charm, everyone, although often exasperated by him, still loves him too.

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(having a friend’s screaming child dumped on you while he wanders around absent mindedly – good ‘ole Felix at his best)

And then there are the women who move through Jean’s life (his parents over dinner always raising the subject – when will you settle down, when will we have grandchildren; who among us has never had that at some point?). Some are one-offs, a quick fling with someone he met at a party, others develop into something more, making him happy with the romance but also bringing out Jean’s inbuilt worries about long-time commitment, which frequently manifest themselves in wonderfully weird dreams. One dream recurs several times, Jean as the lord of the castle, surrounded by his men-at-arms, in his stronghold where he can’t be touched, but, oh look, isn’t that Cathy? Cathy who broke his heart when he was so young and tender? And here she is, years later, still beautiful, and knocking at his door. Lower the drawbridge! Ah, but, Sire, are you sure you want to let her into the keep once more, imagine the damage she could do again…

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(A popular Parisian landmark to just stand and be still on your own or with someone special, the bridge over the Canal St Martin)

Jean, appropriately enough for a writer, is a bit of a dreamer, not just in his sleep but with little fantasy daydreams – the sort of thing we all use a bit of to help us get through the day. And reading such a large collection I was reminded that while Dupuy and Berberian largely keep events here as a slice of real life (work, relationships, kids, bills, but handled with a deft, light touch) these dream sequences allow them to also include a nice fantasy element occasionally (often with some nicely surreal, dream-like imagery, frequently bloody funny but also in a way most of us will identify with, because we all share the same worries). I’ve said before of Monsieur Jean that if Woody Allen had been French and a comics creator instead of film-maker, he might have made something not a million miles from these stories – if you are fond of Allen, especially that superb mid 70s to 80s period where he balanced life, drama and humour so well in many films – then I suspect you will love the world of Monsieur Jean. And as I mentioned earlier, going back to these early volumes is not just a pleasure, it is an enhanced pleasure – reading several albums in one collection like this was, for me, so much more than just re-reading works I loved years ago, it really deepened my appreciation for the character, for Dupuy and Berberian’s skill in both they narrative and the artistic devices they employ so effectively (it’s wonderfully confident, considered comic work, and like the best work it’s only when you stop and go back you realise how much fine skill went into making it seem so effortless for you to read and grasp), and then there are nice little touches like Parisian landmarks such as the footbridge over the Canal St Martin.

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(one of the surreal dreams as Jean’s fear of commitment sees his castle of the mind under siege from women he has loved firing babies over the walls)

From the trials and delights of single life to getting older, suddenly finding yourself responsible for looking after an ill friend’s child (the bachelor’s nightmare!) through relationships looking for the “one” (aren’t we all?) and to simply maturing, changing as we get older, trying to fit into new roles but still wanting to keep elements of our earlier selves because they are important to us. It’s life’s rich tapestry – the problems, the delights, the ups and downs, the big stuff (children, success in your chosen profession) and the little things (the annoying concierge and her annoying quirks), it’s all here and in this concentrated form it’s even more of a pleasure to sink into and lose yourself in. Hugely respected on the Continent, sadly less well-known to many English language readers, hopefully this very welcome Humanoids collection will go some way to redressing that. Some classic –and award-winning – modern European comics that should be on the shelf of anyone interested in quality comics works.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

The clockwork worlds – Edginton and Culbard’s glorious Brass Sun

Brass Sun Hardcover,

Ian Edginton, Ian Culbard,

Rebellion

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A thousand times a thousand years ago the Blind Watchmaker set the wheel of worlds upon the firmament. And upon those worlds he set the lost tribes of man. Each planet and populous were tasked with their own form and function – each a fine movement. A celestial increment within the greater machine.”

For me, ever since I first saw one in a museum as a very young boy there has been something enchanting about an Orrery, those beautiful, intricate old clockwork and brass moving models of the solar system, little brass and copper planets rotating around a brass sun, tiny metal moons around the planets, each orbiting in their own path and time. Of course cosmology has moved on and today we are confronted by a universe that seems infinitely more complex, and we’ve barely scratched the surface of even our tiny local neighbourhood of it all. And yet that relatively simple clockwork, moving model of the solar system still holds a certain magical fascination, all the heavens displayed at a human scale, in a simple, ordered fashion even a child can understand. Now take that child-like fascination and scale it up – right up – to planetary levels and we have The Orrery, an actual series of real worlds set on their metal rings to orbit their sun like the clockwork model.

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It’s a simple but utterly dazzling and wonderful notion and right from the start it affords us some truly glorious science fiction artwork as Ian Culbard delivers achingly beautiful splash pages, from the intricate cogs of the clockwork mechanism (and even in our day of digital tech and touch screens, isn’t there still something delightful about moving machinery of intricate clockwork?) and then pulling back to show us this astonishing solar system, all the little worlds mounted on their stands and rotating around one another and their sun on a clockwork system of wheels and cogs and gears (you can see a preview on the blog here). I think I fell in love with this story right at that early point.

Now imagine that this clockwork solar system is slowly winding down, the environment in the worlds is changing. Like our own world they face environmental change and possible collapse, and like too many in authority in our own world some are ignoring the facts, or in the religious world young Wren lives in, any attempt to use science to examine the changes and devise a plan is seen as heresy, leading to a death sentence. But in the best traditions of the epic quest tale this young woman is about to be catapulted onto an immense journey, and the fate of all these clockwork worlds will be in her hands, as her grandfather, once the high priest, now secret scientist, entrusts her with the knowledge he has gleaned and, as things fall apart on their world, sends her alone, fleeing, beyond all that she has known.

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Wren finds herself “riding the rails” – the connecting spars that make up this gargantuan Orrery, engineering spaces from its construction, and fortunately for her she meets some of the few who still attempt to study and maintain it, engineers, and a young apprentice befriends her and, again in finest quest tale tradition joins her, the pair travelling further and further, seeking the broken parts of a key her grandfather thinks can fix the slowly declining Orrery, all the time wondering about the nature of the “Blind Watchmaker” who may, or may not, be the creator of this entire, amazing series of interlinked worlds.

I was reminded several times of Ursula Le Guin’s superb Earthsea, not the story so much, but rather the small, different but connected worlds of Brass Sun putting me in mind of the archipelago of islands from Le Guin’s wonderful fantasy classic, while the adventure and quest elements are familiar from any number of fantasy tales, not to mention the original myths which fed those fantasies – an epic-scale journey into the unknown, dangers on all sides, finding new friends along the way who will be true no matter what (and how their emotional bonding also bonds the reader to them, invests us not just in the big-scale wonder of the tale but in the person-level emotions), and how Wren will have to change and grow on her journey, as all the best heroes always have to .

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It’s an achingly gorgeous looking piece of Clockpunk science fiction, and we’ve raved about it as we followed the serialisation in the pages of the much-beloved stalwart of Brit comics, 2000 AD (almost four decades on and still nurturing new work like this). But it’s not just the beauty of the art and the concept, it is a cracking adventure tale, a magnificent quest for our young, untried heroes, who are going to have to grow up fast and face all sorts of challenges, some physical (dangerous environments, nasty people trying to kill them, many now ignorant of how the Orrery was created, or of the other worlds), some mental (the sheer challenge of continuing on into the unknown, the burden placed on such young shoulders), some metaphysical (religion, science, both dealing with the nature of belief and what happens if those beliefs prove to be wrong), and with a subtle message about managing our own environment.

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It is a tale to let yourself fall into, to become hopelessly entangled into it until the Orrery and its characters feel almost real to you (just all the best quest tales have always done, drawn us so very deeply in until we feel we are part of their epic journey). And oh, that glorious artwork. I’ve always held that science fiction and fantasy delivers one quality more than any other literary genre: the sheer sense of wonder. And here Edginton and Culbard will fill your head with wonder and beauty and danger and daring. One of the finest series of the year, now collected into a handsome hardback edition, an absolute must-have. As I said, a story to let yourself fall in love with.

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Review: Grandville Noel, Bryan Talbot’s finest yet

Grandville: Noel,

Bryan Talbot,

Jonathan Cape

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The fourth album of Bryan Talbot’s magnificent Grandville series arrives from Cape (just in time for you to add to your Christmas “I-Want” list). Each of the preceding three volumes has made my Best of the Year list, I’ve absolutely loved them. Talbot, of course, is more than a very gifted artist, he’s a superb storyteller, not just in terms of creating a cracking narrative to draw you in and filling it with wonderfully realised characters, but also because as you read his books you can feel the thought and care that has gone into each panel, even slight touches  added with great deftness to achieve just the effect on the reader that is required (and I know full well there will be techniques and devices employed which are almost inivsible to the reader but picked up subliminally, adding to the effect in the way a tiny pinch of herbs mixes with other, larger, more obvious ingredients in the perfect dish). Grandville: Noel not only carries on this tradition, I think it surpasses it: pitch perfect story, the balance between adventure and humour, bravery and shock, the elements that clearly draw on current worries in our own society (something the best science fiction has always been good at) and some glorious artwork to give us the finest Grandville volume yet.

We start thousands of miles from this Steampunk alternative Paris, in the compound of a religious cult in America, being surrounded by baying citizens, held back by police as the army is deployed; you don’t need a knowledge of Jonestown or Waco to realise that this is not going to end well. But before the place can be stormed the messiah of this particular cult – a remarkably rare unicorn going under the name Apollo – appears before the robed cult members, telling them they are all now about to ascend to a new level of being… Sadly this approach to a supposedly higher form of being is, like the infamous Heaven’s Gate cult incident, is taken by ingesting poison. However, Apollo himself, his old, now broken down mentor and a power hungry Gryphon (another rare creature) and a few truly brutal-looking guards (all of them pigs) have not taken the poison and instead flee to a prepared airship. All of this happens within the first half dozen pages.

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But what of our large badger chum Inspector LeBrock of the Yard and his solid companion detective Ratzi? The pair have something rare for those who work for the emergency services – a festive period off. Ratzi retires to his large home and family, leaving LeBrock on his own. Noticing his landlady is upset he soon encourages her to explain what’s wrong: her sister’s daughter has run off, just a young, teenage girl. Naturally our gallant badger undertakes an investigation of his own, picking up small clues the local police overlooked, which soon lead him to a religious cult via a believer on the streets nearby giving out leaflet (leading to some superb expressions, not least on the religious zealot’s face as LeBrock bears down on him. It isn’t long before the trail of the missing girl, Bunty, leads our intrepid inspector back to Paris and the new headquarters of Apollo and his followers, along the way taking in a joyful reunion with Billie, the Parisian lady of the night who LeBrock is rather keen on, his old friend in the French detective service and tangling in both a new gang war as a vicious but remarkably rarely-seen new kingpin, Tiberius Koenig (yes, there is a clue in that name, which I shall not spoil) who has been taking over all criminal operations in Grandville, and also a search for fabled – possibly mythical, perhaps real – religious documents that could reveal something shocking (and which Apollo also wants), as well as a growing civil unrest by the ‘doughfaces’ (derogatory terms for humans) demanding equal rights (including a cameo from a couple of very familiar faces!), and in the absence of Ratzi a new partner events push him to working with, a doughface cowboy from Pinkertons, “Chance Lucas”, a gunslinger who can pretty much outdraw his own shadow (yes, I think  you can guess which famous comic character he alludes to!).

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And the brief summary of Grandville: Noel doesn’t really give you more than a small taste, but I am reluctant to spoil it for you with too much in the way of narrative detail, because it is an absolute cracker of a plot, buzzing along happily and a terrific pace, developing nicely, the main thrust carrying on swiftly but Talbot still allowing plenty of space to work in some increasingly blossoming romance with Billie and LeBrock, some bonding with Chance, some sidebar elements which at first seem to be merely adding some interesting detail to the history of the Grandville universe but which are woven back into the later narrative with great deftness, and also managing to layer in some elements which comment on topical modern concerns, not least the alarming growth of right-wing extremism and xenophobia across Europe and the way both religious and political leaders can use whipping up hatred of one group and playing on exaggerated fears to manipulate many into supporting actions they would never otherwise countenance (which even in this alternative reality includes some iconography, uniforms and rhetoric that look chillingly familiar, a reminder of where this sort of ‘hunger politics’ leads to). And then the cream and cherries on top of some beautifully done references, executed with a much lighter – and more effective – hand than some of the references dropped into later LOEG books, for example, including, appropriately enough given the nature of this story and the Apollo character, some religious allusions, such as a Last Supper scene.

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And again without going into to much in the way of potentially spoiler-territory details, there’s also a deeply satisfying feeling, especially in the latter third of the book, of the events of this book and the preceding three contributing to some major events which feel like they will be bearing down in the future on LeBrock, a very pleasurable feeling of everything coming nicely together into a larger story and sequence of events. We also get some fascinating glimpses into the history of the universe Grandville exists in, with Talbot, not for the first time, making a nice odd to some Moorcockian ideas of realities. Both of these elements of greater events building and the increased detail of this alternate, Steampunk, animal–dominated world seriously add to the depth and feel of not just this book, but the entire series so far. The art is, as you would expect, superb – I’ve already noted some of the wonderful close-ups Talbot executes of the characters and their expressions, while the cityscape of Grandville, this Steampunk Paris, remains as visually ravishing as ever, while on the smaller scale there is some fantastic layering effects – breath misting in the cold of a winter’s day, snow flakes falling – which contribute to giving an almost three dimensional feel to some panels, a true feeling of depth, be it a small street scene of characters talking in a snowy street or a huge splash page of dashing action as Lebrock leaps from an explosion. Adventure, conspiracy, hidden histories, religious and political plots, the dangers of intolerance, some comedy, some romance, heroics… Really, what more can you ask for? Simply superb, the finest Grandville yet – I read this twice, back to back on a train journey, I feel like another read and also like having a nice re-read through the first three volumes again too. Lose yourself in it.

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Review: Batwoman – Elegy

Batwoman: Elegy,
Greg Rucka, JH Williams III,
DC Comics

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That bat they shine in the sky… Civilians think it’s a call for help. The bad guys think it’s a warning… But it’s more than that. It’s something higher. It’s a call to arms… I’ve found my way to serve. I finally found a way to serve.”

The New 52 Batwoman has been one of my favourite monthly reads, not least with the first couple of years of the run when JH Williams III was co-writing and doing the artwork. But not long before The New 52 reset the DC universe Williams collaborated with the brilliant Greg Rucka (who has given us so many tales, including the brilliant Queen & Country), and the result was this superb Batwoman story, Elegy. A new character appears, the mentally unbalanced Alice, who seems to be obsessed with Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (leading Batwoman to inform her rather tartly that Gotham already has a Carroll-inspired villain). And this bizarre, damaged character seems set on becoming the new all-high leader of a bizarre cult of crime, a cult which Kate Kane has tangled with before.

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But there’s so much more going on here than a new villain and threat to Gotham; Alice is not just another psychologically bizarre supervillain come to make her mark on Gotham, there’s a deeper connection, a personal one, to Kate herself, although she doesn’t realise this at first, and it will change many things for her. While we have this struggle in the present, Elegy is also intercut with scenes from Kate’s past, from childhood with her twin sister to the death of her mother and sister, then growing up, becoming an outstanding officer cadet, determined to serve in the army like her father, the Colonel, only to have her dream brought to a sudden halt – this was the time when homosexuality was not allowed in the armed forces and Kate, a lesbian, is dismissed. Such is the respect for her dedication to her work her commanding officer offers her a chance to simply deny it and continue to serve, but part of her oath includes not lying, and she won’t break that, not even to save her career. Her father is upset at her losing her chance to serve, but he tells her how much he respect his daughter for refusing to lie to save herself; she lost her chance to be an officer, but she maintained her integrity, her honour, and he is proud of her.

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And this is really the meat of Elegy, not the struggle against Alice, interesting though that is, it is a trigger to these flashbacks, which gives us an insight into who Kate Kane is, what drives her. Despite the violent loss of her mother and sister when she was a girl, it isn’t revenge that drives her, it is this urge to serve something larger than herself. Denied the chance to do this for her country she starts to think of another way, after an attempting mugging (the poor mugger picked on the wrong woman! I’m no helpless victim she rages as she takes him down, I’m a soldier) and a chance encounter with the Batman in a dingy Gotham alley. Kate applies her army training and discipline to this new role, using both intellect and physical prowess. When the Colonel finds out he berates her for playing at vigilante (not to mention purloining an array of weapons from the army base – all non-lethal weapons though). I’m not playing, Kate tells him, I’ve found a way to serve. And he understands – he has his uniform and flag, she now has her symbol and her role, and he decides if she is going to do this, she will do it right and with his help. A masked vigilante is trained by the best to prepare for this new war – and it is a war and she is a soldier, he tells her – and becomes Batwoman.

As origins go it is a brilliant piece, a lovely, emotional insight into what makes Kate become what she becomes, while also showing the price she pays, both physically (the intense training, the risks to life and limb) and emotionally (the cost of loving another woman driving her from the army so unfairly, her secret life as Batwoman at night damaging her new relationship with Gotham PD detective Renee). But again there is more to it, and the relationship between Batwoman, the Colonel and Alice will push to break an emotional dam, and create an emotional, personal abyss which has also informed the Batwoman of The New 52. It’s also hugely refreshing to see a gay character portrayed so well here – her gender and sexual persuasion are part of her, and Kate makes no attempt to conceal it (even, as noted before, to save her own army career), but it’s not a major issue, it’s just part of who she is (and why should it be a big deal? It’s a delight the way we are simply given her as a character to accept like any other, which is as it should be, it should make no difference). The mainstream media made much of the new Batwoman being a lesbian, but to Rucka and Williams’ credit this is just a part of the character, Kate, like anyone of any persuasion, has the same problems anyone else has in relationships, because that’s what happens in human interaction, regardless of your orientation, we all share the same problems and emotions, and of course this makes it much easier to empathise with her, bringing reader and character closer.

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In Rucka and Williams’ hands we are given a fiercely strong, deterined gay female character, and they take us into her world and into her mind and her soul in such a way that she becomes a totally compelling character. This is enhanced by Williams’ astonishing artwork – he has to be one of the finest working in the industry today. Not just the quality of his artwork – which is beautifully done – but in the innovative layouts and structures he uses. This is an artist pushing how a comic looks, how it works, how it can tell a story, and by god it is brilliant, clever, kinetic, powerful. In his run on The New 52 Batwoman Williams would refine this even further. It gives us a perfect fusion of intricate story within a story, origin tale, emotional heart and drive and presented in some of the finest comics artwork and layouts to be found anywhere, and it left me with a deep and abiding love for Kane’s Batwoman.

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this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

The Peripheral – William Gibson’s superb return to science fiction

The Peripheral,

William Gibson,

Viking

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Inside, the trailer was the colour of Vaseline...”

I’ve been reading Bill Gibson’s work since my teens (which now feel like a lifetime ago, back in a former century); Neuromancer remains a firm personal favourite as well as being generally held not just to be a classic of modern science fiction but one of the most iconic and influential. In the last decade and a half though Gibson has moved away from science fiction to a fair extent, but his writing has remained fascinating, his technique sharper each time but his ability to craft a wonderfully descriptive line (such as the quote above) in one sentence where other writers may take half a paragraph of descriptive text remains, and he remains laser-sharp in tapping into elements of today’s society, morals and tech. Now with his return to full-on science fiction I am delighted to say those skills has sharpened in the likes of his less-SF works like the Blue Ant series remain pin-sharp, an intriguing story, beautifully paced, mixed with his laconic descriptive style and superbly accurate observations of problems we are facing today and tomorrow in the real world, transposed into his future setting. Of course commenting on today’s problems using a futuristic setting is something good science fiction has done forever, but Gibson does it so much better (and with so much style) that most.

Set across two time periods, the near-future, around the early 2020s, and we meet a young woman in a trailer park in the South of America, Flynne. In this not too distant version of the future there’s a lot to be recognised from our own present day, an economy that simply doesn’t work anymore, out-competed by fresh international rivals, wearied by endless wars (Flynne’s brother Burton is a veteran, still suffering sometimes from the tech implants – ‘haptics’ the Marines use in this era), few jobs, even fewer that pay a wage you can live on, what’s left of the economy and the local and national government run far more by corrupt politicians in the pay of corporations and a wealthy elite who have hung on to their wealth and increased their influence as the mass of population grows poorer – democracy is pretty much a fig leaf now. Sounds terribly familiar, doesn’t it?

Flynne, like most of the population, has to be on the look our for ways to make a living – sure there is a military pension for her brother but the cost of living keeps going up and keeping food on the table and a roof over the head is increasingly expensive, while employment opportunities grow scarcer, their small town drying up, shops closing, only a few chain conglomerates still in business, apart from a few local enterprises which operate frequently in the grey area between the legitimate economy (if you can call it that in this corrupt future) and the dark economy. Flynne never served herself, having to look after their mother (and earn money for her medications), but she has some formidable combat skills, albeit virtual ones – so good she’s made money as a virtual mercenary for rich gamers, helping them look good. Burton, with his tech enhanced skills from his Marines days also makes some extra money on the side checking out beta versions of new software and games for corporate clients. When he needs to be elsewhere (basically heading to nearby towns to tussle with a religious-political group he can’t stand) he asks Flynne to stand in for him and run his shift on what both think is testing out parts of a new game. And it is while remotely operating a flying drone in this virtual city online that Flynne (logged in as Burton) witnesses what looks very much like a real murder, realistic enough to be disturbing (especially for Flynne, who after some too-realistic war gaming for a rich client is sickened of this kind of thing, even if it is virtual).

But was it just a test of a beta version of a new game in development? Or was it something more…

And this is where the second main element of Peripheral comes in, almost a century further down the timeline from Flynne’s era, in a sparsely populated world following an event, an odd version of London, parts of it new but parts of it recognisable to us, but somehow different. This is the world after an event known as The Jackpot, the human race hugely reduced in number after this event – or really a series of events, a rapidly accelerating downward spiral of various disasters, some natural, many problems we are all to aware of right now, problems of our own making, allowed to run rampant, no one single event or disaster, just one after the other, like a war of attrition oh humanity. This sparsely populated future London was recreated mostly by nano assemblers and the main humans left are descendants of the hugely rich oligarchs, like the Russian billionaires who buy up huge sections of the wealthiest parts of London today then extend their properties underground, Gibson again taking a far future but lacing it with elements of the way things are already recognisably going in our own day and age.

Among this rich elite we meet Wilf, not rich himself, nor especially important, but he has some influence, a mover and shaker of media (we first meet him as his carefully orchestrated media piece on his artist client – who periodically flays her own skin from her body and displays it as art before growing a new one – ends up in a total mess witnessed by all). And this is where it becomes even more interesting, as we find out Wilf’s rich oligarch friend has been playing a new game. Not exactly the game Flynne thought she was testing – in fact his new hobby is like a strategy game, building your own world of resources and planning, a Civilisation style game, perhaps. Except this isn’t a virtual reality, this is history – this is Flynne’s time. A mysterious server – perhaps in China – somehow allows a few of the rich elite in this future to dabble in the past, the ultimate in gaming, actually getting to play with real people. Gibson neatly avoids this causing any causality problems by the fact that whenever a new game is started it cannot actually be the past of the player’s time, rather it causes a splitting off, a splinter, a different timeline, which they can interact with in the future knowing if they cause any changes it will not affect their own present. It’s a nice spin on a hypothesis about possible time travel which has been used before in both science fiction and theoretical science as a way around the the causality problem (how could you go back and change the past, as any change would alter your own future so that your future would now be different from the one where you decided to change the past… Yes, very confusing conundrum, time travel really can induce headaches) by automatically having these ‘stubs’ become their own timeline, linked by the mysterious server but not part of the timeline of the gamer, so it cannot effect their time. In effect a parallel reality, something that has been theorised for many years in science, a multiverse where each different course of action leads to its own distinct timeline where each plays out.

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But while this stub timeline Flynne inhabits may not directly effect events in Wilf’s time, his time has serious effects on her era – not least that some of the other shady operators from Wilf’s time, others playing in this timeline as if the people there were game pieces (which to these bored, rich oligarchs they effectively are) see her – or Burton – as a possible threat to their own plans and decide they need to be removed, necessitating direct contact with Flynne and her timeline. a contact Wilf is chosen to be the frontman for. There is no actual time travel here, but it is possible to exchange data between the different times, and Flynne ‘visits’ their future via a remote android body, the eponymous peripheral, still in her own time but able to use it to physically interact in Wilf’s future period. A tense race soon develops, which draws in an enigmatic London detective, who is clearly much more than a police officer, and while the timelines may be separate, they are parallel and it’s not hard for those in each period to see events of their own timelines being mirrored in the other, but must everything play out one way or can they determine their own possible future?

I’m not going to go into deep details here for fear of spoilers – this is a large novel (especially by Gibson standards) but it flies past at a cracking pace, with the intensity slowly ratchetting up as the events start to spiral ever faster, cutting back and forth between the two futures. Despite the length of the book Gibson keeps it never less than engrossing, and it isn’t long before you get drawn into the lives of the characters, especially those of Flynne’s era and the way her family and neighbours band together in the face of threat, be it from the other shadowy future operatives playing with their time, or from their own corrupt local politicians and businessmen – when the world is going to hell there is something warmly human about this small group of the have-nots circling the waggons and looking after each other, in stark contrast to the predatory super-rich, the politicians and the corporations, the latter with huge amounts of money and all the resources they can buy, the former relying on their own personal bonds and ingenuity, classic Us versus Them. The story riffs on a number of hot topic subjects from our own era’s concerns – virus outbreaks, terrorism, economic collapse, the ever growing chasm between those at the top, entrenching their positions while the mass of the population has to get by with less and less, an environment we’ve pushed beyond breaking but still don’t do much to repair, not to mention the metaphor of these future rich kids in a post Jackpot event world playing with real lives in alternate timelines as if it was a game (which to them it is), and the allusions that casts to the way so much of our own world seems to be run beyond our own control by elite groups who answer to no-one but themselves.

Through this gripping story and the social-historical-political-economic observations Gibson so deftly weaves (into the background, giving these futures a realistic texture and context but without slowing the main narrative) we’re also treated to more of those superb brief but oh so evocative descriptive lines Gibson is the king of, such as one character boarding an armoured Zil limousine, noticing “it had no rear window whatever, which gave him the sense that it had turned up its collar.” And through it there is the nature of morality in both timelines, one older character reminding a younger that those plotting against them may have evil intent, but they’re not monsters, they’re “all too human, dear, and the moment we forget it, we’re lost,” the implication being that every single one of us has the potential to be that selfish, banal evil person, and we need to remember, because that’s what keeps us different, keeps us on the right side. Absolutely compelling return to science fiction by Gibson, I already know this will be one of my Best of the Year picks.

Reviews: Zenith, Phase One

Zenith Phase One Hardcover,

Grant Morrison, Steve Yeowell,

Rebellion/2000 AD

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I hadn’t realised the scale of their plans… Millions of worlds, moving towards alignment… The war that never ends… The Omnihedron… Oh, we’re so small… so…

Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell’s Zenith – a rare superhero outing for UK science fiction stalwart 2000 AD – must be one of the most requested reprint titles we’ve been asked for over the years. When will it be reprinted and collected? Finally after a lot of behind the scenes problems (which we won’t go into here, it could fill a whole article on its own) the first of a much-anticipated series of reprints arrives, in a nice hardback edition that resembles the quality bande dessinee of the Franco-Belgian comics market. 2000 AD has a proud history of nurturing new comics talent, and in the mid 1980s they were making a point of giving new series and creators more space, with one of those series turning out to be Zenith. Morrison, of course, has been working away for several years by this point (starting with work in Near Myths in the mid 70s, a collaborative comics work which included early Bryan Talbot work and which came out of the old Edinburgh Science Fiction Bookshop, which would later become Forbidden Planet), but this was one of his major breaks and proved to be a huge hit with the readers.

We open with a flashback to the closing days of World War Two, but this is an alternate history, the final battles taking place in 1944, not ‘45. The Nazis have developed their ‘ubermensch’, a superpowered being, Masterman, but the British, with the help of German scientists who defected to the Allies, develop their own version, Maximan, and the story begins with these two colossally powerful beings in a fight to the death in the bombed-out ruins of Berlin. A fight Maximan is losing to the Nazi creature, who is, it is hinted, more than just a product of science, he is part of a greater scheme involving the ‘Many-Angled Ones’, beings of vast, cold intellect that live among other dimensions and, like Lovecraft’s elder gods, seek to seep into our world, influence and then rule it. But before he can deliver the coup de grace an American bomber, carrying the first operational atomic bomb, delivers its deadly cargo, obliterating the city and both superbeings…

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In the 1980s we meet Zenith, one of the few superpowered beings in the world after an international ban on superbeing research – he is the offspring of parents who were part of Cloud 9, a British superteam of the 1960s, developed using the original wartime research, designed to be heroic, patriotic, unquestioning super-soldiers like Maximan. But this was the 60s and like many young people of the time Cloud 9 rebelled, tuned in, dropped out, refused to wear uniforms, to follow any order they didn’t agree with. By the 80s most are gone, some killed, some vanished mysteriously (including Zenith’s own parents) and the remainder have lost their powers over the years. Zenith is no heroic figure either, using his abilities in a purely selfish manner, a very 1980s creature, out for number one, only interested in himself and his pop career and celebrity status.

Until Ruby Fox enters his life; one of the Cloud 9 survivors, now working as a journalist, seemingly now without her powers. But when a secret society resurrects a stored twin of the Nazi Masterman and he attacks her, she finds in extremis that she can still use her powers (allowing her to direct electricity) to fight him long enough to escape and seek Zenith. The petulant, spoiled 80s brat doesn’t really believe her, much less want to help her, but is persuaded when she offers to tell him what happened to his parents if he does. Together they seek out The Red Dragon, a Welsh member of Cloud 9, but the Red Dragon is now plain Siadwell, and he is constantly pickled, and Mandala, a Cloud 9 survivor with powerful mental abilities, who became a 60s transcendental hippy, but has now gone in the other direction and become a golden boy of Thatcher’s Tory government as MP Peter St John. St John refuses to believe them or help, but events may force him to change his mind, as the new Masterman appears on the streets of London…

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And I won’t go any further on the plot for fear of ruining it – I know a lot of readers will have encountered this story many years ago, but it will still be new to quite a few and I don’t want to spoil it. It is fascinating to look back at this decades on, especially in the light of later work as Morrison moved from fan-favourite at 2000 AD to being an international comics god. Many of the approaches and ideas behind Zenith would be developed and mutated into even more compellingly weird and wonderful shapes for his later work – with that handy beast Hindsight it is particularly interesting to look at Zenith again in light of what Morrison would do with series like the remarkable The Invisibles, for instance.

Not content to simply serve up superheroes even at that early stage in his career, Morrison creates alternate timelines and dimensions, hidden histories, Lovecraftian multi-dimensional beings (who are behind the whole creation of superbeings for their own dark agenda), a serious questioning of accepting authority unquestioningly (see where that dutiful approach got poor Maximan, after all) or taking it as read that the world is at it appears but instead delving behind the curtains of reality to show there is far more (shades of both Lovecraft and Moorcock and more), all ably assisted by Steve Yeowell who crafts some lovely, clear black and white art (although Brendan McCarthy worked on the early designs for the series), rendering a wide variety of scenes, from WWII battlefields to 1980s London to the innards of a hideous dimensional being with equal grace and style.

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In some ways this has remained a timeless tale of a young, hungry writer getting to let loose with some of the ideas that had been fermenting in his brain, getting to stretch himself and his concepts of not just what storytelling could be but what you could so with the comics medium, something Morrison has pretty much continued to do throughout his career, frequently altering, changing, mutating both his approach and what you can do with the paper-based artificial reality of a world of comics, and it is a pure pleasure to see him again here at that early phase of his career, letting loose with those ideas and developing them.

In other ways though there are a number of elements which remain very much of their time, remain very 1980s, from the spoiled, selfish me-me-me generation epitomised by Zenith to some serious digs not just at the age-old British establishment but specifically at Thatcher and her government (one of the returned Many-Angled Ones seeing the former hippy turned right-wing Tory MP Peter St John remarks to him casually oh yes, we have many allies among you, inferring just how far some on the right would go for power). Those elements are still amusing to those of us old enough to remember the era, they probably don’t mean as much to younger readers encountering this for the first time. But those are only minor elements of the tale, and all tales will have some reflection of the era that shaped them, after all.

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But the main story and concepts remain powerful and compelling, and while superbeings behaving badly or the idea of WWII era super-soldiers is not new, Morrison created a very British, cynical, take on superheroes and what it would be like if they actually existed, and fused this superhero and science fiction approach with horror elements to create something remarkable and magnificent (and sometimes some nice humorous observations – such as how do you get from A to B when you fly? Just having the power to fly doesn’t mean you know where you are going in the air, something I’d never thought of about superheroes till Morrison cheekily worked it in, and when you see it you think of course, why didn’t I think of that before??). A fascinating work in its own right, a ‘lost’ classic of Brit comics now finally available again and an essential part of Morrison’s considerable oeuvre that you have to have on your shelves. Welcome home, Zenith.

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog

Supercrash: Darryl Cunningham’s fascinating comics exploration of the great financial meltdown

Supercrash: How to Hijack the Global Economy,
Darryl Cunningham,
Myriad Editions

Or: “How I stopped worrying and learned to love the financial timebomb…“*

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I’ve followed Darryl’s work for years, from his run as our resident cartoonist-in-virtual-residence right here on the blog through his developing work on the brilliant Act-I-Vate online comics collective, then his books, starting with the astonishingly powerful Psychiatric Tales, the insightful Science Tales and the fun of his Uncle Bob Adventures (a second volume of which will be heading our way from Blank Slate, yay!). Equally at home with humour or adventure strips, Darryl is however perhaps best known for tackling some pretty heavyweight, very serious subjects (mental health issues, the growing anti-science attacks by some, climate change and more) and through a massive amount of research being able to distil this research into complex – and often sensitive – issues and then creating an incredibly accessible explanation in comics form. In these endeavours I don’t think it is hyperbole to say Darryl has, for me, become to this explanatory branch of reportage comics what Sacco has become to war zone reportage, in that he shows all sides of a problem in a way the reader can understand, while never losing track of the human aspect in the complex issues involved, and all delivered in a way that only the comics medium can do.

With Supercrash he turns his attention to the global financial meltdown, the myriad causes that lead to it, the reaction of shocked governing bodies to it and the dreadful effects it had, not just on the companies but on millions of struggling individuals and even entire nations and continents (and indeed the effects it is still having, not just in economic austerity but in the attitudes that have come from it and which are affecting present and future political policies). It’s an extremely confusing, complex set of issues, and yet again Darryl manages to take those subjects and not just explain them in a manner any reader could absorb and understand, but equally crucially, he shows thenumerous links between many different causes, influences and events which lead to this dreadful meltdown, giving the reader a much fuller understanding of the various effects because they are now more aware of the causes.

No one helped me, nor do I think it was anyone’s duty to help me...”

The book is broken into three main chapters: Ayn Rand, The Crash and The Age of Selfishness. Rand is a name probably familiar to many readers for her novels such as Atlas Shrugged, although many will not actually have picked up those novels and read them (I don’t recommend them, I have to say). But Rand was more than a novelist and screenwriter, she’s not only included here but given the entire first third of the book because of her political ideology and the cult she built up around it and herself, an ideology which influenced a number of people who would in later life be in influential positions of power, such as Alan Greenspan, a long-serving chairman of the Federal Reserve of the United States (from 1987 right through to 2006, a period when many of the protections and regulations created years before, some after the Great Depression, to protect the financial system from abuse, were systematically gutted, contributing directly to the great crash). Rand is a hugely divisive character, her personal ideology praising selfishness and attempting to justify it as a way for the ‘superior’ person to realise their potential without being ‘held back’ by the great mass of lazy and uneducated, and owing no responsibility to others (naturally she counts herself among the superior types).

It’s a very elitist stance and also seeks to explain why taxation is immoral, why someone who chooses to be a social worker is wasting their time and more that many people will find distasteful at best, downright repulsive and amoral at worst. Of course, others, including Greenspan, found her reasoning compelling, and a cadre of core supporters helped spread her message and, as with Greenspan, as they got older some of them found themselves in positions where they could actually influence national policies and put some of her teaching into practise, not least with a lot of deregulation in the financial markets which, it was argued, were not needed to protect markets and institutions and were in fact hampering progress and growth.

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Despite the many flaws in both Rand’s reasoning and her personal character though, Darryl somehow also manages to portray a very vulnerable human being behind all her hateful rhetoric – this is not a character assassination, but an examination, and while many of her beliefs may be vile to many (although again he makes it clear she’s an icon to others) Darryl tries to give her some personal context, from childhood through to old age, personal relationships, money worries and other influences that shaped her and show why she was as she was, when a lazier author might have simply drawn her in simpler, starker terms that justified their own agenda, but Darryl is too good a writer for that. I also suspect the fact he is a person of great personal empathy drives him to try and depict her as an actual, complicated, imperfect, sometimes contradictory human being, whatever his own feelings on her views.

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What makes this a far more fascinating and compelling book however, isn’t just Darryl being able to explain historic and contemporary root causes of the great crash, it is, as I indicated at the start, the fact that he shows the links between the different factors and influences and shows how they converged and evolved to create the fiscal tsunami that the world is still recovering from. More than that though, he shows how those causes such as Rand’s belief system – despite its many inherent contradictions (the powerful individual should thrive, those less able should perish, despite the fact those at the top require the work of those at the bottom and the society – hospitals, schools, infrastructure – that ‘despised mass’ makes happen, or her belief you make it on your own, no help, despite being helped repeatedly herself) – are still being used and still evolving with new generations on the right, with what I suppose we could term the children of the Thatcher and Reagan eras (we’re talking about the sort of top flight City workers who waved bank notes at a passing demonstration of public service workers protesting austerity and wage freezes fairly recently), and how some of these ideas have percolated into the far right and feed back into a general contempt for the have-nots (ie most of us), an overwhelming sense of superiority over the mass of the population and a crushing lack of human compassion, which we also see not only in the high finance business but in the political and media demonising of ‘welfare scroungers’ damaging the economy and straining public finances (at the cost of the ‘ordinary working family’) while ignoring those at the top who make enormous bonuses in businesses bailed out by the same public purse (so much for stand on your own with no help and the decrying of state intervention), or the dozens of top London Stock Exchange listed companies who use a complicated system of entirely legal methods to pay almost no corporate taxes, losing exchequers millions, if not billions, and yet the main political and media discussion still seems to settle on easy targets such as the disabled, long-time unemployed or immigrants, and, more worryingly, seems to be convincing a lot of regular people that these are indeed the main problems ruining our countries, a spiral of hate and distrust, bigotry, arrogance and lack of compassion that is breathtaking and which we are seeing and having to deal with right now in everyday politics, as well as in high business where those same attitudes helped foster the environment that encouraged the risk taking that helped fuel the financial disaster .

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But this is not some tirade against Big Business or the rise of the Right. While Darryl does take a stance, he spends a considerable amount of time, especially in the final chapter, examining some of the main characteristics of the Liberal and Conservative (in political ideological terms, not the actual political parties), and he is commendably even-handed here, explaining some of their main thoughts and ideological planks to their side of politics and how there are both good and bad aspects to both, such as a family focus, strong law and order, personal discipline and so on which are hallmarks of the Right and the belief in the community spirit, the creative abilities to think outside the box and the adherence to personal liberties that are more associated with the Left, but also showing how both can be ideologically blinkered to simple common sense. I have to say he’s much more balanced here than I would have been, and again I commend Darryl for taking that sensible and mature approach. This isn’t to say he doesn’t indicate his own leanings and views, but he does so in a very thoughtful and balanced manner, backed up by a ridiculously huge amount of research, which he conveniently documents in the appendix along with a handy glossary of commonly used terms in the book (hedge funds, toxic debt and other phrases that have become common use through media reports yet which many of us probably only have a very basic understanding of).

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I’m not going to get too far into the depths of the historical causes and arguments here, they are simply far, far to complicated for a mere review to try and paraphrase and condense, and besides, Darryl has done such an outstanding job in explaining so much of this that the best I can do is not try to explain some of it but simply advise you to read the book. All of this, as a bonus, comes with Darryl’s unique comic art, again taking deceptively simply cartooning that takes the reader easily into the heart of complex matters that have important influences on everyone’s lives and making it understandable visually as well as with words. His visualisations of Rand as she moves through her life somehow manage to be both intimidating – the dark-eyed, intense stare of someone who is sure they are always right and will brook no dissent – and yet often also suggesting the opposite, a harried, worried, frightened person behind that mask, vulnerable, needy and unable to articulate that need, hiding behind invented ideology instead which never fills that emotional void within, such that much as I despise her arguments (and loathe her badly written novels) I still found myself feeling sorry for her quite often as I read this.

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The three main chapters regularly use a distinctive colour palette to easily differentiate them to the reader – pale greys, yellows and brighter reds for Rand, darker greys and blues for the Crash chapter (although other colours come in for spot effect and for a few pages set on a tropical beach he goes pretty much full colour for a nice contrasting effect of the ‘happy times’ of the booming bubble before the collapse) and a lot of yellows and red in the final Age of Selfishness chapter. And I was delighted to see Darryl work in a few cityscape scenes too – I do love a good Darryl Cunningham cityscape! It’s a remarkable read, visually clever and inventive, as you might expect from Darryl perhaps but still always a pleasure to see, condensing and simplifying complicated inter-related causes that combined to bring the great crash and the subsequent life-ruining austerity measures that have followed in the amazing way that he manages to make seem so simple (but which we know is the result of massive reading, research and thought before any panels were brought to life). A complicated yet eminently readable work on an important subject, this deserves a wide readership, and I hope like Darryl’s previous works this is also one with much to recommend it to book folks outside of the regular comics readership. Much recommended.

* - no, not really, of course…

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Review: Wild’s End #1 – Wind in the Willows meets War of the Worlds

Wild’s End #1
Dan Abnett, Ian Culbard
Boom! Studios

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When I see Dan Abnett and Ian Culbard’s names on a new comic, frankly even before I know what it is about, that’s sufficient to make me want to take a look. Add in the fact that we have an anthropomorphic fantasy take on one of the first great classics of science fiction, HG Wells’ War of the Worlds (with a touch of the Archers thrown in for good measure) and you have my undivided reading attention!

We open under a clear night sky in the countryside, away from street lights, a great glowing, indigo firmament specked with sparking stars and a great moon, whose silvery glow lights the way home for Fawkes (a fox person) and his drouthy companion Bodie (a weasel), good naturedly arguing over their bottle of booze as, from the looks of it, they are walking home from a good evening’s poaching. Until they are stopped in their tracks by the sight of an astonishingly bright shooting star describing a great, flaming arc across that wonderful fairy tale night sky. Before they can even wish upon that falling star – still marvelling at how bright it was – the sound of its impact reaches them and they realise it didn’t just burn across the nocturnal heavens, it’s crashed to earth, not far from their quaint little village. Excitedly Fawkes starts out for the site, followed grudgingly by Bodie.

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The clear day after the night before and all is peaceful and as it should be in Lower Crowchurch; Mr Slipway (a dog) is very carefully painting his new home, a very traditional thatched cottage, about as picture postcard rural England as you can imagine, having just moved to the village, retiring from a life in the Navy. Two of his new neighbours, Gilbert Arrant and Peter Minks, stop to greet him in a friendly manner, although it is also clear that covertly Arrant (a pillar of the village and, one suspects, the type who likes to know the inside scoop on everyone else’s business) and Minks (a local journalist) are trying to pick away and see what they can find out about Slipway’s past. They invite him to join them in the pub later as the village fete is coming up and a group are meeting to discuss who will do what (although it is fairly apparent this is almost a formality as the same people do the same things each year in this little hamlet – tradition, charming or stultifying, delete as is your taste for such things).

And it’s during this rural chat that Fawkes makes his re-appearance, dishevelled and rambling and ranting about a dangerous light they found in the woods, a light which is deadly. But as a known drunk and poacher none believe him, except Slipway who comments “I’ve seen enough young men gripped in terror to know what genuine fear looks like” and he decides to investigate. But they may be late in checking the veracity of the errant Fawkes’ tale, someone, or something may be starting to investigate their little, peaceful domicile too…

This is a charming piece of work, a sort of blending of Wind in the Willows with HG Wells, and I found the idyllic, rural setting was enhanced by having anthropomorphic animal-people as the characters – they combine, with Culbard’s beautiful artwork, to create that fantasy, picture-postcard view of the idealised countryside English village that probably never really existed quite like that even before the modern world rudely pushed its way in, and yet it’s an image we all know and frequently have great affection for (perhaps not where many of us would choose to live, but certainly to take a peaceful sojourn in). This is only a first issue (of six), but already we’re introduced to several main characters and between Abnett’s dialogue and Culbard’s artwork their characteristics are pretty well established in the reader’s mind.

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I found Culbard’s approach to depicting Slipway especially effective, not just the way he delineates the facial features, but the angle and pose of the character speaks silently of his mysterious past that Arrant would like to tease out of him, a man who has seen much, done much, some of it, one suspects, the sort of tasks he doesn’t want to dwell on, while his depiction of Arrant is again wonderfully spot-on, the oh so friendly, fine chap who is actually the village gossip and always using his bonhomie to dig out everyone’s secrets and ensure his own place in the local society. Naturally they bring to mind other prominent anthropomorphic characters, such as Bryan Talbot’s Grandville cast, but these creations stand on their own and any comparisons I might make from Wild’s End to Grandville are entirely complimentary. That so much of their character comes through simply from the art is a testament to Culbard’s ability. Matching that with Abnett’s script and dialogue and you have something wonderful. Much recommended.

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(I can’t resist including this image of Culbard’s map of the village and surrounding countryside – as a friend commented during the recent Edinburgh Book Festival, there’s always something delightful about a map with your fantasy tales, and he’s right, there is)

This review was originally posted on the Forbidden Planet Blog

Review: Kleist’s The Boxer

The Boxer,

Reinhard Kleist,

SelfMadeHero

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One day, I’ll tell you everything.

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.

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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:

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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…

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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.

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Reviews: art swallowed by the ice – Glacial Period

Glacial Period,

Nicolas De Crécy ,

NBM/Louvre Editions

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Nicolas De Crécy is one of the more fascinating – not to mention gifted – creators to emerge from the great Franco-Belgian comics scene in the last couple of decades, able to switch his styles seemingly effortlessly to suit different subjects, from biting satire in the trilogy which started with Léon la Came (in collaboration with the equally brilliant Sylvian Chomet, who would go on to become the acclaimed animation director of Belleville Rendezvous and The Illusionist) to end-of-the-world science fiction as we have here in Glacial Period, part of a series created in conjunction with the Louvre Museum in Paris.  First published in Europe back in 2005 it has recently been reprinted in English by NBM, and a very welcome return to print it is, with this single album (presented here in a slim hardback similar to many French bande-dessinee volumes) allowing De Crécy to express adventure, comedy and action all in one tale, accompanied by some beautiful and varied artwork.

The world is frozen, the snow and ice hold dominion over the sleeping land below, as they did several thousand years ago during the last Ice Age (which still leaves its marks on our landscape today). A party crosses the often featureless expanse of white – they are researchers from an enclave of surviving humans somewhere far to the south, exploring, seeking out a fabled lost metropolis, the humans accompanied by some rotund creatures who look like tubby dogs but can speak. In fact these are genetically modified dogs (with a little pig thrown in, hence the rotund appearance) and their sense of smell is  an invaluable tool for the expedition. One, Hulk (they are all named for what the researchers think are the names of ancient gods), has very refined nasal receptors (as he likes to tell everyone) which he can even use, via a Carbon-14 augmentation, to detect some of the history of found objects.

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The thing is, this earnest party of researchers on their noble quest knows almost nothing about the world before the great freeze. We see them discussing a venerated object to be taken back for serious scientific study, a mysterious logo of interlocking letters – hieroglyphs they want to learn the meaning of, little knowing it is merely the logo of a long-gone French football team… When a collapsing fissure reveals the mighty Louvre museum, emerging from beneath the snow, they enter and are astonished at the size of the place and the sheer volume of paintings. Except they don’t know what paintings are, much less why anyone would create them and hang them on walls. Or how a flat image can still convey a sense of depth. Shorn of all knowledge of pre-ice civilisation they attempt to understand our world through these pieces of art, swiftly coming to the conclusion we must have been illiterate but skilled at image making, hence all the paintings, and also, judging by the number of nudes, a rather salacious bunch of erotomaniacs, not to mention having some odd notions about femininity…

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I don’t understand … More images. And More lewd ones! And as if lewdness was always feminine. A lewdness in enslavement to men,” muses Juliette, the only woman on the team, observing large numbers of nude paintings and wondering about gender in that long-ago society.

In many ways this is broad comedy, as we watch the serious historian attempting to place some paintings into what he thinks is a chronological order so they can give them a rough history, of course getting it hopelessly wrong. Even the concept of an art gallery and museum is unknown to these researchers, able to find these remains of the previous human civilisation, but totally unequipped to comprehend the social, cultural and historical meanings contained within those works. Of course there is a serious point here, partly riffing on the old “I am Ozymandias, King of Kings, look upon my works ye mighty and despair” theme of how even the greatest grandeur will be lost in the face of the eternal march of time, but partly a comment, as much good SF is, on our own present era. We have spent centuries, especially since the 1700s, piecing together this history and customs and beliefs of those civilisations which predate us – ancient Greeks, Egypt, Babylon, Ur, Angkor Wat – from similar pieces of art, paintings on walls, sculpture, lost languages. And with great respect to generations of historians and archaeologists who spend careers painstakingly putting those clues together, there must be whole swathes where a person from that era would find our conclusions laughable. I found this especially intriguing, having just recently read Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book where a historian goes back in time to the 1300s and finds out how many solid conclusions they had reached on life back then were false. It’s a reminder to all seekers of knowledge to remember humility and the fact that, lacking important context, we may easily and often get it wrong.

Hulk, separated from the group, is the first to enter and finds himself by great walls within walls which any visitor to the great museum will recognise as the original walls when the Louvre was a fortress-palace, now buried inside the great gallery. A visual reminder of the passings of civilisations, as is a later, more comic sequence where some of the artefacts, now possessed of a sort of life (a la Night at the Museum) tell Hurk of the days when earnest, slim scholars came to gaze upon then, then much later (in our own time) the obese, jolly tourists gawking. Again satire from De Crécy, painfully on the nose, and once more riffing on how time changes everything. His art changes from delicately drawn scenes with the main characters to an almost cartoonish style for Hulk and the other modified, intelligent dogs, to a gloriously detailed, painted approach to depict those millennia of artworks gathered in the Louvre.

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At one point De Crécy touches on the war years and the evacuation of these treasures to the countryside to protect them from Nazi bombers, as if, one character comments, they were more important than people. Again De Crécy uses a double-edged sword, on the one hand berating the way we have been conditioned to place certain artworks on a pedestal for veneration, a value which is purely in our head, product of our culture (a culture, which the book reminds us, can vanish taking all the contextual meaning of that object with it), when it is people who are more important.

And yet at the same time those works of art are people, our collective soul of aesthetics, beauty and wonder without which any human society is dreadfully impoverished. We’ve made art for as long as we’ve been human, from paintings etched on cave walls by flickering firelight to these massive oil paintings dominating entire walls of the Louvre. Perhaps De Crécy is trying to remind us with his satirical approach not that these works lack importance, but it is we who give them that importance, so we shouldn’t simply accept being told by some authority this is a masterpiece to be worshipped, we choose, we think, consider, and in doing so we make the art part of us, as it should be. It’s a delightful satire on human civilisation, knowledge and art, both lacerating and venerating it, using the genre of science fiction and a future-set tale to comment on the present (and the way the present sees the past, which of course is what today’s present becomes in time too), and even veers into some highly enjoyable fantasy when Hulk comes in contact with some of those artistic treasures, who have their own opinions. Beautiful comics work and art talking about the importance and place of art, what’s not to love here?

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This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

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

Broken Monsters,
Lauren Beukes,
HarperCollins

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

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

A body of a young boy.

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

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

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


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

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

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

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

That’s Because You’re a Robot – Quantick & Kane’s fun, colourful ride

That’s Because You’re a Robot,

David Quantick, Shaky Kane

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I was intrigued to pick up this one-shot, partly because of the involvement of David Quantick, best known in the UK for his music and comedy writing, but I must be honest, mostly because of the art of Shaky Kane. The story in this one-off is light and simple, but fun – Jeff and Matt, two gung-ho American cops are partners, all ready to rock the world of law enforcement, except the pair of them keep making cock-up after cock-up. Then, right at the start, on the first page no less, their sergeant drops a bombshell on them – one of the duo is a robot. Unfortunately he doesn’t know which of them is robotic and which is the real human cop…

This leads to endless wrangling between the pair as they get assigned to different tasks (and make a mess of them), arguing between themselves over which is the real person, which the robotic fake, constantly pointing out behaviour that might prove robotic origins, until they get taken off their case and put on a stakeout. Which they then proceed to bungle as well. Or do they? Was there more going on here than they realised, were they – human and/or robot – really part of some larger scheme?

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To be honest it really doesn’t matter – the story is fairly silly, although I mean that in a positive way; it’s enjoyably silly stuff, gleefully taking common tropes from American cop shows and parodying them (and a bit of enjoyably silly is good for you as part of your reading diet). What really keeps your eyes moving over the pages is Kane’s artwork. I’ve loved Shaky Kane’s art since the Deadline and 2000 AD days, Looking at it here it is a wonderfully clear-edged display of movement and bright, primary colours, taking in, for my money, anyway, all sorts of elements, from 60s Marvel comics to parts that remind me (in the good way, not derivative way) of Brett Ewins and Brendan McCarthy, mixed with a vibrant Pop Art sensibility. It’s gorgeous, it’s pure fun, especially some of the larger splash pages or a cool double-page spread. Light, fast, fun and oh so damned good looking! Smile-inducing stuff.

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