The Mechanical: morality, philosophy, free will and a fascinating Clockpunk alt-history

The Mechanical,
Ian Tregillis,
Orbit Books

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Clockmakers lie.”

Ian Tregillis first came to my attention when Orbit published his Milkweed series, starting with Bitter Seed, a fascinating and very well constructed trilogy – or perhaps triptych is a better term, as the books aren’t just sequential but curve back on one another – of an alternate history of World War Two, of an even more bitter struggle for national survival by the UK, mad Nazi scientists, scientifically-created supermen with dangerous abilities and an intriguing magic/science underlying it. It was dark, often bleak, relentless and utterly compelling and addictive. So when The Mechanical arrived on my desk – with its very cool minimalist graphic cover and page edges matching the red of the cover colour, very swish – I was eager to see what he was going to do with the start of a new series. Well, you know how I said his previous trilogy was “compelling and addictive” a moment ago? The Mechanical is that too and even more so. This is the kind of novel you’re reading on the bus or train and you actually resent reaching your destination because it means you have to pause your reading.

There are some common elements this new novel – the first in the Alchemy Wars series – has in common with Tregillis’ previous Milkweed trilogy. Both series feature Tregillis’ own take on one of my favourite forms of science fiction, the alt-history tale, a subgenre which, if handled cleverly – as it is here – can fascinate the reader with “what if?” moments where the fictional history diverge from our own around some turning point which came out a little differently. The second thing it has in common with his previous book is in world-building. And if there is something we geeks really love in our science fiction, it’s some seriously good world-building, the sort which has lovely details we can absorb and well-worked out variances from the actual history, with good supporting reasons as to why this world has developed as it has and how those changes from our history affect everything else rippling forward. And here it is handled brilliantly – Tregillis crafts an alternate history for the world that is as intricate as the clockwork mechanicals – the Clakkers – who feature in the story, fine details adding to the feeling of authenticity of this fictional world. For instance steam power is hardly known – who needs steam locomotives or steamships when you can have them powered by rows of mechanicals? And little, knowing details like Delft being famous not for the lovely Delft ware, but for their antique decorated masks for earlier, vintage models of Clakkers, or, being the Netherlands, there are rumours of an “underground canal” rather than an “underground railroad”.

Of course no matter how wonderfully though-out the world-building and the clever reasons for the alternate versions of history, these are just the stage-dressing; it’s the narrative and the characters that make a novel really work, and I’m glad to report that Tregillis handles this as skilfully as he does his background detail. This is one of those eminently satisfying novels where, by the time you get halfway through it, you will be very emotionally invested in the characters, both human and mechanical. We open with a gathering in the Hague – humans and Clakkers coming together to witness something now fairly rare, a public execution. On the scaffold today, some “papist” French spies trying to undermine the fine, upstanding Protestant Dutch. This isn’t the 17th or 18th century though but the 20th. The religious wars are still ongoing, but in this world the Dutch married the maritime and trading expertise to the creation of their mechanical men – general servitors, specialised units like soldier mechanicals, the dreaded multi-legged Stemwinders (which do the bidding of the Horologist’s guild, which after several centuries is not just a powerful guild but also operates elements akin to a secret police/intelligence unit) or maritime or airship mechanicals. The result is that rather than the British creating their vast empire, it was the Dutch who rose to global domination, aided by their almost unstoppable Clakkers, designed to obey instantly, to work tirelessly. They are still at war with France, but this is New France – what would be Canada in our world – because the Continent belongs to the implacable Dutch and the Brasswork Throne. What’s left of the French kingdom and crown is buried in Marseilles-in-the-West, surrounded by Dutch forces from New Holland, based out of New Amsterdam (obviously with no British empire New York remained Dutch and with no British colonists it was the Dutch and French contesting for North America), where Berenice – known as the Talleyrand (a sobriquet for whoever holds the position of the French spymaster) – is being humiliated in the king’s council because the French about to swing from the gallows in the Hague are the main part of her network in the Netherlands, now blown (it’s almost like something from Tudor times, with Walsingham’s spymaster rounding up Catholic spies).

And there is something else, which has brought out the crowds but also large number of the mechanicals in the Hague – a rogue Clakker is to be executed. A machine which has done the seemingly unthinkable and developed free will, able to simply say no to a human command, to ignore the compelling geas upon geas layered on their systems to make them obey, punishing them with a deep, searing pain inside their mechanical souls if they do not obey right away. Many of the city’s Clakkers are lingering, despite the pain of the command geas pushing them to go about their duties, to witness this, as the Horologists plan to burn away the machine’s hard-won sense of individuality in their glowing forge. These machines are born from both clockwork mechanics and science as well as a rich infusion of alchemy (legend has it the great Huygens purloined some of Newton’s secret alchemical notebooks which, along with his own genius, kickstarted this era). Actually it’s not fair to say this doomed rogue – an extremely rare creature the Horologists take huge pains to prevent happening again – has developed individuality.

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As the book progresses and we follow the Clakker servitor Jax and see his interactions with other mechanicals (they click and twang their pulleys and gears to talk secretly to each other, their humans totally unaware), it becomes clear these mechanical creatures are indeed self-aware, but the geasa the Horologists layer on their awareness at creation, like subroutines in a computer programme, bind them, almost the way a magician is said to bind spirits or demons of familiars, to compel them to do what is commanded, aware but unable to refuse. It’s a particular vile form of one of humanity’s scourges, slavery, except this bondage doesn’t just hold the body in thrall but the very being is held in perpetual service. “Clockmakers lie” is the regular secret greeting between the Clakkers, and they dream of emulating the rogue – how did he escape his bonds? Could they do the same? If they did, what would they do, where could they go? Escape to New France and beyond into the north where their own secret legends tell of a place where they can be free? Or is that just comforting folklore for the mechanicals? Circumstances will soon push Jax to find out the answers to these questions rather urgently…

This is an increasingly fascinating book, becoming every more so the deeper you dive into it. The main narrative arcs of Berenice and Jax are well-paced and absorbing, while the superb detailing and world-building I mentioned before flesh this world out into one you can believe in and feel you could explore. Those elements alone would promise you a superb read, but there’s more in here, for those who want to think further, from the more obvious themes revolving around the morality of holding someone – machine or human – in bondage, Tregillis capturing with quiet, emotional intensity the pain of those so enthralled, imprisoned both physically and spiritually, aware but never in control of their own bodies, and the associated philosophical questions of free will – is there really such a thing, or is it only an illusion? There are elements of Frankenstein in here – the creation of new forms of life then not treating them with the respect they should have had, humans dabbling into areas where perhaps only the gods should – and questions of the nature of freedom and the nature of being which will have you thinking long after you finish reading. As with his Milkweed series you cannot take the safety of even lead characters for granted, Tregillis is not afraid to make his characters suffer, some of them quite terribly. All of which makes this one of the sharpest, most intelligent, hugely compelling works I’ve read this year, and I cannot wake to see where Tregillis takes this series next.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog

Hollywood Noir, the glamour and the sleaze in The Fade Out

The Fade Out Volume 1,

Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips,

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Like all the best Noirs, The Fade Out is set in that strange, twilight realm between night and day, the everyday, normal life and the shadow world’s intrigues and weird ways, forever in the shadow of the War. It’s 1948, and places don’t come much more in-between reality and perverse fantasy than Hollywood, it’s manufactured dreams, carefully designed and polished stars and the powerful moguls behind the studios.

Charlie Parish is a screenwriter, working away on another new film, one designed to finally make Valeria Sommers the huge star the studio owner Victor Thursby thinks she should be, the “next Veronica Lake”. There are only two real problems for them – aside from the usual power plays, deviancy and gender abuse going on in Hollywood’s old studio system – but they’re fairly major problems. Charlie can’t write anymore. He tries, but the bright spark that marked him out as a rising star scriptwriter a few years ago was crushed out during the war. Fortunately his friend Gil works with him – Gil has already been blacklisted in the start of the reds-under-the-beds scare as the Cold War slowly works its way into American life, so no studio will touch him; now he works covertly with Charlie on the scripts he’s meant to be writing but can’t, a delicate but mutually beneficial arrangement.

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And the second problem? That’s slightly harder to fix than Charlie’s writer’s block. Valeria is dead, only a few pages into the story. Strangled and left lying on her living room floor. And what’s worse is a hungover Charlie wakes in her bathtub and finds the body, realising he must have come home with her after an out of control party the night before and that whoever murdered her did it while he was drunkenly asleep in the next room, totally unaware. Knowing he would be the prime suspect if discovered he carefully conceals any evidence of his own presence in her house and leaves furtively, later pretending to be shocked when Dottie, one of the studio’s press team, tells him the news of Valeria’s death.

Sick at her sudden, violent death and even sicker at the thought he’s had to lie about it to protect himself, Charlie’s already war-damaged psyche and moral guilt compass is about to be kicked in the head, when the studio’s head of security lets slip to him while talking to the police about the case that Valeria hung herself. But Charlie knows she didn’t – she was strangled, murdered, but he can’t say without admitting that he was there and covered it up. But if he doesn’t then the murderer walks free…

He looks around and can’t tell whose grief is real and who’s just putting on show in case the press is watching.”

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Naturally, in the best Noir tradition there is much more to it than this morally intriguing conundrum for Charlie – as he tries to walk a path around Valeria’s death, trying to keep his increasingly drunken, angry friend Gil on the straight and narrow (and their writing arrangement secret) the seedy, shadowy world of Hollywood draws him deeper into moral turpitude, and his sense of self-loathing and broken innocence, shattered first by his experiences in the war (like so many damaged anti-heroes of Noir fiction) then degraded more by witnessing the sleaze behind the velvet curtain of the movie world, grows, and no amount of parties or drink can still it, and every days seems to simply add more sleaze, more problems, more things he hates himself for being a part of but unable to do anything about or to walk away from, while Valeria’s presence hovers over the story, a ghost with glamour in the way only those great 30s and 40s stars could pull off.

It will surprise no-one who has read Criminal or Fatale to learn that Brubaker and Phillips have fashioned a dark labyrinth peopled by lost, damaged souls, some just slightly damaged, some truly damned, dripping with Noir imagery leavened by that beautiful 40s Hollywood glamour (Phillips creating some truly gorgeous interpretations of the film magazines of the period to show the late Valeria in real period style, pose and lighting, very recognisable to anyone who loves their film history), that beautiful but utterly artificial dream the studios sell to the audiences.

As with Criminal and Fatale, the deeper into the story, the more the moral quagmire deepens, the more the characters become lost in their own late-night labyrinthine maze of the soul, and just like reading Chandler or Hammett we’re pulled in there with them, fascinated and disgusted in equal measure, while, despite the increasing complexity Brubaker maintains a tight, well-paced narrative, perfectly partnered with Phillips’ artwork, which draws heavily on the films of the period, re-creating that perfect Noir atmosphere, be it a late-night city street or a darkened office with feeble light struggling through the slats of the blinds. You feel you ought to be wearing a Fedora while reading it.

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Beautifully crafted art by Phillips (with wonderfully moody colouring by Elizabeth Breitweiser) and sharp dialogue and perfectly honed Noir narrative by Brubaker, and that feeling that while one writes and one draws, this is real collaboration, the pair obviously operating on the same wavelength, and oh how it shows to such lovely effect in the finished tale. I could probably just have given you a much shorter review and recommendation: it’s Brubaker and Phillips – you want it.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Judas: the Last Days

Judas: the Last Days,

W Maxwell Prince, John Amor,

IDW Publishing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog

The Death House – fascinating SF for adult and YA readers

The Death House,

Sarah Pinborough,

Gollancz

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I’ve admired Sarah Pinborough’s writing for several years – she’s consistently proven herself to be one of the more fascinating new talents in the UK fantastic genres, and I’ve been especially delighted with the ways in which she crafts stories which you often can’t simply label into one genre or another, as, like a number of other fast-rising (and fascinating) writers such as Lauren Beukes for example, she deftly manages to pull elements from various places, from horror tropes to science fiction or thriller or crime and re-weaves them into something far more compelling. Sarah has also enjoyed success as a Young Adult author, and with her new book, The Death House, she is again dancing around the edges of several genre ballrooms, picking her dancing partners from different rooms at different points; indeed, as well as a delightful weaving of elements from various genres into something new, here she also manages to craft a book which functions perfectly well as an engrossing tale for an adult or for a YA reader.

It’s sometime in the near future, but we don’t know exactly when. Or even where. In fact there’s a quite deliberate lack of solid information in The Death House. We know were are in a future Britain, but we don’t really see it, except in some memories of the children in the house, because our point of view is Toby, a teenage schoolboy, sent to the eponymous house along with other children, because they are “defective”. This future world has some sort of illness – a plague, virus, genetic disorder? We never really know and it doesn’t really matter, because what matters is anyone whose blood test comes up with the wrong result is taken away to one of these isolated homes – there is no appeal, the operation is carried out with clinical, almost Fascist like efficiency and lack of mercy, dark vans swooping on homes, children torn from the arms of their parents. And no-one comes back from a Death House. And no-one outside knows what happens, except it is where the ill kids are taken to await the signs of their symptoms beginning to surface. And even the kids in the house don’t know exactly what this illness is, or even what the symptoms are – different symptoms seem to manifest in different people at different times.

The nursing staff and the token teaching staff in the house (isolated on an island) don’t explain any further, and this just adds to the overbearing atmosphere of fear and despondency. These are youngsters, and they are marked to slowly die, cut off entirely from their previous life, even letters from parents forbidden. It’s just them and the very remote nursing staff who do their best to never treat their young charges as anything other than a job; no emotional bonding or caring here, it’s like an even more hellish version of a boarding school combined with that fear all humans carry of serious illness, the children isolated, physically and emotionally. Toby is the oldest in his dorm and has reluctantly taken on the role of leader for the younger boys in his room, but much of the time he avoids anything that smacks of entanglement, because what’s the point? Today, tomorrow, a month, a year, he is is here till he suddenly develops symptoms (and what symptoms? in the absence of facts, just like every media fulled panic of any new illness there is a Chinese Whispers effect as the kids tell each other about it, although none really know).

His only escape is at night – as the house sleeps Toby pads out quietly to explore, a tiny bit of rebellion and adventure which he has to himself. Until Clara arrives among the latest group, a girl around his age, straight away she attracts attention among the older boys, except for Toby (who had been daydreaming of a girl at school he hoped to get off with at a party just before the black vans came for him). And then he finds Clara too avoids the pills at night and explores the house, during what he considers his time. How dare she! And yes, you just know that his antipathy and his defensive recoiling from any deep attachment just isn’t going to survive against the energy of the life-loving Clara…

And there you go again, Pinborough delighting in mixing genres – we’ve already got a Dystopian science fiction future, a dark, old house right out of a Victorian horror tale, and now we have romance woven into the mix. And more than that, it’s that intense first romance, that type that flares among the confusions of adolescence and burns with an intensity unlike any other you ever experience. And Pinborough charts the development of their friendship then romance wonderfully, the shyness but eagerness, the mixture of fear and desperate hope. And over all this hangs their fate as Defectives, locked away in the house to await their seemingly inevitable fate. One day they will start to manifest symptoms and when they do the impassive nurses will take them away in the middle of the night, while the others sleep, to the upper floor. No-one knows what happens there and nobody returns from that floor. Do they die? Mutate? Are they the subject of experimentation into the Defective? Anyone who’s dealt with serious illness or watched a loved one suffering has felt that numbing horror of feeling totally helpless, and here these kids are living in that state every day.

Again, as I said earlier, Pinborough deliberately holds back on explanations: in some ways it is maddening and frustrating, but I suspect that’s part of the point here – we’re in the same position as Toby and the other kids here. It’s barely mentioned in the outside world and once they are labelled and caught up in the house programme they have no contact at all ever again with the outside world, so they have no access to any information, or any adult who will act as their champion. It’s like being a combination of a child with a terminal illness and being an illegal refugee at the same time, sealed away, forgotten, nobody knows, nobody cares about you or speaks for you or strives for you. Pinborough instead uses this lack of solid information to create Poe-like levels of creeping fear in this old house, and also as a good way of building up the relationships between the kids held inside it, from moments of fear and worry (and attempts by some of them to help and reassure the others) to moments of childlike joy (it suddenly snows, something none of them have ever seen before – it hasn’t snowed in this future UK for a long time, it seems). And as Toby and Clara start to bond on a deep level they start to question their assumed fate in that way only a teen can, that remarkable defiant stance, won’t happen to us, we will survive somehow, escape somehow, live together somehow… Somehow…

The Death House is a masterful piece of writing craft – I think most authors would have felt compelled to add much more exposition and much more explanation in here, more background to this future society, to how it evolved in a way that the state can just take your kids from you and seal them away to die, more details about the illness itself, what it is, what causes it, why does it require such drastically cruel, inhuman treatment to be visited on children? And yes, part of me really wanted to know more about those aspects of this world, but on reflection those are just details, and distracting ones at that. Pinborough, wisely, I think, eschews those partly because it enhances the sense of isolation and dread and fear in the house and among the young patients/prisoners, but also partly because she is more interested in the psychological and emotional effects this has on those kids, and that’s far more satisfying, especially as she is simply so damned good at writing adolescents, from the younger ones to those in that awkward, almost an adult but not there yet late teen period. Hugely compelling and emotional, dark, disturbing, yet also with lighter moments and that slowly emerging first love romance shining through it (as Jeff Goldblum put it in Jurassic Park, life keeps finding a way, even in a home seemingly only for the lost), with very believable young characters that works for adult and YA reader alike, and as with a lot of writing across the centuries to do with the inevitability of death, this isn’t really about death. It’s about living.

Wrinkles: achingly beautiful, warm sensitive tale by Spanish creator Paco Roca

Wrinkles,

Paco Roca,

Knockabout

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Yes, I know James has already reviewed this (see here) a few weeks ago ahead of it’s release, but there are some books which you can’t resist posting another review of, they get too deeply into your thoughts and emotions. And since it is now on shelves and would be too easily overlooked I think it’s alright to indulge in a second opinion and commend a remarkable reading experience to your attention.

There are still many more interesting comic works coming out in Europe that we don’t get to see here, but thankfully things have improved in recent years, with more translations and more English language editions appearing via some quality publishers like Knockabout, who have translated (another good job by Nora Goldberg – the translators, like editors, often get too easily overlooked for their contribution) Paco Roca’s absolutely beautiful Wrinkles, a gorgeous, funny, sensitive book about family, friends, getting older, declining health.

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Our central character, Ernest, a retired bank manager, finds himself being dumped into a care home as his dementia slowly increases, all but abandoned by his son and his family (it isn’t just that they can’t give him the extra care he needs at home, that would stretch a saint’s patience, but his son makes it clear he has little in the way of plans to even visit the old man once he is in the home, as he is “busy”) – you may expect this to be a downer, an old man dumped into a waiting room for the terminally declining. And while Roca doesn’t shy away from the human tragedy of both body and mind slowly betraying us as we age, this is not an especially sad tale.

Those who can’t manage on their own anymore finish up there… Those who have lost their minds, dementia, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s… Better to die than end up there.”

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True there are sad moments, but they are the “beautifully sad” variety that make you smile as much as cry. And for the most part Roca injects the story with humour and some wonderful characters. These people are old, their marbles are slowly being lost one by one as their condition worsens – the “walking wounded” who can still take care of themselves live on the ground floor – the stairs to the upper floor, an ominous presence in their lives, lead to the ward where those too far gone to perform even the most basic functions for themselves are taken to wait in bewilderment for the end, all dignity gone.

Arriving at the home Ernest is introduced to the various characters who live there, including, most prominently, Émile, who will be his room-mate. And old Émile is quite a character, a scoundrel, but a charming one – you get the impression he was a bit of a Jack-the-lad in his younger years, and he has a nice sideline in scamming some of the more mentally impaired residents for a few Euros here and there, building up a little pile of money that he uses to great effect later on in a major scene for him, Émile and some of the others.

Ernest, as perhaps befits an old-fashioned bank manager, is a little distrustful of the chancey Émile, and yet the two start to form a friendship in this, their declining years, and with the other few residents who still have enough mental integrity left to look after themselves, a small band of very different people from different walks of life, brought together by their shared conditions and aware of how little time is left to them before the fog in their minds swallows all that made them individuals. But there are still sparks of life – old Eugene in the physio session managing to trick the attractive nurse into leaning right over him to help so he can then cop a feel of her breasts (much to the amusement of all the other eldsters).

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And others are in a dreamlike form of escapist fantasy, such as Mrs Rose, who stares out the window all day, but in her head she is looking out the window of a carriage of the Orient Express, on her way to Istanbul, Europe passing before her eyes, and she is young and elegant again; she can still interact with the other patients, but only seeing them as fellow passengers. Rose is lost from the real world, but, like Don Quixote or Gaiman’s Emperor Joshua Norton before her, she is happy in her fantasy, happier than her real-life situation could ever make her; her mind has concocted an escape route that keeps her content and really, you don’t want them to do what they did to the Don and make her face the harsh reality; let her dream happily whatever days she has left.

In some ways this is like a 1980s high school romp film – the ‘inmates’ usually have to follow rules and schedules, but sometimes they like to play up, or even indulge in some Ferris Bueller style “day off” time and escape the confines of the care home (it doesn’t go quite as well as Bueller’s day). And indeed the school allegory is one Rosa touches on directly, Ernest’s damaged memory on his first day in the home flashing all the way back to childhood and his first day at school, both daunting, emotional moments where we feel adrift and alone, unsure of ourselves or where we are.

Then there is Émile, who for all his faults, does seem to come to care genuinely for Ernest, helping him as his condition deteriorates. They are pals, and both know their time is limited, Ernest in particular showing increasing signs of mental deterioration. And of course, it continues to deteriorate – the only fantasy here is in the damaged brains of the patients, the rest is the real world, and in the real world, unfortunately, we know all too damned well that these conditions worsen until one days there is nothing left of the person who was once so vital.

In one heartbreaking but incredibly touching scene, after Ernest is given his Alzheimer’s diagnosis by the doctor, he asks Émile to show him that upper floor, where the hopeless go. It’s worse than he thought, and he knows he is potentially looking at his own very near future, mind gone, but body still ticking over, and he begs Émile, his new friend, please help me, don’t let me end up there. And Émile, bless his normally scoundrel-like heart, tries to help his friend, the two sharing reading and discussion because they heard this helps keep the brain going against the deterioration. And both knowing it probably won’t work, especially when Ernest tells him he’s read some Marquez (the remarkable Love in a Time of Cholera), but then can’t remember what it was about…

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There’s no happy ending here, no sudden miracle cures; Roca depicts this quietly, subtly, a sudden empty chair at lunch signifying another gone to the upper floor, while he uses the comics medium to give us glimpses into the deteriorating minds of the patients in a way no other narrative structure could, skipping between flashbacks and imagined fantasy scenes to the real setting, or that sad yet lovely image on the cover of Ernest, head out the train window, photographs – his memories – spilling out into the slipstream, and yet he is with Mrs Rose on the Orient Express, and seemingly happy. There’s a sad sense of inevitability here, the darkening future bearing down on all of them and there’s nothing they can do about it; old age, illness, death, sureties for all human, rich and poor, since the dawn of mankind. And yet still Wrinkles resolutely refuses to be gloomy. And when the reading scheme fails to improve Ernest’s memory, his wily friend then resorts to his trickster ways to help Ernest evade the upper floor for as long as he can.

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It’s an achingly beautiful bit of work by Roca, with much gentle humour laced through it all. This could have remained as sensitive as it is but been much more serious and darker in tone, but I am so glad he opted for the lighter touch. Not just because it leavens the darker aspects (we know all of these people only have a short time left, and, worse, that most of them will lose their minds before the end, leaving just a body that no longer knows itself or its family or friends, a wretched situation too many families have to slowly endure). But because it reminds us that everyday life, even at that advanced age, even in a place like a care home, still throws up funny moments, little laughs, interactions with friends – in short all the little things that make up our days and make life bearable. Despite what is facing them, despite being left where they are, these people are still alive and still human, Rosa is saying, and he gives them all, even the supporting cast, real character and make us care for them, root for them.

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Wonderfully, humanly warm, emotive, funny, sensitive, and cleverly exploiting the abilities of the comics medium to tell a story in a way only a comic could. A scant few weeks into the New Year and already I know this will feature on my Best of the Year list come December.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

What do you do with a problem like Lucia?

Lucia Hardcover,
Andy Hixon,
Jonathan Cape

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Andy Hixon first came onto my radar when he created the rather unique-looking artwork for Ravi Thornton’s Tale of Brin and Bent and Minno Marylebone tale, and his highly unusual artwork was a perfect match for that story which veered between seedy, grim realities and magical fantasy. Like the great Dave McKean Andy mixes drawn art with sculpted figures and model sets and montage work, creating imagery that, to me, looked like still from an animated film, something the Brothers Quay or Jan Svankmajer might create, with that quite intoxicating, contrasting feeling of very down at heels, grim reality against a sense of the more fantastical, hope mixed with the grotesque, creating a similar feeling perhaps to that in the best League of Gentlemen episodes.

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In this, his solo full-length work, this artistic approach serves him well, suiting the story perfectly. We follow two main characters, Brick and Morty, a pair of broken, damaged characters adrift in the uncaring, crumbling society of today, living on the edge. Literally on the edge and crumbling – their derelict seaside town, Lucia, is slowly dissolving into the waves, the only house Morty and Brick can afford is right on the cliff edge, next in line to vanish as the cliffs crumble into the sea.

On both the physical and the societal scale, these men are on the edge and that edge is eroding out from under them daily, with nowhere else to go. Morty is a wheelchair-bound man who has seen better days, a wife, dreams of a decent life together, of a career as a respected writer, Brick lives in a delusional state, convinced he will, if he keeps training, become the Ultimate Fighting Welterweight champion of the world. Despite being a tiny, skinny wee bloke who’s not terribly smart. His profile on his website and his dating platform are full of totally imaginary conquests of Herculean effort; while Morty dreams of a return to better times poor Brick seems to really believe his own fabrications and delusions.

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But when you look around Lucia you can easily see why Brick chooses to hide in his made-up world where he can be this physically impressive champion; Lucia is a dreadful place, a sort of purgatory almost, where damaged souls wait without hope. Perhaps like Walter Mitty or Don Quixote before him, Brick needs those delusions – hell, we all need little daydreams sometimes to make the harder parts of life more bearable. But with such a bleak environment, so grim, so hopeless, you can’t blame the little guy for believing in his dream, that if he keeps going he will be what he imagines himself to be, even though he never, ever will be. And like Quixote before him the reader comes to love him, not in spite of his delusions, but because of them, and to not want them to be broken, because to expose him to cold reality, even if it could be done (he is pretty far gone into his own world), it would break him. His own form of dreaming madness keeps him together in this awful world.

No such escape for Morty though, his body broken but his mind still sharp, able to contemplate their situation as they pass boarded up shops on the seafront, like many old seaside towns once a hub of family holidays, nowadays derelict and empty save for the “gold for cash” pawn shops, the bookies and the employment exchange (which in a very symbolic scene is actually in a street already swallowed by the sea, but being a tall office block they just moved the offices up to the floors above the tide mark, meaning you have to row over on a boat to claim your job seeker’s allowance – and naturally if you can’t get to this awkward place you are cut from your benefits).

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But I don’t want to give the impression this is one, long gloomy trip. True, both Lucia and its inhabitants of strange, twisted grotesques evoke a sense of abandonment, of the inevitable crumbling of society, alluding to the state of post financial crash and Coalition-government Britain of bedroom tax on the disabled and entire swathes of the most vulnerable failed or outright abandoned by the older social nets that were there to help them back on their feet. And sadness does permeate – a scene of Morty outside the pawn shop, contemplating his golden wedding ring, all he has left of his previous life, is heartbreaking, all the more so because we know real people are making similar choices in the legions of these businesses up and down every town in the country.

And yet this is not a gloom-fest. I likened the look and feel to the League of Gentlemen earlier, and just like that wonderfully bizarre show this can go from pathos or plain disturbing to incredibly funny (even if it is dark and often grotesque humour). One scene in the cafe sees the bizarre owner described thusly “Wendy looks like a retired dinner lady, who regularly holidays in a timeshare in Chernobyl.”Cruel but also funny and even the cruel nature of the phrase is leavened by more text which again shows empathy for these poor, lost, bizarre characters. And despite the grim situation there’s warmth and love in the relationship of Brick and Morty, Brick supposedly Morty’s carer (and he does help him with his disability to be fair), but often it is Morty looking out for his delusional little chum. Two damaged souls, rejected from the “aspirational” society, living precariously on the edge of a fading town that is itself living on the edge of a damaged country.

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And yet they work well together; together, despite all the odds, they get by (just) and there is something heart-warming in the way they look after one another in this dark world. And while he fashions grotesque versions of human beings, Andy also imbues them, especially Brick and Morty, with a lot of emotion, a lot of humanity in those- odd, disturbing, misshapen faces and bodies; it’s wonderful how his art wrings such emotion from the characters and so much empathy from the readers. It’s dark, disturbing, a black parallel of the failed parts of our own society, of towns where the only shops still thriving are pawnshops and the people are downtrodden and yet somehow not quite broken. Damaged, yes, but not entirely broken, still holding on in any way they can, and the strange friendship of Brick and Morty is their way through this crushing world. Both grotesque and yet beautiful, grim but funny, Lucia is utterly engrossing and Andy is a creator to watch out for.

You can read a guest Director’s Commentary post by Andy talking about Lucia here on the FP blog. This review was originally penned for the FP blog

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