Comics on cinema: Filmish

Filmish : A Graphic Journey Through Film,

Edward Ross,



Cinema. Comics. Two media which have, essentially grown up together through the 20th century, both still evolving today. And both have been intertwined for the best part of a century; today comics characters dominate the top end of the mega box office with films like The Avengers, while the vibrant Indy comics scene feeds into the equally vibrant Indy movie scene (think the wonderful Crumb biopic or Ghost World). It’s not a new relationship – in the earliest days as both comics and film were finding their way as mass media, still inventing what they could do, early comics genius Winsor McCay was dabbling in some of the first animated films. By the 30s and 40s Hollywood would already be mining comics for ideas: Flash Gordon, Batman, Dick Tracey. Cinema and comics have evolved a lot over the last century and a bit, and I find it deeply satisfying that one strongly visual medium, comics, is here being used to discuss another visually rich medium, film.

I first encountered Edward Ross and his Filmish series as a wee A5 self-published mini comic in the Edinburgh Filmhouse, and I loved it straight away. Each issue over the next few years would pick a theme to explore, using clever visuals and some very well-done research to explore various ideas and theories about cinema, some technical, some artistic, some ideological and sociological, taking in a wide variety of topics, from the power of the image and how much we can trust it (or manipulate it for effect) to the technology (both the tech used to make film and also the movie stories often explore our relationship with technology) to sociological and psychological implications, such as social hegemony, celebrating or vilifying the Outsider, the representations of class, gender, religion, race, and, something cinema is remarkable at, discussing what John Berger called our “ways of seeing”.


Appropriately enough the first themed chapter is The Eye, looking at not just the human eye, but that wonderful mechanical (now digital) eye invented by human ingenuity: the camera. We’re surrounded by visual imagery today; pretty much anyone can shoot a video clip on their phone and upload it within minutes to share online. But in the first few pages here Ed capture brilliantly the sheer magic of early cinema and the astonishing notion of being able to see moving pictures. Think about it for a moment; through all the long millennia of human civilisations we’ve had art – from cave paintings 30, 000 years ago to the seemingly eternal carvings of the Egyptians to the glories of the Renaissance. And yet in all those thousands of years it was only in the closing years of the 19th century that human beings could see the world around them – animals, the sea, trains, other people – in moving images, recorded for posterity, images they could return to and re-watch. How astounding must that have been to those first audiences? Even today there is a magic in this, from that moment when the house darkens and the first images start to appear on a cinema screen, the feeling of going on a journey, or the simple pleasure of home movies, from the old 8MM to modern hi-def videos, moments of time preserved, which we can go back to again and again. Decades on we can go back and see loved ones long gone, but on film they are still moving, walking, smiling, living. Magic.

But there is much more to the act of seeing than just observing, and Ed touches on this topic numerous times, not just in the chapter on The Eye but in later chapters – there is how we see, and how the camera sees. How early on there was more trust, the adage of the “camera never lies”, a naïve assumption of course, every image ever shot will contain some deliberate elements from the photographer. Sometimes it is as simple as what they chose to show in the frame and what they omitted. At other times, as Ed discusses in later chapters on Power and Ideology, it is more sinister, more thought-out, a planned use of imagery, edits, cross-cuts and other techniques carefully used to create a specific message, be it blatant propaganda films beloved by Goebbels or the more insidious messages which many mainstream movies carry, some in an obvious, heavy-handed way (think of the ‘anti-red’ messages blatant in some McCarthy era movies in the US) or mainstream movies which celebrate military achievements and actively collaborate with the armed forces to make the film (giving the authorities direct influence over the making of the film and its message), or more subtle messages, such as supposed societal norms being reinforced (marriage, family, heterosexuality, gender roles) and how some films transgress these notions, often to powerful effect.


Time and space are essential qualities in cinema – the imagery can show us an endless variety of spaces, from galaxies far away to the sweeping, iconic landscapes of a John Ford Western, while also recording specific moments, thoughts and actions in time, held forever in the camera’s eye. And of course cinema can manipulate those aspects of reality in a way we poor humans cannot – we’re forever stuck in a linear timeline, able to look in one direction at a time. The film can show us multiple viewpoints, long panoramas or intimate close-ups and do so rapidly, or even merge scenes in a way the human eye cannot. And it can play with time; early film genius Georges Melies discovering the edit through a glitch, a camera jam, a technique now everyday but a century ago revolutionary. You could pause the camera, cut to other scenes, use it for effects (like making a person seemingly disappear), you could have slow-motion, you could reverse the flow of images, you could show events happening at the same time or different times within a few moments of filmic sequence, powers of time and space manipulation we don’t have in the real world but which film frees us to explore.

These are not just cinematic and storytelling techniques, they also suggest to the human eye and mind different notions about how we perceive the world around us and why we do – as if the invention of the film camera had added an extra sensory layer to those given to our bodies by natural selection. And that is another strength of Filmish – Ed doesn’t just examine some aspects of film-making and how we view cinema, he goes into how these processes have affected our thinking. Filmish is replete with references and quotes to numerous academic theorists throughout. This is a book which celebrates movies but also questions the medium and it offers up some of the academic tools to help with that process of thinking and questioning not just what we se,e but why we see it, why the film-makers decided to show something in a specific manner and more, to develop that critical faculty while still retaining a simple love for the moving image as well, and in this I think Filmish succeeds spectacularly.


Having read many of the same theorists cited here back in my college days I can say I am impressed not just with the depth of research Ed has put in here, but how wonderfully accessible he makes it using the comics medium, and the book comes complete with an extensive bibliography and filmography for those wishing to explore some of those topics further. And given we live in such a media-rich environment, a media which is hugely influential, it is no bad thing to have more of us thinking critically about what that media is being used for and how it is made and consumed. And the filmography will leave you with a list of movies you really want to seek out, or perhaps old favourites you will feel compelled to revisit again. And this time perhaps you will look at those films a little differently.

But I don’t want to give the impression this is all about academic theorists in comics form, stroking their chins and talking about the intertextual nature of the postmodern image (yes, I have had lecturers use sentences like that). While Ed presents the film studies side of things very well and accessibly, he never lets it get in the way of simply revelling in the magic of the medium, of the power of the moving image, how it can inspire us, horrify us, make us sigh, weep, laugh and dream. While this is a more text-heavy work than most comics, the artwork is still important here, and there are multiple delights to be had, from lovely splash pages (Melies mastering his early techniques, the amazing cityscape of Metropolis) to many smaller, intimate panels using scenes from so many films across more than a century, Ed often adding his own comic avatar into some scenes in appropriate stance and costume (I think he enjoyed doing that!). And for those of us forever in love with cinema there’s the simple delight of recognition of films from Ed’s panels, the flash of memory at seeing art depicting a scene from the movies we’ve loved, from the nightmarish twisted angles of Doctor Caligari to Goddard’s oh-so-cool Breathless or Kubrick’s 2001, and the memories they stir in us because those images are powerful, woven into our collective culture but also into our personal thoughts.


It’s a beautifully realised work, both celebrating and questioning cinema, richly illustrated with art that any film lover will recognise right away (and there is a simple film geek “trainspotting” pleasure to noticing the references – go on, admit it, you’re probably already done it just with the cover, haven’t you, how many did you spot right away?), while the structural idea of having themes for each chapter, a device carried over from the original mini-comics (although even the elements which made it from the originals have been extensively expanded and re-worked and re-drawn) gives a flow to the reading here. It’s a rich read, both in imagery and ideas, one medium used to cleverly explore another, and it offers pleasures to both the film-lover, to those of us who’ve waded through film-studies academia and also to those who have never given film studies a thought it is so accessible and friendly a read that they won’t be put off in any way (and indeed they may find themselves thinking a bit more about film and wanting to explore some of the references in the bibliography).

Ultimately Filmish is a book simply in love with cinema – not unquestioningly, it looks, it examines, it encourages the reader to do likewise – but it also remembers to just let ourselves go, to marvel at the magic of the movies and to re-experience that sense of wonder. A film-lover’s delight.

The Longest Day – Robert Capa and Omaha Beach

Omaha Beach on D-Day,

Jean-David Morvan, Severine Trefouel,

Photographs by Robert Capa & Magnum, translation by Edward Gauvin

First Second


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

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


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

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


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


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

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


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


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

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


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

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


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

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

Best Of Enemies Volume 1 1783 -1953 Hardcover,

Jean-Pierre Filiu, Davide B,



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

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

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


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


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


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

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


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


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

Everything is teeth…

During the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August I was fortunate enough to be asked to chair a talk with author Evie Wyld (who made the famous and influential Granta Best Young Writers list – putting her among the company of authors like Salman Rushdie, A L Kennedy, Iain Banks and more) and artist Joe Sumner to discuss their graphic novel debut, Everything Is Teeth, here’s my review of the book:

Edinburgh International Book Festival 2015 - Evie Wyld and Joe Sumner 03
(Joe Sumner and Evie Wyld signing after our Edinburgh International Book Festival chat)

Everything is Teeth,

Evie Wyld, Joe Sumner,

Jonathan Cape


Evie Wyld’s name may already be familiar to a number of you, as she has already carved out a spot for herself in the hugely respected Granta list of best young writers, always a good indicator of strong, new talent, as well as winning the prestigious Miles Franklin award for her novel, All The Birds Singing (which I heartily recommend). And like more than a few prose writers before her, she’s been drawn (no pun intended) to the graphic medium, working with artist Joe Sumner to create what I have to say is a very, very satisfying work. In fact it becomes more satisfying. I found with re-reading – this is a very atmospheric book with layers that reward second or third reads to allow those different elements to slowly permeate.

On the one level you could take this as an unusual, quirky memoir of a sort of childhood fascination – or obsession – with sharks, acquired over the course of family visits to relatives in New South Wales, Australia, and indeed Wyld and Sumner perfectly capture that strange mixture of sheer fascination and dread that any of us can have for certain things, especially as children. Young Evie hears the stories from her Aussie relatives, for whom the hunting and killing of sharks is a common occurrence, and we do see her witness some scenes involving the killing of these remarkable animals (rather distressing – hopefully a less common sight these days with many shark species being protected). In some ways you could almost view this as similar to the way children (and indeed adults too, if we are honest, just look at our continued fascination with horror tales), have that bizarre, contrasting fascination with monsters while being scared and repelled by them, and that irrational, illogical feeling that they can be anywhere, not just in their natural environment, but anywhere, waiting to pounce if we let our guard down. “My mommy said there are no monsters, no real monsters, but there are,” said Newt in Aliens. Monsters with sharp teeth take many forms to the young, impressionable mind and, as Newt and Evie both know, they can be very real…


For most kids this will come in the form of monsters in fairy tales, or the always popular bogeyman under the bed, but here, for young Evie, the monster is based on a real – and highly dangerous – creature. Although in her child’s world the reality of these astonishing and ancient predators mixes with her imagination and becomes symbolic of the young girl’s fears about the mysterious world around, her, especially that of the grown-ups like her mother and father, expressions and symbols of her worries and fears that she is too young to fully grasp but is starting to understand do happen, such as loss, injury and death, much as traditional fairy tales are often a way of introducing young minds to, let’s be honest, fairly terrifying concepts (that we could die, or that we could lose a parent), and that there are dangers out there that we have to be wary of, except here, instead of the dark forest of fairy tales with wolves and iron-toothed witches, it’s the endlessly mysterious depths of our ocean world and the perfectly evolved creatures which move through it, unseen, like a monster hiding in the dark, until it strikes…

But there is so much more going on here than just a youngster who sometimes worries that she has to keep her feet up on the sofa in case a hidden shark comes past the rug, or that one may somehow have gotten into the swimming pool (I remember a similar, irrational yet still real fear after seeing Jaws as a kid). The sharks here aren’t just a subject of fascination and fear, but also become metaphorical elements as her young mind tries to process what happens in the adult world around her, especially mortality and loss, this filter allowing this aspect of the story to come across quite slowly and gently, building across the length of the book, stoking and evoking a sympathetic emotional resonance in the reader that is truly satisfying.


It’s not the images that come first when I think of the parts of my childhood spent in Australia. Or even the people. It’s the sounds – the butcher birds and the magpies that lived amongst us on the back veranda...”

Both art and text work beautifully together here – with fairly short lines allied to several large, single page scenes of art right at the opening, working together to establish a beautifully atmospheric and evocative sense of place. Sumner’s opening pages of art – coastal waters, a solitary fin in the expanse, nearby coast, trees, very Australian looking farm architecture, another of a mangrove inlet, or the metal windmill at the back of the farm drilling for groundwater – all conjure up a feeling of the place, even for someone like me who knows it only through many film and television viewings. Wyld’s text similarly imbues this sensation into the reader – I could hear those oh-so distinctive bird sounds in my head as I read, the sense of oppressive heat almost real. Perhaps she sings a songline as she writes it, to weave that ancient Aboriginal feel for the land into the words. It’s a beautiful piece of writing, and I’ve found Wyld’s prose work to be similarly atmospheric and evocative of mood and place, and in this work it is so wonderfully complimented by Sumner’s art. The choice of large, single panel pages at the start, which somehow help the text in conveying that feeling of slowness, the languid nature of the far too hot climate, while also mirroring the way memory works, especially our earliest memories, more about sensation than about narrative, impressions of heat, sun, water, the people around us, the smells, the sounds.


Sumner chooses to depict Evie and her family in a fairly cartoony, deceptively simple fashion, which is very effective, especially in conjunction with the sharks, which, by contrast, are drawn in a highly detailed, realistic manner (I’m guessing a lot of research time for Sumner on that), although he changes his style for a few spots for effect, such as showing the family watching – perhaps inevitably – Jaws on the television, intercut with some panels depicting famous scenes from that original movie blockbuster, drawn in a more realistic style, the actor’s characters instantly recognisable. He even mixes the two styles during this scene, that incredibly famous “dolly zoom” of Roy Scheider’s Chief Brody on the beach being conflated with the face of the cartoony, big-nosed image of her father, while another panel juxtaposes young Evie and her dad with the on-screen father and son moment in Jaws (the charming scene where his wee boy is copying everything his dad does). Young Evie’s imagination, which sees the possibility of the shark stalking anywhere, also turns up some fantastical but memorable images – being driven across the outback in a Ute, imagining a shark following them, floating alone in the air, glimpsed in the wing mirror, or stalking her through the tall cane crop, accompanying her down the street. Magical-realism or child’s fears and imagination, or perhaps both, but they make for some imagery that remains in your head long after reading.

It’s all beautifully, movingly crafted by both writer and artist, carrying a combination of fears, doubts, hopes, nostalgic longings and familial love against the slow arc of a child growing up and becoming more aware of the world and events around her (but the sharks, they’re still there, waiting in the darkness, waiting to strike when we’re ill and vulnerable, ready to take a bite, just like life will often do), and the sense of time and place is so palpable that it’s practically tactile, stimulating the reader’s own senses by proxy. It’s a work to read, then slowly re-read and let yourself become immersed into it like a cool pool on a hot day. Just be careful of the predators in those depths…


this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Hellboy and the BPRD 1952

Hellboy and the BPRD : 1952,
Mike Mignola, John Arcudi, Alex Maleev, Dave Stewart.
Dark Horse


Anung un rama…

With Mignola’s most recent mini-series seeing Hellboy not only dead but now in Hell (a new arc starts this very month), Hellboy and the BPRD 1952 is a welcome diversion, taking us right back to his earliest days and his first field mission for the BPRD. We open in a hospital in newly-liberated France in 1946, where Professor Bruttenholm is recovering from injuries. He is visited by a charming young girl who the nurse assumes is his niece, but it’s soon clear that she’s something rather more than the little girl she appears to be. She brings the hospital-bound Bruttenholm news he has been waiting on regarding some of the supernatural experiments the Nazis had embarked on in the dying days of the war, desperate for some magical weapon to turn the Allied advance back. More specifically he wants to know all he can about how Hellboy was brought into the world and why.

Of course some of this is professional and academic curiosity – he needs to know as part of his role in this new Bureau for Paranormal Defence and Research, set up to counter such threats. But much of his line of questioning stems from something far more basic and far more emotional and human – a paternal instinct. The girl tells him about Project Ragnarok, about how the mad monk Rasputin still lives decades after his supposed death and how he summoned Hellboy, destined to grow up to wear the flaming crown as destroyer of all things, the ending of worlds. But, she chides the injured professor, you know this already, and yet you’ve adopted the boy, while others see the danger he poses, they argue for killing him, you treat him like a son… And that fatherly theme is a strong element here. Yes, Bruttenholm is no fool, he knows what Hellboy could be, he has nightmares about it. But like any good father he sees good in his son as well, and believes firmly that if he nurtures the good, brings him up with love and respect, that he can make him something else, something better – not the doom of the world but its hope.

hellboy_bprd_1952_mignola_arcudi_maleev_dark_horse_review_header (1)

Cut to 1952, and Hellboy is now fully grown (his body matures quickly), and chafing at the restrictions of always living in the BPRD headquarters. The nascent BPRD is spreading its wings internationally, not just in the US, and a request for help investigating mystery deaths by a supernatural creatures in a village in Brazil elicits a response. As the professor briefs his team for their trip, he also adds that he wants them to take Hellboy. Some are unhappy – he isn’t qualified and the professor himself forbade untrained agents in the field after a previous tragedy. I know, he replies, but I made the rule so I can break it when I think it is right to do so. Some of the experienced agents worry about this, a couple, including Archie, the leader, think it a good idea for the boy to get experience in the field, one seems to object less about the lack of experience and more because Hellboy isn’t human.


Prejudice rears its ugly head (and there’s more to this than simple bias, as we will find out later). But the professor has decided, and that is that. But there’s more than just letting Hellboy get some experience and letting him out of his confinement in the base here. After the team leave he turns to his assistant, not the head of the BPRD but a father trying to guide a son, feeling, knowing that he needs this experience, that he will instinctively try to fight the monsters, protect the innocent, and that fighting the good fight is what will make him the good man he believes he can be:

Out there, Margaret, only out there can he become a man.”

The slow-burn of the opening takes its time establishing the mood and scene nicely, before the tempo moves up a notch as the team arrive in Brazil. It’s never an easy task to come to illustrating Hellboy after two decades of Mignola’s art, but here we have the excellent Alex Maleev, and he steps up to the plate – one of the first scenes in Brazil is a nice, simple but utterly lovely character piece, Maleev showing Hellboy smiling, happy simply to be out of his usual home in the base, he’s outside, in the world, smelling the trees as they drive down a road in Brazil and this simple pleasure has him grinning. It’s soon business though, as they learn of the deaths and disappearances around a small village, which in best Gothic tradition, is located near a semi-ruined old castle with an evil reputation. Once it has ceased being a fortress it became a prison, but after mass deaths there it was abandoned. Now a rather creepy film crew has set up there, and you just know there’s going to be a connection between them and the mystery creatures – the question is what is that connection, what are they really up to and will the team figure it out in time, especially when playing nursemaid to a rookie Hellboy?


I’m not going to spoil it too much for you by going into what they find, but suffice to say of course the locals are right, it’s not simple superstition, there is indeed a monster (perhaps more than one) and a young, inexperienced Hellboy will have to decide how he deals with them. Naturally there are dark goings-on in the semi-abandoned castle, and it will not surprise you – especially given the cover art clearly shows a nazi swastika flag – that it involves some of the “boys from Brazil”: escaped Nazi war criminals (and HB is always wonderful when it involves monsters and mad Nazis!).

The story manages the fine trick of being it’s own tale, a coming of age story in some ways, of a young Hellboy, but it also manages to combine that with multiple references to Hellboy history we’ve seen over the years, weaving them into this early story, some as nods to previous stories, some actually expanding a bit on elements of HB history we’ve seen hinted at before. It’s all very, very satisfying for the long-time reader (although a new reader can still enjoy this as an origin tale and they will pick up some elements of HB history along the way which will work nicely if they follow it up with reading previous volumes).


The nods to Hellboy history also includes his first encounter with a memorable villain we’ve seen several times now in Hellboy volumes – I won’t blow the surprise, but will say I was delighted when I saw who it was and I think many of you will be too. Maleev, as I noted earlier, does sterling duty, making the art his own while working within a style that doesn’t jar with Mignola’s oh-so-iconic art for HB, aided in no small manner by the excellent Dave Stewart and his atmospheric colour palette (an element always important in HB’s visuals) – a fight in a local church lit by candles is all washes of sickly orange and bright red, night scenes in blues and purples (including a memorable image of a priest by a standing cross, looking up to see one of the monsters perched on the cross-beam, silhouetted against the dusk sky).

It’s a terrific romp, it offers more connections to other parts of Hellboy’s established history and, frankly, it’s just huge fun to see such a young Hellboy on his first outing (and how the world reacts to him too – after all, unlike later volumes where HB is well-known, here most people will have no idea who he is and never have seen anything like him). But beneath the action-adventure romping fun there’s that father-son story, which lends it a deeper emotional core and also gives that Hellboy history a more personal note. This isn’t just the story of how Hellboy went from being Rasputin’s tool for the apocalypse to being the noble hero, it’s the personal, emotional, family level of it that really works so well here, an adopted father who knows the responsibility he bears to bring this boy up the right way. Any father worries about such matters, about making sure they instil in their child not just love but respect for others, the instinct to do the correct thing, and while most dads don’t have to worry about their child growing up to be the beast of the apocalypse, on an emotional level it’s the same struggle, the same hopes and fears of a father for his boy.

“All we want from you are the kicks you’ve given us…”

Phonogram Volume 1: Rue Britannia,

Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie,

Image Comics


Since the dawn of humanity, magicians, shamans, the Clever Man, the Wise Woman, whatever you want to call them, have been aware that words carry power and that music and rhythm can induce altered states, altering, changing, expanding perspective. Little wonder then, that popular music, marrying both those rhythms and melodies with the words of the lyrics can exercise such power on so many of us. Not just to induce mental states of delirious happiness or moping despair as we listen to a particular album, but the way those songs, usually the product of their times, the zeitgeist, the happening cultural trends that rise and fall like waves in the ocean and that we all try to surf for at least a while, especially when young (go on, admit it, we all did, and why the hell not, it’s what we’re meant to do, especially in that everything-seems-new flush of youthful energy and experimentation). And that brings us to revisiting this modern classic by a team – Gillen and McKelvie – who have gone on to become major names in the international comics community. This was one of their signature calling cards, just a few years ago, and despite the river of work they’ve done, both together and separately, since then, it still holds a fascination, just like a much-loved pop song. You still want to take it out the sleeve and put the needle in the groove again and just go with it…

Pop music is one of the defining socio-cultural experiences of the modern era, it can be light, frothy fun, it can be the howling agit-prop anger of early Manics, and all shades in-between, and like the comics it’s a medium that is seemingly transient, ephemeral, trends and characters come and they go, and sometimes they come around again, and even if they don’t though, they somehow remain lodged inside us, tied not just to memories of when we first loved that single or album, but everything going on around us at the time. In the same way they say a smell can evoke rich memories, so to the music we love, and the music we loved when first discovering music, oh boy does that have power over us, singly and in groups (how many of us bonded with others, friends and total strangers, over that shared musical experience at a certain place and time in our lives?). And while all pop draws from – or sometimes powers – the zeitgeist, the phenomena we now call Brit Pop really seems to capture that 90s “Cool Britannia” period in the way the Beatles capture the Swinging Sixties.


Or does it? That’s part of the question in here, as we meet David Kohl – how much of that Brit Pop era are we collectively remembering correctly, how much is ‘remembering’ all the labels applied posthumously to it by commentators and others after it had been and gone? It’s an important question for Kohl – not only is he a phonomancer, a magician who draws on music for his tricks, his own identity is bound up in that era and it’s music. The goddess Britannia who shone for those few years is gone, but her influence on what makes Kohl himself is still there, and he can feel things changing, and if they change then so will he – he may even no longer be a phonomancer or even remember what he was before he changes, perhaps being altered into just another guy with a mortgage, settling down (yes, not hard to detect that slightly older twinge here, how different from other generations we would be when we were older, as we danced, powered up on that music, and then years later realising we grew up much the same). And after an encounter with the main aspect of the goddess of music Kohl is compelled to look into Britannia – another aspect of that goddess – and her life and her death.


I find it quite brave that Gillen and McKelvie decided to give us such an unlikeable, self-obsessed, self-serving central character – that could easily backfire, but they take this arrogant bastard and still make us give a damn (there are even hints of hopes for redemption hidden in his acts). There’s more than a hint of the John Constantine about Kohl – the constant smoking, the cool pose, the hidden knowledge, the casual use of that knowledge and others for his own selfish ends, and a feeling of a much larger, darker, mysterious world around him. Maybe if Constantine had come of age in the 90s this could have been him. McKelvie’s artwork is beautifully clear black and white work here, some panels looking like they could have been stills from a 90s Japanese animation, and he captures some of the characters superbly – Kohl, trying to get back into a mindset of the music of his formative years, depicted wearing the make-up his younger self used to sport, beautifully done in crisp B&W, and instantly bringing forth memories of trying different looks in the mind of the reader (again, go on, admit it, we all tried, and even those who got it down so stylishly right look back now and think oh, what was I thinking? But it was cool at the time…).

Or the way showing a beautiful young female musician-singer in one panel, and then almost exactly the same image in the next panel, but now with jet-black eyes, works as a brilliant “jump” moment (also reminds me of the oh-so-eerie all-black eyes on Joanna Lumley in an old Sapphire and Steel episode. Creepy and disturbing), as she reveals herself to him as not just a singer-songwriter, but a major aspect of the goddess herself…


Ultimately, for me anyway, Phonogram is as much about memory and identity as it is magic and music. It’s about how we defined ourselves, and often how we continue to define ourselves, by musical tastes, gigs we were at, the people we sang along with at a certain time and place, and how that process creates part of our selves, part of our own self-image, how we see ourselves. And how that process is dynamic, rarely static, because even years after that period, even after Britannia herself has been and gone, both individually and collectively, we rewrite part of that period, and with it how we see ourselves again. And the odious Kohl, who has great taste in music in place of a moral centre, that’s part of his problem – he wasn’t just defined by the music of that era and scene, he still is. Other phonomancers have moved on, the somewhat sad retromancers cling to the old music in revival sessions to tap some magical energy, but he’s still trying to be just what he was then, and it just doesn’t work that way, not for an individual, not for popular culture, it’s a constant state of change and even the past can be redefined.


It’s a gorgeous piece of work – not just a compelling story and good hook (music is magic, magic is music, we make and experience both), but it also comes freighted with that bittersweet nostalgia and memory that makes you both laugh in shared recognition but also wince in embarrassment (did I really like that back then??) or even sigh over old regrets (we danced all that night to that music, why did I ever let you slip away…). Phonogram manages all this while looking oh-so-cool and stylish while conjuring all these competing, contrasting emotions in the reader – and a strong urge to listen to some old favourites…

Achingly beautiful new fantasy comic: 8house: Arclight

8house #1: Arclight,

Brandon Graham, Marian Churchland,

Image Comics


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

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

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

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


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


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

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


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

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog

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

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


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

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

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

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


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


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


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

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog

An ancient classic re-imagined: ODY-C

Ody-C Volume 1,

Matt Fraction, Christian Ward,

Image Comics


There are certain stories that are, essentially, immortal, which will be told and retold for as long as humans tell each other stories. The Norse Sagas, the Ramayana Cycle, the Epic of Gilgamesh and, of course, Homer’s Iliad and The Odyssey; these stories and characters have been passed down through the millennia, they remain in our shared, collective imagination and dreams because they speak of very human elements that we 21st century types still share with our Bronze Age ancestors, of human pride, arrogance, love, hate, of the whims of fate and the struggles of life. And, simply, because they are bloody good stories. And as such they are also endlessly open to re-interpretation in every medium, because their basic elements can be refitted and interpreted to each new generation. And here, as you may infer from the title, Matt Fraction and Christian Ward are taking the Odyssey, the epic Classical tale of Odysseus (also sometimes known as Ulysses), the crafty warrior of Trojan War fame, and the voyage of his vessel home after that decade of war, a voyage wrecked by capricious gods and fates, turned into a long trial of endurance.

Leaving behind the last century, leaving behind all their dead and their loss: Paris the coward and killer and thief. Here where Keles last stood. Here brave Hekta was bodily disgraced in death. Here where so many great women died. Three ships leave Troiia’s remains. Three adventures now start. Three great heroes begin their last odyssey…”


Except here Fraction and Ward transform Homer’s epic into a great space-faring, science fiction tale, but an SF version of The Odyssey which is also gender-swapped: this is an epic of great women heroes and goddesses. And so instead of the crafty Odysseus we have “cunning Odyssia” and her fellow Achaeans at the sack of the siegeworld of Troiia, the only male visible being He, now on a collar like a dog, “thousands of swiftships once launched in his name”, now but a spoil of war for the victorious captains. The final ships make their sacrifices to the gods – again all female, save for the “mother-father” who partakes a bit of both genders in this female-centric universe – for a safe voyage home after their long, long war. But those familiar with the Odyssey will already know that this is not a voyage that will go smoothly…

Well, Olympians? What say you now? The war is over. Where shall we find our entertainment?

Yes, Fraction and Wards’ gods of the stars are as capricious, malicious – and downright mean and childish – as those ancient Greek gods of Homer’s day, less interested in helping mere mortals, more in using them as playthings. The war over, how shall they find their diversions now? Well, there’s this long voyage home, a lot could happen, and these gods are quick to take offence and equally swift to deliver revenge for slights, imagined or real (never hurts to be able to justify your violent actions, even if you’re fooling nobody, a sexed-up dossier is still useful for justifying your actions, eh?). One reprimands the Mother-Father, telling her it is vulgar to find pleasure in creating new tortures for great women like Odyssia, while another declares “why should we let these bloodthirsty wanderers roam our spaceways so freely?” and more talk of punishment for their hubris (and as is often the case in Greek myth, when the gods argue about human arrogance, pride and hubris they epically fail to see that they themselves are displaying exactly the same qualities. Never trust a god). It is quite clear that any excuse will be taken by some of these petty gods to inflict suffering and misery.


I don’t want to spoil the story too much here – yes, it does generally follow the line of the Odyssey’s arc, so if you know your Homer you will already have a fairly good idea where this is going. But that’s part of the joy of it for those of us forever in love with the great Classics, in seeing how Fraction and Ward will tell their version of this ancient tale, of the clever re-imagining and re-workings of those events and characters, such as the gruesome encounter with the vile Cyclops, or the dream-like lure of the lotus eaters. Those not so familiar with the original though, are still in for a treat – there is a reason this story has stayed with us for over two and a half thousand years, after all – and after reading it you really should seek out the original Odyssey, one of the cornerstones of world literature.


The gender and science fiction components of Fraction’s version of the epic are intriguing, a fresh take on an old tale, well-told, and it’s interesting to see crafty Odysseus of legend still being the same clever, devious and brave figure as a woman, a reminder that the both the heroic aspects and our not so fine behavioural traits are not confined to one gender or the other. And Ward’s artwork? Oh, but Ward’s artwork is utterly sublime here, from the curving swiftships (mentally linked to their captains and crews) to the various bickering gods, from scenes of carnal sensuality to cannibalistic horror and vistas of distant stars. And on top of this some quite remarkable use of colour, giving some scenes an amazing, vibrant intensity, sometimes almost a visual cacophony, an overload, like being on a trip, as if someone had taken Brendan McCarthy’s innovative palette and thrown a Psychedelic Bomb into the paint, a riot of colours, forms and unusual page layouts adding to the otherworldly feel of the story and inviting the eye to linger and drink it in – a wonderful reading experience.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog

Some fantasy and horror from the Edinburgh Film Festival

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

Edinburgh International Film Festival 2015 - Károly Ujj Mészáros 02
(Károly Ujj Mészáros speaking after the screening of Liza, the Fox-Fairy, pic from my Flickr)

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

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

This article was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog

A new undead for a New World: American Vampire

American Vampire Volume 1,

Scott Snyder, Stephen King, Rafael Albuquerque,

DC Comics/Vertigo


Scott Snyder has really established himself as major comics writing talent in the last few years, not least with his highly regarded Batman run for DC’s New 52, but arguably it was his and Rafael Albuquerque’s American Vampire which first seriously established his credentials as a new writer to watch out for, and the fact that the first volume includes work from no less a literary luminary than Stephen King doesn’t exactly hurt. I’ve a long fascination for vampire and Gothic tales, but it’s not an easy genre to do something new with. Every now and then someone reworks the genre and shakes it up – Stoker took the earlier 19th century tales and crystalised them in Dracula, Anne Rice revamped (pardon the pun) the genre in the 70s with Interview With the Vampire, Twilight brought romantic vamps to a mass teen audience while Niles’ 30 Days of Night made them gut-wrenchingly monstrous and terrifying once more. It’s one of the reasons the genre refuses to lie quietly in its coffin, but always rises again in one form or another, to stalk our nightmares, the vampire mythos is, in the right hands, endlessly elastic and able to be refitted to suit so many cultures and times. And here, these are the right hands.

The first volume is split into two linked tales, switching back and forth between them, and it isn’t titled “American Vampire” for nothing – these two settings are ones which strongly evoke a sense of Americana from their respective eras, periods most of us would associate so strongly with the US, the final decades of the Old West in the 19th Century and the early days of the silent movies as they establish themselves in a booming LA in the Roaring Twenties. Cowboy gangs and vengeful lawmen on horseback (hell, there’s even a train heist thrown in!) on one side, the glitz and sleaze of early Hollywood and Flapper girls trying to make it in the big city on the other. They’re well chosen eras that ooze the sense of the period, even now, and Snyder, King and Albuquerque use them to give their vampires a uniquely American personality and setting. Yes, there are more traditional European vampires here, hiding in dark corners, away from the sun, greedy, decadent, self-satisfied Old World monsters, much like the east coast wealthy elite who, for all the republican nature of the US in the 1800 and 1900s, were Old World style aristocracy in all but name.


Skinner Sweet, 1850 –1880, Outlaw, Killer, Defiler of Women, Born in Kansas, Burns in Hell,” inscription on Skinner Sweet’s grave in the local Boot Hill, in finest Western tradition.

But this is America, the land of opportunity, where you can arrive with only a dollar in your pocket but build yourself up, or at least so the myth that everyone can make it goes. And here that seems to apply to the undead as well. And when a hard-nosed lawman tracks down and captures the infamous Skinner Sweet (a gang leader with a real sweet tooth) at the behest of a wealthy banker (whose banks Skinner robbed), it sets up a chain of events none of them could have foreseen. The wealthy banker is in fact secretly an Old World vampire, here to mine the Western Frontier for new wealth, but when Skinner’s gang ambushes the train carrying him, in a rescue attempt, a fight ensues, and while the lawmen are distracted the vampiric banker attempts to deal with Sweet himself, but Sweet doesn’t die easily and wounds the vampire, his blood falling onto Sweet’s open wounds. Forced to flee he doesn’t realise at first that this has transformed Sweet, but when he does suspect he arranges for a dam to be built and buys up the local town before it is flooded – thus drowning the cemetery in which Sweet lies. Vampire or not, he can never rise now, or so they think…


But this is, as the title implies, a new type of vampire – somehow the alchemy of the change brought on by the vampiric blood causes something different in this New World, creating different vampires, with different powers and weaknesses, and Sweet does eventually rise, and soon discovers his new powers. He doesn’t need a gang anymore, not with his abilities, he can tear a place apart all on his own. And he does. But when he surfaces again in the 1920s, despite still being a killer, he seems to have his own agenda, and he actually warns two naïve young actresses, Pearl and Hattie, about attending a party thrown by one of the major studio heads, but they don’t listen to him, and at the party Pearl is taken to a private room, where it turns out more of those in power are also Old World vampires, eager to use and abuse her before dumping her body in the desert. But like Skinner, she doesn’t die and instead transforms, desperately trying to figure out what has happened to her, what these new impulses and abilities are, and as she comes to terms with them, determining to take vengeance on the powerful men – these smug, wealthy, Old World vampiric elite – who did this to her.


You, Pearl Jones, are a different kind of vampire… Just picture it in automotive terms, Bloch and his kind, they’re like old, broken-down European clunkers, okay? But you and me, Dolly? We’re like shiny, new 1926 Fords, top of the line, just rolled out onto the showroom floor.” Skinner explains why he and Pearl have different abilities from the Old World vampires.

It’s a hugely compelling read, and a great twist on the old vampire mythos, and it really does give it a truly American identity. Both story arcs plunder their periods for detail and atmosphere, and Albuquerque does art duty on both, handling Old West and Roaring 20s Hollywood with equal dexterity, giving us cowboy raiders attacking a train, or riding into a sunset on one chapter, or a Flapper Girl making her way in this brave, new post-war boom world of the big city, the bright lights (and dangers), and the lure and magic (and hidden darkness and sleaze) of the emerging magic factory that was Hollywood in the 20s, going from a wonderfully demonic grin on Skinner’s face in his Boot Hill coffin to Model T cars chugging along 1920s LA’s boulevards. Both periods, which could so easily have clashed, dovetail nicely, and of course in the real world the tail end of the Old West did indeed overlap with the early years of the movies, with genuine Western characters moving to LA and taking part in Hollywood’s early “horse operas”, so they’re a good choice for linked tales, and they are eras we’re all used to from a thousand films and books (and as I said, also suitably, iconically American), so we instinctively recognise the styles and tropes of those historical periods.

And it mixes well with the great American myth of itself which grew up during that great Westward Expansion and carried into that new modern, 20th century era (building bigger, better, smarter, always upwards, onwards, boudless optimism), but here translated to brash but bright, eager, capable new energies of new kinds of vampires, evolved to suit this New World (and totally vulgar to the sensibilities of the Old World vamps). I’m always impressed when someone can do something fresh with the vampire myth, and here King, Snyder and Albuquerque have done just that, giving horror fiction terrific new characters in Skinner Sweet and Pearl, in a book dripping with period atmosphere and style.

Love, life, the blues and terror: Mike’s Place

Mike’s Place,

Jack Baxter, Joshua Faudem, Koren Shadmi,

First Second


When I first spotted Mike’s Place being  solicited by First Second I got that vibe I sometimes get, my bookseller’s Spidey sense, and had a strong feeling I was going to find it interesting. After First Second were kind enough to send over an early copy I found that instinct was again spot on – I sat down in the local on the way home from work thinking I’d have a quick look, wee drink then off, instead I was so drawn in I read the entire book in one sitting. Yes, it was that compelling, I simply couldn’t face putting it down to head home, so I just sat there and finished it. By sheer coincidence I was reading this about the same time as I was also getting into Asaf Hanuka’s The Realist (reviewed here last week), so I found myself reading two quite different graphic novels with an Israeli theme quite by chance.

Mike’s Place is based on actual events and real people (with the exception of some balancing scenes showing the terrorists from the UK entering the Holy Land with blood on their mind, some of which has to be fictionalised, although sadly the results of their travels are all to real). The eponymous Mike’s Place is a seafront bar in Tel Aviv, a happening joint spun off from an equally successful spot in Jerusalem, home to drink, food and good, live music. It’s a place for anyone and everyone to come, to mix with others, to enjoy life and be reminded that there are good things to this life to enjoy. Politics is to be left at the door – Europeans, Israelis, Americans, Arabs, anyone can and does enjoy mixing in Mike’s Place. Like many a fine bar in many a city, it’s a little oasis where anyone can go to relax. Jack is an independent American film-maker, in town to cover an alleged terrorist, but when he discovers another documentary film crew has already been working on the same subject for some months he realises he’s been scooped and plans to return home. Wandering along the seafront one evening he spots Mike’s Place and soon he’s inside, indulging in the time honoured tradition of chatting to the barman, telling him his problems (the kindly bar-tender willing to lend an ear may be a stereotype, but it’s one with a basis in reality).

mikes_place_baxter_faudem_shadmi_first_second_01 mikes_place_baxter_faudem_shadmi_first_second_02

And as it happens the barman, Gal, is also the owner, and he isn’t just lending a sympathetic ear to a traveller alone in a strange city, he actually has a suggestion for Jack – forget the politics, the terrorism, that’s what everyone shows of the Middle East. Instead why not do something totally different and make a documentary about Mike’s Place? All we ever see on international news or films is politics, war, terrorism, but behind all that there are people, normal, everyday folks just like anywhere else, working, falling in love, arguing, trying to get through life, and that tends to get ignored. And just as the country is a melting pot of different nationalities living there the bar is a microcosm of that. Gal can even introduce him to one of his bar tenders, Joshua, who has only just returned from Europe (with new girlfriend in tow, she rather lost in this new country but the pair so wrapped in each other it doesn’t matter much) after completing his film studies – he has a camera man who will also become the director of the film. Jack thinks about it and realises he has landed in just the right spot to make a different kind of film about the region.

Just look around! Everybody come here. Israel is more than conflict and politics. Mike’s place is the real Israel – the best part of the Middle East.”

Soon Jack has teamed up with Joshua, Gal’s friend and bouncer Avi sorts them out with transportation and the documentary gets rolling, Jack and Joshua interviewing the staff, an international collection from all corners of the globe, the “Mike’s Place family” as Gal refers to it. And it’s an appropriate label – the first half of the book is especially strong on a theme of family, both the type formed by actual blood relatives (the business is a family affair, Gal’s brother runs the Jerusalem – or J-Town as he calls it – Mike’s Place) and that remarkable extended family that we all, if we’er lucky, form through a disparate group of friends. There’s an overwhelming sense of friendliness and openness here; Jack is making his Indy documentary, but he’s also, quite happily it seems, absorbing the local ambience and fitting in quite easily with the bar staff and their friends and family, from hanging out with them at bar to spending the Passover meal with Gal’s family, everyone happily making this lone stranger warmly welcome.

And behind the progress on the actual documentary we’re seeing glimpses of the private lives. Cameraman/director Joshua and his girlfriend Sasha are trying to adapt to being a couple in a country she’s never even visited before (“it sounds like we’ll be in a scene from a Woody Allen film,” she tells Joshua on being invited to dinner to meet his parents, “Middle East style, baby!” he replies), but the nervousness of a new relationship in a new setting is held at bay by that first, big flush of love at the early stage of a relationship, when you can forget the potential pitfalls just with a good kiss. Gal is having his own romantic problems, so obviously in love with the bar’s beautiful French waitress Dominique, who adores him, but not in the same way and he doesn’t know that yet. In short, just as the film was aiming to do, we see regular people going around their everyday lives just like anywhere, albeit one where the worry of a terrorist attack is pretty constant, and yet they just get on with their lives because, what else can you do? As one points out, the weather might keep them in their houses, but terrorism rarely does.


The cumulative effect of this entire first half of the book is to immerse us among this wonderfully welcoming, warm group of characters, and like Jack we feel as if they are going out of their way to be nice to a stranger, to make them welcome, at their ease. We get to know them, the different character quirks, from what they say to the camera in their interviews then the behind-the-scenes gossip of everyday life. Which means when we reach the middle of the book, the attack on the bar is all the more devastating, because the reader has really come to care for these people. And no, that’s not a spoiler, in case you were wondering, the blurb on the book makes it quite clear that partway through making the film, suicide bombers attacked the bar, and indeed the cover showing the back of a man holding a trigger to his suicide vest of explosives in front of a group of happy revellers also tells you that before you read the book. And that knowledge really affects your reading of the first half – the warm feelings I had getting to know these characters was always tempered by the shadow of the looming violence I knew was coming in their future. In a way I suppose that conveys just a little of that sense the film was trying to put across that people still live their lives despite the fact that something awful could suddenly happen, because it’s life and we need to enjoy it while we can.

But for me it really made me invest even more emotionally into the characters. The explosion comes right in the middle of the book, a two-page splash, bisecting the narrative – the first half of a group of friends welcoming a new person into their group and making a film about a side of life away from death and terrorism. The second half, the aftermath, after bloody violence has again shoved its hideous way into people’s lives, our group of characters – and we need to remember these are actual people who really went through these events. And the book doesn’t shy away from showing the horrible, horrible effects, which hurt all the more because the first half so effectively made us love these people and now the reader is metaphorically staggering in shock, much like the characters – what the hell happened, why would someone slaughter civilians like this, what happened to each person, where’s Jack, Avi, Gal, Dominique? And then slowly we get to see it – for a silent medium Shadmi does a remarkable job depicting that moment of uncanny silence after the attack, a shocking stillness for a brief instant before the chaos, survivors rushing to help the wounded, clear the space, check there isn’t another attack coming (there was a second bomber, who for an unknown reason never went through with his attack). Amid the horror as ambulances and police arrive Joshua gets the camera, his instinct to keep filming. But he’s now recording a very different film…

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The entire second half deals with the physical and emotional aftermath of the attack and the book doesn’t pull any punches, from the direct, practical aftermath (specialists clearing up body parts, literally scraping pieces from the walls of the bar before any restoration work can be done, the struggle to try and re-open the bar) but more especially to the emotional load placed on the surviving characters. And as with the warmer, welcoming, friendly first half, this is also a deeply emotional experience, but one marred by sadness and grief and loss. Jack’s idea of showing real people leading their real lives now becomes about showing those people trying to help each other through such a shattering experience, trying their best to support one another while trying not to fall apart themselves, all coping in different ways. “We’re alive” becomes something of a theme here – it had surfaced in the first half, on one of the few nights the bar is closed, for Holocaust Memorial Day, and the group get together, having fun, not out of disrespect, but because they are still alive and they can “we party for the six million who can’t” Gal explains. And that “we’re alive” refrain repeats in the more mournful second half, those who are left, like any of us exposed to sudden loss, in a strange place, shadowed by grief, but being reminded that they’re still here and those they lost would want them to keep going. And that extends to the film, the people and the bar, and by extension to all of those innocents, anywhere, of any creed or colour, who get caught in such horrific events by people who are so sure of their beliefs they are willing to spill innocent blood over it (and damn every idiot who does think that way, on any side of a conflict).


But that second half, harrowing though it is in places, as the physical and emotional toll on the characters we’ve come to love also wears on the reader’s senses, is not just some dirge; miraculously, out of the ashes and fire and blood that warm bond of friendship, of family, slowly reasserts itself, even though everyone is damaged in their own way. And that warm sense of love and family and friendship is what I really took from this book. Jack, Josh and Koren touch on plenty of themes that plague the Middle East, but from the street level view of regular folks (the perspective we rarely see on the news), and do so very effectively, and the tragedy of making a film that celebrates the world away from the bombs and hate being caught in a bombing is powerful and awful. And yet despite the horror and sadness, even in the second half after the attack, I still kept feeling that strong bond of friendship, too strong and resilient to be broken by something as crude as a weapon, because its forged from something immaterial yet remarkably strong. And that sense of warmth and comradeship and, yes, again I use the word family, but that’s what I kept feeling throughout the entire book, it’s there right through the aftermath. It’s funny, it’s sad, it’s upsetting, it’s inspiring, it has happy moments of laughter and dreadful troughs of despair, just like life, really, but through all of the events here remains that warm, human feeling of inclusion and family, perhaps our only real defence and hope against the hatred in the world.

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The film was eventually completed and was entitled Blues by the Beach; each year on the anniversary of the attack they screen it in the rebuilt bar in memory of the friends they lost.

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog