Expo is a deeply moving, very emotional short science fiction film directed by Joe Sill. Boasting some beautifully shot visuals as it follows a working mother, alone on a dangerous industrial Lunar base, as she gets a message from home, with the worst news any parent can receive, that her seriously ill child has lost her fight against her illness. The huge loss is amplifies by her vast isolation, alone on the Moon, the Earth, home, her now deceased child, all a vast distance away, hanging in the sky over her stark Lunar workplace. Actress Daniela Flynn gives a powerful performance, conveying the loss and emotion even through her protective spacesuit helmet, to give this well-shot short a huge emotional punch:
This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog:
Chas Worthington, the mega rich young heir to an enormous oil fortune, known for his womanising, his extreme sports hobbies and other wealthy pastimes. The Great Pacific Gyre, a rotation of currents that creates a relatively stable spot in the vast ocean currents, where gargantuan amounts of (mostly plastic) garbage flushed into the seas slowly accumulates over years. What does this rich young man and a gigantic, floating garbage patch have in common? What about claiming it as a new sovereign nation?
Chas may lead the playboy lifestyle expected of someone in his position, but behind the scenes he has been deviously out-manoeuvring the treacherous board of directors of his own firm (who want to take more control from him following his father’s death), funnelling vast funds into a secret tech project to do with altering the physicality of plastics and planning to get necessary equipment to the garbage patch, while also making contacts in various governments with strong UN presences who he can ask to help international law recognise his claim to set up the floating plastic continent as a legal country with sovereign state rights.
In lesser hands this could be a pretty straightforward (and clichéd) tale of rich boy who has guilt because his inherited wealth came from hugely polluting industry and wants to make amends. Joe Harris and Martin Morazzo, however, offer up a more complex and satisfying tale. Chas is not a stereotype – yes, he has done the ‘rich kid stuff’, yes, he feels guilt over his wealth coming from polluting exploitation of the world’s resources, but he’s no eco-warrior. He has multiple reasons for what he is doing, only some of which start to become apparent in this first volume. Some are indeed driven by ecological concerns, although he has seen enough of the big corporate world to know they will only back necessary changes if there is a lot of money to be made in it, hence his secretly developed new tech. Other reasons may well include the need to stand out and be his own man, make something by and of himself, not what was handed to him as a rich heir. And he’s not always likeable either, cutting others short, assuming his best friend and assistant will follow him (and not thinking too much about how much he is asking him to risk, without really telling him why) and he is impulsive, his Texan blood making him perhaps too quick on the trigger (which will have consequences).
It’s not a simple plan though; however much he thinks he has prepared and done all the relevant research, this is still something no-one has ever attempted, after all. And then there are complications you don’t expect – pirates seeking hidden WMDs, the intervention of the US government, both legally and militarily, a mysterious group of Pacific islanders who seem to have settled somehow on the garbage patch. And then there is a gigantic Octopus, which the islanders think may be a sort of god, with which he starts to form a strange relationship. The massive floating garbage patches in the gyres of the ocean were first predicted in the late 80s and are now scientific fact (see here for more), although Harris takes some science fictional liberties with it for dramatic purposes, such as making it large and solid enough to walk on and even build upon a little (very carefully!).This also allows Morazzo’s art (which at time reminds me, in a good way, of the Luna Brothers) to depict some spectacularly weird, alien landscape.
But it’s a fascinating premise, a driven and complicated young man playing at both ecology and international politics and corporate business at the same time, in a setting which only exists because of our civilisation’s own wastefulness of material and uncaring methods of disposing of our unwanted rubbish. Clever and intriguing, drawing on several contemporary global concerns, not least pollution of our environment, exploitation of dwindling resources, divisions of wealth, power and influence and corporate-goverment interests and powers (or abuses thereof). This took a very different path from what I originally thought it might be, which pleased me no end (I love when a storyteller throws me a curve ball and hits be some something I wasn’t expecting) and I’m looking forward to the second volume. Plus, y’know, it had pirates and a giant (and perhaps intelligent and aware?) octopus, what’s not to like?!
This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog
Jupiter’s Legacy #1
Mark Millar, Frank Quitely
There’s been a huge amount of buzz on various comics forums and twitter in the run up to the first issue of Mark Millar and Frank Quitely’s creator-owned new series from Image, Jupiter’s Legacy. The first issue hit racks this week – was it worth all that eager anticipation?
I suppose the answer to that is going to vary depending who you talk to – some of my colleagues loved it, where I would give it a more cautious thumbs-up. Which is to say I certainly enjoyed it, but no, I wasn’t blown away by it and to be honest some elements are a bit familiar to regular capes’n'tights readers, with elements of Tom Strong, Kingdom Come and Authority springing to my mind as I read the first issue (which is not to say there is no merit here, as I said, I did enjoy it after all).
Starting in 1932 we see a failed financier, wealthy family ruined in the crash of ’29 and the subsequent Great Depression. But he is less concerned with the loss of wealth and power than with what the Depression has done to his beloved America, a country now lacking confidence, unsure of its self, many unemployed, homes being repossessed, people literally on the bread line. And in a dream he is called to a mysterious island which promises some form of salvation. Gathering a group of friends who unquestioningly believe his vision, they manage to travel halfway across the world to an island on no charts. We don’t see what happens there, but when they return to the world they are changed, garbed in strange costumes, with awesome abilities and powers which they pledge to use for the betterment of humanity, to help…
Fast forward to the modern era, and the lazy, indolent, self-indulgent children of that first generation of superheroes. They too are superpowered, but more interested in the trappings of fame that come with their powers – money, sponsors, drugs, easy sex, superheroes for the me-me-me, 24 hour celeb-watch media, than in fighting evil (as one smirks, hey, most of the good villains are gone anyway, the older generation lived in a golden age for those kinds of battles). Into this crashes – literally a huge battle with a tremendously powerful being which takes a whole assembly of the older heroes to take down (with little to no help from their offspring, despite requests for aid).
In the aftermath one declares that he is tired of fighting villains – the world they served for the last few decades has again slipped back into economic chaos and moral quagmire, people again stand in line to beg for charitable food help. Perhaps they should be using their powers directly, getting involved in actually trying to change things and organise them at the political leadership level. Or should they remain ‘servants’ of the people and ignore the urge to take charge and try and fix a broken system which repeats the same errors to huge human cost every few decades?
It’s certainly interesting enough (and it boasts that lovely Quitely artwork of course, never a bad thing), and taking element of today’s world problems and comparing them to similar ones from history gives it some relevance, while also working as a mirror to the simpler way superheroes were back in the old days, compared to today’s heroes. But as I said I kept feeling too many elements were familiar – the political aspects of the Authority and Kingdom Come for instance, or the celeb superheroes of X-Statix, as well as the obvious schism between generations which Kingdom Come did so well.
That said I still found it enjoyable enough, if not exactly gripping – and most superhero tales by their nature use and re-use elements of earlier genre tales, so I can’t hold that against Jupiter’s Legacy, really (and it is using some of them to comment on the changing nature of how we want our heroes). Besides it is the first issue and so it is early days – the question is what Millar and Quitely will do with those elements and how they mix them up into something new and uniquely theirs. I may not have been totally blown away with it (and to be fair it had too much hype to live up to, which is a bit unfair to be laden with so much expectation), but it did what a decent first issue should do: it introduced the set up (in a compact but efficient manner, no dawdling), the main characters, already set up some forthcoming lines of conflict and, most importantly, yes, it does make me want to read the next issue and see where the guys take this, and that’s what a first issue should do.
A cracking find online – this short work by Clement Bolla, Fx Goby and Matthieu Landour pays great homage to those classic creature features so beloved of 1950s Sci-Fi, as a young man working night security in a film studio can’t resist trying on a monster costume to play a practical joke, which snowballs into a series of increasingly out of control situations. I really like the setting, which has a sort of 1950s/60s feel to it that could be Britain or America, it’s undefined and really suits the tale very well:
Payload is a very well-executed short science fiction film by Stuart Willis, set in a near-future, dog-eat-dog dystopia a father and his two kids try to scratch a living in the shadow of a space elevator. Willis manages the difficult trick of cramming an interesting and complete narrative into a short timespace while still managing to give us quick character development sufficient to make us care and give us a good feel for this run-down future setting he has placed them in, well worth viewing:
This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog:
(cover artwork to Seven Wonders by Will Staehle, who also did the cover for Adam’s Empire State, published Angry Robot)
“So long ago, certain place, certain time
You touched my hand, all the way, all the way down to Emmiline
But if our paths never cross, well you know I’m sorry but…
If I live to see the seven wonders
I’ll make a path to the rainbow’s end
I’ll never live to match the beauty again
The rainbow’s end.” Fleetwood Mac, Seven Wonders
Back at the very start of this year, when I posted my own Best of the Year selection at the end of our weeks-long series of traditional guest slots, in the books section I also flagged up a couple of then-forthcoming science fiction works I thought we should all have been looking to read in 2012. One of those, released right at the start of the year, was Empire State by Adam Christopher, a cracking fusion of the gumshoe noir and a wonderfully 40s styled science fiction, complete with ‘scientific superheroes’ with rocket boots and 40s style power armour, police airships and parallel worlds. Stylish, cool, utterly engrossing, I loved it, but don’t just take my word for it, one of our guest Best of Year posters, Paul Cornell no less, showered praise on it. And here in the last quarter of the same year we have a second novel from Adam coming from the cool Angry Robot gang. And it’s even better.
Adam had science-based superheroes as characters in Empire State, very much in the 1930s/40s Republic serial film style with a nice touch of Rocketeer (never a bad thing). In Seven Wonders, however, he gets to indulge in his obvious love for full-on capes and tights superheroes we know so well – in fact the titular Seven Wonders are the last remaining superteam, operating out of their impressive skyscraper base in San Ventura, the ‘shining city’ on the Californian coast. Also the only city still to be home to a supervillain, The Cowl, and his female sidekick, Blackbird. Despite a team of seven, lead by the nuclear powered Aurora’s Light (it should just be Aurora, but a particularly sneaky former villain trademarked that name so now, legally, he can’t use it), the Cowl remains at large – foiled sometimes, yet always remaining free to terrorise the city, inspiring many street gangs who daub themselves in his insignia and ruin entire neighbourhoods.
Quite why this entire team can’t bring the Cowl in, much less end the gang violence his terror inspires, is beyond some, including one city detective on the supercrime beat, Sam (especially driven after her husband’s death because of the Cowl; the inability of the Seven Wonders to stop that means she has little time for them either) and an ordinary bloke, Tony. The lives of villains, heroes, detective and Tony are going to intersect soon though, and in a very interesting way. Especially when Tony finds himself starting to manifest superpowers of his own.
Encouraged by his new girlfriend Jeannie he begins testing his abilities and powers – bulletproof? Superstrength? Flight? Superspeed? With her support and suggestions he decides he should use his new powers to become a superhero – and do what the Seven Wonders, for many years, mysteriously keep failing to do and take down the Cowl. Hard. Show them how it is done. Be a hero in front of the whole city’s adoring gaze.
Of course, it isn’t quite as simple as he thinks – yes, there are reasons why the Cowl and the Seven Wonders have some bizarre stand-off relationship which leaves them as the only superhero-supervillain show on Earth (the other heroes are largely retired, the villains in a secret UN prison somewhere). And yes, they do play mind games and strike poses for public effect. But there’s a lot more to being a true superhero than the spandex and being able to hold a stylish, photo-opportunity pose when landing from flight, and Tony is going to learn that, the hard way.
But that’s not all, not by a long shot. I’m not going to spoil it for you by revealing too much, but Adam starts with a hugely enjoyable but seemingly predictable tale – superheroes who are more show than practical use, new average bloke gets powers, becomes real hero. That’s how it looks like it is going to go. But it isn’t. Adam starts to veer away sharply from the predictable route, the clear cut morals of superhero versus supervillain roles very quickly becoming muddied by real world concerns shoved messily into comic book fantasy. And then he turns it again with a whole new twist which then leads to another development which seems to grow out of nowhere, until you realise he actually hinted very delicately quite early on, planting subtle seeds that grow into a third act which goes as widescreen as any major DC or Marvel crossover ‘event’ comic, in an ever escalating spiral of tense action.
It’s terrifically enjoyable throughout – the characters all pay homage to genre clichés (the chiselled, remote superhero leader, the spandex clad beautiful superwoman character, the driven detective with a chip on her shoulder) and yet those are there as embellishments, each of them has real characteristics woven in too, and the generic elements, well they are there to give the colour and feel of a superhero comic but in prose. And it is clear from the details Adam uses how much he loves the capes and tights tales – even the most generic elements and characteristics he uses to sometimes poke fun at the OTT nature of superhero stories are handled with a light touch and with obvious love for the classics of the genre; any mockery of the more outlandish elements of superhero tales is gentle and good-natured. It’s a real three act story that you think you know where it is going, before it changes on you several times, keeping you hooked right through to the end, inventive and sparkling, with details and references for the geeks among us to spot and enjoy (and we know we like that!) . And above all – above all, like a good superhero story should be, it’s pure fun, right from the get-go (starting with a fun prologue where the word ‘wonders’ spells out the different team members and their powers in a bit of homage to SHAZAM).
I can tell you this is a cracking read for any fan of SF or superhero tales. I can tell you it has garnered praise from luminaries like Greg Rucka. But perhaps the simplest and most effective recommendation I can make is this: I read a lot of books each year and within ten months I’ve made time to read two by Adam in my crowded reading schedule. And both will be making my next Best of Year list. Read it, enjoy it. And mark Adam Christopher down as a new writer you should be watching out for. I have.
Kevin Margo‘s short science fiction film Grounded is a fascinating piece – a spaceship breaks up entering an alien world’s atmosphere, spreading wreckage across an alien landscape. As one of the surviving astronauts comes to we move through a sequence of almost dream like, overlapping scenes (with little hints of that final segment of 2001: a Space Odyssey), which are deliberately open to interpretation, fascinating visuals working with the viewer’s own mind to suggest ideas and narratives:
An incredibly rare first edition of Frankenstein, signed by the author Mary Shelley to Lord Byron. That stormy night in the villa Diodati (a summer made wet and stormy by atmospheric disruption caused by a volcanic eruption on the other side of the world) saw two great literary births as Byron, the Shelleys and Polidori encouraged each other to come up with chilling tales to pass the wet evenings. The literary model for the vampire for the best part of the next two centuries would be created (based partly on a fragment written by Byron, then expanded hugely by Polidori who used Byron, who he had fallen out with, as his model of the cold-hearted, aristocratic vampire, a standard model for so long afterwards in the genre), and of course Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. An outstanding tale, part horror, part early science fiction, part cautionary tale on knowledge trying to push into areas perhaps we simply were not meant to know about, part analogy to her own awful losses (children lost to mortality, who haunted her thoughts), a tale that has a seemingly endless fascination for each new generation from 1818 right through to our own modern, highly technologically advanced society, where even today we take morals and themes from it and apply them to new developments that worry us, always the mark of good writing when themes remain immortal and forever adaptable and relatable to passing decades and centuries (link via K A Laity):
Director Ian Clark returns to the Edinburgh International Film Festival, following up his previous short film he showed last time with Guinea Pigs, his debut feature length film, a very fine, tense medical-science fiction-horror hybrid that creates some genuine tension on a very low budget.
A group of strangers head for a very modern, hi-tech yet remote medical testing facility hidden away in the British countryside. All have volunteered to take part in the regular human trials that are part of testing new drugs and treatments to finally have them licensed for human use by the medical professions. Some are studenty types doing it to make money, some are ‘profession’ lab rats who go from test to test, one is a journalist planning an expose on how these massive pharmaceutical companies exploit people in need of money to give up their body as a test bed (and let’s not forget what a massive business such pharmacological research is in the UK and the fact it can’t really function without such tests).
The test runs for two weeks, during which the mixed group of older and younger, male and female test subject will live in the remote facility where they will constantly be scrutinised and monitored as they are administered a new experimental drug called Pro-9. No nearby village or town to wander to, no internet access, no mobile phone access (the undercover journalist is less than happy – I need the phone for work, she says, this is your paid work for the next two weeks, the Doctor reminds her). Through the first day each of the group is taken in turn and after a blood test administered their dose of Pro-9 then told to relax, enjoy the facilities, eat, sleep. By the end of the day as they all take their turn in the lab our small group are starting to tentatively bond a little in the rec room, sensing out each other. They think they are in for a long, slow, boring two weeks of daily routine. They’re not – many won’t get through the first night. There’s more than a little ‘adverse reaction’ to Pro-9…
Because each member of the group was taken in at various times through the day for their first injection the resulting effects start to appear in sequence with each, and this is part of the strength and dawning horror of Guinea Pigs – when the first to be injected starts to react badly to the drug during the night the other think it is because he broke the rules and did some strenuous exercise and it has accelerated the drug through his system. He is taken away for treatment by the staff and everyone ascribes it to a one-off complication, until the next person to be injected starts to show similar symptoms and they others realise not only is something badly wrong, but that they are really looking at what may happen to them. It’s a very clever touch by Clark and his team – imagine knowing too late that this drug is driving people into an uncontrolled frenzy and that you have taken it, that it is simply a matter of how soon, not if, you develop the same symptoms.
The situation soon deteriorates beyond the ability of the small night staff to contend with and we move to a fairly familiar small group under siege by crazies scenario – pretty common in a lot of horror, but I have to say well-handled here. Instead of the sudden emergence of a strong heroic type we have ordinary folks faced with an unthinkable situation and trying desperately to think on how to survive not only the other infected now prowling the grounds but how to deal with their own likely transformation that looms over them. And then there’s the fact that each of them is now looking at their rapidly diminishing group and thinking the people they have befriend could soon turn on them. Natural empathy for someone becoming ill wars with the self-preservation instincts: how can those not yet showing symptoms turn their back on friends who are? But if they follow that human compassion they could pay with their lives…
Although in some ways it strays close to the zombie/28 Days later model (which, whatever Danny Boyle says let’s be honest is another form of the zombie movie) Clark keeps his debut tight and focussed. He doesn’t go for cheap splatter (there is blood, but in context, not just added in to try and add an unnecessary thrill), likewise he avoids using the easy ‘jump’ scare approach too many lazier horror directors opt for, with a sudden jolt cut, loud effect or music piece to make the audience jump. I don’t mind a decent jump shock if used well (say the head out of the boat in Jaws) and I have no problem with gore in horror either, but I do have an increasing problem with untalented creators who use both far too frequently not for good effect but in lieu of being able to generate genuine atmosphere and scares by storytelling and good camera work. So thank you, Ian, for not doing that, for instead being confident enough to believe in the strength of your concept and characters to carry enough horror and chills. I think, debut or not, that is the mark of a talented storyteller and it means I will watch for the next film Clark makes. Highly effective, tense British SF-Horror and a perfect late night movie – it is currently on the festival circuit trying to build some awareness, so if you see it coming to a screening near you give them some support, they deserve it.
Love this photo of the first lady of Star Trek, Nichelle Nichols, with President Obama; nice to see he can do the Vulcan salute too, I suspect his predecessor Dubyah was still struggling with the notion of opposable thumbs too much to be able to do that. I wonder if he asked her about her encounter with Dr Martin Luther King Jr and how he told her to stay on the original show in the 60s even though she felt her character didn’t get many lines because just having a black face – and a woman too – on prime time TV in the US during that turbulent era, let alone one who was a senior bridge officer, was an important, viisble role model for young coloured Americans. And you didn’t say no to King. (via FP blog via Live for Films)
This was originally penned for my traditional Best of the Year, part of an annual series I run on the Forbidden Planet blog, following on from a month-long series of guest Best Of posts that ran daily from the first week of December:
It’s been another quite superb year for good reading and, like last year’s Best Of selection, I’ve been delighted at the diversity and quality of comics work coming out of the UK publishing scene, which seems to be going from strength to strength and like the more established science fiction and fantasy publishing in the UK, it’s putting out works that are getting worldwide attention. SelfMadehero and Blank Slate especially have had a cracking year. I’ll apologise in advance – as usual I’m going to go on longer than I meant to, but I blame all those too damned talented writers and artists for that, made trying to narrow down my selection extremely difficult and I must apologise to some because I know that there are some I have probably missed out, but we better get on with this list:
The Corporate Skull, Jamie Smart (webcomic)
The new chapter has just started this very week online, but over the last few months few things have made me laugh out loud as much as Jamie Smart’s Corporate Skull, taking the mickey out of big business and corporate office culture, loaded with cynicism and sarcasm, decorated liberally with bad language, foul behaviour and violence and bodily excretions. It’s everything rude and crude but expertly and cleverly crafted. I said several months ago that it was “arse splittingly funny” and I stand by that comment, mostly because the aforementioned bum is still recuperating from the previous comedic splitting. Sick genius. The doctors say it is good therapy for Jamie to work it out of his system.
The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec Volume 2, Jacques Tardi, Fantagraphics
For my money Jacques Tardi is one of Europe’s great comics creators, a true maestro who can turn his hand and alter his style to suit almost any genre, from gruesome, angry It Was The War of the Trenches to hardboiled 70s crime and, of course, his famous Adele Blanc-Sec series. A plucky heroine writer who investigates the bizarre and always becomes entangled in the oddest conspiracies and plans. This second helping collects two of the original French albums and serves up a heady cocktail of conspiracies, secret societies, black magic practiocners, mad scientists (and boy does Tardi do a great, cackling mad scientist – he even brings in some from his brilliant The Arctic Maruader into this) and all set against a beautifully realised backdrop of Belle Epoque, pre-war Paris. Fantagraphics are translating a huge swathe of Tardi’s work and in fact I’d recommend and and everything they have so far translated and republished, but for the sake of this piece I’ll go with the wonderful Adele.
Hair Shirt, Patrick McEown, SelfMadeHero
This is a superb, dark piece from SMH, a labyrinthean maze of childhood memories and how they shape and influence the character and outlook of the protagonists as adults, set in one of those depressing, featureless “it could be anywhere” type of towns, with emotional paths triggered by the reconnection between childhood friends and almost-sweethearts John and Naomi, it’s a fascinating through a glass darkly tale that I could see making an engrossing film in the hands of someone like Guillermo del Toro. Dark, brooding, intense and fascinating.
MetaMaus, Art Spiegelman, Penguin
Spiegelman’s Maus must be about the most famous graphic novel on the planet, known not only to comics readers like Watchmen but to the wider reading public because of its reception and the Pulitzer Prize highlighting it even to readers who normally don’t read in the comics medium. That, however, is also something of a millstone for a young artist to carry around for the next few decades of his career and Spiegelman talks about that, as well as how he came to make the original comic, discussing the craft, the family history, his relationship with his father, the approach to the art and layout, it’s a truly exhaustive (it comes with a DVD packed with more material) look inside one of the major literary works of the 20th century, but it is also deeply personal too, not just in terms of discussing Spiegelman’s relationship with his father, the man whose tale he is telling, but also how the book has affected his own children growing up in its shadow. Penguin also republished the original Complete Maus in the same hardback format as MetaMaus to mark the anniversary of its publication, they make a very handsome set.
Don Quixote, Migeul de Cervantes with some help from Rob Davis, SelfMadeHero
Several years ago a poll of some of the best writers from many countries picked out this masterpiece of Spanish literature as the favourite novel for most of today’s respected international authors. They were right. It’s an astonishing book that has crossed centuries, influencing artists, writers, playwrights, poets, painters, film-makers and readers; several centuries of readers have fallen in love with this mad knight who dreams of a golden past of chivalry and adventure. Is Quixote a dreaming madman in a cynical age or is it the world that is wrong and his vision which is the more wonderful? Is it a Quixotic madness to even attempt to adapt this great work into comics? Perhaps, but as one who has loved this book for years I think Rob too has supped from the same cup of divinely inspired madness that made our tottering knight charge at windmills; it’s a wonderful madness we all need to embrace from time to time to rise above the mundanity of the everyday. Rob has put a Herculean effort into this adaptation – a read of his blog shows the effort and thought and love he’s put into each frame, how to approach the characters, even the effect of changing colours and shadows, and it shows in the finished work.
Quixote is one of those books that belong to the world and to the ages, given that immortality that belongs to few books across the long centuries, the few that become immortal, the Poes, the Dickens, the Austens, that will be read for as long as there are books and stories. If you’ve loved Quixote you will delight in this joyful adaptation of the work, if you haven’t had that pleasure yet then Rob’s is the perfect, accessible introduction to it, and afterwards you’ll want to read the book itself and treasure it. As a bookseller and booklover I can’t think of a higher compliment than that.
Hector Umbra, Uli Oesterle, Blank Slate Books
Much acclaimed on it’s German language release I was delighted to see Blank Slate translating Uli Oesterle’s brilliant Hector Umbra, his first full length work to make it into English. A brilliant mixture of buddy movie, religious conspiracy, science fiction and dark magics, with more than a tinge of the excellent Mike Mignola flavouring it as Hector, between drinks, tries to find his missing DJ friend Osaka, stumbles into a megolomaniac attempt to subvert humanity, even finds himself, in an almost Hellboy moment, entering into Hell to be given information from a recently dead friend. Stylish and funny as we see bizarre sights, drinking, shagging, lunacy and more around Munich and strange realms hidden away from normal sight. Think Mike Mignola meets Quentin Tarantino meets Wim Wenders.
Rime of the Modern Mariner, Nick Hayes, Jonathan Cape
Coleridge’s famous poetical work, inspired in part by the great age of exploration as ships sailed to undiscovered corners of the world, is reworked visually here to great effect by Guardian cartoonist Nick Hayes, who follows the rhyme and beat of Coleridge but refashions the work to a more contemporary topic of the environment and man’s disastrous effect on those great, world-spanning oceans, the cradle of all life. The book itself is unusual for a graphic work, being similar in format to a thick hardback novel rather than the normally larger album format, but this is perfect for the few frames on each page, designed to work in time to the beat of the verse. There’s some lovely work in there too – Nick did a Director’s Commentary for us back in the spring, where he talked us through some of the work in his own words, go and have a look.
Vignettes of Ystov, William Goldsmith, Jonathan Cape
Another unusual work from Cape in 2011 was this first major work from Will Goldsmith, whose work can also be seen in the Imagined Cities anthology Karrie Fransman put together. Ostensibly a series of short, two-page tales, each taking in a different story of a different (and usually eccentric and odd) dweller in a fictional, roughly Eastern European city, although the stories slowly start to become interlinked as you progress through, a little like Carver’s Short Cuts. Visually it is unlike anything else I’ve read in recent years, it’s a remarkable, unusual art style that demands re-reading to take it in. Unique.
Insurrection, Dan Abnett & Colin MacNeil, 2000 AD/Rebellion
I’m a 2000 AD boy, no question about it, original generation there right for the very first Prog and I still like to dive into the tales from the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic today, with a special fondness for the Dredd-verse. This story from veterans Dan Abnett and Colin MacNeil is set in Dredd’s universe but doesn’t feature him, taking place on a Mega City colony in deep space, fighting for independence. Following an alien attack where the Judges ignored pleas for aid everyone, including sentient robots, genetically uplifted apes and mutants, were given citizenship in return for fighting to save the colony. War over they judge marshal is told to revoke that citizenship, which he refuses, leading to a colossal showdown with the feared SJS, the Special Judicial Squad we first really saw way back in The Day The Law Died years ago, the Judges who investigate the other Judges. It’s a great future war tale, seemingly good guys against bad, but Abnett deliberately muddles the morality to make it more dramatic while MacNeil creates some brilliant B&W art (see my review here for more).
Batwoman – the New 52, JH Williams III & W Haden Blackman,published DC Comics
Over the years I have largely slipped out of the habit of picking up monthly or weekly issues – yes, I know, sounds sacriligeous for someone in my position, but I have collected them for more years than I care to recall and these days I generally prefer to wait for the collected trade edition. But along with the rest of the blog gang I had to have a look at DC hugely ambitious New 52 experiment, effectively rebooting the main DC Universe, all re-starting at issue 1, a great spot to leap on for anyone new to them, or, like me, who had missed out several years of continuity. It was a great success for the most part and now 5 issues later I find myself still checking the racks for some of them, most notably Batwoman.
I can’t help but go back to it every month – interesting storyline with Kate Kane’s Batwoman facing a supernatural, very creepy threat as well as a more natural world threat from a government agency and a screwed up wannabe sidekick. But the team also deliver a good personal side to Kate’s non superhero life – the problems with her sidekick being emlematic of her her problems with relationships in general, like her missing, presumed dead, twin who returned as a psychotic villain, her estranged father, her detective lover who doesn’t know she is Batwoman… But mostly it is JH Williams III’s art. Simply fabulous, probably some of the best artwork you will see in a mainstream comic right now, achingly gorgeous, atmospheric and with some fantastically kinetic layouts across double pages that as well as looking great scream out to me this is comics and this is the sort of wonderful visualisations of a story only this medium can do.
And as a bonus we have a very strong female lead, every inch the equal of the Batman, quite independent of him, strong but with doubts and troubles but a tremendous determination to do her ‘duty’ honourably. And the fact that she is a lesbian is, I am glad to say, simply a part of her character, played for emotional nuances but not for titillation or exotic allure. Kudos to the guys for that too. And on the New 52 front I also need to give shout outs for Gail Simone’s Batgirl and Francis Manapul and Brian Buccellato’s The Flash. And boy, am I surprised to find myself reading Flash again after all these years, but there you have it…
Nelson, edited Rob Davis & Woodrow Phoenix, published Blank Slate Books
It’s been an outstanding year for comics work again, and especially for the UK scene. Nobrow, Blank Slate, SelfMadeHero and Cape have all distinguished themselves and it feels to me like the UK scene, both professional Indy presses and the self published small presses, are just getting better, more diverse and more intersting. Good time to be a reader – the only drawback is more good books than I have time to read and it is murder trying to make a list like this out of so many fine candidates! But, hand on heart, I have to stick with what I said in my review (see here) of Nelson, where I called it:
“a fascinating, unusual landmark publication in Brit comics, a moving tale that works not only as a snapshot of a woman’s life but as a snapshot of the finest comics talent working in the UK right now.”
In a year of quite brilliant works Nelson still stands out for me, a bold experiment by Messrs Phoenix and Davis and all at Blank Slate to craft a single tale covering decades of a woman’s life, each segment by a different artist yet all coming together as more than the sum of it’s parts. I think it is one of those books we will still talk about looking back from future years, a major moment in the renaissance of UK comics publishing. And we even got to raise money for Shelter just by buying it. I’m running up my flag and saluting Nelson as my best graphic novel read of 2011.
Sea of Ghosts, Alan Campbell, Tor/Macmillan
First book of the Gravedigger Chronicles from the Scottish author Alan Campbell who impressed with his previous debut series, the Deepgate Trilogy. As with that debut his new series is an inventive, different and often disturbing take on a genre which can all too often fall into formulaic generic tropes. What starts as a fantasy on a world in which magic is real mutates throughout until it becomes half science fiction, half fantasy, with a compelling, driven lead character and a world where even the oceans have been poisoned by magica;/scientific meddling to become The Brine, the simplest splash of which is toxic and has horrible effects on the human body – and Campbell excels in grisly fates in a manner equalled only by veteran SF scribe Neal Asher. Compelling but not for the faint hearted.
The Ascendant Stars, Michael Cobley, Orbit
Book three of the Humanity’s Fire series sees Michael Cobley really coming of age – I enjoyed his original fantasy series he debuted with, but I think Mike’s switch to grand space opera science fiction was a wise one and this entire series marks him really growing into a much more assured, mature writer, with a brilliant tale of lost human colonies, major intrigues among major alien powers, a strong evnironmental thread and an exciting mixture of the big scale (major starship battles) and the personal (we get to know our heroes very well as they struggle for freedom), and his main planet with a colony composed of Scots, Norwegian and Russian descendants sharing their world with a friendly native species makes for a great and memorable cast of characters. Enjoy Ken MacLeod and Iain M Banks? Then you should be reading this.
The Reapers are the Angels, Alden Bell, Tor/Macmillan
Years ago a papercut from a radioactive book gave me special bookseller senses – sometimes a publisher will send me a book I know nothing about, the author is totally new to me, the book I know nothing about other than the blurb on the PR handout, and yet I get the tingle. And when I get that tingle it means I just know that this book is good, that I am going to like it and I trust the tingle because that instinct rarely leads me astray when it comes to reading. And I got the tingle for Reapers are the Angels and it was, again, pointing me to some bloody good reading. Both zombie tales and post-apocalyptic SF are ten a penny, it takes something to do either sub genre in a fresh way – Bell’s book combines both sub genres and it does so superbly, with his young girl wandering the remains of America after a zombie outbreak, trying her best to survive in a lethal, brutal world (where the remaining humans can be as dangerous as the walking dead), yet she has evolved her own quite moral code and a unique way of looking at the world and still seeing some wonder in it. It’s an amazing piece of work and – thank you – Bell is assured enough to keep it to a decent length and not feel compelled to bloat it to some 600 page monster as too many modern writers do. Beautifully self contained work.
Germline, T.C. McCarthy, Orbit
Another book that gave me the tingle is TC McCarthy’s Germline, a tale of future-war which draws on elements of the contemporary war on terror campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq with the historic (like Vietnam) with science fiction (parts of it are reminiscent of 2000 AD’s Rogue Trooper, including regiments of genetically created super soldiers). This is no war for ideal, not even pretending to be for ideals, it is purely for the remaining resources on the planet, and for every hi-tech future weapon there is the down and dirty tunneling and trenches of the Great War. Our main character is a reporter, but this is a war where you can’t stay an observer and our drug loving hack finds himself going through an Apocalypse Now like journey into the heart of darkness, along the way finding some strange buddies and even falling for one of the genetic infantry women. It’s dirty, gritty, very realistic and utterly gripping.
Echo City, Tim Lebbon, Orbit
I’ve been reading Tim’s work for a good while, he’s a brilliant, very unusual writer, coming from a horror background that also permeates his fantasy and I’ve often found it galling that he wasn’t published by a major imprint in his own country. Well this year Orbit fixed that and gave us his Echo City, a bizarre conurbation, totally self enclosed, wrapped around by an impassible, toxic desert, ruled over by a despotic family, political dissidents banished to a ghetto strip between the city walls and the desert proper. But someone has created a genetically manipulated being to cross that desert – and return. And on the return they learn that something – something unspeakable – is happening. Not just the fight between dissidents and the ruling elite or old and new ways of thinking, but something is rising from beneath the city. A city built endlessly on the bones of it’s own past, layer upon layer of new city built atop the old, vast undercity beneath, the river running through to vanish into the shadows below, where the city’s dead are fed into the falls to vanish – something is rising from deeper than even these dark levels… Scary, different, disturbing, mature dark fantasy from one of our very best.
Rule 34, Charles Stross, Orbit
Charlie is another writer I have admired for years, endlessly inventive, with a great take on using technological and societal trends to great (and cynically funny) effect. In Rule 34 he gets to indulge in the Great Edinburgh Detective Novel along with some near future science fiction, with a unit dedicated to policing all the weird cases that are spawned via the web, and our long suffering but tenacious female detective finds a bizarre murder case rapidly spinning into something much larger, going well beyond the city and even the country. It’s fast-paced, well delivered, clever and darkly humorous stuff from the guy who has become one of the best of the UK SF crop.
Supergods, Grant Morrison, Jonathan Cape
Half a potted history of the superhero comics and half a form of biography, Grant’s Supergods is an interesting read for anyone who’s grown up reading the four-colour pages. The earlier chapters dealing with the history of the early capes is fine but not anything you don’t really know already, although it has the benefit of having someone who has himself written many of these characters commenting on them and their creators. But for me the book really becomes much more interesting when we get to the 60s and Grant talks not only about the comics from then but on the ones he as a youngster was picking up and what they meant to him personally, then on to his early work (an anthology put out by the old Edinburgh SF Bookshop, which would eventually be the Edinburgh Forbidden Planet), constantly changing his style as the years pass, it offers an interesting insight into his own creative processes as well as his views on other trends in comics publishing and other writers and artists – you won’t always agree with them, but it’s always interesting.
Film & TV
The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec
Luc Besson’s big screen adaptation of Jacques Tardi’s Belle Epoque heroine takes elements from a couple of the original bande dessinee to make it to it’s running length, but despite mashing together different story elements from different books it cracks along at a good pace and delivers much of the same joy of adventure and gorgeous visuals (especially of Paris in the 1910s), a very fine comics adaptation and sheer fun throughout – here’s hoping he adapts some more.
One of my highlights of my annual sojourn at the Edinburgh Film Festival was this Indy monster flick from Norwegian director/writer André Øvredal. Made on a budget of only three million Euros it uses the found footage device like Cloverfield or Blair Witch, but much better (and less annoying) than either of those, supposedly recordings by media students doing a video project, reporting on a licensed bear hunt when they find a loner who follows the hunt for the rogue animal but never takes part. Tracking him night after night they find out he is actually a member of a secret government department tasked with keeping the public safe from (and ignorant of) trolls. And we get to see all manner of trolls, from forest to cave to gigantic beasts who roam above the Arctic Circle. Funny and very inventive, never showing its tiny budget, it is sheer fun and the film fest audience gave the director a huge cheer at the end. (see here for a spoiler-free review)
The brilliant Martin Scorcese adapts Selznick’s wonderful tale, his first foray into 3D (and surprisingly not annoying in 3D), turning the book into a fairy tale – an orphan living within the walls and tunnels of a 1920s Parisian train station, mending and maintaining the clocks while avoiding the station police who will bundle him off to the orphanage, working on restoring a 19th century automation his father was trying to repair before his death. Befriended by a young girl (Kick-Ass’s Chloe Moritz), menaced by a grumpy toy shop owner (her godfather) the pair are lead not only into the mystery of the clockwork mechanical man but of one of the great magicians of the 19th century, a curator of automata and wonders and the first, great genius of the early cinema. The dawn days of the film become part of the magical, fairy tale like story. 20s Paris in winter is a magical, enchanting land, and Scorcese makes much of the giant cogs and wheels of that era’s engineering and machinery while celebrating the first wonders of the silver screen. A pure joy.
The Borrower Arrietty
Another gem from the Film Fest for me was the new Studio Ghibli – I know I’m far from alone in being a huge admirer of Myazaki-san’s studio and their wonderful animations and the chance to see this tale, adapted from Mary Norton’s classic book The Borrowers, is a visual wonder as we see the tiny Borrowers living hidden in the human household, and how one Borrower girl and one seriously ill human boy come together despite the vast difference in sizes. The art is a delight showing our world at the Borrower’s tiny scale (so small when they pour tea from the pot it doesn’t flow like our water does, it comes out as large droplets), even the sound is used to convey the scale, the rustling of shirt fabric enormously loud to Arrietty’s miniscule ears. It is charming and a pure visual feast of traditional animation (with a few CG elements). See here for a review
Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Maverick director Werner Herzhog gained exclusive camera access to the Chauvet caves of southern France, one of the great historical discoveries of the last couple of decades, a series of caves used by our ancestors for rituals, for art… For the oldest human artwork we know of, a glorious series of cave paintings over 32, 000 years old. Just consider that for a moment – human artwork many times older than any beautiful work that survives from Rome, Ancient Greece or even Egypt or Ur or Babylon. These may have been stone-age people, but they are modern humans, just like us physically, and in their art we can see they are much like us mentally, spiritually. Art paintedin darkness lit only by flickering torches, which would have made the animals depicted seem to move. The artists are clever, using their material wisely, using the surface qualities of the rock and the curves and undulations to emphasise the art, making a horse seem dynamic as it curves around a bend in the wall. The work is far too delicate to be open to the public, only scientific teams are allowed in to a now sealed, climate controlled environment, Herzhog’s access therefore as close as we can get to this miraculous find. It’s a treasure in paint and stone and human effort and cleverness reaching out of the darkness across long millennia to us. It’s so beautiful it will make you cry with wonder. The human spirit and art eternal…
As usual I have rambled on far, far too long and been a bit self indulgent, but again my excuse is that I read far too many extremely good comics, books and saw some fabulous films again through the year, and this is me missing out many I would have liked to include as well (I haven’t even managed space to give proper mentions to the Big Bang Theory – much improved this year with a stronger female strand to the regular male geek cast – or Doctor Who or the surprise that was The Fades, the brilliant adaptation that is A Game of Thrones, the growing pleasure of Fringe (one of the best SF shows of recent years, I think), SyFy’s Haven, Warehouse 13 and Lost Girl).
Looking forward to in 2012
Okay, as I said I have gone on too long already, but what the smeg, a very brief look at some books and comics coming up that I’m looking forward to this coming year: Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes, Mary & Bryan Talbot, Jonathan Cape. Bryan was kind enough to give me a peek at some of this collaboration with his wife Mary some months ago and I’m eager to read the finished book – Mary was kind enough to to pen a Director’s Commentary about Dotter for us and I’m delighted to say you will be able to read it on the blog tomorrow. Kochi Wanaba, Jamie Smart, Blank Slate – I love Jamie’s work and adored what I saw of Kochi online. It’s an amazing mixture of the supercute and the bizarre, almost grotesque and I’m chuffed to see him getting this lovely hardback edition from Blank Slate.
One of the great European classic has been promised in new English editions to use several times over recent years, but never appeared – now, at last we’re going to see it again: Corto Maltese: the Ballad of the Salt Sea, Hugo Pratt, Universe. Hopefully this summer sees the third part of the League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen Century by Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill, Knockabout/Top Shelf. This final part brings us up to contemporary times after we last saw the League in the Swinging Sixties (with a coda in the punk era of the 70s). Peepholes, Laurie J Proud, Blank Slate Books looks absolutely fascinating – it was due late 2011 but will now be this year, but a pleasure delayed simply increases the final satisfaction (and I hope to have Laurie also doing a Commentary for us too in the near future).
And I’ll leave you with a couple of 2012′s science fiction works that caught my eye – Empire State, Adam Christopher, Angry Robot. I was treated to an advance copy at the end of 2011 but the book is out this month – if you follow our Twitter feed you’ll already have seen me singing the praises of Adam’s novel – set in a 1930s/40s city that seems like New York but is actually the Empire State, like an alternative version of the New York we know, with gangsters and speakeasys and superheroes in rocket boots like characters from the old Republic serials of the day. A city that is all that exists, surrounded by a mist around its rivers, and yet there is a mysterious enemy ships sail off to fight… Somewhere. Hugely stylish, with elements that reminded me of hardboiled noir of the 40s and 50s, the old serial movies, Rocketeer and Dark City- probably the first really interesting SF book of the New Year for me. And this year also sees the return of one of my long-term favourites, Ken MacLeod, with Intrusion (Orbit) – Cory Doctorow has seen it already and described it as “a new kind of dystopian novel: a vision of a near future “benevolent dictatorship” run by Tony Blair-style technocrats who believe freedom isn’t the right to choose, it’s the right to have the government decide what you would choose, if only you knew what they knew. ” Ken told me a little about it recently but to be really honest all I need to know is it is a new Ken MacLeod and that means I’ll be reading it.
Today I’m the guest blogger on the major science fiction publisher Tor’s blog, in my guise as the editor of the Forbidden Planet blog (which just this week I learned had jumped up in the Technorati blog ratings, which was rather satisfying, especially given the difference in sizes and contributor numbers between us and major sites in the top ten for that area). Tor has been asking folks from independent comics and science fiction stores to guest and pick some of their recommended reading from the month’s new releases. With December being a slow month for new releases (most publisher get the big rush of releases out in September, October and November to catch the Christmans market and catalogues) we decided to split my recommends so half are new December publications and the other half are a sneak peak at some of the science fiction and graphic novels that will be appearing on my Best of the Year list later this month on the FP blog, after the run of our traditional daily series of guests picking their faves (that starts this Monday). I’ve tried to pick a diverse selection, from Leslie Klinger’s Annotated version of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman to brilliant UK Indy comics graphic novel Nelson to Mike Cobley’s latest SF novel, Alan Campbell’s brilliant (and disturbing) Sea of Ghosts and one of my surprise finds of the year, Alden Bell’s The Reapers are the Angels.