Some Books of the Year For 2021

Time for a quick look back over my reading year, to pick out some of my favourite reading from 2021’s book releases. While science fiction and graphic novels / comics will always be my favourites, I think it’s fair to say I have a fairly diverse reading diet, so this covers biography, history, science, fiction, crime novels, spy thriller, SF and graphic works. As usual I am sure I will be forgetting someone from the list, for which I apologise – normally I’ll notice a book on my shelf well after posting this and realise I meant to include it. If you’re considering buying any of these, where possibly please try using  your local bookshop rather than giving more money to Jeff Bezos.

The Island of the Missing Trees, Elif Shafak, Penguin Books

I’ve come to love Shafak’s works, and this year had the pleasure of meeting her when she visited to sign some books in our shop while she was in town for the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Missing Trees is split between a father and daughter bereft of wife/mother recently in modern Britain, and 1970s Cyprus where young lovers are torn apart by the civil war, with a tree grown from a graft of a Cyprian tree also in the mix. If that sounds like it may be depressing, it isn’t: while it has sad moments and explores loss of both people and place, the exile’s life, it is also often uplifting and utterly beautifully written. I fell in love with her elegant, moving prose and finished this book with a deeply contented sigh.

The Lost Storyteller, Amanda Block, Hodder Studio

A debut novel, Amanda paid us a visit ahead of publication with advance copies of her book (as a bonus she was accompanied by an old colleague of mine who now works for the publisher, which was very nice). An adult woman has long excised her famous but long absent father from her mind, but she hasn’t really processed his departure from their family. A famous actor in his day, she is drawn into investigating why he really left them when a journalist asks for help in researching his disappearance (he didn’t just leave them, he vanished from public life), with the narrative wrapped around a small book of tales he wrote for her when she was a child. Beautifully done and emotionally satisfying, I think Amanda will be a new author to watch for.

Island Reich, Jack Grimwood, Penguin Books

I’ve read this author since his science fiction days (as Jon Courtenay Grimwood), and had to have a look at this standalone, WWII spy thriller. A safecracker and con-man is caught in 1940s Glasgow, and given the choice of the hangman’s noose or working for British intelligence, being dropped into the recently oocupied Channel Islands to play the part of a long-absent, fascist-friendly local lord to work his way into cracking a Nazi safe for secret plans, while a secondary plot involves disgraced former king Edward and Wallis (nee Simpson) fleeing the fall of France and being courted by the fascists of Spain and Germany (which he was clearly having fun writing). A cracking, fast-paced thriller.

City of Vengeance, D.V. Bishop, Macmillan Books

I’ve known David Bishop for many years – he teaches writing quite close to our bookshop, and I’ve known him through our comics connections, as he is a former editor of the mighty 2000 AD (which has launched many careers), so of course I was interested in his debut novel. Set in Renaissance Florence, this is a super historical crime novel, gripping story, exploring attitudes to vulnerable minorities (with echoes of today’s society), and a superbly realised feeling of the city and the time. Looking forward to the second book coming out in spring of 2022.

The Edge of the Grave, Robbie Morrison, Macmillan Books

Another debut prose work from an old comics chum – I’m sure some of you will know Robbie for his long list of comics creations, not least in 2000 AD. Here he introduces us to Glasgow in the early 1930s, and the first Catholic detective on a police force that is very blue-nose. In the Noir tradition our detective is also damanged by his experiences in the war, carrying his internal wounds with him as he investigates a body in the Clyde, taking in the low-life of the razor gangs to the high society of the city’s aristocracy, the great shipbuilding families, with a strong sense of place grounding the story.

Beyond, Stephen Walker, HarperCollins

For as long as I can remember Yuri Gagarin has been one of my heroes; posters of him and Neil Armstrong adorned my walls a a kid. I grew up in the shadow of the Space Age, and it has left a mark on me for life, so I had to read this new book on Gagarin and that heroic first manned space flight, which came out in time for the sixtieth anniversary of that world-changing event. Walker explores Gagarin’s life and that of the other cadre of young cosmonauts in detail, and the Soviet space programme, the immense engineering challenges, comparing them to their NASA counterparts, as they strive to be the very first in all the history of the world to step beyond our own world.

It’s unbelievably dangerous, heroic stuff, they really didn’t know what would happen to a human being in space – assuming they could even get them there safely, not to mention back again – and yet they did it anyway. Walker also explores the man, not just the myth – insights from fellow cosmonauts, friends and family let us see this young man, not just the epic hero, making it more touching and personal. Gagarin, who really did go “where no man has gone before.”

The Wolf Age, Tore Skeie, Pushkin Press

History has long been a passion, and Skeie’s book delivered in spades; a thousand years ago, and early English kingdom that has recovered from the devastating Viking wars of previous centuries is again repeatedly assaulted, people slaughtered, towns burned, alliances shift and change. It’s like something from one of the great Norse epics, and indeed Skeie begins with an overture about the final days of Snonri Sturluson, the man who wrote down so many of the sagas in Iceland, preserving them for us centuries later (while most of the warlords here also take warrior-poets with them who compose epic verses of their battles, history becoming myth almost as it happens).

As he points out you cannot understand the history of early England or Scandinavia (and other parts of Europe) without understanding this period and the interaction of Anglo-Saxons and Norsemen.It’s as gripping as any epic fantasy, but it actually happened.

Sentient, Jackie Higgins, Picador

In Sentient, Higgins explores the remarkable world of animal senses, each segment dealing with a different sense – touch, vision, hearing and so on. While most of us will be familiar with the idea that dogs can smell far more scents than our human nose can, or certain animals can see in ways we cannot, this delves far deeper into how scientists are researching some of the remarkable abilities of the other creatures which share the planet with us, from the incredible sense of touch used by the star-nosed mole to animals that can see in other wavelengths beyond what we can detect.

However, it goes further – Higgins then relates the research on each of these animals senses to the human experience, and how it compares to our own (spoiler, our senses are far better than we give ourselves credit for) and also how we can use this to help when our sense fail. More than that though, this is a book that restores that precious sense of wonder about the world around us, and that’s something always to be cherished.

Bumble and Snug and the Angry Pirates, Mark Bradley, Hodder Children’s Books

This was truly one of the most delightful finds of 2021 for me: I’ve found my beloved comics medium to be a rich one for younger readers, enticing even kids who are reluctant readers, or have reading problems, to devour books and entire series (we’ve had a lot of success with our graphic novel section for young readers). Mark’s debut was just a wonderful adventure of two friends, packed with humour, a giant balloon, a sea monster, a picnic, pirates and more (really, what more do you need?!), and an important message about friendship, kindness and being okay to explore your feelings. It also had me chuckling out loud repeatedly, and our younger regulars we’ve recommended it to in the bookshop have all loved it it too. Looking forward to the next book! (full review can be read here on the blog)

Putin’s Russia, Darryl Cunningham, Myriad Editions

I always look forward to Darryl’s new works – back in the Long Ago he was our virtual cartoonist in residence on the now sadly gone Forbidden Planet Blog, and I still recall being incredibly impressed with his first full-length work, Psychiatric Tales (which badly needs to be put back into print). In this new work he explores the life of Vladimir Putin and his rise to power in post-Soviet Russia, his years of corruption and abuse of power (and intimidation and worse to cover it up) stretching far back beyond his time as president or prime minister.

Given how much influence Russia under Putin’s vile, autocratic rule has had on the world stage (think not just the invasion of Crimea, but behind the scenes works such as massive disinformation and interference campaigns on political campaigns in the US, UK and more, or the assassinations carried out brazenly in other countries with utter contempt for laws and decency), this is an important and pertinent story, and again as with Billionaires or Supercrash, Darryl delivers a huge amount of complex research in the most accessible form, cementing for me his position as the UK’s leading non-fiction comics creator. (the full review can be read here in the blog)

Megatropolis, Kenneth Niemand and Dave Taylor, 2000 AD / Rebellion

Taking long-established characters and settings and putting them into alternate possibilities has long been an interesting way to explore different aspects of long-running series; DC has its Elseworlds (where we see what happens if Superman’s escape pod landed in the USSR instead of Kansas, or Batman as a vampire), and Marvel their What If series (recently adapted into an animated TV series).

Here Niemand and Taylor take the world of Judge Dredd and Mega City One, but it’s different, it’s a retro-future, a city of gleaming, Art Deco influenced styles, Taylor clearly delighting at being free to reimagine the Big Meg in this stunningly beautiful way (partaking of both Lang’s 20s masterpiece Metropolis as much as the Film Noirs of the 30s and 40s). Here Hershey is an investigative journalist, Cal is a corrupt detective, Rico – in normal Dredd he’s the judge’s clone brother who went bad – is the rare straight detective trying to fight crime and corruption, even in his own department, while Dredd himself is a shadowy, mysterious vigilante figure appearing from nowhere to hold those corrupting the vision of what the city should be to account. Gripping story, fascinating “what if?” moments and stunning artwork (the full review is here on the blog).

Beyond the Hallowed Sky, Ken MacLeod, Orbit Books

I always have a huge pile of books on the TBR (to be read) pile, but Ken has long been one of the few authors who bypassed that tottering Babel Tower of books to go straight to the top of the list when he has a new book out. This is the first in a new trilogy, set around fifty years in our future, mostly split between Scotland and a couple of distant worlds. We have a phycisist who receives a letter supposedly from herself in the future, which has mathematical proof of faster than light travel, which most ridicule.

We have explorers on a distant world beyond our own solar system, explorers closer to home on bases on Venus, and right on the Clyde, a new ship being built with a faster than light drive. I loved the idea of this vessel being built in a Clydeside shipyard, and MacLeod also conjures up a believeable future world split into different factions: Scotland here is independent and part of the Union, save for the Faslane base which England, now in an Alliance with the US, has held onto for their nuclear submarines (some of which boast this FTL drive to travel well beyond our oceans). Terrific narrative and, as always with Ken, some material for you to think about.

Blood and Gold, Mara Menzies, Birlinn

Mara is a professional storyteller, usually doing live performances, but here she has taken some of her stories into prose form (although we were fortunate enough to have her tell some of them live in our bookshop recently, and it was wonderful). Blood and Gold, which features illustrations from Eri Griffin explores both Scottish and African heritage, family, folklore and mythology, with teenage Jeda in a never-named city (which is clearly Edinburgh), dealing with not just the problems of growing into an adult, but losing her mother.

But her mother has left behind a trove of important stories to help her growing daughter understand herself and where she came from – and where she can go to next. But the sinister Shadowman follows, eager to seep into her misery and depression, to keep her from the vibrant glow of the stories, of her mother’s enduring love reaching out from beyond. It’s extremely emotional and caused me to tear up quite a bit, the raw emotions reminding me very much of my own grief and loss, but this brought me deeper into Jeda’s world, and the importance of storytelling as an integral part of what makes us human (I think lovers of Neil Gaiman’s work would fine much to enjoy here). Beautiful and moving, and also a good celebration of our cross-cultural heritage (the good and the bad)

Hummingbird, Salamander, Jeff VanderMeer, Fourth Estate

I’ve been reading Jeff’s remarkably unusual works since his early Ambergris novels (his collection City of Saints and Madmen is a good introduction), and am always looking forward to whatever he does next, safe in the knowledge that it is going to be thoguht provoking, unusual and hard to predict. In Hummingbird the skeleton of the story is pretty much the private eye type – a woman who works in security finds herself drawn to keep investigating something she’s told frequently not to, creating problems and danger at work and at home.

However, while accurate, that really doesn’t convey what Hummingbird Salamander actually is: a summary of narrative really doesn’t tell you much about any of Jeff’s books, I think – he’s one of those writers whose books you don’t just read, you experience. This is as much about atmosphere and very carefully considered wordplay as it is the actual narrative; as with many of his other books there’s an increasing sense of dislocation, of things being out of kilter, both the people and world around them becoming something other, different, odd. Intriguing, disturbing, unusual, and with a strong sense of the environment (and what we’re doing to it) woven through.

Reviews: Run Like Crazy Run Like Hell

Run Like Crazy Run Like Hell Hardcover,
Jean-Patrick Manchette, Jacques Tardi,
Fantagraphics

This is actually an older review which I wrote for the (sadly deceased) Forbidden Planet Blog back in 2015. Normally I would cross-post my reviews here on my personal blog too, but for some reason I hadn’t done so with this one, and it was while penning an article on the great French creator Jacques Tardi for Tripwire’s 100 Graphic Novels You Should Read feature that I realised I had never posted this one on the Woolamaloo, so here it is below:

Jean-Patrick Manchette was one of France’s powerhouse crime fiction writers of the 1970s and 80s, often hailed as one of the writers who put the pep back into the genre in France, and the great Jacques Tardi (surely one of the finest bande dessinee creators in the Franco-Belgian scene today) has turned to adapting his work into comics form before, to popular and critical acclaim. Fantagraphics has been publishing Tardi’s work in English for several years now, everything from his Adele Blanc-Sec adventure fantasies to his apocalyptic World War One works and the hardboiled crime tales. The loss of Kim Thompson at only 56 a couple of years ago has delayed the series somewhat – Thompson wasn’t just a major part of Fantagraphics and a champion of translating and publishing European cartoonists into English, he was also behind much of the translation work himself, and losing him so suddenly has naturally had an effect on their publishing. So it’s doubly good to see Run Like Crazy, Run Like Hell finally coming out from Fantagraphics as it marks the resumption of their Tardi publications, which I imagine Thompson would have approved of.

There’s something about the 1970s and early 80s that seems especially well suited to crime fiction – the prose novels of the period, the television and the films, on both sides of the Atlantic, all seem to ooze a certain flair and style that adds hugely to their enjoyment, and Manchette was a part of that. In Run Like Crazy we follow Julie Ballanger, a troubled young woman who has spent the last five years – voluntarily – in a mental care facility. Enter Michael Hartog, a one-time struggling artist and architect who came into astonishing wealth when his brother and his wife were killed in an accident, leaving him with their fortune and company, and also Peter, his nephew. Hartog has built a reputation over the years since his inheritance for recruiting employees from the ranks of the dispossessed, the disabled, injured veterans and the like, and it seems now he is extending this to Julie, offering her a home and a job looking after young Peter after his old nanny left. She’s treated well, Hartog picking her up himself in his chauffer-driven limo to take her from the care home to his own large dwelling, her own place to stay, even new clothes in the wardrobe for her when she arrives. Is his philanthropy for real, or is there a hidden motivation behind his employment schemes?

Our other major character here is Thompson, a hitman for hire with a fearsome reputation in the French underworld. We meet him in the opening pages waiting in a dark apartment to plunge his knife brutally into the heart of a young man, a homosexual, although it’s not really clear if Thompson cares about his sexual orientation or if it is simply another contract to him, although the accompanying text hints at some homophobia (or it could just be an example of the period in which the tale was originally written). But Thompson, for all his brutal, cold efficiency and reputation, is actually a man struggling with his profession. While he doesn’t seem to suffer any deep questioning of the morality of how he makes a living, clearly something deep inside his psyche is troubled – he finds himself with stomach pains and cramps leading up to a job. He can’t even eat. And yet after the deed is done he feasts with gusto before driving off in his classic old Rover to meet a new client. And a new job which involves kidnapping Peter and Julie.

Oh, and framing poor Julie for it – hey, young woman with troubled past just out of psychiatric care? If well staged then why wouldn’t the cops believe she’s lost control once back in the outside world and gone crazy? A perfect crime, perhaps?

Except no crime ever is perfect and there are always unexpected kinks in any cunning plan – especially when the hard-headed Julie turns out to be capable of seemingly playing along then dealing out some improvised violence of her own back against the gangsters. This leads to a classic series of chases and cat-and-mouse manoeuvres as Thompson, increasingly and clearly beginning to manifest physical illness from the mental stress of his occupation, is determined to get Julie and her troublesome young charge and fulfil his contract like a true professional – nanny and child dealt with, blame pinned on her, as per the plan. A plan rapidly going belly-up and requiring swift improvisation by Thompson, wrong-footed by underestimating Julie. And then there’s the question of why anyone wants to kidnap Peter in the first place and why they would want to try and frame Julie for doing it.

As you’d expect from a crime tale of this era there’s some hard-edged dialogue, swearing, threats and backed up by some sudden bursts of hideous violence (one scene in the countryside involving a shotgun and a foot recalls an amped-up version of an infamous scene from Straw Dogs), and it is all carried out with great style and panache by Tardi in his dark-inked black and white art, some of his close up character scenes and their expressions being particularly superb. The whole work drips with style and that hardboiled 70s crime feeling – you could easily imagine this with a suitable soundtrack as a storyboard for a Tarantino movie. It cracks along at a great pace, helped by the regular use of smaller, more urgent-seeming panels, and manages to make you root for Julie (and Peter) despite not exactly painting them in the nicest light either – victims of this attempted crime, perhaps, but Julie’s violent temper and Peter’s spoiled tantrums mean neither is an unblemished character.

Tardi remains, for me, one of our finest comics creators, able to work in all sorts of genres, adapting his style and art accordingly (in this respect he reminds me of Bryan Talbot), and a selection of his body of work belongs on the shelves of any serious lover of the comics medium. Returning to Tarantino for a moment, I recall one review of Reservoir Dogs referring to it as an “awesome, pumping powerhouse of a film” and that feels appropriate for Tardi’s gripping take on Manchette’s crime fiction. Read it then maybe go enjoy a good crime movie too – maybe the French film Mesrine would be a good partner to a read of Run Like Crazy. A fabulous, hard, tough crime fiction ride, perfectly depicted by Tardi.

My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies

My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies,
Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips, Jacob Phillips,
Image

What if drugs help you to find the thing that makes you special?

Ellie and Skip meet in the group therapy sessions at the addiction clinic they’ve been committed to, one of those “circle of truth” approaches many therapists seem to love and pretty much everyone else hates. And like many such groups, the “true” stories the patients are made to share are frequently less true than the therapists would like to think – addicts and their ability to lie to suit their circumstances are an integral part of this tale; you really can’t trust what they say about themselves, their past, their motivations.

Which offers up the reader a pretty interesting dilemma – we’re presented with these oh-so-young characters, and we can’t entirely trust what we learn about them. While that is quite a clever device for generating suspense and intrigue for the reader (no godlike narrator who tells the reader everything, we have to take bits and pieces and try and decide which are true), it could also have been a problem. After all, if you can’t be sure what the characters are really like, how can you start to buy into them, empathise with them? It’s an approach which could alienate the readers, but this is Brubaker and Phillips we’re talking about, and they take that potentially double-edged approach and use it quite brilliantly; despite, or perhaps even because we can’t trust their accounts of themselves I found these characters utterly irresistible.

To begin with this feels like the classic star-crossed lovers, a young woman, a young man, pushed together by unusual circumstances, bonding not just through their shared youth but the confinement and the rules of the sanatorium, chafing at them, leaving them eager to strike out against those rules and authority figures. Romeo and Juliet by way of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Those rebellions start small – stealing the head doctor’s cigarettes while she is being lectured (a nice touch, the person telling her how to beat her addiction and how wrong it is to indulge thinks nothing of puffing away on her own addictive thrill while doing so), sneaking out of the building at night to smoke, talk, to make out. Romance and an up-yours to the authority figures at the same time.

This is beautifully handled – Phillips brings just perfect little touches to the visuals, such as a close up on Ellie’s face during the group therapy, her inner dialogue contrasting with what is being openly said in the group session, her gaze catching Skip’s as someone else talks, the expression just perfectly rendered, an elfish, knowing smirk that captures in a single panel how she’s feeling at that moment (as she admits to being a bad influence and having no plans to change), then the following visual interchange between them as the group and therapist continue unaware.

That rebellion will grow, however – sure these are young lovers, full of screw-you attitude, and it is easy to go along with their joie-de-vivre, to hell with the consequences approach. There’s always something intoxicating about that youthful rebellion and we-know-better-than-everyone pose. Except we know there are consequences, and, as noted earlier, these are addicts, we can’t entirely trust their motivations or their life stories. Not everything or everyone is what they seem here, and there will be some revelations, some may not be what you might imagine, although I shall say no more on that front for fear of spoilers.

I guess Billie Holiday is where it started.”

Threaded through all of this is a love of music, of how important music is in many of our lives, how sometimes it feels like a singer has written those lyrics just for us, the soundtrack to moments of our lives. And particularly here so much of the music Ellie loves was created by performers who struggled with addiction. There is a morbid sort of glamour to that, and come on, any of us who love music know that, we’ve felt it – actually we’ve felt it not just with music but with poetry, prose, pretty much every artform humans have crafted has been touched by those who have indulged, many argue for the better.

There are shades of the late, great Bill Hicks here on his stand-up diatribe on the War On Drugs, where he acknowledges the damage drugs can do but also notes how nobody picks up on the other side of it, like the stunning music that came out of some of that psycho-chemical experimentation, the old kicking open the Doors to Perception. There’s a fascination, even a sort of sick romance about all of that, especially tied to that spirit of youthful rock’n’roll rebellion, most of us have felt it, maybe even flirted with it even if just in imagination while blissing out to that music. Ellie tells the therapist as much when it is her turn to talk in the group sessions.

Like Welsh’s Trainspotting though, this book doesn’t glamourise drug use, it shows the mess it can and does make of lives, but it also, like Trainspotting, shows the highs and why they are so attractive – addictive. My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies doesn’t get on the soap-box to preach condemnation, nor does it paint that lifestyle as overly romantic, it mixes both, showing that just like everything else in our lives the positive and negative aren’t always clearly separated, they can be messy, intertwined. That theme is in itself attractive and compelling, but here it is just the garnish to an engrossing story, with shifting sands beneath the changing characters that draw you in deep. It’s simply brilliant. And you’re really, really going to want to make a good playlist to go along with your second reading. I’m starting with some Billie…

Parisian Noir: Malet & Tardi’s Fog Over Tolbiac Bridge

Fog Over Tolbiac Bridge,

Leo Malet, Jacques Tardi,

Translated by Kim Thompson,

Fantagraphics

I absolutely love the work of Jacques Tardi, from his crime tales to fantastical Jules Verne-esque yarns like the Arctic Marauder or the bitter, powerful anger of It Was the War of the Trenches (see here) and Goddamn This War (reviewed here), he is, for me, one of Europe’s great masters of the ninth art. I also have a fondness for a dash of Noir, so combine Tardi with a Noir murder featuring Leo Malet’s detective Nestor Burma and oh yes, you better believe I wanted to get my little ink-stained paws on it. And rather a handsome edition it is too, a slim hardback album, with some nice metallic highlights on the front and back cover (sadly not so obvious in the scan above, but quite striking when you see it with your own eyes), a nice addition to Fantagraphics’ Tardi library on my shelves. It even comes with nice end-papers detailing a map of the relevant part of Paris, marking the location of the main events; in conjunction with the actual comics art it gives a great impression of the place, you can feel your way around the mean streets.

Nestor receives a letter from Abel Benoit, claiming to be an old comrade who desperately needs his help, “a scumbag is planning something dirty.” He addresses Burma as both “comrade” and a “brother” and hints at their old days in their youth. There’s one problem – Burma doesn’t recall ever knowing an Abel Benoit at any point in his life, the name means nothing to me. But the detective is intrigued, and so he ventures off across a rainy Paris, the trademark trenchcoat collar turned up, heading to the hospital this Benoit is being treated in. And he’s being followed, by a mysterious, dark-haired woman; she’s behind him right from his office, on the train and the station, before finally approaching him.

It transpires she posted the letter for the ill Benoit and she tells Burma that he is wasting his time – Benoit is dead. This gypsy woman, Benita, refuses to accompany him when he insists on still visiting the hospital – he clearly doesn’t trust this stranger, for all he knows she was sent to divert him from his appointment with Benoit. But she does promise to wait across the road from the hospital for him. Benoit does indeed prove to have given up his breathing rights, just as Benita told him. And on being taken to view the body in the morgue he meets an old associate, from the police, waiting for him. Why are the police interested and why do they think Nestor know something that they want to know? It seems several people have an interest in this mysterious man and case, and they all seem to think Burma already has the inside track, while he’s left wonder who Benoit is, why he thought they knew each other and why the cops are staking out the morgue waiting on his visit…

I don’t want to get into much more plot detail – I’d rather not potentially spoil any twists and turns, after all those are part and parcel of the fun of a good crime story. I will say that it involves elements from Burma’s own mis-spent youth, and mixes in the police (who have a fairly chequered past with Burma), an old case, a femme fatale (naturally) and more, in a very satisfying ratio. And this being Tardi, the visuals and layouts are just utterly superb. 1950s Paris, the streets tramped by our rumpled detective, usually in the rain (of course), the streets of the rough XIII arrondissement – now a bustling place with a large Asian community and shiny new business cenres on the Rive Gauche, but in this period it’s a down-at-heels, tough neighbourhood that Burma sneers at (fancy street names can’t hide the poverty and shabbiness), and yet he also clearly has some dogged affection for the area.

Drawn in monochrome, which suits the very Noir atmosphere, there are some gorgeous visual throughout this book. Many scenes follow Burma in his trenchcoat, scowl on his face, through those XIII arrondissement streets, the “camera” angle often directly behind of in front of him – the effect is reminiscent of those cool and stylish handheld camera shots through the Parisian streets by film-makers like Goddard, and makes the reader feel as if they are walking those street with Malet’s detective. The rain-lashed 1950s streets are grey and chill, the pacing and sizing of the panels changing to reflect the story, smaller, more frequent during sequences where Nestor is being tailed, larger and slower for more dialogue-heavy character moments, while Tardi uses variable lettering sizes to convey emotions, shouting and other effects, a device he’s used very effectively before.

An afterword by Malet confesses he was never a fan of comics, but he saw one of Tardi’s Adele Blanc-Sec books in the Casterman shop, and was taken by it, and then later by Tardi himself, leading to their collaboration, with Fog Over Tolbiac Bridge first appearing in serial form in A Suivre. Malet was impressed, he describes Tardi as approaching his novel like a film director (which I found interesting as I had the same impression prior to reading the afterword), and how he felt disappointed in attempts to make a film of Fog, but he had better than a film he had Tardi: “No one else can so perfectly enshroud the setting with such a dampness and thickness. No one else can bring the underlying depression to the surface.”

A gripping mystery, executed with some of the finest comics art Europe has to offer, mysterious dames, tough guys with a moral centre, an old case knocking insistently on the door of the present, and an atmosphere that oozes Noir so much you’d think the fog itself could wear a Fedora. This is one to curl up with, and like a good Raymond Chandler, or Malet for that matter, this is a book that you know you are going to go back and revisit.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

The dark side of Tinseltown – Angel City

Angel City #1,

Janet Harvey, Megan Levens, Nick Filardi,

Oni Press

angel_city_1_harvey_levens_onipress_coverHollywood. Tinseltown. The land of glamour and possibility. Show up on the bus. Get a soda at Schwab’s. Become a star. That’s the dream of a thousand pretty girls across America. A lot of them have bus fare. Frances Faye was a good kid. She had lousy taste in guy, sure. But in this town that can be an asset. We were friends, a log time ago. I always wondered what happened to her. Now? I wish I didn’t know.”

That opening dialogue takes place over the first three pages of Harvey and Levens’ first issue of Angel City, and, lover of Film Noir and classic-era Hollywood that I am, I imagine it delivered in a world-weary voice of someone who once aimed for the stars and was hit repeatedly by how low down and dirty the reality behind the screen magic actually was. A perfect Film Noir opening voice over, really, overlaying image of Grauman’s famous Chinese Theatre, but here silhouetted against an ominous bloody-red sky and long shadow, a hint of the gruesome scene we’re about to find just yards from where those oh-so-famous and glamorous film star hand prints are in the sidewalk by the cinema. the 30s/40s newsmen in their Fedora hats, flashbulbs (remember those?) popping brilliantly in the dark alley behind the movie palace, where a young, battered woman’s body lies among the garbage of the dumpster.

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It’s a chilling opening, within two pages establishing that Golden Age Hollywood setting and glamour then tearing back the curtain to show behind the scenes and the way so many young would-be starlets were eaten up by Tinseltown. One of the newspapermen, Joe, develops the photos in his dark room (a nice dramatic scene, the slow reveal of the image appearing on the paper under the red light, something you don’t get with digital, that pause, that reveal). And realises as he looks more closely that battered face in the press photo is someone he knows. Or rather now someone he knew… He goes to call on Dot – now re-branded as Dolores (identity is plastic in La-La Land), who at first appears to be living the film star life – big house, palm trees, pool, lounging around in her swimsuit and oh-so-chic turban sipping a cocktail in the sun. And he tells her their friend is dead, brutally, dumped like yesterday’s old trash. She affects not to care – it was a long time ago they came out here to California seeking fame and fortune like so many others – and he leaves her angrily, informing her the funeral is tomorrow, as he departs.

All those hopes. All those dreams… It hits too close to hime. Frances Hallmeyer. Faye was her middle name… We came in together on the goddamned Greyhound bus… We ran out of money in a week.

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But Dolores – who was Dot when she and Frances Faye arrived on a Greyhound bus with their cheap suitcases and no money but a pocket full of dreams of making it in this town – can’t stop the memories. In sepia-tinged flashbacks (in contrast to the colour-drenched present day scenes, nicely crafted by Levens and Filardi’s artwork and colouring) we see them trying for everything – the cattle-calls of an open audition (let’s see those legs, toots!) to all the creeps and lechers in bars and clubs, full of promises of connections to famous producers and directors, in exchange for some companionship, in a city where pretty young flesh is the cheapest and most readily available commodity of all (and all some have to trade). And eventually Dot, before she becomes Dolores, in her bunny costume as the cigarette girl in the clubs. Except when one guy gets too fresh with her, Dot doesn’t take that pat on her bum, oh no, she turns around and clocks the guy with her tray. Catching the eye of the gangster who runs the club and who can use a feisty dame like her (although to be fair he does seem to develop genuine feelings for her too).

No that first impression isn’t right, Dolores as he now calls herself is no movie star in her luxury home and pool, she’s working for a gangster. It’s a clever bluff and reveal by Harvey and Levens and given how closely the gangsters and the film set were often intertwined abck then in LA (and Vegas, come to that) it’s pretty appropriate to see her seemingly glamorous lifestyle comes from violence and crime hidden behind a veneer of respectable, wealthy living, a mask, just like those the directors and actors and producer who live in neighbouring big homes all wear too.

This opening issue is dripping in nods to Golden Age Hollywood, right down to the presence of Eddie Mannix, the famous/infamous “fixer” for the old studio system (which could mean anything from hushing up and paying off old, undesirable boyfriends or an abortion for studio starlets to much darker and heavier actions to protect the carefully managed public persona of those stars), and it also oozes that Noir mixture of style and disturbance. The reveal of poor Frances in the dumpster recalls the horrid, wretched fate of poor Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia, one of the most infamous and macabre unsolved murders in Hollywood history (later immortalised by the great crime writer James Ellroy as part of his LA Quartet).

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And that’s no accident as is revealed by the creators in an afterword, the Dahlia’s gruesome fate was an inspiration, along with the always-hushed-up but well-known knowledge of the systematic abuse of young starlets to be for the promise of a chance at silver screen fame (terrifying how many of those rumours were actually true, creatures like Trump would have been in their element back then). And that theme of the use and abuse of women – especially young, impressionable and desperate ladies – and the lingering threat and often actuality of the violence men hold over them pervades the story. And as recent events remind us – as if we needed reminding – that’s not something that vanished with the Hollywood of the 30s an 40s, it still lingers, it is still there, from the vile misogynistic rantings of someone like Trump to the internet trolls who try to silence women who dare to voice opinions with the threat of sexual violence. No, it’s still here, sickeningly here in 2016 when we should know better, and that makes Angel City not just an atmospheric period crime thriller, it makes it disturbingly pertinent to the modern day.

If you enjoyed Brubaker and Phillips’ superb The Fade Out (reviewed here) or enjoy classic Film Noir then this is an ideal companion to read. And if you love that intoxicating and now vanished Hollywood of the period with its mix of glamour and sleaze I’d also recommend the quite excellent You Must Remember This Podcast by Karina Longworth.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Reviews from the past: 5 is a Perfect Number

This is an old review of an English translation of a European graphic novel by Igort – we’re still not seeing as many translations of some excellent (and bestselling) graphic novels (or bandes dessinées) of European works as I’d like, which is a great shame as there are some wonderful books, both for adults and younger readers, but they just aren’t being picked up and translated in great numbers. Still, it has improved a little in the last few years and was probably less common when I first reviwed 5 is a Perfect Number for The Alien Online back in 2004:

5 is the Perfect Number,
Written & illustrated by Igort,
Published by Jonathan Cape

A Mafia graphic novel with Giallo undertones

Peppi is a retired Guappo, a Mafia gunman from the old school. The story opens with him making coffee for his son Nino, who has followed in his footsteps and is about to embark upon a hit. Nino is clearly disturbed about something, so his father makes him sit down for a chat and is soon reminiscing about ‘the good old days’. Nino confesses that he has been feeling out of sorts lately and that he isn’t sure the job of a Mafia killer is really for him anymore; Nino has been having disturbing dreams. Peppi produces a box wrapped in a bow and presents it to the depressed Nino, telling him that although his birthday isn’t for a few days tonight feels like the right time. Opening it up Nino’s mood changes instantly to joy as he beholds the top-of-the-line new handgun his father has bought him and decides to take it with him on his job. As the rain starts to come down Nino leaves his father’s home; it is the last time Peppi will see him alive.

It transpires that Nino has been set up for reasons which never really become clear. Obviously whoever ordered the hit is nervous about Peppi’s reaction – he may be old but he has a formidable reputation – and two corpulent gunmen are dispatched to ensure the old man meets his son in the afterlife swiftly. Relaxing with his fishing rod Peppi is oblivious to his son’s fate and his own approaching danger; just another old, retired man fishing happily. Until he is blinded by a vision of the Madonna and realises what this portent means – his son is probably dead and he is next. His old instincts kick in and he soon finds the two fat gunmen looking for him and dispatches them with great violence. Calling on some very old friends for help Peppi find that his son has indeed been killed on orders from the top of the Family. Girding his old loins, Peppi vows to wage war…

The story here is one of classical simplicity – wrongful family death and a mission of retribution. However the way in which Igort takes us through this tale is the beauty of the piece. Dreams and portents play a significant role in the book; Peppi’s vision of the Madonna saving his life, his own disturbed dreams of being chased, Nino’s troubled soul coming out in his dreams. They serve to give us insight into the mind of the protagonists, but do so in a wonderfully stylised manner. Instead of giving us direct access to their thoughts and fears we share the metaphorical imagery of their dreams and visions and, like them, must interpret them for ourselves (which I found to be both a clever and engaging move – it draws you into the character far more than if the author simply spoon-fed the reader the character’s thoughts directly).

Flashbacks are also a major component of the story, from Peppi’s cherished tale of how he met his late wife to his days of glory as a great Guappo. Indeed the whole story is infused with a loving (but never cloying) nostalgia for the 40s and 50s (classic Noir period). The artwork moves from a much stylised but not too unrealistic form to increasingly odd-looking art for the dream sequences. The detail helps to fill out the period feeling, with movie posters and, in one scene, a fabulously stark silhouette of a 50s garage which sets the scene and period perfectly. Films, especially the old crime and Noirs, are obviously a huge influence in this tale and the style of it’s telling, giving it a very expressive imagery.

As with the finest Noirs or the old Giallos there are rarely any truly innocent or good characters as we would understand them. Peppi is the central character and we are encouraged to sympathise with his quest for vengeance, but Peppi is also a stone-cold killer who has taken many lives. Of course, he sees himself – and his son – differently, as men of honour; their moral outlook in life is, like that of most heroes (or anti-heroes) in a Noir is flexible and somewhat different to the norm for society. Peppi, disparaging the modern hitmen, exclaims at one point that you can tell a man by the way he kills and adds proudly, “My son, thank God, kills the right way.” His reminiscences of the good old days are also laced with violence he finds acceptable – he talks happily about how “people killed one another by the rules” as if this makes everything alright (in his moral outlook it does). It is to Igort’s credit that he does not whitewash his characters into simple good and bad but presents them to us in this manner and yet still he manages to win the reader’s sympathy for Peppi.

This is an unusual graphic novel by English-language standards (although not for European BD), laced with nostalgia for the old films of the 40s and 50s and featuring some lovely and incredibly expressive artwork. It is not afraid to show us the violent past (and present) of our characters; it makes no judgment on them and leaves it very much to the reader. Igort even manages to slide a little humour into such a bleak tale, notably when Nino tells his father he is running late for a job and Peppi tells him that’s fine – it gives the soon-to-be deceased a few more minutes of life and so shows the hitman has style and class. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this and found it is one of those books that demand a re-reading to look for little pieces of dialogue and artwork that you may have missed first time around. This will appeal to anyone who enjoys a Raymond Chandler novel or even Altered Carbon (or indeed any Noirs).