Reviews: Art Deco Dredd in Megatropolis

Megatropolis Book One,
Kenneth Niemand, Dave Taylor,
2000 AD/Rebellion

The “What If?” approach is, of course, not new in comics – indeed Mighty Marvel have had their “What If?” comics for years (with them also recently making the jump to an animated TV series), while DC have long had their Elseworlds. Over the decades these have freed creators to reimagine stand-alone tales featuring famous characters and setting in a new way – what if Agent Carter was the one to be given the Super Soldier serum? What if the Batman was actually a real creature of the night, a vampire? It’s a chance to let imaginations fly, unencumbered by the normal continuity issues of ongoing series.

Originally serialised in the Megazine, issues 424 -431, Megatropolis takes that opportunity to reimagine a well-known series – in this case the world of Judge Dredd, arguably Britain’s biggest comics character – and puts it into visually dazzling, sumptuous, Art Deco inspired alternative reality that’s as infused by the legacy of Lang’s 1920s classic film Metropolis (as you might infer from the title) as it is those fabulous 1930s and 1940s Hollywood Noir films, or the works of Dashiel Hammett and Raymond Chandler, and a dash of Batman’s Gotham and Superman’s Metropolis.

Rookie cop with a cloud over her career (taking the rap for something that didn’t actually happen the way it has been made to look) Amy Jara is transferred to a new beat and partnered with Detective Joe Rico, perhaps the only badge in the precinct not on the take from the rich and powerful figures in this glittering but corrupt city. Attempting to investigate a growing string of hits on figures, both society, underworld and even police department targets, Rico knows they are linked to the corruption that permeates every level of the city like a cancer, but special departments inside the police, headed by Captain Calhoun with his sidekicks Quincy and Slocum (yes, look at that blonde hair and arrogant approach, it is indeed a version of Judge Cal and his SJS) are doing their best to head Rico and Jara away from their investigations.

However, they’re not entirely on their own – District Attorney McGruder is leading a crusade to clean up the city, and also gunning for the likes of Mayor Bob Booth (yes, “Smooth Booth”, here drawn with something of the Richard Nixon about him), and investigative journalist Bernice Hershey from the Defender is out to open the lid on the sordid secrets of the top members of Megatropolis society (Hershey, still sports her trademark Louise Brooks bob haircut as she does in the regular Dreddverse, and unsurprisingly it fits very well into the Art Deco version).

(is it just me, or does this version of Filmore Faro have a passing resemblance to Ken Dodd?)

There are many other alternate versions of Mega City One characters, from the small to the major players, and while part of the fun is seeing those connections, if you’re not overly familiar with the four and a half decades of Dredd history (although I would guess most of those reading this will be Dredd fans already), it will not harm your reading or enjoyment of the story at all, in much the same way you can enjoy the Marvel movies without having read all the relevant comics, for example (but if you have then naturally there’s a whole other level of Easter Eggs and references for you to enjoy spotting, such as a barman called Murph running a pub called The Tight Brogues).

And what of Old Stoneyface himself? Where does his alternative fit into this strange, 1920s/30s infused take on The Big Meg? Perhaps rather fittingly the Dredd analogue here is only seen mostly in small bursts, in the dark shadows, striking out at corrupt police and politicians and businessmen (our first glimpse is simply a gauntleted hand clutching a very familiar firearm). As his surgical strikes on the cancerous corruption in the city mount, this shadowy figure dispensing his own brand of justice earns the nickname “Dredd” because of the fear he instils on the wicked who have had their own way for so long with the town. But who is he? Where does he come from, who is supporting him? Is he linked to the reclusive Fargo, the father of the city who now hides away in his secretive estate?

I shall say no more – there’s murder and mystery here, and I don’t want to spoil it for you. Suffice to say there’s plenty to sink your teeth into here – occasionally some “What If” stories are too slight, the idea fine in itself but the story not enough to hold up on its own without the concept of the alternative world idea. Not so here, Niemand and Taylor are too experienced for that; yes they want to play with the alternate worlds and versions ideas, but they also know the story and characters also have to be powerful enough to work in their own right, and they do.

And then of course there is just the simple pleasure of the sheer visual spectacle on offer here. Let’s be honest, we’ve all had comics we’ve loved for story and character, but also sometimes the art is just so damned wonderful we find ourselves pausing the reading to drink in details, or go back over some pages to feast on the visual banquet. P Craig Russell’s “Ramadan” story in the Sandman, Bryan Talbot’s Grandville series, Colin MacNeil’s artwork in Judge Dredd: America, or Schuiten’s art in Les Cités obscures all spring to mind as examples where I’ve found myself going over pages again to savour the artwork, and now I am adding Dave Taylor’s depictions of Megatropolis to that roster (and why not? Comics is a visual medium, after all, I see no shame in celebrating outstanding visuals).

Megatropolis is a visually stunning piece of comics work, yes, but it has the character and storylines to back up those elegant, Art Deco themed visuals too, and clearly delights in drawing as much on those 1930s/40s Noir tropes as it does the science fictional elements. A beautiful piece of comics work.

This review was originally penned for Down The Tubes

Reviews: Putin’s Russia

Putin’s Russia: the Rise of a Dictator,
Darryl Cunningham,
Myriad Editions

Darryl Cunningham, for my money Britain’s finest non-fiction comics creator, returns, following up his previous, fascinating and insightful books such as Graphic Science and Billionaires, here turning his studied gaze upon the vile, despotic Vladimir Putin. Putin’s Russia: the Rise of a Dictator takes us from his birth in Leningrad (now back to its pre-Soviet name of Saint Petersburg) in 1952.

As with many from that generation, his parents were veterans of the Second World War (or Great Patriotic War as Russians often refer to it), and he would, like many across Russia and Europe, grow up in a city still bearing the very visible scars of that grinding, global conflict. A relatively small child, he was picked on, and learned not just to fight back, but to fight dirty, something he has clearly carried with him throughout his adult life; one is moved to wonder how very different the world may have been if his childhood had been filled with happier moments with better friends.

By his mid-teens, young Putin had already decided he wanted to be a part of the dreaded KGB, at the height of the Cold War. This is an era where the KGB spent at least as much time spying on and dealing with their own citizens as it did in spying on and taking covert actions against Western powers, with a vastly inflated number of informers prepared to rat out their own neighbours and colleagues; the fact a young lad was so keen to join such an agency at that time doesn’t speak very well of his intentions or characters.

Cunningham takes us through Putin’s early KGB career, much of which is still murky and hidden, and his supposedly post-KGB life (I say supposedly because there’s a strong likelihood he was still secretly on the active reserve list), and his early brushes with political power, as an advisor to the Leningrad city council, and even at this very early stage there is both indicators that the intelligence services may have been involved in influencing his appointment, and also of massive corruption (and subsequent cover-ups by any means).

While I was aware of his KGB past, I had no idea of these early political appointments for Putin, or the way he and his cronies misused their growing powers even back then – this was still in the era of Glasnost and Gorbachev, then the attempted coup in Russia,by die-hard Communists, the rise of Yeltsin, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the disintegration of the once formidable Soviet Union, all the related changes in what had been the effectively occupied Eastern Bloc.

Many of us of a certain age will remember these tumultuous, world-changing events, and reading here brought much of it rushing back to me, not least that fragile then slowly blooming hope so many of us had, that this was it, the Cold War was over, Russia was becoming a democracy, we were all going to be friends, the terrifying spectre of Mutually Assured Destruction by nuclear war was fading. You have to remember that back then we had lived for years with the monstrous thought that our entire shared civilisation could be annihilated with only the notice of the five minute warning, before the nukes started dropping. It was one of the most insane periods in human history, and here we were, thinking my gods, we’ve made it through and it’s going to get better.

Of course it didn’t work out that way, and that optimism was so sadly misfounded. And while we may not have quite returned to the hair-trigger, stand-off days of MAD, the world’s great powers have again been badly divided, and with quite clear intent of aggression and harm being directed against us. And the rise of Putin is a part and parcel of this. Cunningham explores this rise, the new Russia where a few become obscenely rich through massive corruption, dining out on the nation’s resources, all with Putin’s connections. The way this spreads across the globe as this dirty money enters the global financial system, not least the greedy financial centres of London and New York which were happy to take oligarch’s money, letting them buy property, connections, influence in Western countries, with Putin always behind this growing, sinister network.

That baleful influence has spread throughout the world, not just in terms of dodgy finance and dealings (no surprise to those of us who read Cunningham’s excellent and informative Supercrash book), but in openly hostile, physical acts beyond Russia’s borders. Not content with “accidents” befalling critics at home, Putin has overseen both large-scale military interventions, such as in the continuing horror of the civil war in Syria, with its massive butcher’s bill of civilian casualties, or the illegal annexing of the Crimea, to the intimate but just as nakedly aggressive assaults, such as the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, the poisonings in Salisbury, or the despicable shooting down of the civilian airliner MH17, or attempts to influence the US presidential elections.

Behind it all, Putin. Who, naturally, spins out some obvious fabrications to blame someone else, not really caring if anyone believes him, because even if they don’t it spreads more confusion and mistrust in the West. It’s quite sobering, not to mention terrifying to see Cunningham so effectively laying out this rise from corrupt advisor in a city council to one of the most powerful men in the world, all, as always with his work, drawing on a huge amount of in-depth research that Cunningham somehow distils down into accessible, understandable narratives.

While much of the artwork here is familiar in style to some of his earlier work, there was also here, I feel, a more mature, finer-detailed aspect to some of the panels, especially those depicting some of the people. I felt as if he were trying to convey more not just of the emotion but also to do justice to the people he was depicting here. I felt this particularly strongly in the segment dealing with the downing of the MH17 airliner, where Cunningham doesn’t just cover the events, he takes some of the innocent victims and names them, draws their faces, tells us about some of them. They’re not numbers, not statistics, they are people, and clearly Cunningham wanted to make that clear: these are people, affected by the whims of a madman in another country, with living family and friends still mourning their loss and angry at the lack of justice for them.

Some panels on the Syrian conflict switch to a black and white, much heavier inked-line style, taking us through ruined cityscapes, in a style very different from the rest of the book, or indeed Cunningham’s more regularly-used styles I’ve seen before, and it is highly effective. It’s only a few panels, but their effect is powerful, it’s some superb cartooning work, conveying so much with just a few panels, and, like the MH17 pages, it packs a very strong emotional punch.

This is a story that really doesn’t yet have an ending – Putin is still in power, those who oppose him, even in the supposed security of another sovereign state, have a habit of dying mysteriously, he makes aggressive moves on the international stage, and is making plans to cling onto power for as long as he can (even rewriting the constitution) and to take steps to make himself legally unaccountable even if he leaves office. Where this complex, fascinating, disturbing history leads to, I do not know, but I will finish with some word from Cunningham, drawn from his conclusions:

Murder and corruption should be punished, never rewarded. Either we support democracy, freedom of speech and the rule of law everywhere, or we will see these values wither away.”

This review was originally penned for Down The Tubes.

Reviews: The Stainless Steel Rat Deluxe Edition

The Stainless Steel Rat Deluxe Edition
Written by Kelvin Gosnell, adapted from the books by Harry Harrison, art by Carlos Ezquerra
Rebellion

Ah, Slippery Jim diGriz, aka The Stainless Steel Rat, the Galaxy’s Greatest Thief! I will confess up front that I am quite likely highly biased in matter of the rustorezista ŝtalo (Esperanto is the lingua franca of this far future). As a young geek, knee high to a gronk, I first encountered James Bolivar diGriz in these comics adaptations in early 2000 AD by Kevin Gosnell and the mighty Carlos Ezquerra. I was only about 11 or 12 and hadn’t come across the books yet – this situation was soon remedied now I was aware of them, and I worked my way through all the existing Stainless Steel Rat novels *the first story appeared back in 1961), and the ones which came later, as well as pretty much anything else by Harry Harrison I could find (away from the Rat I particularly recommend The Technicolor Time Machine – a Hollywood mogul finances a time machine to use for cheap film location shooting! – and Make Room, Make Room, which was filmed as classic dystopian movie Soylent Green).

So yes, I’m afraid I am pretty biased – these comics were my first encounter with this character, and lead me to the books, which I still adore to this day. I went back and re-read some during the first Lockdown in 2020, a form of comfort reading, I suppose, and also because I knew they would make me smile, and by grud we all needed something to make us smile at that point. Actually I still point readers in my bookshop to the Rat to this day (they also make suitable reading for older YA readers if you’re looking for more reading for your teens who are starting to look outside the YA shelves for more new books). Jim is the greatest crook in the galaxy, in a distant future where most of the world of a galactic union have been largely at peace for centuries, with crime also rare (other than very low level crime, easily and quickly dealt with).

With great skill and intelligence Jim was bored by the sedate lifestyle of these world and set out to become a criminal mastermind, but Jim is a crook with a conscience – he steals from big companies, banks, or nasty people who deserve it, and he has a strict moral code: he will not kill. In fact in one action-packed scene Jim exits the safety of an armoured vehicle to move an injured enemy soldier who had fallen close to the wheels, to ensure he wasn’t further harmed, risking his own life in the process. He also doesn’t like idiot authority figures and he hates bullies, which also leads him into altruistic adventures (laced with some larceny too, naturally).

The 2000 AD adaptations have been out of print for far too long, and this new Deluxe version brings together the three series the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic covered back in the early 1980s (a long ago time, an age which seems mythical now, but it was real), The Stainless Steel Rat (Progs 104 to 151 originally), The Stainless Steel Rat Saves The World (Progs 166 to 177), and The Stainless Steel Rat For President (Progs 393 to 404), and yes, sigh, before you ask, I do wish they’d had the chance to adapt some of the other books too (also why the drokk has nobody adapted the Rat into a TV series yet??).

The first tale, as you’d expect, introduces Jim and his world(s), and does so right out the gate: we see him as paunchy James Bolivar, a businessman, about to be busted by a police robot for the theft of gold bullion. Most would be anxious about such a scenario, but Jim plans for everything and is ready – he takes impish delight in waiting for the robot to say he is being arrest on “the charge” of various counts before triggering the explosive charge dropping the roof onto the police droid – before kicking open a hidden escape panel and skedaddling, ditching his fake paunch and the rest of his businessman disguise as he goes. This isn’t enough though, Jim then works out a plan to re-steal ‘his’ gold from the police evidence collection team, leading to more fun.

Unfortunately this also leads him into the reason the normally incompetent local planet police stumbled onto his clever operation – he is being hunted by the almost mythical Special Corps, a shadowy agency of the galactic government many don’t even believe exist. They want Jim, but not just to stop his intergalactic crime spree – this is classic “set a thief to catch a thief” storytelling. The head of the Corps is Inskipp, in his youth known as Inskipp the Uncatchable, a thief of such daring he even managed to loot a space liner in mid-flight and escape. Jim’s childhood hero.

While the Corps has all sorts of agents, its own version of Q Branch (headed by Professor Coypu, who becomes more important in later tales, especially Saves The World) and gadgets and resources galore, not all agents are suited for every task. Sometimes you need the square peg, the one who doesn’t play by the team rules, the outsider, the one you can drop on an enemy infested world by himself and know he will not only survive but come up with a cunning plan to save the day while he does it. Long, long before Xander Cage would be recruited in the XXX films for similar reasons, we had Slippery Jim, and while working for the Corps gives him access to all sorts of widescreen adventures, he also can’t help but employ some of his old thieving chicanery along the way too (well, a Rat has to plan ahead for his retirement fund eventually, right?).

These tales see him set off on his first Corps mission, when he discovers someone is secretly trying to recreate one of the almost unstoppable space battleships that were outlawed millennia ago (putting a stop to intergalactic warfare and ushering in the centuries of peace in which Jim grew up), which in turn introduces him to Angelina – as clever and slippery as he is, but with a huge difference: she is a psychopath, and enjoys killing for the sake of it. And she’s not happy about Jim butting into her plans…

(Spoiler warning)Of course if you know the books, you know later Angelina doesn’t just become a major character, she becomes Jim’s wife and mother of his two children – James and Bolivar – after the Corps uses advanced psycho surgery to adjust the part of her brain which made her psychopathic, but leaving her other skills intact, making her a perfect partner and foil for Jim. When they are teamed up in the later stories she is no shrinking violet – in fact sometimes it is Angelina who has to save Jim. And woe betide the foolish men who see her and think she is just a pretty face… There are little shades of the Steed and Mrs Peel relationship to their adventures, which of course just makes them all the more enjoyable.

Saves the World sees a time war designed to take out the Corps, the attack launched from the distant past to eliminate this stumbling block to domination plans before it even knows an attack is happening. As his comrades vanish in front of his eyes – including his beloved wife and just born baby boys – Jim reluctantly agrees to a madcap, almost suicidal mission taking him thousands of years into the past to find out who launched the attack and to stop it (this brings him to the attention of the raving megalomanic simply known as He). We get the delights of Jim in 20th century America, 1800s London (during the Napoleonic wars) and the far distant future, before the Earth ends. As with all time travel stories, parts of it will hurt your head if you try to think through the cause and effect too much!

President, which was quite a recent novel at the time of the comics adaptation – sees Jim and Angelina begged to help a struggling resistance movement on what looks like a paradise planet, but which is really under the thumb of a geriatric dictator, a planetary banana republic, essentially. Taking on the disguise of Sir Hector Harapo, a local minor nobleman, Jim, Angelina and his now grown up boys James and Bolivar team up with the local resistance to engineer a challenge to the vile President for life. Said president uses every trick, from ballot rigging, voter suppression and straightforward violence and torture to enforce the rule he’s had for decades, but he’s never been up against The Stainless Steel Rat before.

The original novels are all pretty slim books – Harrison is very economical, introducing characters and scenarios quickly and efficiently while cracking along with the storytelling – and here they are, as you might expect, even more pared down to fit into the serialised comics format, so these are fairly fast read. But that doesn’t mean bad! My god these are still a lot of fun (much like the original books which inspired them), crackling with humour, a real sense of fun (something both comics and prose versions share), wonderfully daft, OTT schemes and plots, lots of action and daring-do, from car chases to space battles, and all of this is brought to visual life by the genius who was Carlos Ezquerra.

Can we just pause for a second there? Dammit, I miss Ezquerra. I’m pretty sure most DTT readers do to. And getting to revisit his early 80s artwork here, all cleaned up in this sparkling new edition, is an utter delight. Carlos depicts heroes, villains, clever gadgetry, starships and everything in between, and clearly he’s having a lot of fun doing it. And yes, Jim does look a bit like James Coburn. Not to mention Major Eazy (and much later, Cursed Earth Koburn)… Okay, fair enough, we know Carlos liked using that imagery! But you know what? It works here, so I’m happy with it. His Angelina is beautifully depicted, Carlos managing to convey both an immensely attractive woman, but also one with a steel core and a propensity to shoot anyone who gets on her nerves (quite how Jim survives this marriage I am not sure, must be love).

So in summary, as well as the welcome nostalgia rush for both Harry Harrison’s great creation and the golden age of 2000 AD, this collection also gives you three cracking adventures featuring crime heists, space battles, fighting oppression, romance, time travel, car and aircraft chases, terrific one-liners and dammit, just a huge amount of fun, all blasting along at a great pace. And all depicted by the pens of Carlos Ezquerra in that magnificent, iconic style of his.

I am a contented reader.

The Stainless Steel Rat Deluxe Edition is published by 2000 AD / Rebellion on August 18th.

This review was originally penned for Down The Tubes

Reviews: Bumble & Snug and the Angry Pirates

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

In our wee Indy bookshop we’re always on the look-out for new reading to excite many of our younger regulars looking for recommendations. We’ve had a lot of success with graphic novels for kids, rather satisfyingly this success is both with regular readers and also some kids who are reluctant readers, or have problems with reading. Dav Pilkey’s Dog Man series and Jamie Smart’s fabulous Bunny Vs Monkey series from the Phoenix comic have proven particularly popular, alongside evergreen classics like Tintin, Blake and Mortimer and Asterix. I think after reading the first of Mark Bradley’s Bumble & Snug books, I can safely add them to this list, because we’re going to be recommending the heck out of this one.

For those who haven’t encountered them before on Mark’s site, Bumble and Snug are bestest friends, and a kind of monster called a Bugpop, living in Bugpopolis (population 8, 504, 028, with 5, 867 hat shops) – there’s a handy map at the start showing the city, the nearby She Sells Seashells Shore Bay, Mercreature Lake, the Forest of Unicorns, Vampire Castle, Dragon Caves and Sleeping Giant Mountains. Bumble and Snug live at 18 Hijinks Row, and are forever getting into all sorts of fun-filled adventures.

Bumble (the blue Bugpop) is very excitable, she loves noises, constantly trying new things and making friends. She’s “50% enthusiasm, 50% energy”, and can change her size and shape. Snug is a bit more thoughtful, being “33% kindness, 33% caring and 33% brains”, loves supporting and helping others, especially his friends, and his favourite place is the library. Between the two of them they get themselves into some wonderful amounts of trouble, then back out of it by working together.

The togetherness theme is pretty central here, mostly seen through Bumble and Snug’s friendship, but also in the way the interact with the others they meet, even a bunch of seemingly dangerous pirates – there’s a lovely subtext here about understanding others, being patient with them and trying to be kind and supportive, all qualities I think we want our little readers to grow up with. Story-wise we have enormously fun and enjoyable adventure, as the pair go off for a picnic which goes wrong, seeing them stranded on an island, finding hidden pirate treasure (X marking the spot, of course!), then having to deal with the furious pirates and a rather upset sea monster too.

Honestly, adventure, pirates, treasure, an angry giant octopus, picnics, balloons, glitter and ice-cream, I mean what more do you need in a story?!?!?! I laughed throughout Bumble and Snug – it cracks along at a terrific pace, throwing in some lovely gags and visuals (to reach their chosen picnic site Bumble blows herself up to giant balloon size to float them there) constantly, at just the right tempo to keep young minds happily occupied and engaged, and it’s wonderfully funny throughout, with a lovely, clear, uncluttered but very effective art style (the facial expressions especially work, and often cracked me up on their own).

This is an absolutely joyous delight to read, for kids and for adults who still know how to speak to their inner child, it will entertain them, make them laugh, and as a bonus it weaves in lessons about friendship and compassion and dealing with emotions too. In fact it comes with little extras talking about understanding feelings, as well as neat little guides to how to draw your own Bugpops and make your own comics pages (and if there is one thing most kids I know love even more than reading a good comic, it’s feeling inspired to draw their own).

I’m highly recommending this to anyone with young readers looking for their next comics fix.

This review was originally penned for Down The Tubes.

Reviews: Katriona Chapman’s richly satisfying Breakwater

Breakwater,
Katriona Chapman,
Avery Hill

Katriona Chapman returns after the excellent Follow Me In, with Breakwater, and, oh boy, it’s just wonderful. The eponymous Breakwater is an old cinema by the seafront in Brighton; like many older cinemas in this era of big chain multiplexes (well, back when we could actually go to cinemas, pre-Covid days, sigh) it is a shadow of its former self, a once grand dame with Art Deco delights from a different era when cinemas weren’t just industrial buildings with seats and a screen, but an experience, designed to be dream palaces to transport you, not just with the film but the whole evening in the cinema.

Somehow, like a handful of others around the country, the Breakwater has managed to hold on in this modern environment, still with a small following, still independent, and crewed by a small group of staff who we are gradually introduced to as new arrival Dan, a twenty-something gay Asian man, is shown the ropes by veteran Chris, a forty-something single lady who is comfortable with her own company. Dan is affable and friendly, and soon fits in nicely with the others, even the teenaged lad that others can overlook (he left school with no qualifications, but Dan doesn’t judge him and just talks to him like a friend).

Dan hits it off even more with Chris, despite the fact she rarely mixes much outside of work and mostly spends her time by herself. He’s open and friendly, she’s warm, supportive, very empathic and caring (she spends time by herself but she’s not anti-social, it should be stressed, she just doesn’t go out much). As the two start to become friends outside of work at the cinema they share more time and thoughts with one another.

Dan gets Chris more out of her shell, getting her to go out for fun with him, to consider a long-abandoned dream of going back to finish her college course (like many she had to give up originally to take care of an ill parent), to stand up for herself a bit more. Chris draws the young man out, to share some of his dreams and his worries, from estranged parents to problems with an ex that he can’t quite get over but knows he should. It’s beautifully done, very, very natural feeling and wonderfully warm. But as they become more involved in one another’s lives Chris finds Dan has other, older problems, especially with his mental health, and it will lead to them both having to make difficult decisions.

That summary really, really doesn’t do justice to Breakwater though: this is a comic to savour, that takes its time to reveal the characters and their lives in a way the evokes very real, natural, believable people, all different in their own ways but clicking together at the Breakwater, in a way that many of us will find familiar from our own work experiences. The pacing and the progression is excellent, Chapman is not afraid to simply have scenes where several of the characters are just standing around in the cinema chatting, or conversely to have several scenes where there are no speech bubbles or dialogue boxes, the art carrying the story and atmosphere.

And what art: here Chapman has opted for a beautiful monochromatic style here, mostly smaller panels focusing on the characters, with the odd splash page that celebrates the faded glories of the old cinema (a now unused old auditorium above the modernised screens, a grand “ballroom” space – it reminded me of a bar I once worked in that was in a converted cinema and also had one whole auditorium above the main area, unseen by most, a ghost of the past). Those artistic asides to the faded grandeur hidden away inside the building also served partly as a way of making the cinema itself a sort of character, but also a nice visual metaphor for the lives of the characters, that we all have hidden secrets and stories within us, some shared with only a very few others.

The main body of the work is those smaller panels focusing on the characters, however, and those are an utter delight – Chapman’s art deftly draws (no pun intended) out her character’s inner lives and emotions, so that even in those wordless sequences I mentioned, the expressions and body language of her cast of characters so clearly expresses their thoughts and feelings.

It’s a fabulous piece of comics artwork, beautifully accomplished, never showy, just the right amount of artistic flourish to delight the eyes without intruding into the narrative, it’s some of the finest work I have seen in ages for bringing out the emotional lives of the characters in a comics work, while the narrative itself, while often warm and touching, also doesn’t shy away from the impact mental health issues can have not just on the lives of those with the illness but those who care for them.

I can’t recommend Breakwater enough, this is a beautiful, warm, engaging, gorgeously-drawn and paced piece of Brit comics that many readers will find themselves empathising with.

This review was originally penned for Down the Tubes

Reviews: the Sea Shepherd

Sea Shepherd,
Sean Azzopardi

The most powerful weapons in the world for shaping public opinion and changing the world are cameras, pens, pencils, paint brushes and the ability to speak passionately in defence of the planet.”
Captain Paul Watson, from his foreword.

Documenting the Sea Shepherd organisation for protecting marine wildlife and the biosphere of the seas, founded in 1977 by activists no longer prepared to simply bear witness and document atrocities with existing groups like Greenpeace, but to take direct action, Sean Azzopardi brings the motivations that inspired this ongoing struggle to vivid and disturbing life. Right from the opening pages we are spared no punches – this is a violent, bloody, gory business that sees the worst and best of human activity in the natural world, and it is not for the faint of heart. In the first few pages we have the working of an explosive harpoon explained, and how it is used to kill a whale in a violent, painful death, before it is hauled onto floating death factories to be ripped apart.

The following pages – and we are only a handful of pages into the book at this point – explores the disgusting spectacle of the Grindadràp, the hunt and mass slaughter of whales and dolphins that takes place in the Faroe Islands. To the Faroese this is an ancient ritual enacted since the days of the Norseman. While it may once have been an important supplement to the local diet in these remote islands, that’s not the case today (in fact, as reports and the book point out, the whale and dolphin meat harvested is considered unsafe for human consumption by EU scientists, due to marine pollution absorbed by the animals), and it is now basically a part of the cultural identity of the islands. And while I am sympathetic to protecting cultural heritage, when it is this brutal, bloody and not necessary, it seems horrible to continue to practise it.

We’re shown how entire pods are driven into bays – every single member dispatched, young, old, even pregnant whales and dolphins, blunt gaffes thrust into their blowholes to drag them onto the beach so a large knife can be shoved through to try and cut the spinal cord. As you can imagine, despite what the local government claims, this is not exactly a swift, humane form of killing an animal, and any slaughterhouse in Europe taking this long to kill an animal would be prosecuted. Here it is not only tolerated but celebrated, a total clash between locals who love their tradition and see no wrong in it and others attempting to protect the sea-going mammals.

Yes, it is a very strong opening few pages – brutal and bloody and shocking. And so it should be.

From here we flash back a bit, with Paul Watson talking about what drove him to leave Greenpeace and set up the Sea Shepherd, and his obvious good-humoured appropriation of the term “pirates” that has been applied to them (which they gleefully allude to in their flag). Have they committed almost piratical acts on the high seas? Yes, he agrees, they have, several times now, not just blocked hunting vessels, they have quite deliberately rammed them. Yes, that is a powerful action to take, he agrees, but the ships they rammed were all acting illegally, with their flagged countries most often turning a blind eye to what was going on, pretending not to be aware of their actions, until the Sea Shepherd crews forced their hands, not to mention bringing the glare of public and media scrutiny to bear.

It’s not all horror and piracy though, there is a strong sense of humour here too – while they have rammed illegal whalers, for the most part Watson describes how they have responded to attacks by hunter’s vessels with a wonderful, almost schoolboy level of fun, such as launching stink bombs onto decks of the offending, illegal hunting vessels. It sounds almost slapstick, and while it is funny, it is also deadly serious and quite effective, and has saved the lives of many whales. Members have been arrested and beaten, but it doesn’t stop them continuing their work.

The artwork throughout is in full colour, and Sean uses this strategically, especially the colour red used judiciously for maximum impact, such as the seas going red with the blood of helpless, slaughtered animals, or an effective repeating sequence of talking heads, the same close up image of Watson but each with a different colour wash in each panel (a little Warholesque) as he talks directly to camera. The style is in a strong, mostly clear-line approach, especially when showing the people, moving the panel frequency and size to suit the subject nicely, and with some very nice larger splash panels dropped in (a sea turtle spread across two pages is just gorgeous and makes you stop for a moment to drink it in, as well as reminding you that these remarkable creatures are part of why the activists do what they do).

If you want to be an effective conservation organisation then you have to say the things that people don’t want to hear. You have to do the things that people don’t want to be seen to be done. You have to rock the boat and piss people off…. We cannot live on this planet with dead oceans. If the oceans die, we die.”

Watson makes no bones about the often controversial nature of their work and campaigns – hunters, local communities, even national governments are often furious with the Sea Shepherd crews for their work (not least because it often shames them in public for ignoring or even condoning not just immoral but often internationally illegal practises by their vessels). Yes, he acknowledges, as can be seen in the quote above, that they do get in other people’s faces, even other conservation groups, while they share their aims, are not pleased with their methods. Similarly Watson and his cremates are dissatisfied with the quieter approach of other groups, stating that sometimes you just have to get your hands dirty to protect the animals and the seas.

In an ideal world this sort of direct action wouldn’t be required, but the sad fact is that there aren’t enough protections in place for both marine animals and the aquatic environment, and those that have been painstakingly hammered out in international law are all too often subverted, either by illegal criminal action or equally illegal but secretly condoned by national government action, so I think it’s quite easy to understand that, up against this mindset, some have decided to take a serious stand and shout it out to the world while they do so. Hopefully this adds another voice to that chorus.

This review was originally penned for Down the Tubes

Reviews: Gamish – a Cultural History of Gaming

Gamish: a Graphic History of Gaming,
Edward Ross,
Particular Books

I first encountered Edinburgh-based comicker Edward Ross’s work in one of my second homes in the city, The Filmhouse, a local arthouse and Indy cinema that is also home to the Edinburgh International Film Festival (the oldest continually running film festival on the planet). Back then Ed was producing his Filmish comics, in the finest tradition of the home-made, small press scene, complete with staples holding them together, and on sale in the Filmhouse box office. I picked up each of them as they came out and reviewed them on the old Forbidden Planet Blog, then in 2015 SelfMadeHero published a large, expanded and re-drawn version of Filmish (reviewed here), greatly improving on the original mini-comics to give a longer, more in-depth look at the history of cinema and film and its place in our culture – not just the technical and artistic innovations across a century and more, but also how some films reflect the culture of their days, their preoccupations, worries, fantasies, fear, prejudices (race, class, gender and more).

It made for fascinating reading. When I interviewed him at the 2016 Edinburgh International Book Festival about Filmish I asked what he planned to follow it, and Ed replied that he was considering a similar approach to video games. And as we continue to stumble through 2020’s stormy seas, grabbing at good comics and books like lifeboats to help keep our spirits afloat (or simply to transport us away from the actual world for a while), Gamish arrives, and yes, before you ask, I think it was very much worth the wait. Gamish is very similar in format to Filmish, both in physical appearance (a smaller 235 by 170mm format instead of the larger “comic album” format, although in hardback this time) and layout, but also in approach, not least in a virtual Edward appearing in different settings to guide us through what is happening.

Filmish tackled the century and a bit of film history by taking themes for chapters, such as technology, and Gamish also has a number of themes to help explore the history and the culture of gaming, from the role of technological innovation and artistic interpretation to the portrayal of race and gender, of disabilities, of cultural norms (and blind spots) both in the games and within gaming communities too. And like the earlier Filmish, Ed has undertaken an enormous amount of research to try and place all of this within a historical context – this doesn’t just take a simplistic approach to video game history and evolution, Gamish also explores why human beings play, how that play has become more elaborate as humans moved from hunter-gatherer to early civilisations, and placed the modern video games within that millennia-long history of human culture.

Early in the book Ed asks why it is we play: in fact, as he notes, most animals, especially mammals, play, be it kittens pretending to hunt a piece of string or human children making up games to play in the park or with their Lego and action figures. Play is part of how animals, including humans, learn important skills for later life, of how to be and how to act and how to perform certain acts, but it is also often a bonding and socialising tool as well, teaching us how to interact with others (also helping us form relationships as well as skills), and, of course, it is often hugely pleasurable. Ed takes us to an excavation near Amma, where a new roadworks dug up a 9,000 year old village site. Within this the archaeologists discovered a stone board with rows of indentations, which some recognised as a gaming board. In fact it strongly resembled a version of Mancala, a family of similar games which were widely played around the Middle East and Mediterranean basin back in Antiquity, and is still played to this day, especially in parts of Africa.

Just as ancient cave art such as those in Lascaux, France, or the Aboriginal rock paintings on the Burrup Peninsula in Australia reminds us that our ancestors of thousands – even tens of thousands – of years ago were not some simple “ugh, ugh” brutish, apish people but modern homo sapiens like us, the same bodies, the same brains, the same desire for self expression and abstract thought and creation. And gaming. A few indents in a piece of stone, pavement slab or wooden board, nearby pebbles for playing pieces and human imagination, and we have games we can play with others. As Gamish makes clear, this is not something unique to modernity, or even the great civilisations of the Classical period, this is quite simply a facet of being human, and the first part of the book takes us from those prehistoric games to the slow evolution of more sophisticated games like Go and Chess, which travel around our world and different cultures, being played for pleasure but also as training for the mind in organisation, even in military strategy (think of Chess as battlefield command training).

In this early chapter we first get a glimpse of the technological games that are to come, and which will take the majority of the focus of the rest of the book: enter Wolfgang Von Kempelen with his astonishing Mechanical Turk, a robotic chess player that challenges humans across Europe then later the Americas, this automaton playing against such figures as Napoleon and Benjamin Franklin. As many of you will know, after more than a century of touring the globe with great success, the Turk was eventually found to be a fraud: it was not a machine intelligence, but a masterful chess player concealed cleverly inside the mechanism, working the Turk’s arm through pulleys and levers (if you are interested, Tom Standage did a terrific book on the Turk back in 2001 that I highly recommend, my review is here).

So this proved not to be the start of us using clever machines for gaming – but it did inspire much of what came later. Not just in the way Turing (also featured here) used chess as a way to test and try computer learning in the mid-20th century, or the numerous programmers who tackled chess as a way of improving computer learning (eventually leading to Deep Blue beating human grandmaster Kasparov), the very idea of a machine capable of the intricacies of a game like chess, with so many possible outcomes (increasing with each player’s moves) inspired the likes of Babbage, along with Ada Lovelace one of the father’s of what would evolve into modern computing, and computer chess remains a challenge tackled by many programmers and engineers from Turing to today, both in fact and in fiction (consider HAL playing his human crew-mates on the Discovery in 2001).

All of this is fascinating in its own right, and Ed continues to chart the evolution of computer gaming into forms contemporary readers would recognise – heck, some of us even played early versions of these, such as the now iconic Space War (I remember playing a version of this tweaked for amusement arcades in the late 70s and early 80s and loving it), the move from students using room-sized University computers to run games after hours to the first home games and the birth of what is now a multi-billion dollar industry with simple games video games plugged into the TV in your living room, from Pong to the cartridge-based Atari, the explosion of video arcade culture (at one point in the early 80s so popular that in Japan it lead to a national shortage of coins as they were all being rattled into Space Invaders and other games cabinets in the arcades!), and the evolution through those early, simple 8-bit games to today’s hyper-real, fast-paced, detailed graphics and richly visualised alternate realities, from text based dungeons and dragons games to massive, multi-player online fantasy worlds accessed from around the globe.

All of this is interesting in its own right, however what makes Gamish, as with Filmish, at least for me, is that Ed is at great pains to put the human dimension into this history. This isn’t just a straight, chronological history of technical development leading to bigger, better, more sophisticated games and virtual realities. As with Filmish, Ed is interested not just with how we increase the sophistication of our computers, programmes and gaming, but also the how and the why, and also how these have shown up many of our inbuilt social norms and prejudices, as well as how they can be used to tear those down. He looks at how many games for far too long offered only character avatars to the player who were male and white, or, as in World of Warcraft, we get non-human characters representing different cultures but which mostly draw on a very blinkered, European notion of what Native American or Asian culture is.

Gender and sexual identity, as well as ablism are also covered here – he notes how in the increasingly complex gaming worlds your on-screen character could follow multiple paths, even have romances with other characters, but usually those relationships were purely heterosexual. Despite modern games offering multiple options to players to navigate their character’s paths, it hadn’t occurred to the programmers to offer the choice of sexually different tastes, just as many hadn’t thought to include player avatars who had skin other than white, or more female options. Ed also touches on the hostility of a wretched (and thankfully small) section of the emerging gaming community, mostly young, white males, who became so possessive over games as belonging exclusively to them that they attacked female, LGBT or players of different skin colours on forums and in gaming worlds (sadly, as with GamerGate we’ve seen a similar bunch of utter idiots in the comics world too with very much the same notions).

However Ed also covers the more positive aspects of this gender, race and cultural disparity in gaming, bringing forth all sorts of examples where different groups have used the medium to empower themselves, be it refugees creating an idealised homeland they can dream of in cyberspace to transgender and non-binary players who found being able to inhabit any form of virtual avatar was therapeutic for them, and helped them explore their true inner identity in virtuality before making decisions and lifestyle changes in the real world, or Muriel Tramis creating a game where you had to play as a rebelling plantation slave as a way to highlight that dreadful period of history (and by implication its continuing influences to this very day in terms of how some people are perceived and treated even in supposedly free and equal societies).

Naturally this book also touches on that old bugbear of video violence and its possible effect on people in the real world. As Gamish points out, yes, there certainly has been a growth, especially in the 90s, of very graphically violent video games, not least the FPS or First Person Shooter, made famous by the original Doom (which I must admit I loved playing on my early PC, an hour of that would be my unwinding after spending hours on the same machine writing my college essays), and how an often rather lazy connection was made between these and real world violence (especially the dreadful problem of school shootings in the US). As the book points out though, while there should be some concerns, this moral panic was just the latest in a long saga of blaming different new media for societal ills – in the 50s it was rock music records, in the 80s it was “video nasties” and rap music, in the 90s it was video games. Always easier to simply blame those than actually try to understand where families and societies are going wrong to produce those real world problems (it also, as Ed observes, ignores the fact that if the games were indeed the cause of this real world violence then we would be drowning in such acts as millions plays them every single day).

Overall however, while Ed does explore the negative side of gaming culture, the tone here is bright and optimistically hopeful – while he details faults like sexism or ablism or cultural difference ignorance, he prefers to give far more space to positive stories, of individuals and groups who have challenged norms and used technology and gaming advances to their own advantage, to claim some of that virtual, shared cyberspace play realm for themselves, but also to share it with others and so educate us to new ideas and people and ways of being. And frankly I am glad he takes this approach – he’s far from ignoring the many problems, in fact he discusses them, but he chooses to highlight positive aspects of gaming and the power within games to help us make things better by building more understanding through shared activities, learning, creating new friendships with different people with different views on life.

Much as he did in the earliest pages of the book, when talking about our hunter-gatherer ancestors and their early play models that helped them learn skills and socialisation, Ed’s later chapters explore examples of how many today are using the modern, sophisticated gaming environments available to us right in our own homes to do the very same, with different sorts of people all over the world (the book takes pains to depict a wonderfully diverse arrary of characters in its pages, which I greatly appreciated). It’s warm, it has a sense of fun and humour and importantly it has a lot of optimism for the media and for the way it can empower all sorts of people, and right now that feels like a wonderful, uplifting notion to leave the readers on.

This review was originally penned for Down the Tubes

Reviews: Judge Dredd: America – Lost & Found, the Rediscovered Scripts

Judge Dredd: America – Lost & Found, the Rediscovered Scripts,
John Wagner, Colin MacNeil,
Rebellion

Rights? Sure. I’m all for rights. But not at the expense of order. That’s why I like to see that Statue of Judgement standing there, towering over Liberty. Kind of a symbol. Justice has a price. The price is freedom.”

Judge Dredd: I’ve been reading his tales every since the very beginning, way back in 1977. I’ve been fascinated by the adaptability of the character and the story format- across more than four decades we’ve seen everything from broad comedic farce to tragedy, from short, punchy tales of a few pages only (which nevertheless often lodge in the brain long after, despite their brevity) to huge, widescreen epics like the Apocalypse War. And Dredd himself, the unbending, iron man of the total law of Mega City One? Clever storytelling has given us Dredd as both heroic at times and at other times a freedom-crushing fascist stormtrooper.

I find it remarkable that one strip and one character can can be so astonishingly flexible, go to such extremes. The writers and artists of Dredd have made us cheer for him as he is battered and broken by often unimaginable events and opponents, way past the point where even a mythic hero might have given up as a lost cause, but not Dredd, he keeps going, dogged, determined, he stands till the end, the the bad guys are vanquished, it’s a tenacity on which the entire survival of the city and sometimes the world has depended.

And at other times we see the cold, hard machinery of Mega City Justice Department, how it bears down crushing those it is meant to serve, unbending adherence strictly to every rule to the most ridiculous level, smallest infractions dealt with via immediate and hard, violent response, while no threat to the supremacy of the Justice Department will be tolerated. It is this latter aspect we first saw in America, by the Dreddfather himself, the great John Wagner, and the equally superb Colin MacNeil, who here delivers some amazing painted artwork, which is something else to behold, be it depicting a tender, intimate moment of friendship and love and intimacy or dreadful acts of violent outbursts.

For many decades America has, for me, been one of the finest Dredd stories of all time: it has action, romance, characters that are flawed and believable as humans rather than cyphers to advance a plot, it has humour and love and tragedy and wades into the swampy lands of Morality, not afraid to show the complexity behind the simplistic ideas of good and evil, right and wrong. When I heard Rebellion was re-issuing it complete with some of Wagner’s rediscovered original scripts I was excited, although part of me also thought, how does this story hold up in the world of 2020?

How will I feel when I re-read it now, at this point in my life and with the world around me as it has become, instead of remembering it through a glow of nostalgic love for earlier 2000 AD? I needn’t have worried myself on that score, however: this is Wagner and MacNeil, I was always in safe hands with these masters of the comics form, and, if anything, sadly aspects of the story are actually more relevant to our troubled world of today than they were when this was written, even in the supposed democracies of the Western World. And that emotional punch, that you just know is coming yet you can’t look away? It’s still there, still so strong it will wrench your heart.

I’d imagine most DTT readers will already be familiar with this story, but for those who are coming to this Dredd classic for the first time, let’s have a quick recap of the actual story. We start with foreshadowing, with Dredd, always an impressive, ominous figure at the best of times, here depicted in full page splashes by MacNeil from a low perspective, as if we’re under his feet, trampled beneath the heel of the Justice Department (much later we will loop back to this scene and realise its dreadful context), with the quote about rights and freedom that opened this article. It is an opening that in two pages and images already tells you that this is a story that will not have a happy ending. This is Mega City One, not Disney.

From those threatening, huge splash pages we moved into smaller panels, the inside of a nightclub, the dressing rooms, a young woman, attractive yet with an air of terrible sadness around her, getting ready for a performance. She is the one who starts the main story going, she tells us of America and of Bennett Beeny, right from the very beginning, as she is born kicking and screaming into the world of Mega City One to immigrant parents, who in gratitude for their new home decide to christen their baby daughter “America”. Even in this happy moment, as their friends congratulate the couple on their new arrival, there are hints of the storm clouds to come, when her father, still new to the city, quotes “America, God shed hees grief on thee”, only for a friend to point out it is “grace”, not “grief”, but I think we already know in this case it will be grief. The America the Jara family thought they had emigrated to no longer exists, except as a dream. A dream that will burn in young America throughout her short life.

Benny and Ami are the best of friends as kids, but even as children it is clear they are different: Benny is good natured and effectively rolls with the system as it is, not liking it, but doing his best to make the best life he can have under the circumstances, while Ami hates the life they are forced to live and yearns to make the world a better place. Even at this young age we see the Judge system, but from the perspective of small children, these huge, armoured, imposing figures towering above them, instilling fear now – like the Jesuits who wanted to start their teaching young so they would have the later grown person for life, the Judges lay down heavy examples even to small children.

It is not a pretty sight, and it also serves effectively to show the two different characters: Ami seethes as this treatment, you can see her thinking how do I change this, take away this power the Judges have over us all, while Benny is complaint, “no, sir, thank you, sir” types to the threatening Judge. A scene a little later shows them as young adults now, and MacNeil beautifully frames their view of the vast city from a high vantage point through a broken chain-link fence. It’s beautiful visual shorthand (the story is replete with similar examples), this should be an awe-inspiring view across the city, but instead it gives the impression they are exhibits in an old, broken-down zoo, Benny already cowed, will stay behind the wire, fearful, Ami is seen looking out through the mesh of the fence into the world beyond, seeing something more, something better, if only she can manage it.

There’s such bittersweetness around this point, as the two who had been inseparable are now growing up, becoming more the adults they will become, so too they are growing apart. We’ve probably all been there, with childhood friends we thought we’d have forever, and some we do sometimes manage to keep but there are always others than our life paths take away from one another, keeping in touch at first, but less so as time goes on and the world slowly makes us drift apart. That feeling is evoked so well here, and added to by the fact we can see how clearly Benny loves Ami, not just as his lifelong friend, but he years for her as a lover, he is hopelessly lost in love with her, and he knows that while she cares for him she’s never going to love him that way.

Their paths diverge and they lose contact, although she is never far from Benny’s thoughts, he still carries a torch for her and always will. Some may see that as weak, as Benny refusing to move on emotionally, and perhaps it is, but you could also argue that it is a beautifully pure form of love, an idealised version he carries inside himself, aware that the grim reality of the real world can never give him what he has in his heart. Benny becomes rich and famous with his comedic songs and gets to live a comfortable life – he may be in a cage like any Mega City citizen, but his is gilded and comfortable thanks to his huge success. Ami, when she finally crosses his path again, has been less fortunate.

Ami’s path has been hard, her dedication to the older freedoms before the Judges has brought her into conflict with the Justice Department with the predictable heavy response. But it’s not just the heavy handed tactics which have further enraged her, it’s the basically cruel turning of the screw to teach her a lesson – for instance her child is decreed not to come up to genetic standards and so banished from Mega City. This only hardens her in her convictions to do anything to fight the system (and it is hard not to sympathise with her). It even leads to scenes with the two reunited briefly, but leaves the reader to question if Ami does so only to manipulate Benny into helping her and her comrades, or because she really does care for him and perhaps yearns for even a brief respite of peace and love? Wagner cleverly leaves that very much to the readers, even in his accompanying script notes he says it’s best not to answer that, let the readers ponder…

And I won’t go too much further into the plot for those who haven’t yet read America, because I have no wish to ruin it for you. Suffice to say do not go looking here for roses and kisses and a happy ending in the sunset. But do expect drama and love and moral clashes and trust and betrayal and tragedy. And for none of the characters to come out of this untarnished: Dredd and the Judges, glimpsed mostly in the background of this story, are clearly the fascistic power of repression here, Benny well-meaning but spineless and out of his depth, Ami driven by The Cause, one which we may even admire her fighting for, except she will use any method, even brutal killing, to serve The Cause (as with many in the real world their causes, however well intentioned, can often become more important than the lives of people).

I came back to America not just in our troubled world of 2020, but also after reading the second Judges prose omnibus by Mike Carroll, Maura McHugh and Joseph Elliot Coleman for the second Cymera SF festival back in June (you can still see the hour long discussion on Cymera’s YouTube channel, while the book is reviewed here). That book explores the early world of the Judges, before the Mega Cities, with the first generation of Judges operating alongside the final years of traditional law enforcement in near-future America. Those stories often evoked America as I read them – in those books we see the Judges created precisely because current law enforcement has failed. It is corrupt, police almost untouchable even when they commit violent, unprovoked attacks, clearly carrying a huge racial bias, all things the Judges are trained to ignore: they will serve the law equally upon all, regardless of class, race, gender, wealth or position.

When I was reading those stories in preparation for our Cymera talks we were all watching with horror the racially motivated judicial killings in the US of people of colour, the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement, the awful,violent response those demonstrations often received, not just from far right civilians driving cars into crowds, but police then federal government forces gassing, shooting and arresting peaceful demonstrators. The parallels to Dredd’s Mega City One were horribly, wretchedly visible to many of us. Dredd has always carried a strong element of social commentary, not to mention dark satire, but this echoed so much with that fictional world that it was painful.

I’m not going to soap-box on those aspects, this is a review, not a social commentary piece, albeit about a story with a strong social commentary component, of course, but re-reading it I think it is fair to say I found America fitted in far too closely with aspects of our contemporary world, far, far too closely for comfort. Ami’s life in some ways echoes that of the nation she is named for: born with idealised notions of freedom and equality for all, only to see that dream constantly perverted to suit those in the positions of power, and likewise with Mega City One.

But that’s the point – to realise the threat to the Dream we have to see it and know it for what it is, call it out, stand up to it. The idealised version of that Dream may always be ultimately unattainable, like most potential utopias, but it is a noble vision and striving towards it hopefully means we make a better, fairer world for all as we try to reach it, and not to let others corrupt and subvert it for their own ends. Wagner himself sums it up in his own notes with his accompanying script pages:

America – not so much a place as an ideal. In these times of increasing authoritarianism, even in the Western world – when the reins of power have fallen into the hands of crooks, self-serving conmen and shameless liars – the message in the story is more pertinent than ever.

We’ve got to keep looking for America.”

This review was originally penned for Down the Tubes

Reviews: Victory Point

Victory Point,
Owen D. Pomery,
Avery Hill

During the seemingly endless, long, slow days of the main part of Lockdown, Avery Hill released a trailer for Owen D Pomery’s upcoming Victory Point, and sent me a link to view it, along with a few preview pages. It’s fair to say I was smitten right away, and it brightened a Lockdown day; I’ve been waiting since then to get a proper read at the full graphic novel. I was not disappointed. I’ve long had what I refer to as my “bookseller’s Spidey-sense” (caused by a paper cut from a mildly radioactive book) that gives me a vibe on certain new books, before I have even read them, and I know I am going to like them a lot. I don’t know how that vibe works, but it’s never steered me to a bad read yet, and I got it in spades looking a the previews and trailer for Victory Point.

Owen’s educational and professional background is in architecture and illustration, and that shows very much in Victory Point. A small coastal village, it is unusual – not to mention extremely pretty – for having been designed entirely by one architect as part of a socio-architectural experiment in the inter-war years, to create a small town that would not only be a home to families but be a base for artistic and scientific colonies (perhaps inspired by some of the artist colonies that for many years drew creators to places like Saint Ives). In true British tradition, this vision was never fully realised, with only part of the town constructed, and it soon turned into a regular, quiet little seaside town, save for the unusual architecture that visually unites the area.

And what a style it is, all beautiful, clean lines of 30s Modernist architecture, elegant without being fussy, the buildings and streets carefully situated into the descending slope of the coastal landscape as it reaches down from cliffs above to the beaches and sea below, all drawn in Owen’s handsome, clear-line style. We first see Victory Point on a bright, summer’s day, as Ellen, a bookseller in the (unnamed) big city is returning by train; this is her home-town, and she is coming back to visit her dad.

The fact that it is a summer’s day makes it ideal for luxuriating in the views of these gorgeous Modernist buildings that festoon the slopes of the hills, the elegant curves, the whitewashed walls catching the light beautifully. I’ve always loved the architecture of this period, and there is something particularly nice about this style when on the coast. I still have childhood holiday memories of Morecambe in the summer, and the beautiful Midland Hotel (fortunately now refurbished and restored), with its Modernist and Art Deco grace right by the sea, catching the light and making me think of the great ocean liners from the golden age of travel – long before I was old enough to understand what those art and architectural styles were, I knew they were beautiful.

The pace of the story is leisurely, and this allows Owen to indulge himself and the reader in the luxury of just wallowing in a pool of beautiful illustrations, as the returning Ellen walks through her old home-town to her parent’s house, and we are treated to so many simply wonderful, beautiful panels, with many of the panels being large, or even entire pages, the better to drink in the art. The pictures also do a magnificent job of conveying something of that glorious light quality of a clear, summer day by the coast, especially on that handsome, whitewashed architecture.

Not that this is a book just about a beautiful architectural experiment turned delightful anomaly – students come out from the city to behold “what might have been” if the experiment had been completed and expanded to others, but they see only the myth of the genius of the designer, not the fact that it is a real place, with real people living real lives (I must confess, despite vastly different architecture – though just as striking – I experience the same often in Edinburgh where I live, where it feels many visitors see it almost as a set and forget it is a living, working place and home). No, there is a story here, about belonging, about home and leaving, about growing up, about being part of your family but also needing to be yourself, and that bittersweet mixture of hope and joy and regret and sadness that entails.

Victory Point perfectly captures that slightly surreal feeling of coming home when it isn’t really your home anymore, something most of us will have experienced. Going back to the home town, to the parental mansion, still home and yet, not really home, because now we are grown up and moved away somewhere else that is now home. But this is still somehow home too, but we feel a weird mix of being a visitor as well as belonging now. Likewise Ellen’s reunion with her dad expresses those feelings many of us will have had on going back home to a beloved parent, of realising they are getting older, that while you are all now adults and living your own lives, they are still forever interlinked, and that no matter how old you are, that feeling that in your parent’s heart of hearts, you are still their little child and they worry about you, want to help you, see you be happy, are planning, even now, to try and make sure you will be okay when they are no longer there (and how our minds rebel against the thought when they bring such plans up).

The artwork for the characters is reminiscent of the Herge style – no bad thing, of course – with the little dots for eyes and simple yet effectively expressive faces that still convey so much emotion despite their economy (a single panel of her dad hugging her when she arrives home is just beautifully done and radiates emotion), and characters, architecture and landscape are all integrated so well in Victory Point, not just from the visual, aesthetic point of view, but also in terms of the story and the competing emotions underlying it.

It felt to me that this elegant, beautiful, quirky failed socio-architectural experiment was in many ways a metaphor not only for Ellen’s life, but for any of our lives, how something can seem, from the outside, to look perfect, enviable even, be it another’s home or their life, compared to our own, but of course beneath those facades are the same complex problems everyone has. The use of matching architecture to make an almost uniform town, except real towns don’t exist that way, they’re a mixture of styles and periods, a melange, much like the lives of those who live in them. Or Ellen visiting the secretive little cove where she first learned to swim as a child, floating naked in the clear water, the perspective from above, showing the geology of the coastal hills meeting the sea, Ellen, wondering where her life will go next, floating, suspended between the sea and sky and land.

Yes, this is a visually stunning, beautiful piece of comics work, filled with elegant artwork and vistas designed to show those structures off, but it is also a quiet, gentle tale of life and growing up and our competing goals and emotional attachments to people and places that all go to make us who we are and form what we do, all the hopes and desire, all the fears and regrets. This is a book I will come back to again and again to just drink in.

This review was originally penned for Down The Tubes.

Review: Mongrel

Mongrel,
Sayra Begum,
Knockabout Comics

There’s an old saying that you will never understand another person, unless you walk some miles in their shoes. I’ve often thought that books, especially autobiographical works, are one of the best ways we have to learn at least some understanding of another person’s life, their culture, their perspectives, and Mongrel reinforces that belief. We may never truly be able to walk in another’s shoes, not completely – how could we, every life is a unique set of very personal circumstances, even the life experiences of twins will differ – but we can obtain a look into those other lives, other interests, worries, cultural drives and norms, and by doing so we expand our own world a little more (and hopefully make ourselves a bit more aware, a bit more open to the differing lives of others).

Drawn in a rather beautiful pencil work, Mongrel offers some beautiful visuals, lovely to look at but carefully done so they never overwhelm the subject matter. The style is quit distinctive too, especially the faces of Sayra and her family and friends, the large eyes and often profile perspective putting me in mind of the way humans are depicted in ancient Assyrian or Egyptian art. It’s an unusual style, at least in Western comics, but it works beautifully, as well as adding another layer of difference, reminding us that we’re looking into what, for many of us, will be a different culture, a different set of societal and familial norms. There are some lovely little visual techniques too – Shuna lost in thought of how her life has lead to this moment, her memories shown literally fragmented, like jigsaw pieces of her life, a thought bubble floating above her which she then reaches up and pops.

Walking through the door of my family home was like walking through a gateway to Bangladesh.”

Shuna’s story will, no doubt, be familiar to more than a few readers, those who have had to make that difficult journey that spans different, often competing, or even opposing cultural drives. Her religious upbringing and the societal expectations her parents – especially her mother – have are formed from Bangladeshi society, but Shuna and her siblings are being brought up in the UK. Try as they might to limit their children’s external activities – which friends they can see, when they can go out and when they cannot – they are, of course, exposed to other experiences and possibilities, and some of those seem alluring, exciting even, compared to home.

But home, as they say, is where the heart is, and for all the urge to rebel there is also an urge to conform, to please the parents and others in your community, to be an accepted, welcome part of it. While the experiences may differ, in many ways this is no different really from what most of us go through growing up, especially in our teens. We long to belong, for the warmth, love and safety and acceptance of family, but we’re also driven by the often contradictory impulse to stand out, to explore our own path. We want to belong and to be individual at the same time, one of the great contradictions of human nature, yes, but it is also part of what drives us to grow. It’s often a rocky road for most of us, but for those with strictly interpreted cultural beliefs and standards, it can be so much the harder, the possible penalties for transgression far higher.

It is to her great credit that Sayra explores all sides of this generational, cultural and societal problem. It would be all too easy to take a simplistic approach – make the parents out to be villains, inflexible, unwilling to bend to accommodate the fact they are raising their children in a different land with different standards and opportunities. Yet Sayra never falls into this trap. Which is not to say there isn’t conflict here, there is in fact a lot of that, and a lot of butting of heads, of inflexible approaches and failure to compromise, to try and adapt to each other’s competing drives and needs.

But Sayra makes it clear that her mother’s strict stance, no matter how harsh it may seem to us, is driven from love for her children – her religious beliefs make her fear that their failure to comply with how she thinks they are to behave imperils them, that it could take them from the path of righteousness and into temptation. In short that her children could damn themselves and on their day of judgement they would not ascend to Paradise and so she would lose them for all eternity.

Although Sayra is drawing on her own mixed heritage, being British Bangladeshi, there is much here that any of us will recognise from the awkward moments of our own youth, of striking out on our own, sometimes against what was expected of us, against a parent’s wishes or expectations. Family and people are family and people, no matter where we come from or travel to, after all. For those who have had an even harder journey trying to claim their own individual experience in the face of family, community and societal norms – cross-cultural children, gay or trans youth for instance – it will most certainly seem all the more familiar. The cultural imperatives and strifes may be different but the song remains the same. A beautiful and emotionally honest work

This review was originally penned for Down the Tubes

Reviews: Bluebard, a Feminist Fairytale

Bluebeard: a Feminist Fairy Tale,
Metaphrog,
Papercutz

I’ve adored Glasgow duo Metaphrog’s work for many years now – their wonderful Louis graphic novels always entranced me, with a subtle mixture of the child-like innocence and deeper layers of darkness behind that bright world, that rewarded multiple readings. I think that aspect of their storytelling has paid off handsomely in their output for Papercutz, with the previous books The Red Shoes and The Little Mermaid. Both presented magical worlds, enchantment and wonder, complimented by Sandra’s beautiful artwork (please, do go and take a look at the Little Mermaid in particular, the art is gorgeous), but the storytelling never shies away from the menace and darkness that lurk within those tales. Our collective imagination of fairy tales have always carried these dark elements – they were, after all, as much cautionary tales as they were entertainment, and Metaphrog’s approach has been perfectly suited to this.

I’m sure most readers will be familiar with the idea of Bluebeard – the mysterious, intimidating wealthy lord of a large castle, who plucks a young, innocent maiden from her simple but loving family life in the poor village to be his wife. Or at least his latest wife – the castle walls are adorned with portraits of a number of women, previous wives. What happened to all of them? Even for adults, familiar with the story, there is still a compulsion to see it retold, to experience that combination of wonder and chills (for the wondrous often comes with a dark shadow, to dare wonder is often to also court terror), something rewarding about revisiting it again – and that is one of the hallmarks of many fairy tales, that they are infinitely re-readable, adaptable, giving new meanings at different stages in our lives and experiences.

For the younger readers, who this is principally aimed at, it may, of course, all be new, their first time entering Bluebeard’s richly adorned yet somehow cold and loveless castle. While the main story beats of Bluebeard are all present, Metaphrog take care to introduce the main characters in the village: after a glimpse of the castle, and the deep, dark, menacing forest around it, we see the village, in much warmer, happy tones. There are lovely wee touches throughout – mended sections on house roofs, like patches on an old piece of clothing, hinting at a people who do not have much, but are able to get by, make do and mend, and are content with it because as long as they have those little homes and their families, what else do they really need?

Young Eve, the girl who Bluebeard will later claim as his latest wife, receives the most attention here, and I was pleased to see her richly described, and her family and friends around her. In some versions the bride to be is a just a two-dimensional character there to serve the plot, but that would never do for Metaphrog, they are too skilled in storytelling, and besides, there is, as the subtitle “a feminist fairy tale” suggests, a quite deliberate move here to ensure that the female characters are fully developed, not just pawns in a story to be moved around by the men in their life, and it is all the richer for it. This also has the bonus of making the readers much more invested in the characters and their fates, with the relationship between young Eve and her best friend from childhood, Tom, especially touching, a lovely, warm, pure love.

The artwork, as you would expect from previous books, is utterly gorgeous, colour schemes moving from warm tones for the village and family life, to darker hues and menacing shadows for the dark forest around the castle. There are many beautiful details and touches – among the portraits of the former wives, for instance, one that bears a remarkable resemblance to another strong woman, Frida Kahlo – and influences to be spotted and admired, with the use of silhouettes and shadows in some panels putting me in mind of the astonishing work of early film animation wizard Lotte Reiniger., while some of the art, especially characters and their expressions, eyes and so on, hint at an anime influence.

While the younger readers may not get those references, they will still react to the styles, the colours and framing, while it offers these lovely gifts to the adults reading with their children – and this really is a book to share with your children, and then explore some of the themes and the influences (a perfect excuse to introduce them to Reiniger’s animation, much of it available on YouTube, a good diversion during Lockdown! Who knows, it may even inspire some creative art in the young readers). I’ve already paged my way through this twice and I think like previous Metaphrog books it is going to reward repeat readings as there is so much detail and more references to get in Sandra’s artwork, while the strong female characters are inspiring, especially for young girl readers, but it’s good for the young boys to be exposed to strong girl characters too!

Metaphrog’s Bluebeard is pretty much a perfect balance of the wonder and the scarier elements a good fairy story requires, while taking time to enrich the characters and present us with strong female protagonists gives a welcome contemporary aspect while retaining the story’s ages-old nature at its core,and the cautionary, coming of age journey into adulthood elements, while the artwork has pages that adult and younger readers alike will happily lose themselves in. Ideal for younger readers, even better for adults to read with them (and why wouldn’t you? Storytelling with children is one of the nicest shared experiences we can have). Hugely recommended reading for young and the older (but still young in reading heart) alike.

Bluebeard by Metaphrog is published on May 5th – check their Twitter feed where, since they can’t celebrate the book launch in a bookstore or school because of the Lockdown, they are going to have a virtual celebration for the launch day.

Reviews: The Extraordinary Adventures Of Adele Blanc-Sec

Extraordinary Adventures Of Adele Blanc-Sec Volume 1,
Jacques Tardi,
Fantagraphics

And another Jacques Tardi piece I wrote for the now-defunct Forbidden Planet Blog, but somehow forgot to cross-post here on the Woolamaloo (in my defence I spent many of my own evenings writing or editing articles for the FP blog, unpaid, and didn’t have time or will to then do so on my own blog). So here below is my 2014 review of The Extraordinary Adventures Of Adele Blanc-Sec:

French creator Jacques Tardi has to be one of the most respected writer-artists working in comics, European or world-wide, and he is also a huge favourite of ours. Like Bryan Talbot he seems to have an uncanny ability to move through different mediums, adapting his art and style to suit all sorts of stories, from his early work back in the 60s in the famed Pilote comics magazine through adapting hard-boiled urban crime novels and his anger-fuelled, horror-filled World War One strips, but he has also created one of the great heroines of European comics, Adele Blanc-Sec, a writer by day, adventurer by night, Set in early 20th Century Paris, just a few years before the Great War, Adele stands out in an era when women were expected to ‘know their place’ in society, being a single woman of means, more intelligent and observant than the men around her and certainly far more adventurous.

Like Tintin she is an intrepid investigator of mysteries, and there is also something of the classic Scooby-Doo here as well in that there is often a fantasy or supernatural element (or at least seemingly supernatural – or is it??) to her stories. Fantagraphics have been translating and publishing Tardi’s works in English, to much acclaim, a series largely driven by Fantagraphics’ own Kim Thompson, not only a champion of quality comics work but also a multi-lingual editor, translating these works himself until his recent death (a major blow for both the publisher and the comics community in general). This first volume has been out of print for a while, but with a fresh print run on the way it seemed like a good time to turn our Classic Comic spotlight on to it.

This handsome hardback, full-colour volume actually boasts two stories in the one volume, collecting two of the original Adele Blanc-Sec albums, Pterror Over Paris and The Eiffel Tower Demon. Pterror introduces Adele to us and also the bizarre stories she can be caught up in, in this case a madcap science fiction tale worthy of a Victorian writer like Verne or even Conan-Doyle (in his Professor Challenger mode), in which a peculiar experiment, part palaeontology, part medical science, part mystical-mental ESP powers (a not uncommon theme for the era) combine in an attempt to resurrect a Pterodactyl from its millions of years of fossilised slumber. Those same mental powers which brought this extinct flying dinosaur back from pre-history are meant to guide it, but the animal instincts are too powerful and freed from it’s tomb the creature soars into the night-time skies of 1911 Paris and hunts on the wing, as it was meant to, bring terror – or ‘Pterror’ as the title puns – to the City of Lights, and drawing in both Adele and the bumbling police inspector Caponi (who became a regular character in the series).

What follows is a spectacular piece of high adventure as the incompetent police, scientists from the Museum of Natural History (where the Pterodactyl emerged from) and Adele all follow the trail of death and destruction left in the dinosaur’s wake, each with their own ideas and agenda. As well as superb Boy’s Own style adventure moments (the beast swoops down and rescues a man falsely accused of murder right off the guillotine scaffold) there are nice touches of humour (government minister calls head of police to complain who in turn calls his senior officer who calls his district chief who calls the unfortunate Caponi in a classic bit of bureaucratic pass-the-parcel). The second story offers a classic supernatural cult conspiracy tale, an elite of the city’s movers and shakers, hungry for ever more power (as those types often are), seek to bring back into our world the demon Pazuzu. But who is truly controlling this cult, and is the demonic monster we glimpse (even entering Adele’s nightmares) real or a front, just a control method to garner more power for some?

And the art throughout is glorious – Tardi creates and portrays a strong female lead character but doesn’t sexualise her – Adele is written and drawn as what she is, a strong, independent woman who knows her own mind and she isn’t waiting for some hero to come along, nor does she pine for romance. But away from the characters, there is also pure joy to be had in his depictions of early 20th century Paris. The scenes in the historic heart of this beautiful city are especially wonderful, because many of those locations are largely unchanged today. An opening scene in a wonderfully detailed Natural History Museum in the Jardin des Plantes depicts its iconic great hall while a number of scenes on famous Parisian streets will be instantly recognisable if you have ever walked them, or even if you have only viewed them in photos and films, this realistic detailing giving the grounding that allows the more fantastical elements to take flight (in the case of our winged dinosaur, literally).

In the second tale we go from the famous Parisian underground tunnels to the heights of the majestic Eiffel Tower on a snowy, winter night, and it is all so beautifully executed you find yourself going back through the book’s pages after finishing the story, just so you can stop and admire many of the scenes, especially those beautiful cityscapes. Stunning art from a master of the medium, a strong female lead, fantastical adventures which both pay homage to those Victorian/Edwardian lost world science fiction tales while at the same time also clearly poking a little fun at how ludicrous the concept is to modern readers (but in a loving way), demonic being and ancient dinosaurs running amok in the Paris of a century ago, scenes filled with period detail, what’s not to love here?