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Three Writers, One Reader

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Not pictured: Bloody huge and expensive collected editions.

So today I managed to make it to the comics shop, for a rather expensive visit. I only bought three actual comics, but the majority of the expense came from two omnibus editions that I’d been waiting on. More about those anon, but the three single-issue comics I picked up make for an interesting compare-and-contrast, so that’s what I’m going to do. Three writers, all British, of differing eras and evoking rather different responses.

First up on the critical chopping block is Grant Morrison with Multiversity #1. Morrison was an early arrival to American comics, part of the first wave of British writers who invaded in the wake of Alan Moore’s work on Swamp Thing and Watchmen. That makes him a contemporary of Neil Gaiman, but whereas Gaiman is a master storyteller, Morrison is more interested in the intersection between stories and the real world. With Morrison’s work, the storyteller’s mind is almost always visible, and while that can create intellectually challenging work, it also leaves the writer in danger of disappearing up his own fundament.*

With Multiversity, Morrison continues his role as the mad genius of DC Comics. In this role, he’s been responsible for some fascinating comics (Batman Inc., Seven Soldiers of Victory), some messy disasters (Final Crisis), and at least one work of genius (All-Star Superman). Multiversity is very much more in the mode of Final Crisis—a massive crossover “event” title, but whereas for that Morrison was seen as an architect of DC strategy, with all the associated editorial fetters that brings, here he’s been given multiple alternative universes to play with, outside of DC’s mainstream output. The result is a title that’s fascinating to read but not exactly easy to understand.

Multiversity is very much a comic about comics, addressing itself directly to the reader on the first page. It’s illustrated in classic heroic style by Ivan Reis, but as always with Morrison, there’s little assistance for the initiated. The tendency of characters to declaim rather than talk, the inspection of all the strange corners of superhero comics, the combination of playfulness with epic themes: there’s plenty of meat here for Morrison fans and superhero scholars, but if you’re not one or the other, or possibly both, you’re likely to be left cold.

If Multerversity tends towards the opaque, Warren Ellis’s Supreme: Blue Rose #2 is wilfully obscure. Ellis is of the generation after Morrison, arriving in American comics with Marvel before proceeding to redefine the breadth of the superhero genre with The Authority and its depth with Planetary, then kicking it in the balls with the genuinely hilarious Nextwave. Ellis’s comics output has been sketchy in recent years for various reasons, not least of which is his own curiosity. He jumps from theme to theme and technique to technique in a manner that’s probably a little frustrating to his fans (such as myself), but the result is a body of work that’s probably the most diverse in mainstream comics today.

With Supreme: Blue Rose, Ellis is doing an unusual thing for him and walking in already-trodden ground. The character of Supreme was created by Rob Liefeld as a modern Superman clone and reinvented by Alan Moore as a vehicle for investigating and celebrating the strangeness of Golden Age superhero comics. Ellis’s take on the character is hard to define as yet (two issues in and there’s no sign of anyone called Supreme) but he’s definitely found something in the idea that he thinks is worth mining, as the central character of Diana Dane begins to explore a universe seemingly gone awry and existing as one of many possible realities.

So far, it’s hard to tell where Ellis is going with all of this. That’s not to say that the feeling of being confused is an unpleasant one. Ellis likes to experiment with the comics form, occasionally paring it back to the bare essentials, but on his game he’s as good a storyteller as anyone, and here he’s aided and abetted by the painterly beauty of Tula Lotay’s artwork, all sketchwork and pastel colours. Supreme: Blue Rose may eventually take its place among Ellis’s finest works, or it may falter and prove to be a flawed experiment. Either way, on current evidence, it’s fascinating and worth your time.

Rounding out the British trio is Kieron Gillen, with The Wicked + the Divine #3. Gillen is a recent arrival on the American comics scene, having enjoyed critical and fan acclaim for his runs on Journey into Mystery and Iron Man. Here he’s working again with his most notable artistic partner, Jamie McKelvie, with whom he’s already created Phonogram and Young Avengers. I’ve only recently started picking up his work, but he started by reading the same sort of comics as me**, and I’ve been reading his writing since his time as a writer for PC Gamer magazine.

With The Wicked + the Divine, as with Phonogram, Gillen is riffing on his love of music. A tale of mortals reborn as gods, living two years of glory before inevitable death, it’s laden down with as many fascinating resonances and sources as the work of Ellis and Morrison but presented in a much more approachable fashion. Perhaps a little too approachable—the first two issues had introduced the world and its main characters in sure-footed fashion, but #3 not only brings in a tricky character in the form of the triple-goddess Morrigan but also lays out the murder mystery that’s driving the series’ opening arc. It does so in a playful fashion, but it’s creaking a little at the seams, never more so than on the third page, which is painfully reminiscent of Ellis’ work on Transmetropolitan.***

However, when the worst you can say about a comic is that it creaks a little in presenting its backstory, and the only actual misstep takes up no more than a single page, then you’re talking about something special. McKelvie’s art is clear and attractive, fitted perfectly to Gillen’s tale of modern-day gods of the music world, and this is just the first act of a series that’s aiming to be another long-form novel in graphic form, akin to Sandman and Transmetropolitan. Gillen’s fondness for twists in the narrative is already much in evidence, and for myself I wouldn’t be surprised if his reader-substitute, point-of-view character Laura is hiding a few dark secrets of her own. Whether you prefer single issues or collected editions, The Wicked + the Divine is something you might want to sample to see if it fits your frame of mind.

Oh, and as for those omnibuses? Well, one of them was the second half of Gillen’s run on Journey into Mystery, wherein his mastery of building a twist narrative and his equal mastery of screwing with the emotions of his Tumblr followers first came into public view. The other was the fourth and penultimate volume of Mike Carey’s Lucifer, the real successor to Neil Gaiman’s legendary Sandman. Carey is a writer who deserves a post all of his own, given my love of his work, and I hope to get around to writing that eventually.

*One of Morrison’s best works, to my mind, is We3, in which he restrains his metatextual tendencies.

**During his Iron Man run, Gillen managed to secure my everlasting affection by bringing back one of my favourite characters, Death’s Head, in a pitch-perfect cameo role.

***Ellis is an acknowledged influence on Gillen’s work. Gillen has also taken to heart Ellis’s engagement with his online audience, focusing in particular on Tumblr, where he regularly dissects the thinking behind his own work.

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October Book Reviews

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Light, medium and heavy reading.

A quiet month on the book front, due to circumstances about which I’ll be going into more detail anon. The next few months are likely to be just as quiet if not more so on the fiction-reading front, but other things are going to be filling in. So more details on that soon, but for the moment, here are some views on books that came my way last month. (Three of which, by the way, were birthday presents – so thanks John!)

The Boys From Brazil, Ira Levin: A classic of the thriller genre, with the best villains of all – Nazis – pitted against an aging, tired hunter faced with a an unthinkable plot. Levin lays out all the elements of the plot carefully, playing each card at the right time all the way up to the final confrontation. If you’ve seen the movie, then the central twist has already been revealed, but knowing it hardly spoils the book, and in fact the book even explores its ramifications more deeply, though the very last page might be a little too cliched.

Revolution 2.0, Wael Ghonim: A personal memoir of the revolution that toppled Egypt’s government in January and February 2011, told by the Google marketing executive who inspired much of it, this is an eye-opening tale of just what can be achieved through social media. Despite his post at Google, Ghonim’s point of view is a solidly Middle Eastern one, and his revolutionary activities were born out of a love of his country and a desire for justice—two traits that saw him abducted just as the revolution was reaching its height. This is a personal story rather than a blueprint for similar activities elsewhere, and it is unapologetically focused on Egypt, but anyone who is interested in how governments and the Internet are likely to interact in years to come, it’s a must read.

Doctor Nikola, Master Criminal, Guy Boothby: The tales of Doctor Nikola, a gentlemanly criminal mastermind, and his more rough-and-tumble adversaries and compatriots, were exceptionally popular in their time, and two of them are collected here. Boothby’s prose has not dated as well as some, and his action is now too reserved for pulpish excitement and his writing too stilted to get anywhere near the imprimatur of serious literature. However, as a window into British Victorian attitudes and a snapshot of a world where there was still adventure and mystery beyond the horizon, it’s a fascinating diversion.

Charles Dickens: A Life, Claire Tomalin: England’s most representative author gets a thorough going-over from Claire Tomalin, revealing the exceptional talents and the the darker corners of someone who did his best to live up to his own legend. Splitting her attention more or less equally between the man and his works, Tomalin isn’t afraid to point out where Dickens fell short, and indeed she does so with such regularity that you have at times to wince for a man who was protective of his own reputation in his lifetime. Yet with all his flaws and failings, Dickens still manages to come through as someone deserving of his status, and this is an exceptionably readable portrait of a man of genius and the world he inhabited and depicted with unsurpassed skill.

July Book Reviews

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Nothing to do with books, just a visual representation of my state of mind.

In the absence of anything resembling a summer, it was no hardship to retreat into a few good books (and at least one not so good). Wholly fiction this time out, if with a hint of history in some of the pieces reviewed. Plus, my first review of a graphic novel and a stand-out piece at that.

The Betrayal, Helen Dunmore: In the years after World War II, a Leningrad doctor and his family find themselves caught up in the politics of paranoia and fear, where the desire to be a good human being comes into conflict with the need to protect oneself and those one cares about. Deeply researched, this is a very human story taking place in a world that feels entirely genuine, from the daily lives of those surviving in the last days of Stalin’s reign to the constant fear of the political apparatus that surrounds them and crushes those that come to its notice. It never hits the heights of drama, but that’s not really the point: this is a human story of endurance and patience, one in which the small victory of surviving is enough to overcome the terror of being mangled by the machinery of an oppressive state.

Seven Days in New Crete, Robert Graves: Cast into a future utopia founded on Goddess worship and occult social control, a poet finds himself the catalyst for the introduction of evil as a force for change. Writing in the wake of WWII, from the perspective of a veteran of WWI, Graves is clinical as he cuts into the notion of how ensuring the best of all possible worlds can’t account for the imperfections and the desires of the human heart. His vision of a future grown stagnant in its peaceful compacency is a chilly one, even as it builds towards a frenzied climax, but it’s the voice of the observer who comes to understand the world he finds himself in even as he begins the process of its disintegration that makes this worth reading.

A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan: Charting a spiral course through the lives of an interconnected group of characters, Egan’s novel constucts a web-like frame on which she hangs the struggles of those characters to connect, comprehend and survive everything that life throws at them, as well as their decisions to maintain their masks or reveal their fragile selves. That unusual structure provides much of the life for this novel, which paints its characters in humour and desperation as they strut their brief moments on the stage before stepping into the background of someone else’s tale. It’s an easy book to become attached to, and it’s over all too soon.

Surface Detail, Iain M. Banks: Returning to the Culture, his galactic society of hyper-intelligent AIs and adventurous and occasionally lost humans and aliens, for a tale of war, revenge and heaven and hell, Banks proves himself in fine, if somewhat light, form. The central conceit of artificially constructed hells and a war fought over the moral right to destroy them interweaves with a woman seeking revenge for her own murder, but this is a romp with disturbing overtones rather than an exploration of deeper themes. Tinged with more Adamsian touches than usual, particularly in the form of a warship AI absurdly delighted at the opportunity to exercise his gifts, but this is a fine addition to the series of Culture novels in its own right, albeit one where the whimsy occludes the admittedly heavy subject matter.

Criminal: The Deluxe Edition, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips: Brubaker and Phillips are one of the finest writer-artist teams in comics, and this beautifully presented collection of three interwoven tales of betrayal and secrets among the criminal fraternity is a fantastic introduction to their oeuvre. Damned by their own pasts, the protagonists of the three tales may be the most moral of the characters inhabiting their shared world, but that’s a relative term, and the world of the lawless that they inhabit is one where no-one has clean hands and the spark of hope is always at risk of being snuffed out by someone more brutal or better prepared to step beyond the bounds of the unthinkable. Phillips’ scratchy, yet solid, art perfectly matches Brubaker’s terse dialogue and descriptive narration, and together they create a world of dark corners and filthy alleys that’s impossible not to get sucked into.

Mythago Wood, Robert Holdstock: Delving back deeper than Tolkienian fantasy, Holdstock works with the clay of primal mythmaking as he crafts a tale of a family whose encounters with the last vestiges of chilly antiquity change them utterly. Steeped in British folklore and spanning the human imagination from the last ice age to the second world war, this is a story in which the very human emotions of love and loss are rooted in and sometimes overwhelmed by the unconscious need to craft stories out of the world that surrounds us. Deservedly a modern classic of the fantasy genre, it’s a fascinating read, dominated by the stunning creation of the myth-infused world that lies within a single scrap of primeval woodland.

The Bone Hunters, Tom Holland: When one of your leading characters is a “naive but wilful heiress,” you know that you’re in for a traditional romance, for all that the setting is the Bone Wars between palaeontologists in 19th century U.S., amid the blood and recrimination of the Indian Wars. So it proves to be, though that’s a far less important sin for this book than the kludgy language and the choice of the author to mark every encounter and glance between two characters with at least three paragraphs of insight, flashback and emotional resonance. There’s an interesting story here, one with historical resonance and clever use of its setting, but it’s buried very, very deeply by the language and syntax, and I’m still not altogether sure it was worth unearthing it.

September Reviews

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David Hasslehoff: not pictured.

It’s amazing how many dodgy movies you can watch on a trans-Pacific flight. Especially when you really should be sleeping. that’s why there’s a bit more substance to this month’s reviews than I had expected. A pleasant surprise, though few of the movies in question were.

Movies

Green Lantern: A superhero film with a split personality, Green Lantern is half space-based, exposition-heavy mythology and half Earth-based “coming to terms with your past” hero creation. The film deliberately goes for an epic feel, but a script that insists on explaining every point bogs it down, and the grand spectacle of the ultimate enemy loses any emotional weight in the welter of unconvincing CGI. In the other half of the story, Ryan Reynolds struggles to avoid equating “overconfident” with “asshole” while the remainder of the cast fail to stand out much.

Super 8: JJ Abrams’ homage to the Spielberg movies of the ‘80s, Super 8 throws a bunch of kids into an encounter with an alien that’s a little bit ET and a little bit Cloverfield. The kids themselves are well cast, as are the adults that surround them, and the ‘80s setting is meticulously replicated, but there’s a certain hollow feeling, as though the surface but not the heart of the original films has been recreated. This is particularly notable in the level of gore in the film, which is somewhat surprising in a film ostensibly aimed at a family audience.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides: Johnny Depp returns as Jack Sparrow in the latest in the money-spinning series of films from Disney, breaking free from the convoluted story of the original trilogy into a more straightforward search for the Fountain of Youth. Several familiar faces return, and new ones are provided in the form of Ian McShane’s Blackbeard and Penelope Cruz as his daughter, but despite an Orlando Bloom replacement, the focus is entirely on Depp this time, and his prancing, mascara-laden character may well be one we’ve seen quite enough of already. It’s a decent enough action film and an improvement on the overblown messes that the previous two films in the series were, but the profit-driven motive behind spending money on this and not on something a little more original is wearying.

Books

The Inimitable Jeeves, P.G. Wodehouse: Gentle, superbly crafted and almost guaranteed to raise a smile, Wodehouse’s tales of the genial wastrel Bertie Wooster and his efficient, all-knowing butler Jeeves are not so much literature as a pick-me-up in literary form. The episodic stories are a little repetitive, with Bertie struggling with problems caused by his troublesome relatives and friends until Jeeves devises a solution, but the reason it all works so well is Wodehouse’s masterly command of the English language and his creation of an idealised world of fools and cads. Delightful to step into at any time, this is an ephemeral confection that even those with no time for the idle rich will find it hard to resist.

Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman: As an author, Neil Gaiman excels in creating worlds that the reader would love to visit, no matter how many villains inhabit them, because they run on beautifully logical fairytale versions of the everyday world’s cause and effect. Neverwhere, a novelisation of the BBC series of the same name, presents a version of London in which a shadowy underworld exists, based on the names and geography of the upper world, extended literally and metaphorically as deep as they will go. A classic hero’s tale, populated by some of the most appealing and quirky characters Gaiman has ever invented, it’s a story that’s over far too quick for all it promises to contain.

Catching Up

There's reality, and then there's "reality".Explanation to follow.

Time for me to do a bit of housecleaning. I’m in Nara, Japan, at the moment, having spent most of the last three days on my feet from dawn to dusk (it being slightly after dusk here at the moment), making the most of simply being in Japan and exploring the temples, forests and back streets of Kyoto, Uji and Nara. However, with Tokyo looming and the possibility that I might not have much time for, well, anything in the near future, I’m taking an hour or two out to put certain things in order. The first thing being my photos, which are rapidly becoming a massive, unedited collection, relatively useless until I sort through them.

The second thing being my monthly reviews, which are, oh, just a little bit delayed at present. So, without further ado, and compressed into a single post, here’s August’s reviews.

Cinema Reviews

Fright Night: A glossy 3D remake of a 1980s teen horror film, this skimps on the subtlety and heads straight for the gore, with gushes of blood and large pointy things regularly heading out of the screen and towards the audience. The cast throw themselves into the spirit of the thing, especially David Tennant as a sleazy Vegas magician and Colin Farrell as the even sleazier predatory vampire neighbour. It’s paper-thin, lacking any reason to exist other than to entertain, and on that level it serves pretty well – but only see it in 3D if you like having things pointed at you, as the rest of the film is too murky otherwise.

Drive: Nicholas Winding Refn delivers a detached and dream-like film, saturated in ’80s style, portraying a Hollywood stunt driver who moonlights as a wheelman, seeking to live a normal life even as he deals with monsters. Ryan Gosling is almost mute in the role of the unnamed driver, who only reveals who he is when trapped by an attempt to do the right thing that goes terribly wrong. At times the long pauses and silences can seem pretentious, but there is substance under all the style and some fine performances from a notable cast.

Conan: Okay, I’ll admit that I saw this in Russian, without subtitles, and may have missed out on some subtleties of plot and character, but then Conan has never been a character who’s traded in subtlety. For all the extra gore, dirt, nudity and CGI, this isn’t too far away from the Arnie original, and its design work does a good job of portraying a world of terrible antiquity, even though the whole thing does tip over into cheesiness every so often. Jason Momoa offers an imposing physical presence in the lead role, even though he’s more pantherish compared to Arnie’s beefcake, but it’s questionable whether he or the film have made the character unique enough to earn a second run at a cinematic outing.

Book Reviews

Mockingjay, Suzanne Collins: The “Hunger Games” trilogy comes to an end with a war waged as much through public relations as violence, but one that is no less shattering for its participants for all that. Collins does not stint in depicting the brutal impact, both physical and mental, of being at the centre of this conflict on her protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, as she learns the difference between those who wage war because they have to and those who wage war because it is expedient. Genuinely heartwrenching at times, it refuses to offer easy answers, and even its potentially cliched love triangle is played out in a believable and affecting manner.

Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, Paul Theroux: Replicating a journey he took three decades earlier, the author travels around Asia, revisiting old haunts as a curmudgeonly ghost, alternately enthralled and appalled at the changes and the things that have remained the same. Leavening his sometimes dyspeptic gaze is the fact that he’s willing to fall in love with a scene or a face at a moment’s notice. Ultimately, this is a book about travel, not tourism, and it’s far from being a guidebook of any kind, but it will be hard for anyone to read it and not wish to follow at least part of the way in the author’s footsteps.

The Year of the Flood, Margaret Atwood: Not so much a sequel to Oryx and Crake as a companion piece to it, telling of the end of humanity from a new perspective, this is the story of those whom that apocalypse was inflicted upon, even as they dealt with their own crumbling lives. Atwood takes a light touch in dealing with the eco-cult who dominate the structure of the book, leaving the reader uncertain as to exactly who is being laughed at, with the inevitable answer being everyone, at one time or another. Dark where it needs to be, humorous where it can be and human everywhere, this doesn’t have the impact of its predecessor, but apart from its overuse of coincidence, it’s a fine addition to the story.

Carter Beats the Devil, Glen David Gold: The jazz-age era of stage magicians is evoked with well-researched detail in this twisty thriller, focusing on the career of “Carter the Great” and its links to the foremost developments of the age. Carter is a suitably complex character for this well-crafted story, and although his personal issues are intertwined with the greater developments in the plot and the world at large, he always remains on the right side of self-indulgence. There’s plenty of detail for the reader to get their teeth into, but ultimately this is a satisfyingly straightforward tale of revenge, lost love and secrets.

In all likelihood, there will be very few September reviews. I’ve seen no movies and read only two books, but at least I have an excuse. I’ll make up for it when I get the chance.

Oh, and the third thing, related to that picture above? Martin McGuinness’s plans to run for president of Ireland, which is a news story that broke while I was somewhere in Russia, I think. Now, my viewpoint on Sinn Fein is somewhat biased by the fact that they aided and abetted a bunch of murderous bastards who kept the population of Northern Ireland (all of them, not just half of them) terrorised for three decades. If he’s willing to work to undo some of what Sinn Fein caused over the years, fair enough. But until and unless the party as a whole and he in particular can accept responsibility for what they did, I have no interest in seeing him become the personal representative of the nation that I’ve made my home in for half my life, and which is more than willing to claim me as a citizen.

All right, rant over. Japan is great in many, many ways, some of which I’ll be sharing soon, I hope. Heading to Tokyo tomorrow for yet more adventures, and then the grand tour of the U.S. to wrap it up. It’s been a long, strange trip already, and I’m only about halfway through.