Sunday, 31 March 2013

Top 10

Alan Moore, Gene Ha & Zander Cannon Top 10 book one (2000)

Here's another title I happened upon by chance when noticing that the local library had added a graphic novel section. I'd been driven away from comics a few years earlier by the contents of Grant Morrison's navel and Garth Ennis celebrating his five-hundredth successful retelling of that story in which a man, nursing a hangover following a night of Guinness and Irish show tunes, finds himself wrestling inner demons; Top 10 seemed oddly uninviting, and it took me a long time to get around to borrowing the collection, but it left a good enough impression for me to buy the thing more recently when I stumbled across a copy in Half-Price.

I'd lost track of Alan Moore roughly around the time of From Hell - issues of which I kept missing for some reason - but assumed he'd turned his back on superheroes - excepting I suppose 1963 which seemed so far into the realms of parody that it probably didn't count. It seems I had assumed correctly, as he explained here:
At the time I thought that a book like Watchmen would perhaps unlock a lot of potential creativity, that perhaps other writers and artists in the industry would see it and would think this is great, this shows what comics can do. We can now take our own ideas and thanks to the success of Watchmen we'll have a better chance of editors giving us a shot at them. I was hoping naively for a great rash of individual comic books that were exploring different storytelling ideas and trying to break new ground.

That isn't really what happened. Instead it seemed that the existence of Watchmen had pretty much doomed the mainstream comic industry to about twenty years of very grim and often pretentious stories that seemed to be unable to get around the massive psychological stumbling block that Watchmen had turned out to be, although that had never been my intention with the work.

More recently, he expanded upon the specific details of his disillusionment with the genre:
I've recently come to the point where I think that basically most American superhero comics, and this is probably a sweeping generalisation, they're a lot like America's foreign policy. America has an inordinate fondness for the unfair fight... I believe that the whole thing about superheroes is they don't like it up them. They would prefer not to get involved in a fight if they don't have superior firepower, or they're invulnerable because they came from the planet Krypton when they were a baby. I genuinely think it's this squeamishness that's behind the American superhero myth. It's the only country where it's really taken hold. As Brits, we'll go to see American superhero films, just like the rest of the world, but we never really created superheroes of our own.

Nevertheless, as is probably obvious, before too long he came crawling back with the America's Best Comics imprint, and so at the risk of reviewing by quotation:
When I was working upon the ABC books, I wanted to show different ways that mainstream comics could viably have gone, that they didn't have to follow Watchmen and the other 1980s books down this relentlessly dark route. It was never my intention to start a trend for darkness. I'm not a particularly dark individual. I have my moments, it's true, but I do have a sense of humor. With the ABC books I was trying to do comics that would have perhaps appealed to an intelligent thirteen-year-old, such as I'd been, and would still satisfy the contemporary readership of forty-year-old men who probably should know better. But I wanted to sort of do comics that would be accessible to a much wider range of people, and would still be intelligent even if they were primarily children's adventure stories.

So there you go.

Top 10, not entirely unlike Marshal Law, presents a variation on an old Simpsons Comics storyline in which the atomic power plant inadvertently irradiates the entire population of Springfield turning everyone into caped superheroes, or at least there's so many of them walking, flying, or swimming around as to negate the prodigal implication of the super suffix. Possibly this is why Moore dubs the inhabitants of his sprawling Neopolis science-heroes - they may have strange, unearthly powers, but so does everyone else, and they're so regular they could have been written by Harvey Pekar.

Whilst Marshal Law bends the genre over for a prune juice enema it will never forget, Top 10 is an altogether more gentle affair - sort of like Moore's Bojeffries Saga rewritten as Hill Street Blues with superheroes - packed with gritty blue collar detail, yet very funny without feeling the need to pull Lenny Henry comedy faces. Because it's always easier to dissect a flaw than a virtue, it's actually quite difficult to know what to say about Top 10 once we're past motivation, secret origins, and descriptions of what it isn't, not least because it's so unassuming. There's no big message; it just tells a story - or rather several stories simultaneously - and leaves the reader  reminded of how much fun superhero comics could be before Moore unwittingly ruined it for everyone with Watchmen - by his own testimony -  and had to re-reinvent them all over again.

Weirdly, I think this might be one of the best things Alan Moore has ever written, and before I forget, the art is absolutely sublime.

Saturday, 30 March 2013

Marshal Law Takes Manhattan

Pat Mills & Kevin O'Neill
Crime and Punishment: Marshal Law Takes Manhattan (1989)
At some point around five or six years ago I noticed that I owned one hell of a lot of books that I'd never read, and in fact there were a good few which had been sat on my shelves for no less than two decades without my ever having quite got around to cracking open the cover. This struck me as depressing and ridiculous given how much I enjoy buying books, and reading them when I remember to do so. So I spent some time catching up and made a promise that never again would I fall back to such pathetic habits, and so was born my to-read pile, which I strive to keep down to as few titles as possible at any given time. When the pile grows tall, I try to hold back from further incrementation with any new purchases until it has resumed manageable size, which isn't easy as I enjoy browsing in book stores and buying books.

This requires a certain amount of self-discipline. You might say it constitutes work in some sense, and it therefore feels like a kick in the teeth when my patience and restraint are rewarded with something like E.E. 'Doc' Smith's Masters of Space, anticipated as a literary bouquet of vintage fun and wonder, experienced as akin to a burping sex offender wiping his spent tool on my sandwiches. In need of some sort of brain enema by which I might flush out the lurid gunge of stacked scientist chicks who could pass for seventeen if you know what I'm saying, I opt for comfort food, retiring to bed with a big stack of comics and a carton of Little Debbie Swiss rolls.

And so once again to Marshal Law...

The one-off Marshal Law Takes Manhattan is as short and sharp a shock as you're likely to find in a comic that actually has a story as opposed to being just a sequence of pages of people being punched in the face, although there is quite a lot of that going on here as well. To suggest that Pat Mills' psychotic future lawman lacks subtlety would not be so much an understatement as just a deeply fucking stupid thing to say, roughly equivalent to whining that the Les Humphries Singers' 1976 Eurovision entry 'Sing Sang Song' is the worst industrial hardbeat track you've ever heard. Subtlety is neither the point nor the means of its delivery. Marshal Law is about direct upper case statements broadcast at maximum volume, or if not exactly statements, then insults, sarcastic remarks, and wilfully prurient observations - if Batman had started out in Viz comic drawn by members of Crass, or something. It's very noisy and very funny, on this occasion biting the entire arm that feeds - this originally having been published by Marvel's Epic line - by recasting the Avengers as the unfortunates of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. As a superhero comic written by a guy who really, really hates superhero comics, it's very, very funny; as a comment on the genre, it's merciless; and as a satire of American foreign policy, it hits its target dead, absolutely chilling and without a word wasted.

Jesus - I needed that.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013


E.E. 'Doc' Smith Triplanetary (1934)

Prior to tackling E.E. 'Doc' Smith, I'd been primed with conflicting opinions of the chap's work. My friend Gareth rated the Lensman series quite highly, whilst I got the impression that Carl viewed E.E.'s oeuvre as being on par with Bernard Manning or perhaps The Mission in their respective fields of racist comedy and po-faced sixth form poetry set to music with far too much echo. Being as Gareth had a habit of dropping words like yonder and behold into casual conversation, and Carl was usually on the money about most things - much as I sometimes wished it were otherwise - I approached Smith's 1920 novel The Skylark of Space with great trepidation; and against expectation it turned out to be great - also fairly stupid what with the constant pipe-smoking, ships travelling seven-hundred times the speed of light, and giggly women rushing off to fetch their coloured pencils - but it read like the work of someone who had a lot of fun writing it, and so was difficult to dislike.

1934's Triplanetary is a little more earnest, and quite conspicuously a forerunner to the space opera of Stephen Baxter, Peter F. Hamilton and those guys. It's competent, with convincing descriptions of protons and the like, and much closer in both spirit and execution to the sort of fiction one associates with Asimov than the Flash Gordon dynamic that informed Skylark. That said, it's a little long-winded in places and not particularly engaging. There's a possibility that Edward Elmer may have addressed this when he came to revise Triplanetary in 1948, adding new material so as to make it a prequel to the Lensman books - all very exciting, or least it seems that way from the blurb on the jacket of my copy which describes all manner of things that don't happen in the story because they've screwed up and printed the earlier 1934 version inside this edition.

Never mind.

Compensation might have arrived in the form of the supplementary novel length Masters of Space, a 1961 collaboration with E. Everett Evans, another guy with initials suspiciously biased towards the fifth letter of the alphabet. The only problem is that Masters of Space is pure shite. I read thirty or so pages before bed, then another thirty as I woke next day - as is my habit - gradually realising during this second stint that I was unable to recall a single detail of what I'd already read. On close investigation this turned out to be because it doesn't really have a plot as such, just page after page of inconsequential conversation apparently written by someone who didn't quite get to grips with why Some Like It Hot was such a great film. Another emergent trope is that of the brilliant female scientist with massive tits who has had the additional foresight to be blonde - and we all know what blondes like, right guys? In fact there's a whole troop of nubile and knockery female theoretical physicists here; and even a planet full of realistic lady automatons with no inhibitions, if you know what I'm saying - and being automatons their function is to make men happy any way they can, and I mean any way.

Masters of Space is soft porn with space exploration standing in for the more traditional washing machine repair, and it's the soft porn of an era in which Dragnet was considered edgy - all veiled references to bosoms and coming across like a faintly sinister uncle smirking to himself at a teenage niece's sixteenth birthday party; which is why it took me a while to actually identify it as such. One kind of expects porn fiction to incorporate anatomical detail, a few rude words, or at least some sort of reference to things going in and out of other things, but here it's all knowing winks and mildly stomach-churning observations about how such and such a gal could pass for seventeen. It may sound side-splitting, but actually sitting down to read this shit is another thing entirely. I managed fifty pages, and that seemed like more than enough.

Looks like Carl was right after all.

Monday, 18 March 2013


Brian Aldiss Non-Stop (1958)

As I recall, I came across an overview of the career of Brian Aldiss in the short-lived Death Ray magazine, and - self-consciously aware of my being a bit of a science-fiction ignoramus beyond a ton of Philip K. Dick and things relating to a certain discredited TV show - I decided to give him a go by reading Non-Stop. I absolutely loved it, so I bought Hothouse which turned out to be even better. For the next couple of months I snapped up any Brian Aldiss title I happened upon whenever browsing second hand book stores. Unfortunately, when I actually came to read the things I discovered that whilst his novels tend to be excellent, he's written some of the worst short stories I've ever forced myself to finish; and although Non-Stop is a full-length novel, I've a feeling all those crappy space Vikings and special kinds of atom have somewhat soured me against the Aldiss; because second time around I just wasn't feeling this shit, as I explained to Lil Wayne last time we hooked up at the swap meet.

It looks fine on paper - the tribal society which somehow manages to forget that its world is really a vast spaceship crossing the interstellar void, and that its spear-wielding people are the distant descendants of a generation of once technologically literate colonists. Considering how this kind of story has since become something of a cliché - slow-witted cave dwellers offering sacrifices to Saint Thomas the Cooper in order that the crops should grow just like that - Non-Stop stands the test of time in terms of committing nothing too excessively cock obvious, being reasonable well told, and a half-decent tale to boot. Brian Aldiss seems to have a thing for humanity in alien environments, and his best novels tend to be accordingly themed: this novel, or the bizarre future Earth of Hothouse, or the impoverished inhabitants of the nightmarish Total Environment; and whilst Non-Stop probably is amongst his best...

I don't know. It seemed to drag its heels, and for something set amid such strange surroundings amongst such people, it was curiously lacking in description or characterisation. The book had its moments, but whatever made it seem so exciting during the first sitting was apparently only good for one serving; and weirdly, considering how this is probably the novel that got me reading outside my comfort zone in the first place, it's a struggle to find anything else I can say about it, except that Total Environment does much the same thing but to significantly greater effect.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

aNARCHY rULES 00: Before Dawn

Richard Dominic Flowers aNARCHY rULES 00: Before Dawn (2012)

Before Dawn is the first of a somewhat ambitious twelve volume undertaking by Richard Dominic Flowers, as yet unpublished but I got to read the first instalment regardless. I wouldn't even like to guess at where it's going, but saga is probably an appropriate term given the scale, and it appears to revolve around a character named Monkfish - nothing to do with the abrupt cockney detective from The Fast Show, I might hasten to add. If Before Dawn is representative, aNARCHY rULES concerns itself with the nature of fiction, mythology, and how these intersect with experienced reality, amongst other things, although to be fair I may just have pulled that one out of my ass because it sounded good. This volume is essentially a prologue and introduction to significant characters thematically aligned to the Major Arcana of the Tarot deck. It launches all sorts at the proverbial wall - Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, theoretical physics, alternate reality, Arthurian legend - and most of it sticks. It might be deemed a bit of a mess in so much as this kind of story will inevitably appear chaotic when viewed from certain angles; but I offer this as an observation rather than a criticism. In terms of craft, it's been a while since I read anything quite so finely honed, quite so trim and which makes such engaging use of language.

At the risk of flailing about and firing off at random, I've a hunch that aNARCHY rULES may turn out to be what Grant Morrison's Unreadables should have been but wasn't due to the overpowering quantities of smug that somehow contaminated the batch, roughly speaking; or Lawrence Miles writing Moorcock with some reckless fool having left William Burroughs in charge of  editing.

Before Dawn may only be a prologue but it promises a great deal - arguably more than a great many main features - and serves as a powerful appetiser for that which will hopefully come once Richard has time to write it.

Monday, 11 March 2013

Tough Toys for Tough, Tough Boys

Will Self Tough, Tough Toys for Tough, Tough Boys (1998)

During the three days it took me to read The Divine Invasion I came across at least two references to Finnegans Wake and three to Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, which struck me as odd given that only one of these occurred in relation to Dick's novel, popping up as I was skimming some background detail, and I'm not actually convinced I'd heard of Borges before. Now looking into the internet ephemera relating to this specific collection of short stories by Will Self, once again I come across the name of Borges. It's as though the cosmos is trying to tell me something, which is of course relevant to Philip K. Dick, possibly also to Jorge Luis from what I gather, and certainly to Will Self.

All three write or wrote within different regions of the vague hinterland of magic realism - or let's at least assume as much for the sake of argument - writing the impossible as common place, and the common place as magical. This squares neatly and synchronously with a line from third century Christian writer Tertullian quoted in Dick's Divine Invasion: Certum est quia imposibile est, roughly amounting to this thing is improbable and is therefore plausible; which in turn relates to Dick's observation regarding the surreal science-fiction novels of A.E. van Vogt, that fiction is often more convincing when things don't quite add up, when loose ends remain unresolved, because that's how real life occurs.

Arriving finally at my point, the above should probably be taken into account with Self's fiction, which dutifully invokes a reality at least as richly anatomical and honest as Lucian Freud's paintings of sagging breasts and wonky eyes, and which convinces to the point of defusing any surprise, any suspension of disbelief that might ordinarily be required when things turn weird. Amongst these stories are insects forming themselves into letters so as to spell out sentences across a work surface, requesting that the human in residence kindly cut it out with the fly spray; and there's the baby whose first words are revealed to be spoken in business German; and the emotos - twelve foot tall engineered humans whose sole purpose is to cuddle their neurotic upwardly mobile owners; and yet you never really notice that what you're reading is essentially barking mad.

In case it needs restating, language really is Will Self's bitch, and not just for the weird stuff smuggled in below the radar, but the basic flawless detail of characterisation. His crack-smoking aspirant yardies read as they should without any of the I sat next to one on the bus and isn't that Will Smith great deal that sometimes comes with black characters written by patently Caucasian Oxford graduates. More astonishing still is The Nonce Prize, set mostly in the sexual offences wing of a prison which briefly details a truly repulsive child abuse case without the faintest suggestion of a gleefully smirking author pushing those shock buttons in the hope of a reaction - the sort of thing Iain Banks never quite manages and which renders Irvine Welsh unreadable.

As a collection of short stories, this one isn't even Will Self's best effort, but it's still impressive.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

The Divine Invasion

Philip K. Dick The Divine Invasion (1980)

Narrowly read as I may well be, one of my absolute philosophical favourites is found amongst the five Mexican flower-songs translated from the Nahuatl by Thelma D. Sullivan and published in Mexico This Month magazine in 1963, later reprinted in A Scattering of Jades:

Where will I go?
Where will I go?
To the road, to the road
that leads to God.
Are you waiting for us in the Place of the Unfleshed?
Is it within the heavens?
Or is the Place of the Unfleshed only here on Earth?

The point of the song, in case it isn't obvious, is to question basic theological assumptions regarding the nature and even the existence of those Gods the Mexicans generally believed responsible for the creation of their universe: is there an afterlife to which we are assigned when we die, or do we just snuff it and that's your lot?

Most of Philip K. Dick's writing was similarly focused to a greater or lesser extent upon the nature of our existence on the Earth, and these themes became particularly pronounced in those books written after he went a bit bonkers in the wake of a series of peculiar psychological episodes. Well, maybe it's not that VALIS and The Divine Invasion - to name but two of the later works in question - examine our perception of reality with greater conviction than before so much as that Dick gave greater emphasis to theological aspects of the issue in his last years. The Divine Invasion, like VALIS to which it is loosely speaking a sequel, may be seen as tip to the huge iceberg that was Philip K. Dick's 8,000 page Exegesis, the private journal he maintained from 1974 onwards.

The story is, roughly speaking, the second coming of Christ according to Dick, who by then entertained a view of the world as an illusion wherein malign forces had concealed the true paradise created by a God who stepped outside for a smoke and hadn't been seen since. It works on its own terms, and works particularly well during the more traditionally Dickian blue collar passages with protagonist Herb Asher employed at an audio supplies store and becoming fixated on a thinly disguised Linda Ronstadt figure. It's less successful during the more theologically convoluted passages - ontological discussions upon the existence or otherwise of God which, if interesting enough, come to resemble texture rather than anything contributing specifically to the narrative. It works in so much as the detail of a Burroughs novel works, although Burroughs tends to be funnier in his randomly swerving from one side of the story to the other. I have a faint suspicion that it may only be the classical stature of Dick's reference material - the Torah, Plato and so on - which distinguishes this from the subterranean and psychotic ramblings of Richard S. Shaver in terms of composition, with Biblical theory as equivalent to donning a cape and speaking in a booming voice. I suspect this is why writers, in my experience, tend to play the metaphysical card with reference to Greek or Judeo-Christian rather than, for one example, Mexican texts. Some ideas carry authority, others are merely curios of mythology or anthropology, and I'm not sure of the factors distinguishing one from the other being necessarily anything to do with content.

Despite my whining, this is still a great novel and undeniably chewy, but it's some way from Dick's best and in places feels like the work of a broken man; which sadly it sort of was.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Spock Must Die!

James Blish Spock Must Die! (1970)

I'm pretty sure I had this book when I was a kid, one of those acquired through swapping stuff because it was Star Trek and I liked the cover, then swapped for something else because I never got around to reading it on account of there being no pictures inside. Years later, I was startled to realise that not only was James Blish an author of something other than television tie-in material, but was actually a science-fiction author of some standing, easily amongst the best of his generation.

I've never been a massive fan of Star Trek, but on the other hand neither have I ever had any particular dislike for any of its incarnations, and Deep Space Nine was pretty damn good, I thought - Babylon 5 with a sense of humour. I recall some theory knocking around regarding the supposed superiority of Doctor Who - seeing as we're talking television for the moment - presumably on the grounds of it having a British passport and being therefore intrinsically superior, what with Mighty Britain being the Earth's one true source of culture. Actually, I think the argument ran that Doctor Who is weird and quirky with our boy as an inherently anti-establishment figure, whilst the accursed Star Trek is about a spaceship full of Republican squares going around telling aliens what to do. It's a pretty stupid argument really, one that has little bearing on any of the actual stories involved, and you might just as well point out that Star Trek was often the weirder of the two, took more narrative risks, bothered to treat its audience as adults, and wasn't racially comparable to a 1979 Skrewdriver gig in Burnley.

Anyway, having been impressed by James Blish on several occasions, I tracked this down once again through simple curiosity. I had high hopes and have actually been surprised by how good it is. I'm not necessarily saying the earth moved, but Spock Must Die! is simply top quality science-fiction utilising established characters rather than the hackwork which tends to be unfortunately synonymous with this sort of thing. Blish doesn't hold back, giving the hard-science spigot the full turn with a liberal deluge of quarks, gravity waves, and the quantum mechanics of a transporter accident to Asimov levels of detail. Even more impressive is that whilst all this blinding science is a world away from what we saw on the magic telly box, there's nothing here that wouldn't have sounded absolutely natural spoken by William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy or James Doohan.

Good, inspired stuff.