Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Green Eyed and Grim

Selina Lock Green Eyed and Grim (2013)

Time again for yet another eNovella account of the pulp-inspired adventures of Cody Quijano-Schell's Señor 105, a masked Mexican wrestler deriving strange and implausible powers from a variety of masks attuned to the elements of the periodic table - something roughly in the same direction as the Santo films, if perhaps a little weirder in places.

Green Eyed and Grim gets off to such a good start as to inspire anticipation of this being the best published thus far - a wrestling match at INAH, and enough detail to suggest that Selina Lock has either spent time in Mexico City or else just put an exceptionally goodly helping of elbow grease into the homework. She really captures the sense of place and atmosphere, presenting the welcome prospect of a Señor 105 tale set in Mexico, and which works with its setting. I'm not sure if I expected this or not, but only knowing of Selina Lock as a name associated with small press comics and Caption events, I probably did. To some extent I've lost touch with small press comics circles in recent years, but have retained a lasting impression of artists and writers doing what they do mainly because they care, rather than because they're trying to raise funds for yachts or face lifts; and also the fact that Selina seems to be a friend of the excellent and terribly underrated Lee Kennedy bodes well, I would suggest.

That said, I had some minor niggles - a mild tendency towards slightly repetitive paragraphs as the story went on, certain words reused over and over in consecutive sentences; also, as with previous eNovellas, there are those same formatting issues still screwing up the flow of the text - spaces missing between the end of one passage and another, paragraphs lacking indention, the random occurrence of incongruously left aligned sentences halfway through an otherwise justified paragraph and so on; but seriously these were for the most part minor distractions and no more pronounced than our cat Fluffy wanting to come in from the garden whilst I was trying to read and so doing this thing where he manically scratches at the window with both paws producing what sounds like some window guy drunk in charge of a squeegee.

The story ends up in Palenque - actually a hell of a lot more than a couple of hours drive from Mexico City, and in the east rather than the south, but these are minor details of a kind that possibly only a confirmed train spotter like myself would notice; and details which somehow work as possibly unintentional homage to the loosely built worlds inhabited by cinematic luchadors of the fifties and sixties; and frankly it's such a fucking relief to read a story which brings poor old King Pacal into the picture - himself being the one interred at Palenque - and gets it right; no creaky attempts to turn him into the pilot of an ancient spacecraft or any of that stupid crap.

Green Eyed and Grim is a thoroughly satisfying story with a good, sturdy plot, excellent pacing and impressive attention to detail; and you can buy it here.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier

Alan Moore & Kevin O'Neill

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier (2007)
I initially found this volume of Moore's continuing revision of  characters from literary history into a single fictional continuum a wee bit underwhelming. Each block of narrative is punctuated with numerous pages of vaguely related text which somewhat disrupts the overall flow, not so much because comics necessarily make for easier reading than unalloyed prose but rather because page after comic book sized page of such small print can be quite off-putting. Additionally, it isn't always immediately obvious how these textual digressions relate to the rest of what's happening besides joining up a load of continuity for the sake of it.

However, my friend Steve suggested I persist with the book, pretend I'm on holiday, stuck in a caravan in the rain with only Black Dossier to keep me occupied. So I knuckled down and I'm sort of glad I did, although the five page stream of consciousness Kerouac pastiche was just a little too unreadable for my tastes, so I settled for the online summary which explained that, had I bothered to read it, I would have found it to be a canny exploration of the Burroughsian idea of language as a virus which itself relates directly to the theme of Black Dossier as a whole. Personally I think Moore would have been better off writing it as a direct pastiche of Burroughs, but never mind.

Anyway, this third volume of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is enjoyable enough, although it really doesn't have a story so much as a sequence of events sagging under the weight of references to everything from Coronation Street to Dan Dare to Enid Blyton's Adventures of the Wishing Chair - imagine a washing line hung with the underwear of every fictional character ever to grace a page - although many of said references are quite obscure, requiring one to be looking in the right place at the right time. There's a danger of the story amounting to who would win in a fight between Cybermen and Klingons? although it's intent is clearly more ambitious even if it lacks overt expression. It seems significant that James Bond is here shown as a hero of the establishment: brutal, cowardly, misogynist and anti-intellectual - a revised Bulldog Drummond lacking even the honesty of said reactionary forebear - and hence the enemy and bowdlerisation of earlier, arguably more imaginative heroes and heroines. In this respect Black Dossier seems to be a criticism of the history of fiction itself, how that which once inspired the imagination has devolved to unit-shifting logos with moral content included only where it suits the genre. This may be how Moore viewed the mainstream movie adaptation of his first League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series, with all the finer points ironed out and homogenised for the big screen; and I'm probably not the first person to notice how many times James Bond gets his arse kicked in Black Dossier - unless the Sean Connery association is simply coincidence.

The conclusion, revealed in a line about Verne's Nautilus and Wells' cavorite inspiring submarines and rocket ships, would seem to be that there's no such thing as just a story, that it all comes back into our collective consciousness whilst perhaps also serving as barometer for the same, and that we should take a bit more care over the sort of stories we tell because fact and fiction tend to be related. Unfortunately I have a feeling this message may not be obvious unless you're looking for it, which it might be argued defeats the point of the message in terms of communicating to those who most need to hear it, but never mind.

Anyway, my second, more considered reading of Black Dossier was certainly more rewarding than the first, and the pastiches of William Shakespeare and P.G. Wodehouse were in particular a delight. Bit lumpy in places but undeniably nourishing.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

A War of Witches

Timothy J. Knab A War of Witches (1993)

A slight shift in emphasis here, A War of Witches being anthropology written as autobiography rather than fiction as such. Back in 2006 when Mad Norwegian Press dropped the Faction Paradox imprint, I recall suggesting on some forum or other that Knab's book might be deemed to inhabit some of the same territory and might thus be of interest to those missing their not particularly regular dose of Factiony goodness; which I still stand by, particularly as A War of Witches had a considerable influence on my own more recent contribution to the mythos with Against Nature.

Timothy J. Knab is, as I understand it, a reasonably big name in the vague field falling somewhere between the anthropology and ethnography of Mesoamerica, and during the 1970s he spent time living amongst the indigenous people of rural Puebla, some miles east of the Valley of Mexico. To be specific, as he relates the tale he does a great deal more than just have a bit of a holiday in someone else's lack of facilities, making close friends with numerous Nahua families and himself becoming a curandero - which seems like pretty good going for a white guy living in a place with limited access to electricity and where it isn't even a given that your neighbour will speak Spanish.

As D.H. Lawrence observed in Apocalypse, written in 1931: In the lowest stratum of society religion remains pretty much the same, throughout the ages, and so it is in Knab's Sierra de Puebla where the pre-Hispanic religion remains pretty much unchanged despite the garnish of a few obscure saints - so obscure as to be unknown outside the region. In other words, whilst the cathedrals of indigenous Mexican faith may have been bulldozed five hundred years ago, there are still places where they never got the memo.

What makes this account potentially so fascinating to those who may not be familiar with the culture for which it gives vivid account, is that it approaches the supernatural Nahua world on its own terms - getting right in there without the lab coat or attendant rationale which would reduce the subject to a sterile itinerary of quaint rural customs; and happily, neither does Knab adopt any approach in common with the new-age types who might mistakenly imagine themselves somehow attuned to the Nahua way of life. Rather, he lets the people and their beliefs speak for themselves, and in terms which no-one should find impenetrable or unfamiliar.

In learning the curandero's art and uncovering the genuinely terrifying history of witchcraft in the Sierra de Puebla, Knab recovers such detail of obscure potions, rites performed in certain caves, methods of killing foes without detection, and dream interpretation as to force the conclusion that calling this stuff mumbo jumbo is missing the point, because it's absolutely real for those involved. There are plenty of great books full of names and dates with regard to indigenous Mexican history, but this one attempts to tell you what it actually felt like as Knab spends afternoons idly sipping coffee or cane alcohol with scary old people who make veiled references to witchcraft murders, what the things under the ground want, and a recent crucifixion that no-one likes to talk about for obvious reasons.

Whilst I have a lot of time for Dicky Dawkins, and tend to agree with his attitude to that which is lazily termed spirituality, A War of Witches highlights the flaw in his somewhat reductionist view of religion. It would be easy to dismiss that which Knab encountered as a combination of suggestion and sleight of hand, except such dismissal presupposes certain conditions which aren't entirely applicable and that there is nothing to be learnt here - which is far from the case. Of all the books I've absorbed on this subject, A War of Witches is one of the most illuminating and makes for genuinely gripping reading.

Monday, 22 April 2013

Galactic Pot-Healer

Philip K. Dick Galactic Pot-Healer (1968)

Like one of those rare concoctions thrown together from whatever you've found left in the fridge and which turns out to be delicious, this reads like an assemblage of material that Dick had laying around all crudely mashed together to form, against all probability, something wonderful. A few years earlier he'd written a children's book called Nick and the Glimmung - which was entertaining but you can see why it failed to find a publisher, being sort of a literary equivalent to the clown at a children's party undergoing a sudden and spectacular acid freak-out. Galactic Pot-Healer recycles a fair bit of Nick and the Glimmung, throwing in Dick's brief flirtation with pottery - which I'm almost certain I read about somewhere although I can't seem to find the reference at the moment - along with certain vaguely Gnostic ideas that had begun to emerge from his fiction in more overt form as precursor to novels like VALIS and The Divine Invasion.

Of all his novels, Galactic Pot-Healer seems unusually focussed considering all the layered symbolism of its conclusion, benefiting from following a single character for the duration of the narrative. This single character is Joe Fernwright who heals pots, restoring them to original form by means that owe more to dream imagery than science. Joe, one of Dick's archetypal blue collar heroes, is recruited by an oddly well-spoken Lovecraftian entity called the Glimmung who hopes to raise an ancient cathedral from the ocean depths of a distant planet. The conclusion - with the ocean representing a world in decay, the customary twin embodiments of good and evil, and the allusions to a mad God who has forsaken his creation - is about as clear as it ever was in any of Dick's later works, but it's nonetheless engrossing trying to figure it all out, and not least thanks to a well-developed sense of humour.

Dick doesn't exactly tell jokes, but his wit is as dry as you could possible require, and his sense of the absurd really makes this novel. Even during the climatic battle of the last chapters, the Godlike being at the heart of the struggle still communicates with polite notes sent from the ocean bed in bottles and signed cordially - Glimmung. Of all the Dick novels I've read, this one reminds me a little of Clifford D. Simak - or at least those elements which aren't conspicuously Dickian remind me of Simak in terms of pace and the wonderful reportage of the completely ridiculous as just something that happens from time to time. Not so ambitious as some, but still one of his best.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Mind of My Mind

Octavia E. Butler Mind of My Mind (1977)

It seems fair to say that black female science-fiction writers are fairly thin on the ground, and since Octavia Butler passed on in 2006, they've been sadly thinner on the ground to the tune of one, although I say that not so much for the sake of ticking any particular diversity box as the simple fact of her having been a fairly exceptional author and someone who really should have achieved wider recognition than she did.

Mind of My Mind was her second novel, and second of a series telling a much larger story spanning thousands of years in the lives of a roughly dynastic breed of telepaths. It's probably not what you would call hard science-fiction - as if that really matters - and oddly, it reminds me a little of Chris Claremont's New Mutants comic back when Bill Sienkiewicz was drawing thoughtful tales of young people struggling with weird powers, a book that had strayed a long way from standard superhero pastures, although then of course some idiot invented Rob fucking Liefeld and everything turned to shit. The details of the tale, the actual story onto which Mind of My Mind is bolted isn't that remarkable and, it might be argued, was later done to greater effect in Stephen Baxter's Coalescent; but Butler had a wonderfully persuasive narrative voice, a pleasantly gritty blue collar feel which was nevertheless able to convey subtle points without any of the usual showing off or ham-fisted allegorising one might expect of a novel such as this. In other words, she drew on her experience as a black woman without trading on her ethnicity as a virtue in itself, thus allowing for the sort of  communication of ideas which can sometimes be a problem with novels wherein such issues are raised.

Mind of My Mind is quite complex in terms of subject, being about relationships, power and coercion. Whilst some ideas regarding slavery enter the equation, there's much more going on here, with a dynamic in which the owned are simply obliged to accept their servitude to a master who seems at times quite likeable. There's no dramatic breaking of chains in the face of a scowling despot, nothing so obvious to intrude or detract from what is actually being said; and what Butler may have been saying is probably up to individual reader. I've seen this book criticised for raising issues and then failing to deal with them, but this strikes me as a basic misunderstanding, the assumption that a black woman writer is necessarily obliged to make bold, shouty statements just in case any of us had failed to realise that racism is bad, like in one of those stories where we set down the book and exclaim to ourselves hang on, these poor robots are being treated just like they used to treat the slaves!

I think my only criticism of Mind of My Mind is that the voice of the narrator is significantly more engaging than that of any of the subsidiary characters, all of whom get their fifteen minutes, but it's nevertheless a great book.

Monday, 15 April 2013

The Shaver Mystery book three

Richard S. Shaver The Shaver Mystery book three (2011)
Back in the 1940s, Richard Shaver delighted and probably also confused readers of Amazing Stories with his tales of a world hidden below the ground, a network of caves and tunnels spanning the globe inhabited by mysterious and terrible creatures of which the worst were almost certainly the Dero. These tunnels had once been inhabited by advanced beings, since gone to live elsewhere in the galaxy, unfortunately leaving the degenerate Dero to make fiendish use of their ray devices. Shaver's intention was to expose the truth of the Dero training these ray devices on surface dwellers causing train wrecks, spontaneous human combustion, disappearances, voices in the head and so on. The Dero, he insisted, were not only motivated almost entirely by evil, but they were also real, described in his fictionalised accounts in the pages of a science-fiction periodical because the truth was simply too shocking for any other avenue, besides which, even if he was stark raving mad, he wasn't an idiot and knew full well that he would be laughed at.

The thing is, Richard Shaver was almost certainly a deeply-troubled man suffering from serious mental illness of the kind that rationalises voices in one's head as the work of ray operators at work deep below the earth; so I don't think I'm ever quite going to square any pleasure I might derive from his writing with the suspicion that he was something of a carnival attraction for Ray Palmer, his publisher. Then again, I wasn't there so I don't know, and perhaps it did him good to churn out page after page of this stuff.

Much as I dislike the term, there's good cause to regard Shaver's tales - of which two lengthy examples are featured here - as outsider art (as are the paintings he produced in later life) although that shouldn't be taken to indicate that he necessarily lacked literary distinction. On the contrary, some of his writing is astonishing and weirdly compelling:

She slipped to the floor beside the terrible dignity of the God throne, and the scene of her last deed in life did honor even to the awesomely sculptured chamber of ancient honor and striving. For Sarah strove in her hate, and died so, trying to do right. The gross horror crouched on the God throne was dead, and the sculpted faces looked down on Sarah as she died with their stony approval not incongruous.

Okay, so I'm not saying it's Shakespeare, but it does much more than just roll out the customary shite of some tosspot having adventures and making observations grinningly as hacked out in the relentlessly unambitious efforts of certain authors I wish I'd never bothered reading. It's endlessly melodramatic in those same gritted teeth terms of A.E. van Vogt, with the tone of some bizarre hybrid of Ben Hur and Cocteau's Orphée, and as serious as a matter of life and death which the author clearly believed appropriate as he delivered these warnings about the people downstairs. The only real problem is that it seems Shaver had his good days and his bad days, and longer tales such as are printed here tended to get a bit scrambled as his brain worked through the stranger psychic excesses of his unfortunate condition. They're still worth reading for some of the imagery, and the narrative is usually roughly coherent beneath all the peculiar digressions; and even with all that taken into account, both The Masked World and Thought Records of Lemuria make more sense than William Gibson's award-winning Neuromancer so, you know... 

This is published by Armchair Fiction who can be found here, by the way...

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Señor 105 and the Secret Santa

Stuart Douglas Señor 105 and the Secret Santa (2012)

I know it's probably a bit late to be reviewing such a season specific eNovella, but then I'm sure I've seen Simpsons Christmas specials broadcast in June, and I need a bit of a break - something short, light and a bit sugary after a sleepless night interrupted by, amongst other things, Junior requiring a glass of water at 4AM having apparently failed to realise that being nine years old he is now expected to be able to operate a fucking electric light switch and turn a tap under his own steam.

Cody Quijano-Schell's Señor 105, in the event of anyone not being aware of the character, is a masked Mexican wrestler who engages in peculiar adventures drawing elemental power from his various masks and alchemical tattoos, assisted by a small boy and a talking balloon; and this one's about a fight between Father Christmas and the Devil, kind of...

In the improbable event of this description not being in itself sufficient to inspire your interest, Señor 105 and the Secret Santa is the fourth in an ongoing series of hypothetically bi-monthly eNovellas working roughly like a regular comic but without pictures. Stuart Douglas takes the series in the direction of what feels almost like magic realism - or what I imagine I might have found had I ever knowingly read any magic realism - with a touch of Morcambe and Wise Christmas Special for no reason I can quite identify. I have to say it felt a little rushed in places, but there's always something quite solid and satisfying about Stuart Douglas's writing - even if there's an odd word that jars, it always feels as though it's built up from a well-laid foundation, and this eNovella is no exception. I found the events around the middle of the tale a little muddled in places, and my inner-anthropologist spent some time mumbling about Mexican villages which appeared to be situated in the Andes - but it all comes together beautifully at the end. Short, satisfying, and the kind of story which wouldn't really work so well with any other character in the driving seat, excepting possibly Bill Griffiths' Zippy the Pinhead.

And you can download it here for free.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

The War of the Worlds

H.G. Wells The War of the Worlds (1898)

Speaking of iconic opening lines - if iconic is really something that can be applied to text, which it possibly may not be - The War of the Worlds just about trumps any other novel I can think of right now:
No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man's and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.

And it just keeps getting better from thereon, which isn't bad going for a novel with a plot which can be summarised in a single short sentence - proof, as if it were needed, that the greater part of any story is generally not so much what happens as how it's told and why.

Although evolutionary theory had been rattling around for some time when The War of the Worlds was written, Darwin's On the Origin of Species appeared only forty years earlier, so it seems safe to assume that both English society and the scientific community may still have been grappling with the wider meaning of its universe having been recently reconfigured with God no longer at centre stage. Not only had humanity become an aspect of nature rather than some divine creation stood to one side, but assumed divine rights such as those which inspired the civilised to conquer the supposedly uncivilised could no longer be taken for granted. So, just in case it isn't bleeding obvious, The War of the Worlds doubles up as mankind colonised by an imperial force more powerful than itself - casting the Englishman in the role of all those natives of distant, less technologically developed lands; and by letting us know how it feels to find oneself just that little bit further down the food chain:
Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.

Furthermore, The War of the Worlds does all of this without fuss or sloganeering, focussing on the small scale of its narrator struggling to survive in occupied Kent in a way that recalls, of all things, the best of Robinson Crusoe. My only criticism would be in respect to Isaac Asimov's afterword which seems to miss a point in assuming the story is about the possibility of life on Mars, although that's hardly Herbert's fault. Generally speaking, this one of those rare near-perfect novels which gives you pause to wonder why anyone bothered to write science-fiction ever again.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013


William Gibson Neuromancer (1984)

This was of course the one that arguably started that whole cyberpunk thing, dark, gritty, noir tales of hi-tech crime written as a reaction to a published wave of crappy sword and sorcery shite at the end of the 1970s, if the official version is to be believed. This sort of accounts for the -punk element I suppose, and was the last time the suffix made sense in a literary context, at least to me. Excepting Mark Hodder's writing, I still don't quite discern any pronounced strand of rebellion within steampunk as a genre, but never mind.

William Gibson enjoyed success with short stories later collected as Burning Chrome and was then commissioned to produce a full length novel which became Neuromancer; except Blade Runner came out just as he was getting stuck in, obliging a rewrite for fear of readers assuming he'd simply tapped into Ridley Scott's version of Philip K. Dick. After no less than twelve revisions of the first two thirds of the novel, he ended up with something that won a shitload of awards, helped spawn an entire genre, and which kicks off with one of the greatest opening sentences of any novel I've read:

The sky above the port was the colour of television...

Although the sentence in full is actually the sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel, which reads to me like an overstatement and is as such symptomatic of my problems with Neuromancer.

Like all William Gibson, it's beautifully written, and I mean quite breathtakingly beautifully written, each sentence a string of startlingly vivid images popping away in your reading gland like 1970s space dust. The sheer texture alone is incredible, and notably works much better here than in the short stories which might be considered groundwork, most of which struck me as merely slick for the sake of it - although as Gibson has himself argued, that is to some extent the entire point of his emphasis on surface detail.

The problem for me was that Neuromancer is actually kind of exhausting, the narrative becoming a relentless series of imagistic explosions defusing any attempt at emphasis. Ice, 3Jane, Aerol, Wintermute, Flatline - all the names of either main characters or narrative elements recurring page after page throughout the book, and yet I reached the end without a fucking clue as to who or what any of them might be, or what had happened beyond some vague impression of crimes committed in cyberspace - and I got that detail from Wikipedia. I know my concentration hasn't been great this week, but I'm not normally this bad, and I've had the same problem with William Gibson on previous occasions. Mona Lisa Overdrive was similar but a bit more comprehensible, and more recent books such as Pattern Recognition have more than justified the author's sterling reputation, so whatever he was doing, I guess he managed to stop doing it after about 1990.

What a philistine I am, to be sure.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Fourth World: Mister Miracle volume two

Jack Kirby Fourth World: Mister Miracle volume two (1974)

I seem to have heard loads about Kirby's Fourth World without ever quite working out what it was, beyond the greatest story ever told, apparently. A cursory level of research revealed it be some massive cosmic scale saga originated by the man who effectively invented Marvel Comics, or at least who effectively invented how Marvel Comics looked in the 1960s and 1970s providing you pretend Steve Ditko never happened. Fourth World was what our boy cooked up once he got tired of Stan Lee's alliterative bullpen and went to work for DC, creating an entirely new mythos spread across a series of titles looking forward to comics as something other than just newsstand fodder - well, this is what the internet seems to think, which is probably why I had somehow taken the impression of Fourth World being revolutionary beyond human imagination, sort of like Aeschylus with capes and people who behold things over yonder instead of merely looking at them.

Unfortunately none of the proverbial hot cakes were ever invoked as a result of Fourth World sales figures, and by the time Kirby came to produce these last eight issues of Mister Miracle, cancellation loomed, obliging him to wrap up a much larger story whilst trying to take the book off in its own direction in the hope of staying afloat; so this is probably a somewhat shitey place to start with this Fourth World stuff, but anyway...

Okay. Given that what we're dealing with here is caped superhumans having fights with evil looking men who turn out to be as dastardly as their moustaches imply, lumpy looking henchmen called Lefty, and other elements that wouldn't seem too inconsistent with your average episode of Scooby Doo, it's probably an idea to remind ourselves of context when referring to Fourth World as revolutionary. It isn't Kierkegaard, it's a comic book tailored for the enjoyment of small children who also like Batman; but true enough, it is a very good comic book tailored for the enjoyment of small children who also like Batman.

Thing is, I'm not really even sure what makes it good. Having little of the apparently impressive Fourth World back story related in earlier titles for reference, I'm left with just the adventures of a superhero escape artist repeatedly cornered by criminal types. In terms of narrative it's hokey as fuck and yet somehow transcends the limitations of its genre, the terrible science, the bad guys failing to get away with it due to meddling kids. Possibly it's not so much the stories - which should by all rights be nothing special - so much as how they're told, the even pace, the economy of language, and most significantly, the astonishing art. More than any other comic artist I can think of, Kirby seems to represent some sort of pinnacle and as such is most at home right there on the page - it would just seem arch and insincere given the Roy Lichtenstein treatment. It's too much its own thing, which is probably why none of Kirby's imitators ever really achieved the same sort of reputation.

Cough cough. Herb Trimpe.

Kirby's panels are crowded with detail and yet often seem surprisingly simple, clear solid forms reaching out towards the reader and a tremendous sense of depth. It's odd, and even quite ugly in places, but more in the way of that accomplished, expressive brand of ugly associated with Modigliani and certain Cubists. I think I read most of this collection with my mouth hanging open. Much as I hate to repeat what everyone else has been saying for years anyway, Kirby's art really was amazing.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

The Authority volume one: Restless

Warren Ellis & Bryan Hitch The Authority volume one: Restless (1999)

What can I say in my defence? I'd already read volume two and concluded that the work of Warren Ellis was probably mostly wank smuggled in under the comics radar on the grounds of him holding a British passport, but it was cheap and Bryan Hitch's art is beautiful throughout. Give the fucker a second chance, I thought to myself.

The Authority is the first great superhero team book of the twenty-first century. Beside it, everything else seems pale and stale and repetitive. Be honest.

That would be Grant Morrison's introduction. Quite aside from wondering which Alan Moore title he was probably referring to in the veiled terms of everything else, I really don't get how The Authority constituted a major departure from a million other examples of late twentieth-century caped landfill. It's set in a world where super-powered humans actually do big scale stuff like saving the starving millions, and threats tend to be threats to the entire planet illustrated by splash page after spectacular splash page of four million epic occurrences all exploding at once, but I wasn't aware of any of that being particularly revolutionary even back in 1999. If anything, it just reads like a template for modern Doctor Who - everything being the biggest everything that has ever been scored to the four billion loudest Philharmonic orchestras ever to drown out the big bang itself punctuated by the usual generically cinematic dialogue just to remind you there's a story buried under there somewhere - this ends here, you don't have to do this, and the usual crap that passes for wit in whatever action-packed blockbuster Matt Damon landed this week. I'm not saying it's terrible, just that if you like a side order of narrative content whilst having your eyes burned out by page after page of prog rock album cover artwork as big as the sky itself, you might be disappointed. The second half of the collection gets a little better as Ellis daringly recycles one of Alan Moore's old Captain Britain stories, garnishing his versions of alternative England with the inevitable Dan Dare pastiche, although at times it's difficult to tell what's supposed to be happening over the noise of amplified awesome.

That said, the art really is fantastic; or don't know about your brain but you look all right, as Graham Bonnet so charmingly sang on Rainbow's* 1980 hit single 'All Night Long'. In other words The Authority is fine providing you don't expect too much in the way of conversation.

*: Obviously here I'm referring to the version of Rainbow formed by Deep Purple trombonist Richie Blackmore as opposed to the popular children's television show which brought George, Bungle and the somewhat futuristic Zippy to the forefront of the nation's consciousness.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

Alan Moore & Kevin O'Neill
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen volume two (2003)

Another vivid illustration of the Oscar Wilde maxim stating how talent borrows, genius steals - you might argue that not one single original idea is to be found here, and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen succeeds by virtue of how it's put together. Alan Moore once again recycles the characters of every book he's ever read whilst Kevin O'Neill's work grows ever closer to a warped version of the illustrations which graced Punch magazine in the early years of the twentieth century. Not only does this second volume mash up all the usual suspects with Rupert Bear, Tiger Tim, and Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carpenter, all the while telling us with a straight face that Hyde Park was named in honour of Robert Louis Stevenson's transformed misanthrope and H.G. Wells' Dr. Moreau was related to Gustave the symbolist painter; but it juggles all these balls with its entire story bolted onto the underside of The War of the Worlds. It should by all rights be a complete pig's ear, tantamount to the absolute worst crap devised by the sort of moron who would consider Daleks versus Klingons high concept, but somehow it's wonderful, and absolutely original despite being comprised entirely of stolen material. Particularly impressive are the new lives given to these characters beyond the novels from which they derive, particularly Hyde and Mina Harker - the latter having had a somewhat underwhelming minor role in Dracula where her main function was apparently to be ill for a long time whilst failing to suspect there could be anything weird about waking up with a sore neck each morning. Here she's a lot more interesting - blasphemy though that may be - not least during a surprisingly touching erotic interlude shared with Rider Haggard's Allan Quatermain. As a rule I tend to dislike romance or sex in fiction, not through squeamishness but simply because authors so often get it horribly wrong, and it can be difficult to enjoy a book once you've started to feel sorry for those responsible in the wake of some horrendously juvenile attempt to get all sticky and squirty.

Only the inevitable supplementary prose section at the end lets the volume down, as tends to be the case with DVD extras in general. It's a travelogue of every fictional land, city or realm Moore could come up with off the top of his head. Although I didn't notice anything pinched from Tolkein or Clark Ashton Smith, it seems otherwise exhaustive, taking in Alice's Wonderland, More's Utopia, and all those places to which Swift's Gulliver travelled just for starters. It's the sort of background detail that would work in the strip, but is actually kind of dull as a list set down in plodding narrative form when a list set down as a list would have served just as well. More than anything else it feels like an extended exercise in continuity - which is of course precisely what it is - so it probably depends on how many references you get in order for it to work, but even then forty pages of dense text seems excessive.

Still, with a main feature of such quality, I'm not complaining.

Monday, 1 April 2013

Doctor Who Classics Omnibus

Pat Mills, John Wagner, Steve Moore, Grant Morrison & others
Doctor Who Classics Omnibus volume one (2010)

Perhaps inevitably, I was once quite the fan of Doctor Who, right up until its 2005 reinvention which, for me at least, missed all the major points of what had made the series so enjoyable in the first place; and then I found my disappointment somewhat polarised by the repellent fervour with which so many embraced the revival, a fervour which often seems indistinguishable from bullying from where I stand, and bullying offered in support of opinion presented as doctrine, received wisdom reiterated as fact.

The wonderful thing about Doctor Who is that it can allow for the telling of almost any kind of story.

That's just one example; and it might work if accounting for novels like Campaign or The Adventuress of Henrietta Street, but these are usually some way off the radar of those for whom Doctor Who is beyond criticism. I have no idea who first said those words, and I'm amazed they can be restated year after year without anyone actually pausing to ask themselves what is actually meant, whether it might be true, or whether it's just another flavourless lump of hyperbole wheeled out because it sounds vaguely more authoritative than the one about my dad being bigger than your dad. What it appears to mean, so far as I am able to tell, is that being as the Doctor can go anywhere in time and space, the settings may vary a great deal without stretching credibility too thin, additionally allowing for some liberties to be taken with the narrative. You could probably say much the same of Star Trek, not that it would necessarily be any more true as a statement. Stories set in fictional environments or from the viewpoint of a minor character are not necessarily indicative of wild narrative anarchy, and certainly not when every last one boils down to the magic Doctor Who telly man having adventures in his TARDIS whilst occasionally reminding us to be nice to those who are a little bit different. Maybe I'm wrong, and Doctor Who really does allow for the telling of almost any kind of story, in which case I assume I must have missed the equivalents to Finnegans Wake, Rendezvous with Rama, Heart of Aztlán, Lady Chatterley's Lover or all those other Doctor Who stories which didn't frame everything in relation to a time traveller having adventures whilst human companions are captured and find themselves having to ask what's happening, Doctor?

So the wonderful thing about Doctor Who is more likely that it can allow for the telling of almost any kind of story, excepting stories of which any aspect is of greater importance than the main character, which actually leaves quite a lot that Doctor Who can't do without looking ridiculous.

Anyway, that's just one aspect. My point - quite aside from Doctor Who merely being a television serial from which a mighty ocean of merchandising has sprung forth, just as Softly Softly and On the Buses were merely television serials - nothing was ever the better for being taken more seriously than it deserved.

Nostalgia guided the hand that picked this from a pile of cheapies in a branch of Borders just before the retail chain imploded, specifically the nostalgia of having read about half of the strips collected herein when they first appeared in Doctor Who Weekly back in the early 1980s. The Iron Legion, The Star Beast, City of the Damned and others - they were great at the time, just as you might expect from 2000AD regulars like Pat Mills and Dave Gibbons, but returning to these now that I'm fat and in my forties, it's difficult to get beyond their being written for a slightly younger audience than at least those early 2000AD strips which have generally stood the test of time. The ideas are nice enough for all the predominance of primary narrative colours, and Dave Gibbons' artwork is beautiful, but it's the kind of shorthand storytelling wherein panels are captioned so as to describe what is quite clearly seen to be happening without any real need for such descriptions. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, it's just that I'm a fully grown man and it no longer works for me, not least because the mere presence of that mysterious traveller in time and space known only as etc. etc. does not in itself hold my interest. The thing is, as children's comics go, there are plenty which retain some appeal in later years mainly through having refrained from too much talking down to their readers - Asterix the Gaul, Dan Dare, at least some of what 2000AD published - besides which these strips read sadly like ham-fisted promotional material such as you might find printed on the wrapper of an ice lolly. Neither content, vintage nor the presence of a Doctor Who logo is really enough to justify describing these stories as classic, although I've no doubt there are many people out there prepared to wage dreary online wars in their defence. There may even be one or two reading this review, getting ready to fulminate, having never before taken any interest in either Pamphlets of Destiny or the novels I've written about herein, but this is Doctor Who we're talking about and it must therefore be debated with all due reverence, which I really feel proves my point about things being taken more seriously than they deserve.

Of course, it could be argued that this is also what I have myself done when I could just have said Doctor Who Classics Omnibus is all right if you're about ten, but even then you'd be better off with some Judge Dredd or whatever.