Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Tristram Shandy

Laurence Sterne Tristram Shandy (1767)

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman—to give the collection its full title—is a satirical—possibly depending upon one's—and yes, I am indeed aware that the habit of author's referring to one when they really mean I is itself satirised in the novel, which is perhaps ironic—unlike Alanis Morissette's hit single of that name, which is in itself ironic, it might be argued—definition of satire—novel by Laurence Sterne, published—if this doesn't seem too conspicuous a theft from Wikipedia—in nine volumes, the first two—and God forbid that anyone should suggest he might have done well to leave it at that—appearing in 1759 with the rest following over the next seven years; which is why I've stalled for the first time since Iain M. Banks' bloody awful The Algebraist back in 2008.

To start at the beginning, Sterne draws inspiration from both Cervantes and Rabelais, both of whom I've read and enjoyed very much without any significant problems. Following the general spirit of his predecessors, Sterne takes similarly satirical pot-shots at the institutions of his day, albeit with a gentler tone than that of at least Rabelais. Tristram Shandy is on occasion cited as one of the earliest metafictional novels, a story populated with characters who are aware of being in a story, and it was really this promise which drew my interest; but having made it so far as the fifth of the full nine volumes I really don't see it; or at least I really don't see how Tristram Shandy does anything which hadn't already been done by any sotto voiced Shakespeare character turning to the audience to explain that the bloke who just arrived on stage is a bit of a tosser. More significantly the novel's theme, and that which dictates its structure, is that its narrator is unable to explain anything without nesting his account in layer upon layer of digression, reason being that this is how life is:

Upon looking into my mother's marriage settlement, in order to satisfy myself and reader in a point necessary to be cleared up, before we could proceed any farther in this history;—I had the good fortune to pop upon the very thing I wanted before I had read a day and a half straight forwards,—it might have taken me up a month;—which shews plainly, that when a man sits down to write a history,—tho' it be but the history of Jack Hickathrift or Tom Thumb, he knows no more than his heels what lets and confounded hindrances he is to meet with in his way,—or what a dance he may be led, by one excursion or another, before all is over. Could a historiographer drive on his history, as a muleteer drives on his mule,—straight forward;—for instance, from Rome all the way to Loretto, without ever once turning his head aside, either to the right hand or to the left,—he might venture to foretell you to an hour when he should get to his journey's end;—but the thing is, morally speaking, impossible: For, if he is a man of the least spirit, he will have fifty deviations from a straight line to make with this or that party as he goes along, which he can no ways avoid. He will have views and prospects to himself perpetually soliciting his eye, which he can no more help standing still to look at than he can fly.

Fair enough and all highly entertaining, as are numerous asides to the reader suggesting we go back a chapter and read something again, or just that we imagine how a certain passage might read had the author got around to writing it, promises of forthcoming chapters on the subject of chambermaids, buttonholes or whatever, none of which ever arrive.

The first four parts are reasonably entertaining with their rambling account of events leading up to the birth of the narrator in volume four, and of what he is to be named, how long it is hoped his nose will be and so on. The trouble is that all these digressions really wear you down after a couple of hundred pages, particularly as there's a fair amount which would, I suspect, make a lot more sense to someone who had benefited from a slightly better education than I received, or at least a more thorough grounding in the classics - mine comprising about three books. I made it some of the way into volume five, then skipped ahead, and all I could see was another two-hundred pages—of paragraphs speckled—with these fucking—dashes, five—or—six to a—sentence, over—and over, and—I—knew I—just couldn't do—it. I skipped to the end, to Gerald Weales' afterword and found that even he considers the first four volumes to be the ones that matter. I decided that enough was enough. I conceded defeat.

I'd distinguish Tristram Shandy quite clearly from other novels I've abandoned. The Algebraist was just unbelievably dull, and Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land - the last hundred or so pages skimmed in about thirty minutes - was simply utter shite. Tristram Shandy is justifiably regarded as an important novel, and taken one paragraph at a time, it's erudite, wonderfully written, and very funny, but as a whole, it's five-hundred fucking pages of Ronnie Corbett telling one of those as my producer said to me jokes.

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

The Señor 105 Adventure Book

Joe Curreri The Señor 105 Adventure Book (2013)

Yes I know, I painted the cover for this one so can hardly be described as an impartial reader; if that's a problem, please feel free to take it up with my lawyer. Truthfully though, I've been more worried that this seventh in the series of Señor 105 novellas would turn out to be a turkey written by Joe with a green crayon and tongue just ever so slightly protruding from the corner of his mouth, obliging me to smile the smile that hurts whilst offering diplomatic comments about how it contains plenty of interesting ideas and oh just look at the size of that enthusiasm!

That said, although I'm afraid I don't presently recall Glyph, Joe's previous Señor 105 story in any detail beyond that it did nothing to offend me, it wasn't that I expected The Señor 105 Adventure Book to be bad; but neither did I expect it to be this good. Ciao, Fantastique!, the first of the two stories featured here takes the masked wrestler to Rome in search of a stolen gemstone, aided by Lori - a displaced Mountie - and sort of almost but not quite exactly aided by Fantastique, a master criminal who seems to have a thing for rubber.

Cough. Cough.

Conversely, The Iguana Diaries, the second story is told from the perspective of a submarine foe who tangles with our lad beneath the waves, and then in the Cambodian jungle. The blurb speaks of robot nuns, villainous frogmen, and exotic locations, yet surprisingly these are not the things that stand out, despite the obvious novelty factor. What does stand out is the quality of the writing and the evocation of a mood which is absolutely true to its subject, his era, and the cinematic traditions from which he was sprung. It reads in parts like a spy thriller, with all those foreign places being home more to Martini slurping Bond types than has been usual for this series, and like the best of the genre, there's a strong undercurrent of eroticism. Well, I'm not sure it's even an undercurrent so much as that it's just there, but the most astonishing thing is that Joe Curreri makes it work. I often have a problem with sex - or at least sexuality - in literature, mainly because it's often so bad, imagining itself all simmering and Byronic whilst exuding all the sensuality of a Jasper Carrott novelty record - see also smirking use of word bonking and twee references to manacles in all those Benny novels; yet as with everything else he's done here, Joe Curreri just walks it, striking the absolute right balance - smouldering like Lauren Bacall without even trying to turn it into a selling point.

I now see why he wanted that sort of cover and referred to the Italian Futurist Crali as a starting point, Crali being someone whose paintings we've both admired: The Señor 105 Adventure
Book might almost be considered Art Deco fiction - elegant and very sensual. I think this may even be the best Señor 105 novella so far, and I'm very proud to have been involved.

Available here.

Monday, 29 July 2013

Seven Soldiers of Victory volume one

Grant Morrison & others Seven Soldiers of Victory volume one (2006)

He's been on stage for twenty five minutes churning out the same improvised composition for electric toothbrush and washboard when the first bottle is thrown, then a beer can, then a few more at least one of which has been topped up with piss. Play some fucking songs, you tosser, somebody shouts...

I realise that slagging off Grant Morrison has become something of a guilty pleasure, an activity into which I slip all too easily because I think it's funny, and because I have unresolved anger issues stemming from three years or more during which I patiently spent my hard-earned man's wages on issues of The Unreadables with the understanding that it would eventually stop being shit, which of course never happened; so having once had occasion to regard its mystic slaphead author as the greatest comic book writer of all time, I felt slightly betrayed; and it wasn't that I failed to understand The Invisibles - it's just that it was, as I say, shit.

Anyway, everyone's entitled to the occasional droning musique concrète instrumental from time to time, and when the domed one is on top of his game, he really is astonishing. With this in mind I approached Seven Soldiers of Victory, reckoned by those whose opinions I tend to value as being pretty damn snappy.

All the same, I approached it with certain reservations, specifically that there is clearly one hell of a lot going on in Seven Soldiers, and - lacking confidence in my being able to keep track of it all - I was concerned that I might not get the full benefit. For example, I see from an essay incorporated by Andrew Hickey into his An Incomprehensible Condition: An Unauthorised Guide To Grant Morrison's Seven Soldiers that sections dealing with the character of Klarion the Witch Boy draw on Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progess - and never having read The Pilgrim's Progress, I've been dithering over whether or not I should first get into training with Andrew's book. Then again, I reasoned, I was entirely familiar with all the references which The Invisibles kept trying to rub in my face and they really didn't help, if anything serving only to increased my general loathing of that particular excerpt from Morrison's underpants; and there's something to be said for a comic book which can be read without first having to enrol in evening classes.

Seven Soldiers, I am told, might be viewed as a ritual undertaking designed to turn the comic industry into a sentient being, or something of that sort. This is only one of the myriad potentially deep and meaningful interpretations of the series, but I've elected to go in cold and with little idea of what to look out for, just to see if it works because as Andrew Hickey states somewhere or other:

Read a mediocre book, and you come out knowing exactly what the author intended, and what she wanted you to know. Read a great book, and you come out thinking things neither you nor the author ever thought of.

Furthermore, I'm going to take the story one volume at a time because that's how I roll, and I only have the first two at present, so we'll just have to see how it goes.

Seven Soldiers of Victory was originally one of those golden age comic books so definitively of its era as to resemble its own parody - now that we're all older and a little more cynical; seven superheroes, one of whom was a cowboy; Star-Spangled Kid and Stripesy being two others - a sort of composite human flag I guess. DC Comics has a  long tradition of reviving and revising forgotten characters, generally with mixed results depending upon the writer and how much nostalgia is involved. Some tales were of their time and might have been better off staying that way, but if there's a new angle it can sometimes work.

I can't help but notice that Seven Soldiers seems almost like Grant Morrison doing what Alan Moore did with all those old Charlton characters he dressed up as Watchmen - although it's probably best not to read too much into that - and judging by these first eight issues, it looks like it might indeed work. The grinning kids dressed as flags are replaced by similarly obscure also-rans upon whom, lacking much in the way of back story, Morrison scrawls all manner of weird and wonderful patterns, artfully tying this version into the mythology of its golden age ancestor with some additional commentary on the genre made all the more palatable by the wit of the dialogue. That said, it's quite dense in terms of information, which has presumably led to the accusations of incomprehensibility, although on the face of it I would say it's more the case of Seven Soldiers being something which can't be rushed, and which rewards patience and consideration.

It's not perfect - some of the art seems a little underwhelming, and the Klarion sections keep threatening to become Tim Burton - which obviously no-one wants to see - but these are at present just minor niggles for the sake of keeping my hand in.

On the strength of the first volume, specifically on the strength of all its ultradimensional mutterings, Seven Soldiers has the potential of being The Invisibles that isn't shit: admittedly esoteric but at least it has a bit of a tune.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Last Men in London

Olaf Stapledon Last Men in London (1932)

About five years ago I bought a copy of the Penguin Books combined edition of Stapledon's Last and First Men and Last Men in London. I was interested mainly in the former title - it being widely regarded as a classic - but getting the follow-up thrown in for free seemed like a bargain. As it turned out, I found Last and First Men unusually chewy, and so it's taken me half a decade to brave its sequel. During that time my edition has crossed the Atlantic Ocean and been marked by my cat Fluffy, thus adding a potent and unwelcome olfactory dimension and further reducing its appeal. It had occurred to me that Fluffy's contribution might even be considered criticism, but it's actually more likely that he was simply a bit freaked out when we moved house, and there was my Olaf Stapledon sat at the top of the box just begging to serve as canvas for his territorial concerns. Anyway, having come to loath the idea that I might ever leave a book unfinished once purchased, I bought a fresh second-hand copy so as to be able to read without noseplugs.

Last and First Men describes many millions of years of future history as experienced by eighteen successive races of humanity, the last of these being the semi-telepathic inhabitants of Neptune of which the narrator is purportedly a representative. In places it's fascinating, in others, dryer than a mouthful of Jacob's crackers washed down with a pint of peanut butter whilst crossing the Nevada desert, or at least that's how I remember it. There's a strong possibility that my brain was smaller back then, and I was therefore more stupid and thus less able to appreciate its worth, but I suspect it may simply have been that Last and First Men is just a very long and somewhat uninviting narrative. Whilst its classic status is undeniable, sitting down and reading the thing is another matter entirely.

Last Men in London takes a different approach, examining Stapledon's present through the eyes of our Neptunian narrator which, possibly because it deals with a more familiar environment, I found significantly more engaging, so much so as to foster the false impression of it being the shorter novel which actually it isn't. Written in 1932 with the naked inhumanity of the great war haunting the collective human consciousness, Stapledon had a great deal to discuss - observations on militarism, pacifism, education, sexuality, culture and so on - and so it makes perfect sense to recall how he regarded both this novel and its predecessor as philosophical works rather than science-fiction in the sense of Wells or Verne. It's a valid proposition, for certainly they read as such, but all the same it's probably not philosophically profound compared to the writing of at least a few of his contemporaries; but perhaps that is an unfair assessment to make nearly eighty years after the fact.

Still, given Stapledon's interest in future human evolution, it's quite a pleasure to read as he pulls apart the superman archetypes of his era, and the myths which so fascinated writers like A.E. van Vogt and L. Ron Hubbard; and for all that I've more enjoyed many other novels, Last Men in London is nevertheless eminently readable. I'm not sure if this means I'm less stupid than in 2008, but oddly I find myself tempted to give Last and First Men a second chance.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Deus Irae

Philip K. Dick & Roger Zelazny Deus Irae (1975)

I'm unfamiliar with Roger Zelazny, although Deus Irae features a few passages written in a style quite unlike that of Dick, so I assume those would be his, despite which this collaboration feels very much like the work of the author of VALIS. In fact, it could almost be read as a run-up to that novel without too much shoehornery.

Deus Irae follows the pilgrimage of Tibor McMasters as he travels across the wasteland of a post-apocalypse Earth in search of Carlton Lufteufel, the author of the aforementioned apocalypse who is now considered an avatar of the God of Wrath. McMaster's is to paint the living image of the Deus Irae for his church, the Servants of Wrath; in other words, he seeks to establish the existence of God, or at least of this particular manifestation - essentially the mad demiurge who casts a shadow of illusion upon the world in Dick's roughly Gnostic understanding of reality, amounting to the same malign presence he experienced gazing down from the clouds for an entire week back in the sixties - a visionary interlude to which this novel refers in several places.

McMasters is followed by Pete Sands, a more orthodox Christian who disputes that Carlton Lufteufel can truly be regarded as a God and who views the pilgrimage with great uncertainty. Pete Sands is a fairly transparent author stand-in - Dick rather than Zelazny in this case - but it might be argued that the two of them, McMasters and Sands, share a relationship not unlike that of Horselover Fat and Dick himself in the later VALIS, two aspects of the same divided personality. Both seek God by different means, and it is Sands who relates the experience of the face of a wrathful creator seen gazing down from the sky. Furthermore, McMasters encounters a worm by the Biblical meaning of the term, a creature which anoints him with a slime that grants understanding of the language of the animals roaming the wasteland. It's difficult to miss the parallel with the Edenic serpent which grants knowledge, or how immediately following this incident, Pete Sands is similarly able to communicate with the beasts he encounters. Of course, the reason for this, as given in numerous summaries spread all across the internet, is that with this being a radioactive wasteland, these are mutant creatures which have developed sentience and the ability to speak; but if this explanation appears in the text, then I'm afraid I failed to spot it, and the encounters read more like visionary religious experiences; and they're actually more interesting as such.

This, for me, is true of the novel as a whole, and particularly in terms of whether or not the guy who blew up the world can be regarded as a God in any meaningful sense: read as post-apocalyptic science-fiction with the usual array of mutants, bunkers, and robots that have turned a bit wonky in the absence of programming, it's great, but you're really missing out on the good stuff, just as A Clockwork Orange isn't really about how snazzy it is to be a futuristic teenager. Read as one of Dick's convoluted religious allegories, I'd say it might even beat VALIS, aside from my not having read the later novel in a while.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

The Ballad of Halo Jones

Alan Moore & Ian Gibson The Ballad of Halo Jones (1986)

I followed 2000AD more or less from the beginning, or at least from prog #21 onwards, simply because that was the first issue I saw in Gibbons' newsagent; but I caught on quick and cashed in a bag of toy cars against the previous twenty issues with some kid at school who is probably still kicking himself. I remained faithful until roughly October 1980 at which point the comic slid into a somewhat shitey period with the advent of unreadable tosh like Meltdown Man and The Mean Arena, although it's probably no coincidence that it was also around this time that I discovered punk rock, Devo, and record shops. Several years later some guy at art college gave me a stack of more recent issues because he didn't want to just throw them away, and my addiction reasserted itself. It would be overly generous to say that the comic had grown up in my absence, but Mean Arena was nowhere to be seen, and it had at least stopped being quite so shit, and there was this story called Halo Jones.

In case it isn't obvious how radical The Ballad of Halo Jones seemed at the time, or at least how radical it seemed to me, here was a strip about urban boredom and shopping trips gone horribly wrong with an almost exclusively female cast smuggled into a comic specialising in stories about tough men who hunt down renegade robots, tough robots who hunt down renegade aliens, renegade men who hunt down tough dinosaurs, alien dinosaurs who...

...well, you get the picture I'm sure.

Meanwhile in the 1990s, I ended up selling my entire stash of progs - about fifteen years' worth - to Skinny Melinks' comic shop in Lewisham for what seemed a slightly insulting sum, probably a fucking tenner or thereabouts, and all because I'd met a girl who had agreed to let me have sexual intercourse with her. This later became a source of regret, at least until history repeated and someone else gave me a free stack of old progs, and once I got beyond the raw nostalgia, I realised that a lot of those stories worked better when you still belonged roughly to the age group at which they were targeted; or you can never go home as both Thomas Wolfe and Mark E. Smith have observed under entirely different circumstances.

Thankfully, not least because this collection was a Christmas present, The Ballad of Halo Jones has endured as a story where Moon Runners and Colony Earth sort of haven't. It comes as a shock reading something so conspicuously episodic requiring a punchline every five or six pages, but it's still pretty damn satisfying despite that. Alan Moore has, I would guess, always had a thing for soap opera, at least if Big Numbers, Top 10, and even Watchmen are anything to go by - his stories as a rule being about people dealing with circumstances rather than the circumstances themselves. To this end Halo Jones is closer in spirit to one of the more eccentric Mexican telenovelas than any of the tales of renegade justice dinobots hunting down tough maverick mutants with which it once shared a cover. The events are massive, but no more massive to Halo than anything experienced by the reader out here in the real world, relatively speaking, and the themes are both timeless and immediately familiar - the uneasy transition to adulthood, the desire to escape from the crushing circumstances of one's childhood environment, the subsequent lack of direction, and the inevitable realisation that things are not going to get better. It's an extraordinarily depressing tale, regardless of it being told by means of jokes, weird aliens, and a ton of fancy ideas. The story - divided into books one to three - is, for my money, encapsulated best by a single caption near the opening of the third book:

Records of her movement over the next few years are incomplete, yet reveal a pattern of increasing desperation... as if she were pacing the galaxy trying to get out.

Yes, I know the feeling, and that's precisely why I ended up in Texas; and just as I bagged a happy ending thank you very much, so too does Halo it seems, which somehow justifies all the preceding crap of the big, horrible journey.

Aside from the conspicuously episodic feel of the first book, I think the only other surprise is Ian Gibson's artwork which definitely worked better on the low quality paper of the weekly comic as I remember. It's not that it's bad so much as that it's often very, very sketchy and overly stylised as though the characters are torn between hasty fashion design and the pouting offspring of Donald Duck. It lacks the clarity of the similarly wavy and otherwise superior Jesus Redondo, although there's a marked improvement in the third and final book for some reason. That said, I still can't imagine this working so well with any other artist at the wheel, although I could have done without hearing about the Halo Jones hamburger shot collector's art that almost went on sale at some convention or other.

Classic is an overused adjective in the crazy biz of comics, but entirely justified in this instance.

Monday, 8 July 2013

The Authority volume three: Earth Inferno

Mark Millar, Frank Quitely & Chris Weston
The Authority volume three: Earth Inferno (2001)

Just for the sake of a recap, The Authority, created by Warren Ellis - the most talented writer ever to sit down in front of a computer with a nice cup of tea, a packet of biscuits, and a freshly ironed thinking cap - is the most violently innovative comic ever published, effectively inventing the superhero genre, for there were no superhero comics prior to The Authority.

No there weren't.

Sarcasm aside, The Authority is frequently cited as the first big-screen superhero book, or at least it's cited as such in the three places I've looked, one of these being the back cover of an earlier volume. This amounts to admittedly beautifully drawn pages of costumed types throwing planets at each other, or something similarly reliant on scale, combined with a dearth of the requisite captions, subtitles, or thought bubbles by which our living God might lament how Ellie-Sue never seems to notice him in class on account of only having eyes for that big bully, Brad Bradford. It's the sort of thing that I would impertinently suggest is a piece of piss if you've got a decent artist on board, just as it's a piece of piss making spooky music if you have a good microphone, a ton of reverb and a stack of shitty teenage poems about skulls and skeletons and stuff; so I'm saying that I don't really buy The Authority as anything particularly startling, or at least as anything that hasn't already been done by Jean Giraud thirty years ago; or even Jack Kirby, I suppose it could be argued.

That said, as is often the case with that which appears wrought by simple means, it takes genuine skill to get it right, and Mark Millar continues to impress in this respect, even when teamed up with Frank Quitely, the natural shoe-in for that long awaited Jimmy Hill and Lionel Richie crossover graphic novel. Whilst much of Earth Inferno superficially resembles the biggest Hollywood action blockbuster ever to be shoved up the Andromeda galaxy's back passage with a fist made out of purest anti-time - it works in ways far beyond the means of all those noisy, soulless Bruce Willis vehicles, achieving scale with great art and conveying tone through the magic of genuine wit and knowing when to shut up; as opposed to ramping up the orchestra into an endless cycle of empty emotional crescendos punctuated by jokes about not losing face as someone has their face sliced off with a penisary quantum laser.

I know I'm about a decade late to this party, but Mark Millar really does seem to make the work of so many other comic book writers read like fanzine level tailored-to-order hack work, as unfortunately indicated by shorter back up strips from Joe Casey, Paul Jenkins, and Warren Ellis included in this collection, none of which are terrible, but none of which I can actually recall in any detail despite only having read them yesterday evening.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Enchanted Pilgrimage

Clifford D. Simak Enchanted Pilgrimage (1975)
Although Enchanted Pilgrimage was, it could be argued, Simak's first full-blown nailing of colours to the fantasy mast - written in response to a number of his readers turning out to be fans of the genre, which was a rather nice gesture I would say - it's probably more the case that this novel tips the balance of his established style just enough to warrant chaps with swords rather than lasers on the cover. Simak was never the most scientifically puritanical of science-fiction authors, so gnomes, demons, goblins, and at least one banshee had already turned up in his fiction. The later Fellowship of the Talisman goes further into the murky realms of the genre, but to my surprise Enchanted Pilgrimage roughly occupies the middle ground between that and the larger body of Simak's work, all the stuff with the robots. Whilst those gnomes and goblins on a quest with a magic sword boxes are ticked and we learn of a world which branched off from this one many thousands of years ago, we also encounter flying saucers, extraterrestrials, and a traveller from a more scientifically orientated strand of human history resembling out own. The recipe suggests a hodgepodge of elements thrown in for chuckles to see what will work, but the result is surprisingly satisfying and runs by its own internal logic. Simak being a writer who occasionally bordered on the sentimental, it's always gratifying when he gets the balance just right - as generally he tends to do - writing even gnomes and goblins without ever quite turning it into a pointy-hatted episode of Last of the Summer Wine.

True enough, Enchanted Pilgrimage features that most ballsaching fantasy cliché of the misfit band of merry types on a quest, but it's told so well as to circumnavigate wincing potential, and by some minor miracle turns the trope on its head, ending up in entirely the wrong place but working all the same:

So this was the end of it, Cornwall thought, the end of the long trail that had started at Wyalusing when he'd found the hidden manuscript - and a different ending from the one he had imagined. He had set out to find the Old Ones, and now the Old Ones no longer mattered, for they had been something other than he had expected.

The finale, delivered without so much as an exclamation mark by way of fuss, hits you with the brilliance of its zen-like simplicity - a quest in which the protagonists find something they weren't even looking for. Failing to get what they want, as Mick Jagger might observe, they instead get what they need.

Very satisfying.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Marshal Law: Kingdom of the Blind

Pat Mills & Kevin O'Neill Marshal Law: Kingdom of the Blind (1990)

Pat Mills and a group of other 2000AD luminaries formed Apocalypse Limited at the end of the 1980s as an alternative to what mainstream British comics publishing avenues were available at the time. It was felt that 2000AD had lost its bite to some degree, and Toxic! - the first regular Apocalypse title - was an attempt to bring some of that back; a doomed attempt as it happened. Whether the strips were just a little too abrasive for their own good, or it was the conspicuously weekly episodic division of longer stories clearly written with one significantly larger eye on American reprints, the public weren't buying, and the publisher folded.

About a year prior to the launch of Toxic!, Apocalypse Limited staked out its territory with this one off Marshal Law special which, I suspect, may also have served as a sort of toe of gratuitous violence dipped in the publishing waters: no longer obliged to answer to editors at either Epic or Fleetway, Pat Mills wanted to see how far he could push it.

Well, that's my theory anyway. I have no idea whether it's actually true, but it seems plausible when you compare the tone of Kingdom of the Blind to that of Marshal Law Takes Manhattan, the previous wacky adventure of that zany leather-clad cop with all the barbed wire wrapped around his right arm. Marshal Law is, for the uninitiated, Pat Mills' superhero comic about how much he loathes superheroes, and possibly the weirdest and perversely funniest thing Kevin O'Neill has ever drawn.

Where previous stories administered Chinese burns to Superman and the Marvel Comics pantheon respectively, Kingdom of the Blind dissects Batman; and much as I loved The Dark Knight Returns, it really does leave Frank Miller looking like a bit of a cunt, not that he's needed much help on that score of late. It's funny, bitterly sarcastic as you would expect, and this time quite phenomenally gruesome in its raking over the hitherto unexposed depths of psychological bullshit inherent in its target. Marshal Law was never going to work as an acceptable substitute for Betty and Veronica, but this one's tough going even by Mills' standards,
almost bordering on joyless during flashbacks to Scott Brennan's childhood. In addition, the conclusion feels a bit tacked on in lieu of better ideas - the aspirationally poignant death of Kiloton. It's not so much that he isn't a sympathetic character - although he isn't - as simply that this sort of thing doesn't really work in postscript to such a barrage of bile.

Still, not perfect but good stuff for the most part.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Masters of Time

A.E. van Vogt Masters of Time (1944)

How odd that I should be prompted to dribble on about time war by Fritz Leiber's The Big Time, then only a few days later, I come across an even older example. The opposing factions in van Vogt's characteristically peculiar Masters of Time are the Planetarians, and the forces of a distant future Earth referring to themselves as the Glorious. I suspect the message here may be similar to that of The Big Time, specifically a sceptical regard of military authority as illustrated by neither side being particularly well-defined or necessarily motivated entirely by noble intentions - possibly not such a surprise given that Masters of Time was written as World War II continued to bluster on across Europe and around the Pacific. Of course, being van Vogt, it's sometimes difficult to tell quite what's going on as the story fires off at random, darting about the room like that furry thing Sylvester McCoy never quite managed to catch in old episodes of Vision On; having said which, it nevertheless opens with one of the most memorable first chapters of any of his books that I've read:

She didn't dare! Suddenly, the night was a cold, enveloping thing. The edge of the broad, black river gurgled evilly at her feet as if, now that she had changed her mind, it hungered for her.

Her foot slipped on the wet, sloping ground; and her thoughts grew blurred with the terrible senseless fear that things were reaching out of the night, trying to drown her now against her will. She fought up the bank, and slumped breathless onto the nearest park bench, coldly furious with her fear. Dully, she watched the gaunt man come along the pathway past the light standard. So sluggish was her mind that she was not aware of surprise when she realised he was coming straight toward her.

Sometimes I just don't know where to start with this guy - a novel that begins with She didn't dare!, or the image of someone coldly furious with their own fear; he writes like Flash Gordon redone as German Expressionist cinema of the 1920s, no sentence failing to punch you in the face or do something weird requiring you skip back and read it twice just to be sure. Our heroine, as introduced above, is saved from suicide by the not entirely human Dr. Lell who sends her to work at his Calonian recruitment station, which somehow ends up in a war waged across the span of human history, Roman legionaries fighting side by side with Zulu tribesmen and British Tommies, eighteen parallel Earths and God knows what else. It's tough to follow in places, but as ever with van Vogt, the texture carries the story. On first reading, Masters of Time falls short of being one of his greats, but there's some astonishing writing in here, and I suspect it  rewards further efforts.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Red Razors

Mark Millar, Steve Yeowell & Nigel Dobbyn Red Razors (1995)

It's hard to know where to start with this one, the comic book equivalent of a family-size bag of Morrisons' own brand cheese footballs. It's set in that version of twenty-second century Russia in which the Soviet Union endured, as did its furtive fixation with all things western, specifically all things 1970s western to the point where the only clue as to culture and geography is the occasionally gratuitous afterthought of a hammer and sickle slapped on either a building or someone's hat. There's a Church of Elvis, a talking horse called Ed, a Starsky and Hutch themed nightclub complete with Huggy Bear, references to Top Cat, Laverne & Shirley, Scooby Doo, on and on and on. It borders on exhausting for the same reason that comedian Peter Kay became unbearable when he gave up telling jokes in preference for gurgling who remembers fondant fancies? over and over like some peculiarly senile man-toddler. The thing that hurts most is that I know I've done this exact same thing: if you have no story to tell, just keep coming with those hilariously knowing references to the amusingly crap and dated, and maybe no-one will notice. It's probably what kept Deadline magazine going, or at least the careers of Jamie Hewlett and Philip Bond, respectively artists of Tank Girl and the truly excruciating Wired World, the strips which dared to name the fave bands of those involved every three fucking panels. Hey kids, who wants to check out The Wonder Stuff?

I'll pass, thanks.

Yet I still find it impossible to dislike Red Razors - the story of a Soviet psychopath turned instrument of rough justice, in case it wasn't obvious. It's fucking stupid, but it's almost so stupid that it comes out the other side, which is probably helped by the wonderful art of Steve Yeowell who just about manages to do the job of telling the joke with a straight face. There's still a gap in there, a place where certain elements don't quite connect because the story can't work out whether or not it should have been drawn by Paul Sample or Gilbert Shelton; but by the time Millar wheels out Vic Reeves' and Bob Mortimer's Judge Nutmeg as a radioactive mutant dispensing harsh sentences for crimes such as stepping on the cracks in the pavement, it's easier to just give in and go with it.

The Hunt for Red Razors drawn by Nigel Dobbyn doesn't really fare so well. The references to Multi-Coloured Swap Shop have been toned down, but the art doesn't quite fit. It's not that it's bad, but the guy was clearly just starting out and still had some way to go; and I suppose the same was true of Millar himself - Red Razors feels rushed, unlike either Saviour or Insiders so far as I recall, and rushed  to the point of having one of those panels so beautifully parodied in Viz wherein a crowd is stood to one side offering commentary on the action:

Razors is pretty tough! Spike broke his ribs and he's still fighting!

Yes, Barry. Thanks for that.

People tend to get a bit misty-eyed with the Judge Dredd mythos from which Red Razors is derived, possibly because it's enduring and English, and whilst much of it is undeniably great, readers tend to forget all the deadline-driven landfill like The Secret Diary of Adrian Cockroach Aged 13½ Months. I'm not really sure where Red Razors sits on the scale, because the whole thing really is frankly fucking stupid, but as I say, it's so stupid it kind of works, and as such it's very difficult to dislike.

Monday, 1 July 2013

The Big Time

Fritz Leiber The Big Time (1958)

What a strange and wonderful world we live in that I who have never brought forth seed unto the world should receive a 1961 Ace Double as a Father's Day gift from a mother-in-law whose existence was entirely unknown to me but a half decade ago in a completely different country; and pertinent for said Ace Double featuring The Big Time by Fritz Leiber, himself a master of stories which ask how the hell did that happen?

There's probably no such thing as a new idea, and Leiber was hardly the first to write about the weirder possibilities of time travel, but nevertheless, anyone familiar with the Faction Paradox mythos of Lawrence Miles and others, specifically the War - as subsequently pasteurised for the back story of the All-New Super Doctor Who Super Show - really needs to take a look at Fritz Leiber's Change War, of which The Big Time is the first book.

The Change War is a conflict the width of the universe, spanning the entire course of history with two equally matched forces continually mucking about with each other's past, changing the present and - oh you must know the drill by now, surely?

The Big Time takes place entirely in a bar, a brothel it could be inferred, a place outside of time and thus immune to the influence of the war where combatants from all across the span of human and even non-human history stop in for a drink and a bit of a rest. The two major powers are dubbed Snakes and Spiders, and The Place is sympathetic to the latter, although it remains in doubt as to whether anyone understands the true nature of these higher powers, even whether anyone has ever directly encountered them. Amongst those patrons ensconced in the bar when it suddenly finds itself cut off from the rest of causality are a Nazi officer, a Venusian satyr, an eight-legged Lunar creature, and a girl from ancient Crete; and so with such emphasis on events occurring elsewhere, it reads somewhat like a stage play - even the work of a weirder, funnier Harold Pinter - doubtless a result of Leiber's theatrical background; so, if the reference means anything to anyone, The Big Time is probably an absentee beat generation father to Faction Paradox:

It's sweet to jigger reality, to twist the whole course of a man's life or a culture's, to ink out his or its past and scribble in a new one, and be the only one to know and gloat over the changes—hah! Killing men or carrying off women isn't in it for glutting the sense of power. It's sweet to feel the Change Winds blowing through you and know the pasts that were and the past that is and the pasts that may be. It's sweet to wield the Atropos and cut a Zombie or Unborn out of his lifeline and look the Doubleganger in the face and see the Resurrection-glow in it and Recruit a brother, welcome a newborn fellow Demon into our ranks and decide whether he'll best fit as Soldier, Entertainer, or what.

The Big Time is packed with mind-bending ideas and heavy with potential subtext - an allegory of the cold war and the machinations of those Leviathan superpowers moving around at impossible distance from all that is human and therefore comprehensible, a novel which sides with the poet for the reason that poets are wiser than anyone because they're the only people who have the guts to think and feel at the same time.

Being Fritz Leiber, there's something of a bebop element: berets are definitely worn, espresso consumed, bongos pounded with gay abandon:

Mark had drawn a Greek hetaera name of Phryne; I suppose not the one who maybe still does the famous courtroom striptease back in Athens, and he was waking her up with little sips of his scotch and soda, though, from some looks he'd flashed, I got the idea Kaby was the kid he really went for. Sid was coaxing the fighting gal to take some high-energy bread and olives along with the wine, and, for a wonder, Doc seemed to be carrying on an animated and rational conversation with Sevensee and Maud, maybe comparing notes on the Northern Venusian Shallows, and Beau had got on to Panther Rag, and Bruce and Lili were leaning on the piano, smiling very appreciatively, but talking to each other a mile a minute.

Some reviewers describe The Big Time as incomprehensible. Although I don't think that's really fair, it does require that its reader pays attention, and in places it feels a little like a conversation with someone who is off their cake and won't shut up. It's disorientating for sure, but if it's a choice between that and space ranger Glenn Tandy scowled with tired eyes at the radar image lit up on his detector screen, I'd rather take the option in which it is assumed I have a brain. It's perhaps not quite so delightfully hatstand as Leiber's A Spectre is Haunting Texas, but neither is The Big Time anything to be sniffed at.