Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Kick-Ass 3

Mark Millar & John Romita Jr. Kick-Ass 3 (2014)
Kick-Ass, as you will almost certainly be aware, is Mark Millar's real world superhero, or at least one of them - a comic book about a teenager who would be Spiderman but for there being no such thing as superpowers developed after being bitten by a radioactive spider; and there's no such thing as a superpower either, just like in our world. This leaves our kid to fight crime by means of hitting people with a stick whilst wearing a ski-mask, and so there are more kickings, beatings, bruisings, fractures than you might have been led to expect from a Fantastic Four comic, and a lot more blood, and some of it is pretty fucking horrible because that's how violence works. Kick-Ass can therefore be read as a particularly lurid slab of gratuitously graphic violence written by a man who probably ruined a keyboard roughly every two days through drooling into it. It all seems very irresponsible.

On the other hand, no-one is about to uninvent superhero comics; so given that they exist, and that there's still no sign of the trend for discussion-based confrontations by which the Punisher and the Kingpin might sit down for a cup of tea and a bit of a natter, if you're going to have graphic violence, then it's probably more responsible to show it as it is, or would be - painful and unpleasant. This may be incidental to Millar's intent which, I suspect, may be influenced by Chinese martial arts cinema as much as anything, specifically the sort of martial arts cinema in which assassins despatch their hapless foes by increasingly ludicrous means - like the poor fucker whose head is pierced through the centre by a single blade of grass in Eastern Condors. The violence of such films, or at least the few I've seen, whilst often improbable, is usually gruesome, and yet comes to occupy a position tantamount to choreography within the narrative.

I think this may be what Millar is going for, or at least some from column A and some from column B. He's accrued something of a reputation for stomach-churning shock effect, the narrative equivalent of rape jokes, and although he's crossed the line a few times, I genuinely believe that mostly he gets it just about right, excepting a few cases such as that of The Ultimates. This isn't to say that it's all just innocent fun and his critics need to grow a sense of humour, but that there's usually some point to his atrocities, or at least a point beyond shock and sales.

Kick-Ass 3 is surprisingly subdued considering what has gone before, although it may simply be that we're now accustomed to fountains of blood and a threat of castration every four pages. Most of the really big shocks and surprises have already occurred in previous volumes, so it makes sense that there wouldn't be much point going for an even bigger and bloodier spectacle in this one, and it therefore concentrates on the ordinary lives of its extraordinary people, how they are affected by the world in which they live - which is actually all the comic ever tried to do anyway. So Dave gets a girlfriend and does some growing up, and Mindy comes out of it in one piece, and the bad guys lose, and despite all of that which cannot be unseen, we close with a genuine shock - a feel-good ending, the shock being how well it works and how wonderfully it all pulls together in view of the innards-strewn path already travelled; and the resulting realisation of how long it's been since anything ended on this sort of uptempo note without feeling like manipulative hokum. It's not exactly a climatic conclusion to Kick-Ass, but it's exactly the ending it needed.

Also, the art is wonderful.

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Search the Sky

Frederik Pohl & C.M. Kornbluth Search the Sky (1954, revised 1985)
Kingsley Amis has impressed upon me the wisdom of picking up anything I see by Pohl and Kornbluth, and although I was sort of looking for The Space Merchants, obviously I wasn't going to just walk past this one.

Search the Sky isn't either quite so bonkers or so convincing as Wolfbane but is mostly of the same generally high standard and takes a similarly Swiftian angle. Humanity has spread itself across the universe, with contact between increasingly isolated colonies rendered impractical by sheer distance. A ship arrives from one of the nearest colonies - as is anticipated every few hundreds of years - but the distant descendants of the original crew - the people on board the ship back when it first began its journey - seem idiotic. Ross, a young trader, wonders if this degenerative state has befallen the other outposts of humanity, just as it seems to have befallen both the visitors and the stagnating culture of his own world; and so he is let in on an extremely well-kept secret, namely that there is one ship which can travel faster than light, and thus is he charged with answering his own question.

Ross visits a succession of human colonies, each more ridiculous than the next, each sunk into ruin by failing political systems. Here the scope for parody is considerable, and the authors have a lot of fun with it, not least with the gerontocracy in which only the most aged are presumed to possess wisdom sufficient for leadership.

There was sickening fright on Helena's face. 'Didn't you hear? We have to vote for the best man. Oldest is Bestest, you know. That's what Democracy means, the freedom of choice. They read us the ages, and we choose which is oldest. Now please, Ross, hurry before somebody starts asking questions!'

Each failing society is characterised by the infantilisation and repression of the majority by a minority elite, although some examples make for better metaphors than others. Whilst the society encountered immediately following the gerontocracy makes its points through the agency of a matriarchal dictatorship, the lightness of tone steers it a little too close to The Worm That Turned from The Two Ronnies.

Finally we end up back on Earth to find a technologically advanced human civilisation apparently comprised of dunderheads, Laurel & Hardy fall guys, the inhabitants of a thousand sight gags ending with some guy left holding a tin tub up against the ceiling with a broom handle. These are more or less the people encountered in Kornbluth's The Marching Morons, so it's fairly entertaining. I must admit to a certain degree of unease when dealing with anything suggesting that an excess of stupidity is to the ultimate detriment of the human race - despite what I myself may or may not have implied about the devotees of certain television shows during the course of previous reviews. It's a sentiment which can sometimes appear to steer a little too close to eugenics for my liking - see also shitty neofolk acts bemoaning the fall of European culture without actually naming any names just in case anyone gets the right idea. Thankfully here the fall from grace is deduced as having arisen from the state of isolation experienced by the dividing branches of humanity, so scapegoats are mercifully absent.

Search the Sky is no Wolfbane, as I say, and the point of the narrative is sometimes defeated by its own meandering tone if you really want to be picky; but it's otherwise a decent read, and it's funny in all the right places.

Monday, 27 April 2015

Swamp Thing: Raise Them Bones

Scott Snyder, Yanick Paquette & others
Swamp Thing: Raise Them Bones (2012)

Following on from my finding Peter Milligan's Red Lanterns borderline unreadable, it was proposed to me that I might direct my gaze elsewhere in DC Comics' newly reinvented cosmology, specifically to the Scott Snyder version of Swamp Thing.

'It's not as good as Alan Moore's Swamp Thing,' my informant told me, 'but it's better than the Mark Millar version.'

So here we are.

In case anyone missed the memo, DC Comics have been doing this sort of thing for a while, regularly rebooting its entire cast of characters back to their own year zero so as to avoid the ludicrous situation of anyone finding themselves required to draw Batman falling asleep in front of Countdown and not shitting himself before he's made it to the lavatory. I'm still not sure what to make of this development, although as I barely read the things these days my opinion would in any case probably be worthless. I was a massive fan of the version of this title which ran throughout the eighties and some of the nineties as written by Alan Moore, Rick Veitch, Doug Wheeler and others, and I can't really see that anything is likely to improve upon those issues. Apparently Swamp Thing has been revived twice since then, by which point I'd wandered off in another direction; and now here we all are, back to the beginning once more. Except it isn't exactly back to the beginning because it tells a story at the same sort of tangent to its earlier self as tends to arise from Hollywood adaptations. Similar situations and characters emerge seeming less like reinvention than someone playing with Alan Moore's toy box - the parliament of trees, the defender of the green as foretold by prophecy, broken necked chaps with their heads facing backwards, and so on. So it all feels at least a little familiar, even referencing what went before in obtuse acknowledgement of everything having returned to year zero, but all joined together in an unfamiliar configuration. Abigail Arcane has had a haircut, and she turns up on a motorbike with a shotgun which she points at the bad guy whilst growling you don't have to do this. Somehow it feels like a bad fit, given that Abigail Arcane probably isn't quite so essential to the founding mythology of Swamp Thing as, for example, is Lois Lane to that of Superman; but maybe I'm just too ingrained with the previous version of the story. Maybe I need to let go.

Actually, the story as spread across the seven issues of the comic collected here does seem to have a pace and dynamic closer to certain Hollywood conventions than was the case with the previous incarnation - just to squeeze out my penultimate winnet of objection-poo; but, for what it is, taking the new Swamp Thing on its own terms and ignoring the recycling, this is a more than decent effort. Excepting the intermittently wonky faces drawn by Marco Rudy for the fourth issue, the art is mostly fucking fantastic, and the writing is mostly pretty darn great, despite my reservations regarding some of the plot across which that writing is draped. I suppose, most importantly, the horror is at least as horrible as anything from Moore's run, which is after all the point of this title.

So yes, possibly better than Mark Millar's Swamp Thing - which I liked a great deal as it happens - and not quite up to Alan Moore standards, and whilst I have some minor reservations, this is a very respectable effort and an absolute pleasure to read.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Shadow of the Scorpion

Neal Asher Shadow of the Scorpion (2008)
Still buzzing from how much I recall having enjoyed The Skinner - which I read back in 2012 - here I am once again slightly underwhelmed by a Neal Asher title, so bugger!

Shadow of the Scorpion turns out to be military science-fiction, probably decent as military science-fiction goes, but military science-fiction nevertheless. It narrates the early years of Ian Cormac, Polity agent and two-fisted protagonist of other novels by Asher, so it probably helps if you've read those other novels and already care about the character, which I haven't and don't.

I gather this one is roughly about war, and the truism of its first casualty being truth, in this case referring to Cormac's memories which have been edited so as to remove the traumatic bits and thus allow him to carry on soldiering. It also occurs to me that some of this might represent an oblique response to the Iraq war, to US coverage of the Iraq war and to what went on at Abu Ghraib, which at least elevates it above the general level of most military science-fiction as I understand it to be, and about which I don't really care enough to investigate for myself, having at least a million better things to do. If that bothers anyone, please feel free to stop reading and piss off. Military science-fiction indeed! You sad fucking wankers!

Ahem - pardon me...

'—experiencing pain only hardens you, desensitises you, was how I thought about it all back then. I now understand that I was just being selfish, like a parent giving an unruly child drugs to calm him down. Pain, whether physical or mental, always serves the purpose of teaching the recipient to avoid it, but more important than that, it can teach said recipient to empathise with the pain of others. We need pain to be human.'

So, as military science-fiction, Shadow of the Scorpion at least has a more elevated purpose than the presumably usual weapons-porn driven fight to liberate freedom from the clutches of a giant space Nazi ingeniously named Obamack Bara or whatever; and Neal Asher certainly knows his way around a sentence, but the problem is that  most of the book
is actually quite boring, at least up until the last couple of chapters. It's well-written and wildly inventive - although nowhere near quite so apeshit as was The Skinner - but somehow I just wasn't feeling it. I've noticed how Asher occasionally has this habit of avoiding too many direct references to people, objects, occurrences or whatever, I suppose so as to avoid the sort of repetition which comes when everything is continually spelled out over and over and over. Unfortunately he seems to push the fine balance just a little too far over the line on occasion resulting in three or four pages passing with only an approximate idea of who or what the fuck they're all talking about, or at least this was how I found it. It's probably significant that I happily kept on reading, regardless, and still got enough out of it to conclude that Shadow of the Scorpion was more in the direction of a pleasure than not.

Monday, 20 April 2015

The Changeling

A.E. van Vogt The Changeling (1950)
Another oddity, and fuck - could they really not have come up with a better cover? Not only does this 1976 printing recycle the art of the New English Library's 1973 edition of The Weapon Makers, but messes it up by use of a reproduction with the quality of something taken on a phone, then adds insult to injury with that font one would purchase by the letter from 1970s hardware stores in order to spell out beware of the dog, please shut gate, or whatever name you had decided to bestow upon your newsagent or corner shop; and you can even see the registration marks on the front, between author and title; and the picture has nothing to do with the novel - although admittedly it was already a bit of a stretch linking it to the subject of The Weapon Makers; and the spine of the book is creeping around onto the front cover. The thing looks and feels like it came out of a Christmas cracker.

Never mind.

The overwhelming sense of familiarity I experienced as I began to read this turns out to result from The Changeling having been human-centipeded together with a few shorter stories to form The Beast, one of van Vogt's fix-up novels. The Beast, from what I can recall, featured Adolf Hitler somehow inhabiting the body of a caveman as leader of a breakaway group of Nazis who fled to the moon after the end of the war. It was better than fucking Iron Sky, but was otherwise something of a dog's dinner, you may be surprised to learn. Here in its pre-op state, The Changeling is a little more palatable, if not necessarily the sort of thing to get anyone running out into the street and jumping up and down with excitement. The story is one of those which screams Philip K. Dick read this, it being the tale of an immortal man who doesn't realise he's immortal because his brain cells completely replace themselves more or less every four years, along with his memory. The opening chapters represent van Vogt at his most arrestingly weird, narrating the tale of our man with that characteristically dreamlike sense of constant motion, and each passing moment examined as a distinct state of mind. The random narrative swerves seem to work well, building atmosphere without going too crazy - as tends to happen when van Vogt gets carried away and it feels like you're reading something that's been pulled out of an inverted top hat in random order.

Unfortunately over the brief course of The Changeling's 120 pages, it becomes a little too easy to forget what he's actually writing about, at least beyond a very general impression. Additionally there would seem to be what looks a lot like a horrendously sexist subtext, as typified by the arrival of the equalised women - women who have taken a special drug which renders them equal to men. The equalised women have become a disgruntled minority, shunned by those unequalised gals who would much rather visit the hairdresser, shop for pretty dresses, or perhaps read the latest issue of Woman's Hat Monthly, and shunned by the men who were quite frankly hoping to enter someone a bit more feminine. The book concludes with some sort of general plea for political equality between the sexes, without actually terming it as equality, so I don't think van Vogt's heart was in entirely the wrong place, but he really should have given the issue a little more thought and working out what he actually wanted to say in the first instance would have been a good start. That said, this aspect of The Changeling now reads somewhat like an old Harry Enfield sketch - Women: Know Your Limits, and the like, so there's probably not much point getting angry about any of it, at least not with recourse to anything stronger than a heavy sigh.

The Changeling is a little underwhelming, but is short and seems mostly comprehensible by van Vogt's standards, and the story definitely works better in this form than chopped into pieces and stirred into The Beast.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

The Golden Compass

Philip Pullman The Golden Compass (1995)
I sometimes have the feeling that as of about a week ago I was the last person on the planet who hadn't actually read this. Even the woman working the till in Nine Lives Books was raving about it, promising me I would love every syllable. She wasn't the first, which is possibly one reason why it's taken me so long. Quite aside from having been promoted as fantasy fiction - something to which I am not automatically well disposed due to an allergy to anything involving dwarves, quests, or magic swords - there was a point at which everyone I knew seemed to have read this thing and was telling me I should give it a go, and this is just your sort of thing often has the opposite of the intended effect with me. I say everyone I knew, although I suppose actually I mean Carl and Eddy, both of whom I love as brothers from other mothers, but it hadn't even been a year since they had both - quite independent of one another - urged me to read Harry Potter, and frankly I wouldn't touch that one with yours, mate. The nail in the coffin was probably Marian, my girlfriend of the time, telling me that I needed to read Philip Pullman. She was very good at giving me things to read, great at telling me what I needed to do, and shit at taking even the remotest interest in anything I myself had read or considered worthwhile, plus her previous recommendation had been Yann Martel's Life of Pi and I'd had to give that one up as a complete waste of time after about twenty pages.

Anyway, time has passed and there it was, so what the fuck I thought; and wow - I can, at long last, see that at least some of the fuss was justified; and by the way - I saw the film, but I couldn't remember the first fucking thing about it, and reading The Golden Compass failed to even jog my memory on that score, so I suppose it must have been fairly shit.

In the event of my not being the last person on the planet to have read this, The Golden Compass is set in its own entirely unique version of our world, technologically and culturally at a tangent to 1920 or thereabouts, except everyone understands quantum theory, world history has obviously taken a quite different course, and everyone has their own daemon - or companion spirit animal for the sake of argument. Talking bears have their own civilisation, and witches fly around on something which may as well be a broomstick. Despite this, it doesn't quite feel like fantasy fiction in so much as it lacks the traditionally sappy quality I associate with most of the genre. This is almost certainly down to the pants-wetting excellence of Pullman's narrative, his rich imagery, elegant, descriptive prose, and perfect sense of timing. It's been a while since I derived quite this much pleasure, or at least this kind of pleasure from the simple process of following words across a series of pages. Such is the power of Pullman's writing that one may not actually notice that this is, technically speaking, children's literature - major clues being witches and talking bears I suppose, even if you hadn't spotted the significance of the main character being a twelve-year old girl; but, like any decent children's literature, it doesn't pander or condescend, and the main themes are such as to render it adult-compatible. Additionally, such is the power of Pullman's writing that I didn't actually notice the story being hung upon a naughty child fleeing from authority, going on a quest, and ending with a massive scrap - normally the sort of stuff that bores me shitless, but The Golden Compass invests such well-trodden paths with fresh verdure, clearly demonstrating that the substance of the tale is in the telling more than the mechanics of plot, on which so many crappier writers tend to fixate.

As for what it's about, I'll probably save that until I've read the other two. Rooting around on the internet, I find that the trilogy as a whole is in some sense an inversion of Milton's Paradise Lost, of which I am generally ignorant, although I recognised certain themes which I assume are expanded in the second and third part. Additionally, I've been dimly aware of His Dark Materials being on the receiving end of criticism as an atheist diatribe, with the term atheism seemingly used in the sense of that stuff which corrupts our kids and makes them listen to devil music, and so on and so forth. I don't yet know what occurs later - maybe Lyra listens to a Slayer album and then injects some marijuanas or something - but it sounds like a hysterical accusation, at least based on this first part of the story. Whilst the forces of evil appear represented here by the Catholic church, or something fairly similar, I had a strong sense of Pullman criticising dogmatic bureaucracy and political power structures in general rather than too many specific articles of faith, and what specific articles of faith are discussed must surely be considered suitable subject for debate, otherwise the critics simply prove Pullman's point about dogma. Anyway, the Archbishop of Canterbury seemed to think His Dark Materials was all right, so there you go...

A book living up to its own hype is a rare thing, but this one does just that; and anyone approaching The Golden Compass whilst mindful of terms like atheist propaganda is probably too stupid to be reading in the first place.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015


Steve Lyons Micronauts (2002)
I find it kind of depressing that for all the hypothetically good work I've undertaken in the expansion of my own literary horizons, reading Rabelais and Cervantes and Plato and all of those guys as signified by my intermittent sneering along the lines of this or that novel being significantly less sophisticated than the writings of Schopenhauer - despite that I've never actually read the writings of Schopenhauer; for all of this, all it apparently takes is for someone to write a novel about some toy I had as a kid, and I may as well be drooling in line for One Direction tickets.

As a rule I try to avoid tie-in novels on the grounds that they're probably mostly crap, and no-one has yet given me sufficient reason to care about whether or not this is an unnecessarily dismissive position to take. I've done my time. I read four-million Doctor Who novels, and there were a handful I might conceivably read again at some point; but on principal I would prefer to avoid any book that wishes it were a television show, a film, or - God forbid - a fucking console game. Whilst this may seem an unforgivably high-handed attitude, considering all the millions upon millions of books out there which you've never read, and may never find time to read even if you live to be two-hundred, why settle for something which secretly wishes it had been made in another medium? If you don't really enjoy books as books - I dunno - why bother reading at all? Just watch the fucking telly instead. Do what you like.

Nevertheless, here I am because I loved the absolute shit out of my Micronaut action figures and related toys when I was a kid, and because this was written by Steve Lyons. I seems to recall Steve Lyons having chugged out a couple of the better Doctor Who novels - at least amongst the aforementioned few I would consider re-reading at some point - as well as a couple of reasonably side-splitting volumes of something called The Completely Useless Encyclopedia. Sadly, lifting up the internet and having a look inside I notice Lyons has also written Sapphire & Steel audio dramas and novels based on something called Warhammer 40,000, which I assume to be one of those children's computer games, but never mind. Given that my previous review was of a Superman comic, I'm probably in no position to start getting sniffy on the grounds of Micronauts being a lesser work than Schopenhauer's Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung.

Mego's Micronaut toys were originally fictionalised as stars of their own Marvel comic by Bill Mantlo and Michael Golden, and spectacularly so until Michael Golden stopped turning up and the title went somewhat down the toilet. Then someone revived the comic in 2002, or maybe before, probably with everyone drawn looking as though they need to take a shit and with at least one major character raped in him batty by his own dad in issue two, but I never saw the revived version; and then there was this, the first of a trilogy of novels.

The story carries some resemblance to that which appeared in the original Marvel run - specifically some teenager with a scientist father discovering a rift in the fabric of reality through which tiny Micronauts spew forth, followed by generic adventures of the kind involving rebel leaders and evil emperors. This version of the tale has the diminutive explorers from another universe arriving in the town of Angel's Gift, which capitalises on their tourist potential by featuring them as both carnival attraction and inspiration for a series of action figures. This goes some way towards smoothing over the discomfort of anyone who, like myself, feels a little self-conscious as a fully grown man reading a novel about toys I played with as a kid; some way, but maybe not all of the way.

'How? There'll be guards on the door—both sides!'

'The same way I got in here. The obvious way.' I look at him blankly, until he grins and says: 'Don't you have any story books on your world? In the fiction of my galaxy, buildings like this always, always have handy air-conditioning ducts!'

Oh yes. Here we are running down a corridor as though we were on some shit TV show whilst drawing attention to the fact of our running down a corridor. Ha ha.

You see, comedic asides pointing out clichés work better when the narrative doesn't keep on committing said clichés over and over, because this reduces the asides to an excuse for not bothering to tell a proper story.

The Harriers catch me, and I look up into Nova's face as she moves in, her energy wings flaring behind her. I haven't seen her up close before, and I'm surprised at how young she looks. Young and beautiful. Her eyebrows arc gracefully beneath her sprouting purple hair, and her slender nose has an attractive curve—but her eyes are cold, and a cruel sneer twists her pursed lips.

As opposed to an amiable or kindly sneer, I suppose, and young and beautiful is not in itself sufficient for a fucking sentence. I really wish people would stop doing that, splattering around fullstops regardless of syntax in the belief that the resulting pause - which would work just as well with an altogether more grammatical comma - gives whatever is said the gravity of an Orson Welles voice-over, when it actually furthers the impression that the author would rather be writing something other than a novel.

Ice cream fandango. Typewriter summer's day Charlie. Bob. Stegosaurus on heat. And Bob again.

Those aren't fucking sentences either.

To be fair, aside from all of the above, Steve Lyons does a decent job, such as it is. The story is told as a reasonably engaging first person present tense narrative, and there's plenty of evidence of Lyon's ability to hold a sentence together, and to write something which at least does more than simply help you to imagine what it would look like if it were on the telly. The problem is that Lyons' telling seems to be significantly superior to that which is told, which is roughly the usual story of a plucky teenager and tiny aliens running along corridors, and with the local mayor's greed drawing them all into a war which no-one can win, and no amount of references to it all feeling a bit like an episode of Quantum Leap can save the turd from toiletdom. This one really feels like a decent writer struggling to make good with a story he's been given by a committee.

Some of the background material is drawn from earlier comic book incarnations, which is in some way unfortunate because it means I had no idea who Azura Nova is supposed to be, and because it doesn't actually compare that well to the Mantlo and Golden version in which the bulk of clichés seemed better concealed and which was simply a more interesting tale, focussing as it did on the Micronauts and their universe rather than a generically plucky teenager who wishes his dad was less of a dick.

Yeah - I know, the Micronauts novel was probably aimed at teenagers or at least at the emotionally and developmentally teenage, but I still say it could have aimed just a little higher; and being as it didn't, it hasn't inspired me with any interest in reading the second or third part of the trilogy.

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Red Son

Mark Millar, Dave Johnson, Kilian Plunkett & some other guys
Superman: Red Son (2003)

...and this is what I love about Mark Millar: just when you think you've had it with the guy and those stories in which he's basically waggling his dong at the local vicar, picking up Red Son for the first time is enough to wash away even the most unpleasant lingering stench - even the athlete's foot strength fetor of The Ultimates.

Red Son rewrites Superman for a world in which the well-worn origin story of escape capsules conveying infants from doomed planets occurs in the Soviet Union rather than the United States, roughly inverting the entire history of the cold war. Whilst Millar's understanding of the Communist USSR as described here probably isn't significantly deeper than it was in his wilfully ludicrous Red Razors strip of years gone by, neither is it precisely the crowing refutation of Socialism one might expect of an American publisher. This politically soft focus works quite nicely in maintaining the fidelity of all the grey areas necessary for the story to work, so we are forever caught between no-one quite being the bad guy, or anything objectively heroic.

With Superman in his corner, Stalin facilitates the spread of Communism across the globe, not so much through force as by means of natural economic and political evolution. That America in its isolation remains the supposed voice of freedom seems irrelevant as it is reduced to a state paralleling that of the former Soviet Union at the point of collapse, as it was in the real world. Without a single slogan fired or any of the gratuitously nasty crap for which Millar has become unfortunately famed, Red Son holds a mirror up to contemporary America and shows us - us seeing as I've been here for nearly five years now - and shows us what the last century felt like for everyone else, or at least for those on the receiving end of our foreign policy.

Millar seems to specialise in narrative details which anyone in their right mind would reject as unworkable - the big, the brassy, and the incredibly stupid; and his talent is to be found in holding everything together in such a way as to conceal just how ridiculous or overambitious it really is. When he gets it right, as he does here, it's a wonder to experience - a perfectly oiled machine taking all sorts of unexpected turns with poetic grace, seemingly the end result of a process of winnowing down all the details to just those which achieve perfection. Red Son falls a little way short of carrying the weight and intense atmosphere of Miller's Dark Knight, but really only a little way.

Sunday, 5 April 2015

Tom Strong

Alan Moore, Chris Sprouse, Al Gordon & others
Tom Strong book two (2001)

At the risk of simply repeating whatever it was I said about the previous collection, Tom Strong is Alan Moore doing Supreme properly, as in without the baggage of Rob Liefeld, Image Comics, or the obligation of working with anyone else's playset. It's Moore's own brand mash-up of Superman, Captain Marvel, Doc Savage and others - the square-jawed good guy - starring in stories told just as they were way back when, loopy ideas, bright colours, and very little in the way of cynicism; and it reads as though aimed at children or at least younger teenagers, as I'm sure it is.

This presents a sort of problem in so much as Tom Strong so obviously speaks to an idea of teenagers as I guess Moore would like them to be - or would have liked them to have been fifteen years ago when this came out - rather than to actual teenagers who were probably more likely to have been playing Decapitator XII for Nintari X-Cube, or reading X-Men variants if they were actually reading comics at all. Tom Strong is pitched to a generation of kids who probably couldn't have cared less about Jack Kirby, or any of the hokey golden age team ups and crossovers so deftly parodied within - well, not even parodied exactly because most of it is played absolutely straight. This leaves the narrative light on substance, and yet heavy with material resembling subtext, or at least requiring a fairly thorough knowledge of the history of comics. This would tend to define a fat, old cunt like myself as the target audience, except I'm quite obviously not. The whole therefore comes across as lacking balance in some sense which is quite difficult to identify. The art, writing, and mechanics of how it all fits together are stunning, beautiful, perfection itself - and yet the whole somehow fails to engage, at least for me.

There's probably a clue as to why this should be in Space Family Strong, drawn by Hilary Barta in a style which I assume pays homage to Wally Wood's strips for Mad magazine. The tone is perfect - exaggeration and parody executed with affection which unwittingly and unfortunately throws the admittedly flawless artwork of Sprouse and Gordon into sharp relief as a good idea taking itself just a little bit too seriously. Even when Alan Moore fumbles the ball, he manages to do it in an interesting way and to make it look like it was deliberate.

Friday, 3 April 2015

Adventures of the Wishing Chair

Enid Blyton Adventures of the Wishing Chair (1937)
As a kid I led a sort of double life divided between home and the house of my grandparents. Whilst I've no reason whatsoever to criticise anything my parents did or didn't do, it was my grandparents who - presumably through having more leisure time and a slightly better budget - bought me books and encouraged me to read. My parents also bought me books from time to time, but otherwise generally left to my own devices. Of all the books I recall having read with my grandmother, Adventures of the Wishing Chair looms pretty large, at least equal to Brer Rabbit's a Rascal and six little Sir Prancelot picture books published by Collins. Naturally when I saw a copy in some junk shop in Shipston-on-Stour a few years ago, it was like the memory sherbert equivalent of a Diet Coke-Mentos explosion; and with it even being the same edition, I just couldn't not buy the thing. I'm not really in the habit of reading books aimed quite so squarely at those still half a decade short of being able to form dirty thoughts, but I refuse on principle to own anything purely for the sake of having it, and so...

As an adult, I've never been quite sure what to make of Enid Blyton or her work, and by weird coincidence I spent ten years of my life living across the road from her birthplace, as distinguished by the inevitable blue plaque on the wall above Plough Homecraft, from which I made regular purchase of screws, nails, tools and the like. I am aware of Blyton's oeuvre having accrued an unfortunate posthumous reputation for racist caricature, although I don't specifically recall anything of that sort in any of the books I read, at least nothing worse than the typical reinforcement of certain colonial-era values you find in children's fiction of a particular vintage, Rupert the Bear, Dan Dare, or whatever. This isn't to say that the casual racism didn't exist, only that I don't recall having directly encountered any of it.

Blyton's oeuvre also acquired a reputation for being of a low standard, one book churned out after another at the rate of something like fifty a year - formulaic, unchallenging, and lacking the obvious literary merit of a Winnie the Pooh or Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Whilst there may be some validity to this accusation, it may equally be a case of condemning a horse for not being a cow given Blyton's aims and methods of composition:

I shut my eyes for a few minutes, with my portable typewriter on my knee. I make my mind a blank and wait, and then, as clearly as I would see real children, my characters stand before me in my mind's eye... The first sentence comes straight into my mind, I don't have to think of it. I don't have to think of anything.

And whilst we're rummaging around in Wikipedia:

If I tried to think out or invent the whole book, I could not do it. For one thing, it would bore me and for another, it would lack the verve and the extraordinary touches and surprising ideas that flood out from my imagination.

This presents the startling possibility of Enid Blyton having been the A.E. van Vogt - or even the André Breton - of children's fiction, and it is almost certainly to account for the appeal of Adventures of the Wishing Chair - that dream-like quality of casual surrealism splashed around all over the place without any obvious concessions to established narrative traditions.

The story begins with two very young middle-class children, Mollie and Peter, out on a mission to purchase a birthday present for their mother - all very commendable until, having bought a vase from a peculiar junk shop, they encounter the Wishing Chair. The chair sprouts tiny wings from its legs and will fly you wherever you wish to go, and because the wizard who runs the shop is freaking them out somewhat, they hop into the chair and fly away home. Reading this as a forty-nine-year old man, I must admit I found this blatant act of shoplifting a little weird given that neither the wizard nor his assistant - apparently a pixie - seem particularly malevolent or deserving of having their stock nicked by kids, and yet the chair is repeatedly referred to by Mollie and Peter as our chair from that point onwards.

Next they make friends with a pixie called Chinky - thankfully lacking obvious Asiatic characteristics, although the name still seems a bit of an odd choice to me - and Chinky serves as their intermediary with the realm of fairies, pixies, giants, and other mysterious creatures somehow inhabiting the castles of a world also including planes, buses, and trains to London. As intermediary, it is usually Chinky who presses the proverbial magic button, providing the means of escape from whatever situation the children find themselves in, which in turn most often results from the theft or appropriation of their magical chair - consequences here tending to be those which occur to would-be chair thieves, but not so much to the children themselves; so this is something in the tradition of a fairy tale without quite being one. The children are as isolated in their adventures as they appear to be at home with their play room at the end of the garden, kept far away from the adult world. Their adventures occur mostly as diverting novelties equivalent to play, incurring few serious consequences and requiring minimal agency on their part.

I can see the appeal of Blyton in how she speaks very directly to her intended audience and in their own terms. Adults remain principally remote figures not directly involved with the narrative, aside from a couple of chapters in which Mother briefly becomes yet another threat to Mollie and Peter's continued ownership of the Wishing Chair. The morality of the tales are fairly vague and rudimentary, mostly to do with the basic manners of those whom the children encounter, and with the children themselves held to slightly less rigorous standards.

The point here is, I guess, to engage with the very young audience without it feeling like a lecture, and I suppose this is where the accusations of poor literary merit come from. I can sort of see it, in so much as Adventures of the Wishing Chair commits most of the same crimes currently perpetrated by a certain telly show about a man in a blue box, although that isn't the same as saying that it doesn't do its job, or that it is without purpose of some kind. For all their potential flaws, Mollie and Peter come across as essentially likeable, even noble, and the tales for all that they may lack any overtly educational element, are engrossingly weird without too much to give young minds either a headache or nightmares.

Enid Blyton got children reading, and doubtless got children reading who might not have otherwise bothered. This was at least my mother's verdict, having herself been raised on Enid Blyton, so I guess my later introduction to Adventures of the Wishing Chair was simply a continuation of the family tradition. She knows they were terrible, as she has told me more recently, but loved them regardless. Bums on seats is never an indication of quality, but then neither is mass appeal necessarily an indication of its absence, and on the strength of this one I would say that Enid Blyton did what she set out to do very well.

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Against Nature

Joris-Karl Huysmans Against Nature (1884)
About three of you may be aware that I myself once wrote a novel, and that it was similarly called Against Nature, and had previously languished for nearly a decade in publishing limbo answering to a variety of different names - Flatline, then The Other Side of the World, then The Hollow Hills, and finally The Empty Days. Eventually Stuart Douglas of Obverse Books took it upon himself to climb my lengthy beard - which at the time was dangling out of the window of the stone tower in which I had been detained - so as to effect my rescue, which was nice of him.

'I'll publish it,' he said, having very recently received a John Bull printing set for Christmas, 'but you'll need to give me a title, just something provisional which I can use when discussing funding with my many, many shareholders.'

I'd never really liked The Empty Days, and Against Nature just seemed to suggest itself out of the blue. The more I thought about it, the more I realised it was a perfect fit for the major themes of the novel. A few days later I realised that someone or other had already written a similarly named book of which I must surely have been aware on some subconscious level; and thusly did I hunt it down, reasoning that if I was going to nab his title, I might at least do Huysmans the courtesy of reading his version, even if only because such a course might prove useful in regard to my own efforts; and it was useful, not least because - aside from anything - Huysmans' Against Nature additionally carried certain themes in common with Sartre's Nausea, to which I was also alluding in certain sections of my own narrative, albeit mainly for the sake of general flavour.

Nausea is the story of a man experiencing revulsion at the conditions of his own existence, which is likewise the principal motivation of Jean Des Esseintes in Huysmans' novel. Huysmans seems to have been reasonably well established as a novelist in the Realist tradition when he published À Rebours, which in my general ignorance I presume to have paralleled related developments in the painting of the time, namely Gustave Courbet rejecting the romanticised portraiture of cherry-lipped toffs surrounded by cherubs in favour of regular working people with a bit of texture and very little in the way of sentiment. I gather that Huysmans may have tired of the possibly somewhat reductionist tendencies of his art, just as Des Esseintes' tastes become ever more rarified and refined, moving ever further from the mainstream.

He felt irritable and ill at ease; exasperated by the triviality of the ideas normally bandied about, he came to resemble those people mentioned by Nicole who are sensitive to anything and everything. He was constantly coming across some new source of offence, wincing at the patriotic or political twaddle served up in the papers every morning, and exaggerating the importance of the triumphs which an omnipotent public reserves at all times and in all circumstances for works written without thought or style.

Already he had begun dreaming of a refined Thebaid, a desert hermitage equipped with all modern conveniences, a snugly heated ark on dry land which he might take refuge from the incessant deluge of human stupidity.

So he shuts himself off from the world, dedicating his time to study of those few arts still apparently worthy of his attention and immersing himself in the artificial, seeking to fashion a new kind of human environment through stimulation of the senses. This is roughly where the title comes in, this being - I suppose - a pilgrimage against the natural, although it might also be taken to imply the spirit of opposition for its own sake, depending on where you are in the book.

After all, to take what among all her works is considered to be the most exquisite, what among all her creations is deemed to possess the most perfect and original beauty - to wit, woman - has not man for his part, by his own efforts, produced an animate yet artificial creature that is every bit as good from the point of view of plastic beauty? Does there exist, anywhere on this earth, a being conceived in the joys of fornication and born in the throes of motherhood who is more dazzling, more outstandingly beautiful than the two locomotives recently put into service on the Northern Railway?

There may be some use of comic effect here, but the passage nevertheless prefigures the Futurists and related Modernists singing their love of machinery; and as Des Esseintes furnishes his environment contrary to accepted standards of the time - particularly the garden - he specifically seems to foreshadow the Futurist Reconstruction of the Universe proposed by Giacomo Balla's 1915 manifesto of the same name. This may be significant given how heavily the Futurist tradition was rooted in that of Symbolism, both the artistic movement and as a general sensibility which Against Nature grasps with both hands, not least during extensive passages discussing the paintings of Moreau and Redon.

For much of his page count, Des Esseintes systematically works his way through nineteenth century culture - and any earlier culture considered of value in the nineteenth century - dividing what little wheat there is to be had from the great bulk of chaff. He goes through art, literature, philosophy, and religion finding each an endless source of disappointment, even ultimately tiring of what little he has left for himself at the end of the process - effectively painting himself into a corner, culturally speaking; and as he becomes further entrenched within his own isolation and increasing alienation, his health fails in concert. By the end of the novel, our boy is ingesting his meals by means of an enema in order to prevent further aggravating his already temperamental digestive system - which he of course regards as a triumph.

Des Esseintes could not help secretly congratulating himself on this experience which was, so to speak, the crowning achievement of the life he had planned for himself; his taste for the artificial had now, without even the slightest effort on his part, attained its supreme fulfilment. No one, he thought, would ever go any further; taking nourishment in this way was undoubtedly the ultimate deviation from the norm.

I suspect the reader may be forgiven a few chuckles at this juncture, and Huysmans does well to lay on the satire fairly thick at certain intervals without turning it all into caricature. Regrettably though, the prescribed course of enemas fails to improve the heath of our man who, at the end of the novel is commended by his doctor to return immediately to Paris and immerse himself in the ordinary and commonplace on peril of wasting away altogether.

I'm doubtless somewhat out of my depth here, but there's a lot going on in this one. Even without prefiguring Sartre's existential nausea and the fairly thorough mauling of nineteenth century arts, the narrative seems to present a warning against aesthetically - or possibly philosophically - cutting off one's own nose to spite one's face. Des Esseintes ends his great experiment driven back to that which initially so repelled him. It's dense but witty, and entirely lacking in anything resembling padding, and it greatly rewards repeated reading. I suspect there's a fair bit more to it than I've picked up on even this second time around; and should one feel so inclined, it probably wouldn't be such a leap of faith to find in Des Esseintes artificial world of scents and senses a precursor to Philip K. Dick's later psychologically artificial worlds - although I'm not sure how useful that would be unless you're Ridley bloody Scott.

Against Nature seems in many ways much, much greater than the sum of its parts, and it's a huge relief to realise that I've borrowed from a work of such distinct quality.

...and there's an interesting looking website dedicated to Huysmans and his writing here.