Tuesday, 27 June 2017

The Origin of the Inhumans

Stan Lee & Jack Kirby The Origin of the Inhumans (1968)
I assumed this would be material from what I vaguely remember as being an Inhumans comic, reprinted in the UK in black and white in a peculiar landscape format some time around the mid-seventies; but actually it predates that stuff. The Inhumans rose up through the caped ranks in supporting roles in issues of the Fantastic Four before proving so popular as to warrant their own title, and this book collects all of that earlier material. To be specific, it doesn't actually collect a stack of old Fantastic Four comics so much as mainly the Inhumans material, sometimes just a couple of pages an issue, interludes whizzing off to the Great Retreat to explain how our heroes are still trapped and that we haven't forgotten about them. This makes for slightly disjointed reading as we conclude one issue with Galactus promising impending doom, only for it never to arrive because said doom apparently failed to endanger any of the Inhumans and therefore didn't make it into the collection.

Still, fuck it - I'm not complaining.

The Inhumans were a race of super types who somehow evolved separate but parallel to the rest of us, creations of Jack Kirby just as he was entering the weirder stages of his career in comics, and you can really see how the Inhumans ultimately led to the New Gods and all that peculiar cosmic stuff. In fact you can actually watch Kirby getting weirder and weirder just in the course of this collection as it runs from 1965 through to 1968. By the half way point, my eyes were hurting and I experienced dizziness when standing.

Fantastic Four in 1965 was mostly talking whilst fighting, usually with a page or so explaining how the fight kicked off and what the bad guys hope to achieve. This was where we met Medusa, our first Inhuman, as one of the Frightful Four, one of those bad guy teams which actually knows itself to be evil and revels in the fact. Medusa has a lot of hair which she is somehow able to use in tentacular fashion, and she's teamed up with the Sandman, amongst others, who is essentially Bluto from the Popeye cartoons with the ability to turn himself into sand. The Sandman is both fucking stupid and yet somehow brilliant. So, hokey though they may well be, these strips appeal to me for the same reasons as do many of A.E. van Vogt's novels - the concepts are big, dumb, funny, and just weird enough to keep it interesting, ideas jammed together like lumps of plasticine in the hands of a toddler. Admittedly, the narrative becomes a lot more interesting once we're past the talking whilst fighting and learn who these Inhumans are, but Kirby's artwork is fucking astonishing throughout - just so gorgeous it would make a grown man cry - which more than compensates for uneven storytelling or disconcertingly abrupt leaps from one issue to another.

Whilst we're here, Stan Lee clearly deserves credit. I'm not sure what quota of the concepts involved came from him, because it sure feels like there's a lot of Jack Kirby in the mix, but Lee obviously had something to do with the success of the book and these characters. I get the impression he's better remembered as an entrepreneur than a master storyteller, which I think is possibly because of how simple he made it look, or rather read. It's easy to miss just how well he keeps it moving along, pages heavy with the verbose Marvel Shakespearean of yonder and behold which somehow feel quite light; and the extraordinarily repetitive motif of talking whilst fighting, over and over, page after page without getting dull or losing its wit; and let's not forget that this was very much a kids' book and is as such crammed with characters over-explaining their own motives and actions, and with the bleeding obvious pointed out in more or less every other panel; which is done with such charm and obvious love for not only the material but also its readership that I'm still able to enjoy this thing at the age of fifty-one without reservation.


Clifford D. Simak Mastodonia (1978)
Mastodonia seems slightly unusual within Simak's body of work in so much as that while it makes use of many of the man's characteristic tropes, the tone is perhaps more serious and sober than one might anticipate. So we have time travel and an extraterrestrial presence, but neither gnomes, robots, nor mischievous woodland sprites, and it's written with the same sense of practicality and realism I seem to recall having informed 1980's The Visitors*; and it's quite dark even by Simak's occasionally pessimistic standards.

Interviewed by Darrell Schweitzer in Amazing Stories, Simak spoke of the difficulty of writing a genuine alien being, one betraying no obviously anthropomorphic features informed by what a human author is able to imagine. It was clearly something to which he gave some consideration, and he did quite a good job with Catface in Mastodonia, an alien quite unlike those which more often tend to spring from the human imagination and accordingly described in mostly abstract or visionary terms. Catface is marooned in a typically Simakian wilderness, the same Willow Bend as we've visited in  previous novels, and he busies himself by creating time roads, passages through to earlier stages of Earth's history. Simak is riffing on themes and ideas he already explored in Small Deer, The Marathon Photograph, Project Mastodon and others, here achieving some philosophical depth with the greater page count and exploration of well trodden, familiar territory.

So Asa Steele, our guy, finds himself able to visit prehistoric Wisconsin by agency of Catface, striking what seemed an ominous note, at least to me, when he facilitates excursions for big game hunters keen to bag a triceratops. I say that it's an ominous note because for most of the novel, it's quite difficult to discern where Simak stood on the subject of overfinanced arseholes destroying critters for fun; so it's a relief when karma catches up with the big game hunters towards the end, which unfortunately still leaves Steele's slightly unsavoury efforts to treat the time roads as untapped commercial enterprises; but then we don't always have to like our main character for him to do his job.

Still, aside from foreshadowing Jurassic Park, I suppose, I'm not sure any of the above quite constitutes the point of this one, at least not directly. I suspect some of this may be the older metropolitan Simak wrestling with his own nostalgia for the rural simplicity of Millville to which he never returned.

'I'm that nutty Steele kid, who came back to the old hometown, and they're suspicious of me and resentful of me and most of them don't like me. They're friendly, certainly, but they talk about me behind my back. They don't like anyone who isn't bogged down in their particular brand of mediocrity. It's defensive, I suppose. In front of anyone who left the town and came back short of utter defeat, they feel naked and inferior.'

For Steele, Pleistocene Wisconsin seems to become the pastoral ideal central to so much of Simak's science-fiction, the tranquil Eden to which he returns, and which he will inevitably spoil because he's human and he needs to make a living. Thomas Wolfe's assertion that one can never go home may not seem complex or even particularly profound in 2017, and although it's not the first time Simak batted it around, it's rendered a surprisingly powerful statement in the pages of Mastodonia. There's a lot to chew on in this one, even before we get a glimpse of Catface's point of origin - where he began rather than where he was born - much of it relating to Simak's ideas regarding a universal fellowship of living things. It all ties in, and as with the work of any of the greats, you'd do better to just read the novel than have it explained to you.

*: Whilst we're here, I know Denis Villeneuve's film Arrival is based on Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang but it sure reminds me of Simak's Visitors.

Monday, 19 June 2017

Art Sex Music

Cosey Fanni Tutti Art Sex Music (2017)
If the suggestion that any one thing ever changed my life holds any meaning, then Throbbing Gristle are probably right up there with Doctor Who and Asterix the Gaul, at least in terms of broadening my horizons. I bought the records, live tapes, and any fanzines I could find. At one point I was even writing long and, I suspect, extraordinarily juvenile letters to Cosey; and she wrote back - and replies in the plural running onto the second side of the sheet of paper before arriving at her distinctive signature with the first two letters of Cosey written so as to resemble a pair of knockers. So although I've sort of fallen out of love with that whole weirdy music thing to some extent, I couldn't really not read this, her autobiography.

I went fully off the boil with Chris & Cosey's music around the time of 1990's Pagan Tango. It sounded bland and uninspired to me, and still sounds bland and uninspired. I said much the same about their Union Chapel performance nearly a decade later in an issue of the Sound Projector, which supposedly got back to them and prompted raised eyebrows and frowning. Having once corresponded with Cosey, I felt slightly shitty about that, like I'd betrayed some trust; but the fact of it was that I genuinely believe they had lost the plot half way through recording Techno Primitiv, musically speaking, and after sitting through a couple of hours of it I just didn't feel like kissing arse. So tremendous guilt is to account for how much I really wanted this to be a great book, which unfortunately it isn't.

On the other hand, Art Sex Music isn't terrible either. Cosey has had an interesting life, more than her fair share of genuinely weird career twists, and I have the impression that she's a genuinely decent person - an impression garnered from the aforementioned correspondence and through our having a whole shitload of mutual friends, plus she likes cats; so the story itself is interesting, even fascinating in places, but something is perhaps lost in the telling.

Firstly, it's far too long for anything written in what occasionally resembles the prose of a footballer's autobiography in which I opened the door and there stood none other than my famous friend Ray Reardon, the snooker champion. Cosey doesn't actually seem to have known Ray Reardon, but she has even more famous friends than Grant Morrison, including at least two distantly mutual acquaintances I'd cross the fucking M6 during rush hour to avoid. One of the tosspots in question I recall turning up to our lectures at Maidstone Art College, neither student nor teacher but some forty-year old bloke from the town apparently interested in literature, poetry, performance, and screwing a string of vulnerable eighteen-year old girls who had fallen for his leather trousered sales pitch. The fucker still crops up everywhere, usually in association with Marc Almond for some reason, and here he is again; and there's another even bigger shitehawk who I'm not going to identify, and who has evidently somehow managed to Zelig his way into the Cosey Fanni Tutti narrative, thus briefly transforming me into Father Jack bellowing how did that gobshite get on the television? And I'm not even talking about Porridge here.

So there's that element, and also the stumbling block of my profound loathing for the art establishment with particular emphasis on performance art; and the fact of my having become a sort of amalgam of Hank Hill and Kenneth Clark when it comes to other people's sexuality, much of which I generally regard as ghastly, particularly free love and polygamy - this based mainly on everyone I've ever known to have swung on that particular vine being a complete fuck-up, emotionally speaking. Accordingly, I additionally found myself skipping the accounts of Cosey's career as a stripper. I just couldn't bring myself to read it, and instead found myself turning up the volume on the television and telling the boy to go to his room.

I suppose one might justifiably wonder why I read the book at all; but, in spite of the above reservations - or my musty hillbilly prejudices, depending on how you look at it - I've always liked Cosey. I think she's interesting and has been involved in some great music; and I've always enjoyed Throbbing Gristle, and it's good to read a version of their story which doesn't revolve around it all having been Porridge's idea. Genesis doesn't come out of this very well, as you may have heard, and while I've seen it suggested that Tutti is herself not without a certain bias, I have my doubts. Her testimony seems balanced and consistent with what I know of her through both mutual friends and our ancient correspondence. Whatever flaws she may exhibit, the preservation of any of her own delusions doesn't appear to be a factor. I haven't read Simon Ford's Wreckers of Civilisation*, but it seems to have come to represent a version of the Gristle story which this account sets straight, and that at least has to be a good thing. Art Sex Music isn't an amazing autobiography as I've seen claimed by a few industrial music arse-kissers, but it describes an arguably amazing life and is nevertheless worth a look, and I might even be persuaded to pick up some of those more recent Carter Tutti discs as a result.

*: I met Simon Ford around a friend's house, and he was introduced to me as someone writing a book about Throbbing Gristle. He asked me if I had a copy of the Adrenalin 7" single which he needed for reference. Given that said single really wasn't that difficult to get hold of, then costing about fifteen quid from Record & Tape Exchange, and that we're referring to a single by a band about whom he was supposedly writing an entire book, it didn't fill me with confidence in his efforts.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Dead Souls

Nikolai Gogol Dead Souls (1842)
Here's another one picked up as part of a vague ongoing effort to edumacate myself with regard to literature 'n' shit, the hook in this instance being that I'd heard of it because Joy Division had a song presumably named after it, albeit a song which Nine Inch Nails did better. Interestingly enough, there doesn't seem to be much common ground between Gogol and Ian Curtis pleading for these dreams to be taken away, specifically the dreams which point him to another day. Indeed, the work of Joy Division seems at quite a remove to Gogol's dark yet amiable chortlefest. So as not to appear completely superficial, I would additionally like it to be taken into consideration that the chap on the cover of this edition vaguely resembles my friend Andrew, and that seemed like another good reason to read the thing.

In case it isn't obvious, my understanding of literary history is sketchy at best, and particularly sketchy when it comes to nineteenth century Russians. I read Crime and Punishment but I didn't like it much. Thankfully Dead Souls is written with a lighter touch, despite what might be anticipated from the title. Key to understanding what is going on here is the setting of rural serfdom in Tsarist Russia, a system in which commoners were regarded as part and parcel of the land upon which they lived, and therefore property of the landowner. Said landowners were required to pay tax upon their incumbent serfs, with the numbers being based on the most recent census figures, regardless of how many listed on the most recent census remain amongst the living. Our man Chichikov discovers there are economic advantages to ownership of a large quota of serfs, and so travels the countryside buying the deeds to those who have snuffed it, but whose deaths have not yet been taken into account by the most recent census. In other words, it begins as a satire on economics and the capitalist systems which allow for this kind of absurdist number crunching, expanding gradually into a farcical critique of class, privilege, and society built on the flimsiest of mutually observed concepts. In fact, it's almost Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle with better jokes and founded on the basic suggestion that we, as readers, might like to consider waking the fuck up every once in a while.

Thus these two citizens lived off by themselves until, now, toward the end of our story, they've popped up like faces in a window, and they've popped up like that to help me answer, in all modesty, the accusations of ardent patriots who, up until now, have been occupied in philosophical speculation or in the accumulation of money at the expense of the mother country they love so dearly. They don't give a damn whether or not their actions are harmful to the country; the only thing that worries them is that someone might say they're harming it.

No, it's neither patriotism nor even honest emotion that lies at the root of their accusations. Something else is concealed here. Why beat about the bush? Who's going to tell the truth if not the writer? So here goes: You're all afraid of a probing eye, afraid of looking thoughtfully into anything; all of you prefer to let your blank stare skim the surface of things.

The great success of Dead Souls is in its bumbling and overly fussy thrust, with Gogol - if we assume this to be a generally faithful translation - utilising the rambling tone of a folk tale strewn with absurdist tangents, obsessive conversational detail, and authorial interjections mulling over the actual telling of the story; so even when we're not quite sure what's happening - because Chichikov's motivation often seems obscure - we don't mind too much because there's plenty of other stuff to consider.

In some respects I suppose you might say it's like Dickens but without the cloying sentiment, although Dead Souls has sentiment of its own, presumably informed by Gogol having written the novel in Italy, flavouring his narrative with an exile's regard for his homeland which is both affectionate and faintly acerbic.

Legend has it that Gogol wrote a follow up to this, his best selling hit single, but this time incorporating characters with redeeming features; then destroyed the thing in a fit of self-recrimination. Personally I'd say the allegorically dead souls of the book do their respective jobs very well and have no more need of redeeming features than the novel ever required a sequel. Would that the Joy Division version had been so witty.

Monday, 12 June 2017

Sebastian O

Grant Morrison & Steve Yeowell Sebastian O (1993)
I had these, then flogged them on eBay whilst raising the funds which would allow me to ship all of my crap to America. Apparently I had a quick shufty through the three issues of this limited series and decided Sebastian O was less than essential, and so off to market it went along with a whole load of other crap I knew I would never read again. Inevitably I eventually came to wonder if I'd not been a little hasty in this financially motivated purge. Of course, I knew there was no good reason I'd ever wish to reacquaint myself with the Invisibles or Preacher or any of that other spooky self-harming landfill which Vertigo did so adequately; but I really had to think about Sebastian O and whether or not it belonged in amongst my collection, and then the bargain bucket at Half Price Books helped in the re-evaluation of my decision - all three issues, three dollars: very nice.

When one is tired of Oscar Wilde rip offs, it's perhaps not that one is tired of life so much as that one is simply tired of Oscar Wilde ripped off without due recourse to wit, like I just fucking said.


I just wrote that.

It's a piece of piss; and that's the problem with Sebastian O.

So here we have some sort of steampunk romp grounded in material which had become clichéd even by 1993 - Victorian computers and so on and so forth; and a steampunk romp starring Sebastian O, a character combining Morrison's continued attempts to channel Jerry Cornelius with his fascination for wisecracking dandy bad lads, which is quite possibly an aspirational thing if our boy's bloody awful autobiography is any indication. So we get a few recycled bits and pieces from Oscar Wilde, J.K. Huysmans and the rest because, let's face it, not too many Sandman fans will have bothered with any of that stuff and it's easy enough to fake. Except actually it really isn't. Oscar's zingers might seem like a piece of piss to the untrained ear because even a horse can work out the mechanism of the gag, but that level of wit is actually quite difficult to do well and to get right for the exact same reason that no-one will ever mistake an Oasis record for the Beatles. Bluntly, whilst Grant Morrison is not lacking in nous and has proven himself more than capable of cracking off an amusingly outré sentence when required, he's no Oscar Wilde. Nor is he even Michael Moorcock, for that matter, so the wit upon which this story hinges simply isn't quite so razor sharp as it believes itself to be, just as those Johnny Rotten impersonations set forth on Steve Wright in the Afternoon always left something to be desired.

On the other hand, I doubt any of this matters because it's drawn by Steve Yeowell and is thus beautiful beyond comparison, regardless of what unjustified smirking may occur within the text. Taking a positive view, the story is competent at least in the same sense of most modern Doctor Who being competent, sort of, and much like Sebastian O himself, its failings are mostly eclipsed by its ravishing good looks.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

The Pirates of Zan

Murray Leinster The Pirates of Zan (1959)
Further works of Murray Leinster continue to surprise even as I excavate them from the shelves of second hand book stores - something of a rescue and preservation mission because, let's be honest here, if the great Murray Leinster revival was ever a likelihood, it would have happened by now. Lacking big ideas or fancy concepts at quite the same scale as those of better remembered authors, it's no great mystery why Leinster seems to have sunk into obscurity; but considering the fun he obviously had writing this stuff, it really seems a shame - not least because he actually could write, unlike some I might mention.

The Pirates of Zan stars a man who may as well be your archetypal Gernsbackian science-hero, a talented electronics engineer suffering an ignominious life against the backdrop of a variety of backwards cultures; but the logic of the narrative and the peculiar twists and turns it follows as though trying to throw the reader off the scent, remind me a lot of A.E. van Vogt - which is naturally a recommendation.

On Walden, to be sure, the level of civilisation was so high that most people took to psychiatric treatments so they could stand it, and the neurotics vastly outnumbered the more normal folk. But on Walden, electronics was only a way to make a living, like piracy, and there was no more fun to be had out of being civilised.

Our man takes flight to a feudal world, engaging in swashbuckling of a kind which involves princesses and his own pirate ancestry, and the whole enterprise flips around and over with such frequency as to feel a little like farce, or at least satire; and yet whilst the prose might occasionally smirk at its own wry turn of phrase, there's never quite any giggling, neither a nod nor a wink to give the game away. Assuming The Pirates of Zan to be at least partially satirical, I'm still not entirely sure what it's about, if it's about any one thing. Leinster is clearly taking the piss out of economics, capitalism, and the society in which he was living, but the focus remains vague and playful, which renders the novel a thankfully decent, if occasionally puzzling read.

The Last Days of Animal Man

Gerry Conway, Chris Batista & Dave Meikis
The Last Days of Animal Man (2010)

It looked good in the shop: Brian Bolland covers making knowing reference to Grant Morrison's thoroughly mental run on the book, pleasantly clean lines from Batista and Meikis, and the intriguing possibility of a popular character shoved through the narrative mangle as happens in most of the best caped stuff - Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, Mark Grunewald's Captain America handed his P45 and so on...

What we have here is Buddy Baker losing his powers, which translates as a comic book having a mid-life crisis, but one written quite definitively for an audience with a reading age of about twelve. So we also have super-types fighting whilst talking, angry villains swearing vengeance and doing that face you do when you're trying to push out the first turd to take its leave of your bottom in five or six days, and we have a sense of humour which makes your average episode of Friends look like Jerry Sadowitz, and all adding up to a load of horseshit about the importance of family and being yourself. I suppose it might seem unfair, my taking such issue with something so obviously aimed at younger readers, but on the other hand I've read plenty of stuff aimed at kids which managed to do its job just fine without expecting me to make allowances; so balls. The Last Days of Animal Man isn't the worst comic book I've ever read, but it almost makes those bloody awful Jerry Prosser issues seem mysterious and alluring.

Most positive reviews I've seen of this thing seem to focus on the guest appearance of a Green Lantern who is actually a whale, which is a nice idea, but no substitute for being able to tell a story, or at least a story other than the same fucking one wheeled out for every film in which Michael J. Fox ever appeared.