Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Books: Batman: The Black Glove


Batman: The Black Glove
Written by Grant Morrison
Art by J. H. Williams III and Tony Daniel

Available now from Islington Libraries
You can reserve this item for free here:

You see - the thing with libraries is - they're not always so great at having the copies of the books that you'd expect. Case in point: Batman: The Black Glove.

The second part in Grant Morrison's sprawling Batman epic the Black Glove is the point where - yes! - finally some decent artists start to step on board (namely Mr J. H. Williams III) and things stop feeling like a trawl and start to become - well - a bit more of a pleasure. There's a classic whodunnit murder mystery (stab! stab! stab!), lots of people dressed up in colourful costumes squabbling amongst themselves (fight! fight! fight!) and things exploding (BOOM!): but in a way that feels less like a kid scribbling down his homework the night before it's due and more like everything's in control: which I guess is ironic seeing how it's the beginning of where the Batman starts to lose his grip...

Islington used to have a normal copy of The Black Glove but (and this is something that always makes me sad) - library books don't always stay in libraries forever and sometimes people can borrow books from libraries and never return them and then - well - then there's a gap in the collection. Seeing how there's probably about (I dunno) a million books in stock across all the ten libraries in the borough that means that sometimes that gap stays there forever or (if we're lucky) the management will notice and order a replacement copy or someone will request the book [1]. Which is how we've ended up with Batman: The Black Glove - the Deluxe Edition!

The Deluxe Edition? I just thought that this meant that maybe there was going to be somekind of extravagantly written introduction from Grant Morrison or something: or maybe some wise words from J.H. Williams about just how he manages to make his artwork look so lovely and tasty. But actually: the main thing about this edition of the book is that it's actually The Black Glove and Batman and Son (which is the first part of Grant Morrison's Batman epic) collected in the same book (I don't know why they didn't just say this in the title? It's like if you had Alien and Aliens on the same DVD but just called the DVD "Aliens"). I mean - the good thing about this is that you can get a big fat hit of Grant Morrison Batman in one package without having to worry about getting both books at the same time (and Batman and Son is kinda disappointing if you just read it by itself anyway - so I'd say it's much better to read it in this format where you're pulled straight along into The Black Glove without even realising when the join is [2]) but the bad thing is that - well - it kinda messes up the tidy compartmentalisation of this blog and so instead of just starting by writing about what The Black Glove is about - I feel like I need to write down this big disclaimer so that any unexpecting library user who happens to come across The Black Glove knows what they hold in their hands (and who knows: maybe in the future - Islington will get a copy of non-Deluxe copy of The Black Glove that will this make all of this here superfluous? We can but live in hope).

But the book - let's ignore all that stuff and just talk about the book: - well the Black Glove is very much a game book of two halves: the first half (that's the bit with J. H. Williams III doing pretty much everything - including the covers) you could almost package as it's own thing: it's Batman and Robin doing their own thing  and hanging around with the International Club of Heroes and getting up to the usual superhero mischief [3]: and although it does get violent and nasty at points - the whole thing is constructed with such a light touch that you could easily image Adam West's face hidden behind the cowl (like maybe it could be a sequel to the 1966 Batman film or something? [4]). The second half is more business as usual and carries on with the "Who is the Third Man?" stuff that started on the pages of Batman and Son: this stuff isn't so appealing seeing how it no longer has J. H. Williams III behind the wheel and so it's a little like coming off the motorway and adjusting to going under 30mph again - but the trade-off comes from the fact that more of the puzzle pieces start to fall into place and the grand shape of Grant Morrison's plan starts to become - well - slightly more evident.

The only problem that I found with this second half is that - altho it's builds up to a pretty cool philosophical climax that runs the argument for the existence of God (only in reserve) - the continuity Easter eggs switch from being amusing to becoming actively annoying...

I mean: if you were going to name one of the main features of Morrison's run it would be all the hundreds of references he makes to all the other Batman books out there [5]. At first - it's kinda fun seeing how many you can spot (and I was no expert by any means - but I think that I may have spotted a few here and there [6]) but as the story goes in - it kinda becomes more problematic (at least for this reader - who's somewhere in the no man's land between the type of person that has the time, patience and inclination to read everything that everyone's has written about it so far - and the complete novice that just picks up the book because they thought that the cover looked kinda pretty (and they liked that Batman film that one time) - I mean - I have a rough idea of how it all fits together but I know that I'm probably missing some of the smaller print or whatever...). See - obviously - we all know (well - we all should know) that Grant Morrison isn't one for making your reading experience simple. In fact - if there's a way for him to twist your expectations in some unique and crazy way - well: he's probably going to take it: the least of which is that he's not much for putting his stories in chronological order - so when you're reading a book he's written (and especially this whole Batsaga (of which The Black Glove is only the second book)) you know that you're not getting all the necessary narrative information up front: and - ok - I'm cool with that and it's fine if you want to leave some important stuff until we get further in - well - I'm an adult and I can deal with that - that's cool.

But what makes things more difficult is when you start mixing those things up with references to other stories    (or to be specific - past Batman continuity stuff) because then what happens is that one (which is yeah basically me) starts getting pretty confused as to whether people are talking about things which will be explained later on or things which you should know about already (yeah?). So - Simon Hurt, the police Batman experiments, the Batman isolation chamber experiments, the stuff in Nanda Parbat, Commissioner Gordon as a patrol man etc etc - are those things that you're supposed to know about or what? I mean - you can piece together enough so that you have a bare understanding of what's going on - but the experience feels sorta shallow: like you're eating a meal but you're all experiencing half the flavours... (indeed: as strange as this may sound - it kinda reminded me of the feeling of reading Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen book: and that unpleasant sensation that there's stuff that's flying over the top of your head - and if you want to grasp it: you need to check wikipedia or whatever... And it's no fun reading a comic with one hand while you're searching the net with the other - and even less fun when the stuff you're looking up in the hope of trying to work out is going on - ends up spoiling the story that you haven't even got to yet... It's kinda like Lost - where the ideal audience is the people who are watching it when it comes out so that they're able to read everything on the net and swap their favourite theories or whatever: while anyone who comes to the show late (or now that's over) completed - basically can't double-check anything online just in case it ends up spoilering them).

But apart from that: yeah - well - it's Batman. Being his usual badass self. And setting things up for Batman: R.I.P. - which (if I were you) I would have standing by for when you finish The Black Glove (there's not a cliffhanger so much - more a: well ok then - what's next?).

[1] And if there's a book that you would like to order for us then simply fill out this library reservation form (just check on amazon first to see if it's still in print).

[2] If you want to know tho: "Batman in Bethlehem" is the last story in Batman and Son and "The Island of Mister Mayhew" is the first story in The Black Glove. Or (to put it another way - and piling on as much hyperbole as possible) the point where the art goes from the crude to the sublime.

[3] Oh - and I know that I'm probably the only one who even cares about this - but it turns out that Damien Wayne's signature "Tt" - was actually first used here by Wingman. (Exciting!)

[4] Which - yeah - I guess is an impression that's strengthened (or comes about? I dunno) by the fact that International Club of Heroes were first featured in Batman all the way back in 1955 (of course - back then they were known as the Batmen of All Nations - which I guess doesn't have quite the same ring to it...)

[5] So much so in fact that there's a whole blog that's completely devoted to spotting all the allusions it makes to other works: Grant Morrison's Batman: Annotations And Remarks (subtitled: "I Came All The Way From Space B At The Fivefold Expansion Of Zrfff To Prepare These Annotations And Remarks.")

[6] There's a line in Batman and Son where Batman says: ""I've beaten up Superman" that made me wonder if that was a tip of the hat to Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns (which - is still set in the future - right?). I couldn't find any mention of it on the Grant Morrison's Batman: Annotations And Remarks page - which should make you realise just how massively dense and thick with references these Batbooks are.

Links: Sean T Collins Review of Batman #664-669, 672-675.

Preceded by: Batman: Batman and Son.

Followed by: Batman: R.I.P., Final Crisis, Batman: Batman and Robin, Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne, Batman: Time and the BatmanBatman: Batman Incorporated.

Further reading: Batman: The Black CasebookBatman: Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious EarthFinal CrisisBatman: Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?Batman: The Dark Knight ReturnsDC Universe: The Stories of Alan MooreBatwoman: ElegySuperman: All Star Superman.

Profiles: Grant MorrisonJ. H. Williams III.

All comments welcome.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Books: You Really Don't Look 50 Charlie Brown


You Really Don't Look 50 Charlie Brown
By Charles M Schulz

Available now from Islington Libraries
You can reserve this item for free here:

Apple Pie, Bald Eagles, Mount Rushmore, Sweet Home Alabama and Charles Schulz's Peanuts. Erm - I'll take: "The most wholesome American images out there for $400 please Alex" [1].

That title comes from the fact upon the publication of this book way back in 2000 Peanuts was celebrating it's Golden (is that right?) Anniversary ("Today is my grandfather's birthday." "How old is he?" "Sixty-three." "It's hard to believe that he was once a human being."). And well - frankly I was confused - because in my mind I guess I just kinda assumed that Peanuts had been around and ever and ever. Like - I'm sure that there's photographs of people sitting around reading about the adventures of Charlie Brown back when they were fighting the Civil War - no? (Ok - then: just me).

But obviously - that's a stupid thing to say seeing how linked together Peanuts are with the 1950s. For goodness sakes Charles M Schulz nickname was "Sparky" - that's how wholesome and picket-fence he was (and how the world used to be) - I mean: honestly - I don't think anyone would be able to pull off a nickname as rosy-cheeked as "Sparky" these days - unless it was a reference to the fact that they were a pyromaniac or something. And the whole Peanuts crew couldn't be more square and establishment unless they were painted by Norman Rockwell (if you don't know that is - it's the guy who paints like Alex Ross - yeah?). In fact - no - I take it back: Norman Rockwell as too many colours (and if watched Pleasantville [2] taught be anything: it's that people back when things were more straight-laced and clamped down: well - they didn't like colours [3]).

So - wait? Where was I? Oh yeah: going into Peanuts  I was prepared for maybe a few laughs (I mean - that's always the hope - right?) but I was really expecting anything with too much bite - I mean: the lesson we've all been made to learn nowdays is that if you want to be wildly popular, appeal to millions and get translated into a bagillion languages is that you can't rock the boat too much - right? You have to play nice and dumb it down and make yourself as presentable as possible. Sure: without Peanuts we wouldn't have any Calvin and Hobbes (note to self: order some Calvin and Hobbes for Islington), any xkcd, any Perry Bible Fellowship. But compared to all the cool kids: Peanuts is the kindly grandfather sitting in the rocking chair: a nice smile and all - but (at the end of the day) pretty toothless.

(Yes. I realise that more and more I'm relying on the formula of: "I thought that this book would be like this - but - turns out it was more like this" - but (what the hey): most of the time it's true - and at least it gives me a simple structure to stick to: and turns things into more of a story and less of just a list of: "this is stuff that I thought about this book." -so (basically) - shut up)

I realise that this won't be much news to those of you that have read Peanuts (and I mean - like a whole book rather than just a single strip here and there): but for me it was a revelation discovering just how damn caustic Peanuts could be (and yes - caustic is the right word especially in light of lines like: "These 'nyahs' get down into your stomach and then they just lay there and burn."). Because - yeah - I was braced for lame chuckles of the Fred Basset variety [4]: someone saying one thing and then somekind of (oh so) sarcastic reply on the other end [5]. But no - the reason that Peanuts is such a classic and so very world-renowned is because it's dealing with such child-friendly themes as (here we go): pain and agony of unrequited love, depression, lack of self confidence and self-esteem, loneliness and (obviously) death and doing it in such a way (and this is the strange magic) doing it in such a way that you'll leave with a smile across your face and a chuckle in your heart. (And in case you think that this is just me making up crazy things then take it from Charles M Schulz himself: "All the loves in the strip are unrequited; all the baseball games are lost; all the test grades are D-Minus; the Great Pumpkin never comes and the football is always pulled away." (So - basically: it's like Waiting for Godot only with kids!).

Yeah - I was as shocked as you are now (that is - if you're one of those that has never sat down and read a whole Peanuts book - well: at least - this particular Peanuts book). I'd say a big part of that I'd say is due to the fact a few years ago I thought it would be a good idea to watch a Charlie Brown Christmas (or whatever it was called: some Peanuts thing anyway) during the festive season in order to - you know - give me some seasonal cheer or whatever. And seeing how it's a classic and everything I thought that me (and my literary flatmate - who I had somehow managed to rope in to watch it with me) were guaranteed nostalgic satisfaction [6] and instead all I got was: "This is rubbish. Let's stop watching it." (ok - so I was the one who said it - but that didn't make it hurt any less).

But yeah: I guess that made me think that this book was gonna be more of a thing to read that was more of an obligation rather than something to actively enjoy and I was confused at first by these bits of text interspersing with all the cartoons - turns out that the text is Charles M Schulz sharing some of his reminiscences that mostly (sometimes in some pretty oblique ways) relate to the strips on the pages opposite.  I mean - yeah - ok - good for me. And obviously - if anyone is entitled to kicking back and sharing a few stories it's the guy who gave the world Peanuts. But man - (I'm sorry Sparky) - the stuff he writes sure is boring. I mean: I tried to read all of them - but pretty soon (and if you read this book trust me - you'll be doing the same) I was pretty much skipping over all of them. In fact one of the very few exceptions was the bit where he revealed the answer to that age old mystery - why exactly is Peanuts called Peanuts? (For those of you that don't want to trawl through all his batherings about that time he queued up at the cinema or whatever [7]: here you go (straight from the horse's mouth):  "All I could think of was "Charlie Brown"or "Good Ol' Charlie Brown." The syndicate people didn't care for those, and then informed that they had the perfect title, "Peanuts." I was horrified, and called Larry immediately and told him it was a terrible title. It was undignified, inappropriate and confusing.").

In fact: (and I hope I don't end up on pseud's corner or something for saying this) but (and I know that this is gonna sound a little strange) but the thing that reading this Peanut's collection really reminded me of (and I know that when you have fifty years to pick and choose something you can probably make it resemble whatever the hell you want - so maybe take this with a pinch of salt) but - Joseph Heller's Catch 22 (and I'm pretty sure I've said this elsewhere on here somewhere: but - yeah - (and I know that this is a kinda teenage mentality) but it's my kinda favourite (non-comic) book). And - yeah - I dunno: maybe you'll understand what I mean when you see Charlie Brown lying on a hospital bed going:  Maybe I'm already dead... I wonder if they'd tell me." or enjoying the following exchange: "Why do we always teach little kids to wave "bye-bye?"" "Because for the rest of his life people will be leaving him." or watching cute little Linus van Pelt yell out: "I love mankind... It's people I can't stand." (Admit it - before you thought I was exaggerating - but now you're not so sure...) [8].

I mean - yeah - maybe these are only the rare exceptions but then when I saw the very first Peanut's strip ever published [11] - well: I was more convinced than ever that there was something a little bit - well - let's say: delightfully evil - in the ink Schulz was using. And even tho I know I'm gonna sound like that dad from Goodness Gracious Me [12] (and this kinda contradicts my Catch 22 Joseph Heller bit - but oh well: I guess it can't be helped): but it really seemed like there was something English about the sense of humour being deployed: you know - that kinda glum, misery-guts "we used to have an empire you know" attitude that takes delight in the suffering of others and in the suffering of ourselves. I mean: that's probably the strength of Peanut's right? And probably right now there's someone in Japan writing a blog that's going: "There's always been something delightfully Japanese about Charles M Schulz's Peanuts..."  - but I can't help these thoughts in my head. I don't want to spoil all the best jokes but a book on theology titled: "Has It Ever Occurred To You That You Might Be Wrong?" or Snoopy making a crack about suing a baby? This is normally the type of stuff that you only usually get from a stuffy guy with bad teeth wearing a bowler hat [13].

And the art (we should talk about the art right?) I mean - of course if you're reading Peanuts you're kinda just there for the funny - but the almost zen-like simplicity of the artwork shouldn't be overlooked (in fact - talking of zen and that: I reckon a good way to sum up Peanuts would be to call them American koan's [14] where the lesson being taught is that the world is going to mess you up). I mean - obviously - Charlie Brown, Snoppy, Lucy and all the rest are pretty much icons that will last until the end of time: but just think - they didn't all spring fully formed (and it's kinda cool how - every once in a while in this collection - it'll include a strip from way way back and you can just about tell how his artwork has developed which is a nice reminder that the person drawing them was human and not just a supreme comic strip god) but - the boring reality -at one point they were all drawn for the and created for the first time.

In one of the anecdotes that I did read Robert LePalme of the International Pavilion of Humor of Montreal, Canada [15] calls Charles M Schulz "the most simple man I have ever met." I hope that it's not too soppy to say that just wish that more people exhibited the simplicity that made him so loved. Or (in other words?) "Faults? You call these faults?! These aren't faults. These are character traits!"

[1] That's my lame attempt at a Jeopardy! reference there. I don't think I've ever actually seen a proper episode of Jeopardy! - but you know: cultural osmosis and everything... (Plus - you know: it's supposed to be my ever so-subtle attempt to make things feel even more American - in fact I'm surprised that Alex Trebek (and that's a name that you can just repeat over and over again and not get bored) never bothered to become President - I'm sure he could have got the votes).

[2] It's a 1998 fantasy comedy-drama film starring (amongst other) Tobey Maguire, Jeff Daniels, Joan Allen, William H. Macy, J. T. Walsh, and Reese Witherspoon - what do you mean you've never heard of it?

[3] Yes - I realise that there's an unfortunate double-meaning there. And I was thinking of maybe saying something that sounded a little less inflammatory ("...it's that people back when things were more straight-laced and clamped down: well - they didn't like rainbows."): but then - what the hey - I'll take the risk. I mean - you knew that you were in for a wild ride when you started reading this: so just make sure you keep your arms and legs in the vehicle at all times - and I'll do my best to make sure I don't blow your mind too much.

[4]. Don't judge me too much for knowing who Fred Basset is. I can only recollect the name (or: only really know that I know the name) because of the evil brillance that is: Daily Mail Island.

[5] Or - good example: the first thing that pops up when you google "Fred Basset" (which very (strangely) is a Hooded Utilitarian article (that's a website that mainly devotes itself to comics of a higher pedigree than stuff published in the Daily Mail: although it makes more sense when you read that it's "part seven of our look at comics, cartoons and language– today focussing on Britain") but yeah - erm - anyway: the cartoon  - it's Fred Basset (he's a dog) looking at the reader and delivering the "joke": "We're doing the school run." Cut to them all running and the oh-so-inevitable punchline - "Literally!" (ho ho ho - doesn't that just make you want to take pencils and stab them in your own eyes? No? Just me? Ok then.... Whatever).

[6] I'm fairly sure that I used to watch Peanuts back when I was much younger - but all I can remember remember about it was the sound that the adult's voices used to make (which - to be fair - is still a great sound for adult voices to make).

[7] "Ah, there's an interesting story behind this nickel. In 1957, I remember it was, I got up in the morning and made myself a piece of toast. I set the toaster to three - medium brown..."

[8] Doing a quick comparison of their life-times both of them both lived and died within a year of each other (Joseph Heller May 1, 1923 – December 12, 1999. Charles M Schulz November 26, 1922 – February 12, 2000 [9]) so I guess it makes sense that they would share similar sensibilities: but more than that I got a sense that there was something that went deeper (maybe because they both served in World War 2 or something like that?) that the world was a bitter, cruel and nasty place and the only thing we can do is to laugh and try and be as decent [10] as we can to each other (do that sound sappy? Whatever - I don't care).

[9] Although saying that here does kinda spoil my planned ending to this piece which was gonna be about me getting to the back of the book (after all the cartoons have finished) and finding the "A Peanuts Chronology" which lists all the evolution and all the varied successes of the strip throughout the years. And then discovering - right at the end (like a rock being chucked at my heart) that next to the year 2000 it says that Charles M. Schulz died in his sleep (and then just after that (in October of the same year): You Really Don't Look 50 Charlie Brown published).Which - you know - seemed like an appropriate place to leave things. Oh well.

[10] Speaking of being decent - I was very pleasantly surprised (especially considering the stereotype of men in the past being all awful sexist pigs) to find that dotted around the place here and there Peanuts is actual pretty right-on and feminist ("How comes we've only been studying about men in history?" and "That's sports? What do you mean that's sports? All you told us about were men! What about women in sports?!!!"). So that was cool too. (Oh! and - according to this article on Acephalous ("Black People Can't Swim") he was cool in other ways too "There’s much to admire in the matter-of-factness of Schulz’s racial politics. Not only is there no meta- to it, there’s no mention of it—Franklin arrives, befriends Peppermint Patty, and plays football." - so woo! for that).

[11] Which you can enjoy for yourself here

[12] "Superman? Indian!"

[13] That's a joke based on the English stereotypes! (Oh man - I don't know what it is: but I frigging love jokes based on English stereotypes - "Oh, Reginald!" etc: always cracks me up like: too much).

[14] Koan is a good word. Definition! A kōan (公案?) /ˈkoʊ.ɑːn/; Chinese: 公案; pinyin: gōng'àn; Korean: 공안 (kong'an); Vietnamese: công án) is a story, dialogue, question, or statement, which is used in Zen-practice to provoke the "great doubt", and test a student's progress in Zen practice.

[15] It would be very easy at this point to make a crack about Canadian Humor (or you know "humour" as it  should be spelt) but I'm going to resist that urge and instead say - did you know that (according to one story at least) the origin of the name "Canada" came about when Spanish explorers first went north from America and - finding nothing but empty snowy wastes - wrote down on their maps "cá nada" (translation: "nothing here")


Further reading: xkcd, The Perry Bible Fellowship, The Dilbert PrincipleGoliathThe Arrival.

All comments welcome.

Friday, 19 October 2012

Books: Mazeworld


Written by Alan Grant
Art by Arthur Ranson

Available now from Islington Libraries
You can reserve this item for free here:

Mazeworld? Yeah. I remember you. (At least - well - I thought I did: turns out I was wrong).

(This first bit is a little bit information/footnote heavy - so brace yourself): The first prog [1] of 2000AD I ever brought was Prog 994 [2] (all the way back in 1996! Holy Moly!) only 6 issues before the momentous-seeming Prog 2000 and yet (sadly) 7 issues too late for Prog 987 [3] with that super infamous cover (in 2000AD terms at least [4]) of the - well - let's say... sassy (no?) Judge DeMarco (Why am I mentioned all this? I don't know - sorry).

Before I checked I would have sworn that Mazeworld first premièred in prog 2000 (and I like I said the fact that they had got to 2000 progs seemed pretty momentous at the time - altho looking back now - it seems about as special as the all the hoopla surrounding the millennium (ie - not very)) - but (oops) it didn't actually appear until a few months later in Prog 2014 [5] (I mean - that's not important to you - but hey: it's important to me) but I guess the point is that Mazeworld is very much a part of my whole growing up thing... And (as I realised when I finished reading this book) a big part of the reason why I stopped buying 2000AD.

"Free the ways!"

Of course I didn't quite realise that when I first held this book in my hands. Instead I was all like: "Ooooh. Mazeworld! Yeah. I remember you. This is gonna be good. Fantasy and stuff yeah! (And obviously most importantly of all) Arthur Ranson on art! Hell yeah." etc. (And hey with a subtitle like: "A Nightmarish Fantasy." I mean - I defy any comics geek to read that and not feel their blood pump a little faster: because most of the time fantasy is way too nice and cosy and happy and not nearly enough like something that makes you wake up screaming in the middle of the night: but anyway...).

On the bottom of the cover it lists the three stories collected inside: 'The Hanged Man’ 'The Dark Man' and 'Hell Maze.' Now when I saw that my thoughts were - oh cool. I can finally reading the whole series! Little did I know that (and this is very much not a good thing) I had actually already read the entirety of the series and that the whole thing had just been so bad and so much of a muddle that it hadn't even managed to stain the inside of my brain and instead - had just slowly rolled down and off into the void like stale jelly being thrown at a wall [6]. Because - well: I like to think of myself as someone that has a good memory. Especially for comics back when my 2000ADs were pretty much all that I had to read in terms of things with pictures (I also used to read lots of 'proper' books too - but hey - I was young and reckless so don't judge me too harshly) so I found it a little bit shocking that I could forgot something so completely. I mean - not only the details of how the story went (I mean that seems sorta permissible)- but the fact that I had even read them (which doesn't).

But then - well - let's not mess around: Mazeworld is really quite badly written. I mean you know that cliché about how a story can feel like it's just been made up as it goes along? Well Mazeworld feels like that. Only then the person making up the story as it goes along then decides to get drunk and then gets punched in the head and then falls down a flight of stairs: it's that awful - there's just all these kinda narrative non-sequiturs and things that don't really make sense and stuff that just appears (and other stuff that disappears) all seemingly with no rhyme or reason (did the emperor and the hanged man go into the maze 2000 years ago [7] or a thousand years ago? I mean - maybe I missed something - but it seems like they couldn't make their mind up...). Plus it's sense of morality feels like it comes from an eight year old: here's something you should know Alan Grant - if someone gets an electric shock (or whatever) every time they decide to do something bad or evil or morally dubious (or whatever): that doesn't mean that they've "learned a valuable lesson" (and isn't that a South Park line?) about how it's good to do good: it means that they're no longer able to act as a free agent and - well - that's probably a bad thing (I mean - for goodness sakes: have you not seen (or read) A Clockwork Orange?). (I mean - I quite like the principle of a hero who is given no choice but to act like a hero and that seems like what the story is doing at the start - but then at the end [8]: everyone is happy and all of Cadman's anti-hero tendencies are seemingly cured: in a word? No no no no no - that's not how human beings work guys!). I mean - I guess I should have expected as much from his ever-slightly pretentious introduction ("As a reader of philosophy I totally disagreed with Plato." - I mean - who talks like that apart from teenagers?) but - well - you don't always have to be that smart to tell a good story. But - yeah - well. I guess this is what happens when you give someone free rein - sure - sometimes you might get some sorta fantastic masterpiece - but in this case - it's stale jelly.

And then there's the dialogue that is annoying in several different ways (which I guess is some sort of achievement - so well done there I guess) - first off it's annoying how no one ever answers a straight question (in response to: "Why a maze? Why a world of mazes?" which you would figure is a pretty important part of stuff you get a whole bunch of wishy-washy nonsense that almost sounds meaningful - until you realise it's just new age fluff: "The maze represents the universe... everything that is, swirling in eternity." - booooo!). Second there's the super-cheesy wannabe action movie (action B-movie) stuff: "The creeps are playing for keeps - and I've had enough of their game!" and "Heaven knows that I've no reason to love Earth - but that doesn't that mean I'll help you destroy it!" that didn't do anything but make me feel embarrassed [9] - I mean really - if your bad guy is spitting out lines like: "Fool! What are you doing? You'll destroy us both!" and you're not making an Austin Powers / Flash Gordon style satire thing then something has gone seriously wrong somewhere... [10]

Then there's the stuff that just seems - I dunno - that whole drunk, punched and falling down the stairs thing again I guess. I mean - how else can you probably explain lines like: "You tortured me as if I was a rat, or a rabbit!" - I mean maybe you think that scans: but to me - it's just bizarre. I mean - I get that the whole - "you treated me like a animal" thing! But why did they choose those two animals? And - a rabbit? I mean - I know that when people do animal testing they do sometimes use rabbits - but still... I almost want to laugh - but it's kinda in a strange uncanny valley of being too peculiar to even laugh at (No? Is this just me? Anyone else think it's a really strange little line? Come on guys...). Plus (yes I'm still going) there's way too much of people making wild and completely unfounded guesses based on nothing that you just know are spot on correct: best example: "if my suspicions are correct, it's really a map - or even a key - to wherever Cadman's consciousness has gone." (aaaargh! How could you possibly know this?) and - oh yeah (finally) - there's the bits where it does unnecessary words and pictures doubling up: so when we see a picture of Adam swinging at the end of a rope laid over that we have this helpful description: "back to death at the end of the rope" (I mean - really guys? Did you think we wouldn't get it otherwises?).

Ok. Deep breaths. Deep breaths.

I mean - it's not all bad. In fact (as super harsh as this may sound) the bad it seems to me is pretty much all the fault of Alan Grant - while all the goodness of the book stems from - yep: Arthur Ranson who (like I've said elsewhere) is totally brilliant when it comes to doing the art. I mean - I kinda feel bad for the guy. In his introduction he talks about wanted to do write a "serious" fantasy story inspired by comic books from the continent that "could be presented straight, without apology or irony." Of course I guess the problem with that is - 1 - you need to get a better writer and - 2 - yeah you can try and present a straight fantasy story - but really: if you want to create something that people are going to want to read and enjoy - then it's not really a good idea to just kinda retread over stuff people have already done. I mean - in my mind - the reason that Game of Thrones is such a success isn't because people had a need for fantasy that wasn't being previously tapped (I mean - I think we all know that if you really have the taste for it - there's a billion fantasy  books out there all telling the same old stories of dragons and women not wearing enough clothes to keep properly warm) - it's because it injected the whole fantasy set-up with well - let's just say a more adult sensibility. Right? (Yes). But if you're just serving up the same sort of things that people have already heard about a million times before (a chosen one returns to lead the rebels against an evil empire? That's the best you've got?) then - well: I'm gonna diss your book on my comics blog (and you just know that's gonna sting come morning...).

(Small-side note: but talking about rubbish old hackneyed fantasy stuff: In "The Dark Man" when they go "The hooded one! You came!" I could have sworn I heard that Hawk the Slayer whistle-trill in my head [11]). .

But yes - the art: It's super gorgeous throughout and there's a moment early on where Adam Cadman sees Mazeworld from the air that almost (almost) makes the whole reading experience worthwhile. Plus - at the start at least (before all the writing started to drag me down) I really dug Adam's look - blue one-piece boiler suit and white trainers (which I'm guessing are probably Reeboks - no?) is kinda cool. And - well - yeah: you'll discover this for yourself - but it also has some of the best panel construction such - well - forever. I mean: I can hear people moaning that it's too gimmicky - but basically: shut up. It's amazing. (Yes - the way he draws the monster in "The Hanged Man" makes it look like an angry chipmunk - but I guess you can't have everything can you?).

Like it says in the introductions: in the first stages of it's design was Mazeworld supposed to be a computer game. If that means that there was a way to enjoy the art and skip the awful tale it spins - well: I wish that they would have kept it at that. How disappointing to discover at the centre of the maze you only find.... what? A book that's pretty much not even worth the time it takes to read. Oh well. And even tho I can't remember the number of the last prog that I brought (although I think it was just before I left for university - you know: growing up and all that and putting aside childish things - I mean - I didn't want to be one of those people who was still reading comics when he was an actual adult - (ha! Just imagine!) - I'm pretty sure that this series was one of the reasons why. I mean - when it starts off - it has such great promise: and then (by the end) - well - it's just kinda leaves you feeling a little bit empty on the inside.

[1] For those that don't know - that's Tharg-speak for "Issue." 

[2] If you're curious as to what it looks like - well: you can see the cover here. (The cover artist? A guy called Simon Davis who I know best from the stuff he used to do on a strip called Sinister Dexter (something that was ripped off from lovingly based on Vincent and Jules from Pulp Fiction): but he got pretty slapdash as he went along - which each thing he done looking like he'd put less and less effort in: until it was pretty much an embarrassment (which is one of the many reasons I stopped buying it): but man - if he'd kept up the kinda quality he shows here - who knows? Maybe I'd still be reading it? I mean - I'm pretty sure that I must have brought it on the strength of the cover and even tho I had no idea about the Judge Dredd storyline (it was a long running thing called The Pit: about a sector where even the judges (who are meant to always be above reproach) were up to all sorts of no good illegality (see: Judge DeMarco) it just sums up the mean and dangerous mood of the whole thing (in fact: The Pit has been collected in two editions (see here and here) but neither one of the covers they used are a patch on the Simon Davis cover. And my other thoughts on seeing it again: what a stupid design: I mean - even tho it's part of my psyche now (you never forget your first prog) I still kinda wished that they stuck with the old design (you know: the one that they (finally) went back to) and also: what's with that stupid Dredd badge in the top left hand corner? It's stupid. Also: Only £1! Wow. Now I know what it feels like to be old.

[3] That would be this one here. (Poor Judge DeMarco. She obviously owned a suit with a faulty zip). 

[4] And I don't remember exactly how it worked that I ended up hearing so much about a cover of a 2000AD without even ever seeing it until much much much later (this was the age of back before the internet remember?): but it definitely seemed like it was a big deal. (And looking back it was obviously the publisher's idea to try and case in on the Loaded market... I mean - because otherwises: it's just titillation for young teenage boys right? And we all know that isn't what 2000AD is about - right? Right. Let's just be thankful that they went with "Unzipped" rather than: "Phwoar!").

[5] Which - seeing how I did it for everything else I guess I should show you - looked look this. (Kinda ugly no? Especially when you compare it to the elegant beauty of the Simon Davis one - but oh well...).

[6] A wall that for some reason is suspended over a void. And also: I don't quite know why I've specified that the jelly be stale (?) But I'm guessing it's because otherwise you might be tempted to wanna eat it? But apart from all that - it's a great metaphor.

[7] 2000 years ago... 2000 years ago... 2000 years ago... You know - that sure reminds me of something. I mean this whole story you were telling about a guy who was killed and then brought back to life and then it's like he's the chosen one who can save humanity and stuff was kinda ringing a few bells - but it wasn't until you dropped in that whole thing about him having last been seen 2000 years that it all fell into place. So thanks for that.

[8] Note: when I say the end - it's just the end of the first third (The Hanged Man) that this happened - so it's not a total spoiler. Also (what you thought I was exaggerating before when I talked about things that just appear and disappear for no reason?) after the first book - this stuff is never mentioned again.

[9] Although I will admit that I did chuckle at evil scientist guy: "Unethical perhaps - but when did that faze us?" (But I don't think that chuckles is what they were going for... Apart from maybe with the only semi-good line in the entire book: "Get used to it my lady. All powers come out of the use of brute force! You'll understand that better once we're married!")

[10] Oh (and!) that whole - "Don't call me the hooded one... Call me... Adam." stuff? Well - that just made me think of Kickpuncher ("Let's go film the sex scene").

[11] Although I've never actually watched Hawk the Slayer - but in the heyday of my (almost) crippling Lost obsession - I was looking up what other things Jack's Dad (or John Terry) had been in when I found this (it's "Hawk The Slayer - the best bits" and well worth the 3 minutes and 9 seconds of your time just for the bizarre strangeness - and that excellent reoccurring whistle trill that happens whenever Hawk shows up).

Links: 2000AD Wordpress Review.

Further reading: Judge Anderson: SatanJoe The Barbarian, Button ManA.B.C. Warriors: The Black HolePrometheaThe HobbitCradlegrave.

All comments welcome.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Books: Point Blank


Point Blank
Written by Ed Brubaker
Art by Colin Wilson

Available now from Islington Libraries
You can reserve this item for free here:

If comics people talk about Point Blank nowadays it's pretty much always in relation to Sleeper - Ed Brubaker's and Sean Philip's big undercover spy caper that (well - for the first half at least) is one of the tensest comic books around - seeing how - well - Point Blank is a Sleeper prequel (albeit a rarity these days seeing how it's a prequel that was written before the things that came afterwards instead of - well - afterwards [1]) - but (hey) even if you have no idea who Holden Carver is - Point Blank is a book that you can pick up with no background knowledge needed and [2] still get a kick out of. Put it this way: it knows how to pull your strings (like a puppet? You know: like on the cover? No? Oh. In that case: nevermind).

With hardly an inch of excess fat and with artwork duties for once not conducted by Sean Philips (Ed Brubaker's usual partner in crime for this kinda of noir meets superheroes kinda work) Point Blank is a detective story where the twist is [3] that the guy doing the investigating isn't really cut out for it (and Brubaker really spells it out for you: "I'll freely admit that I 've never been much of a detective. Putting together clues and figuring out motives just seems too tedious.": but then like I'm remarked before he's never really been one for playing thing subtly and so there's lots of stuff like people staring into cracked mirrors and the reoccurring line (do you see what he's done there?) of "It's like déjà vu all over again. [4]").

And in fact - while we're on the subject of the writing: I mean - judged on it's own merits this is a pretty fun book that (for me at least) doesn't really do anything too complicated [5] - but manages to bounce along in a pretty fun way and Colin Wilson's art (that we'll get to in a little bit) is pretty much consistently crackling. But then - right at the start there's a little dedication that reads "To Lee Marvin and Alan Moore and the idea that simple is not better." and in the afterword Ed Brubaker (who comes across as sounding way too self-satisfied for writing a book that (if I was giving grades [6]) would be C+ at best) says "I found myself asking what Mature Readers superheroes comics should be. As you can see, I decided they should be really complicated." And even goes so far as to compare the book to a möbius strip and then dares to mention it in the same breath as Watchmen (the cheek!): which for me - is a little like someone making you a cheese toasty and then start talking about michelin stars: I mean - I have no problem with what it is (and it is very tasty) - but let's not start getting a swollen head or nothing. Especially when your opening includes the line "It's like waking up from an alcoholic blackout and discovering that the girl on the next pillow is actually a pre-op trannie" (I mean really?) and then follows it with: "But, of course, by then it's too later because you've realized the truth about life right at the end... and all you can do is wait for the final blow." (Which in terms of the context you've set up just seems like a really poor choice of words - no? Just me?).

But hey - Colin Wilson on art! And for me - I've been a fan ever since I saw him doing Rogue Trooper and Judge Dredd stuff for 2000AD and like it says on his wikipedia page: "No one ... draws near-future military hardware like him." (In fact - before I read his wikipedia page I was going to say that his art really reminds me of the stuff that Möbius [7] (the artist not the strip) used to do on his strip Blueberry: but it turns out that Colin Wilson used to actually draw Blueberry so I guess that his work just reminds me of him - oops (oh well)). But yeah: his art has this really nice European flavor - that makes it a bit of a shock seeing it in an American context (and I'd say - goes a long way to making Point Blank seem a lot more classy than it actually is). But there's just so much nice little touches - like using the background colours to signify where in time you are - and the buildings and interiors all look proper lovely and detailed and good - like proper manga good (I mean - maybe I'm just thinking of Katsuhiro Otomo and Domu - but for me manga is always the gold standard when it comes to architecture in comics) .

So: enjoy the art and don't go thinking that the story is somekind of masterwork and you'll have a great time.

Simple as that.

[1] Sorry: did that make anyone else's head hurt or is it just me? I just meant that most prequels tend to come out after the main thing (ie The Phantom Menace (which I guess is the best example for prequels) came out after the original Star Wars trilogy as opposed to before it - right?). But then I guess if prequels came out first then most of the time you don't call them prequels - you call whatever comes after sequels and just leave it at that (so - for instance - it would sound pretty strange if you called Toy Story the prequel to Toy Story 2). Of course that then begs the question as to why Point Blank is called the prequel to Sleeper instead of Sleeper being just referred to as the sequel to Point Blank? I guess the reason why prequel fits is that you can read Sleeper and be completely unaware that Point Blank even exists (in fact - I think that's just what I did the first time round...) and although there's a through-line linking both books: the emphasis is on different characters - so it's more like Manhunter and Silence of the Lambs rather than the Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal - yeah? Ok then.

[2] Cole Cash (aka Grifter) is actually a character that first appeared in a strip called WildC.A.T.s. But I've never read it  so I don't think you need to either

[3] Although it's really not really that much of a twist. In fact - I would have assumed it's actually a pretty common device by now - I mean Frank Miller was doing it with Marv in Sin City all the way back in 1992 and Sin City (as great as it is) was a series that's whole thing was that it was upon built upon already well-worn clichés - but then - hey - what do I know? I'm just a humble little comics blogger.

[4] Which - I would like to point out: is a line from Fight Club. (But - hell: actually it's such a cheesy line I wouldn't be that shocked if it turned out that it was first used back in the Middle Ages or something...)

[5] Although I'm writing this at the same time I'm rereading Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan - so maybe my perspective is a little out of whack? (But on second thoughts - no. It's not me: it's the book. And Ed Brubaker - so just disregard this).

[6] Ooooooh. Grades! That's a good idea!

[7] Or - if I was going to be more specific: Möbius crossed with Dave Gibbons.


Further reading: Sleeper, The AuthorityIncognitoCriminalSin City100 BulletsQueen and CountryRedAnna MercuryGlobal FrequencyDesolation Jones, Fatale, Domu.

Profiles: Ed Brubaker.

All comments welcome.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Books: Kirby: King of Comics


Kirby: King of Comics
By Mark Evanier

Available now from Islington Libraries
You can reserve this item for free here:

Yeah. To be honest - I wasn't really much looking forward to reading this. I mean - it felt like I'd already done most of my "homework" (which is what doing this blog feels like sometimes) when I read that Men of Tomorrow book and so - in my big pile of books to read - it's kinda just sat their lying at the bottom (which seemed the best place for it - I mean it's a pretty colossal book - the kinda thing you'd grab if someone broke into your home and you were looking for the best thing to whack them across the head with). And then: when I did start reading it (and a few months ago now I should admit) I only got a few chapters in (like halfway through Chapter 3) - and - well - yeah - reader: I got bored - and so - I put it aside and said to myself (avoiding my own eye contact): yeah yeah yeah - I'll come back to it and read it properly sometime real soon - I promise! And then - well: nothing.

I was kinda tempted just to post like a one paragraph review [1] (something like; this is a book about Jack Kirby - that's the guy (Joss Whedon aside) who's pretty much responsible for The Avengers movie - he never really got his fair dues - it's an outrage - the book is his history - end) - but then - well: I've been doing a pretty job (recently) if I do say so myself - of not being so half-assed with the blog and trying (mostly) to write stuff a little bit more than the bare minimum.

And then: well - at two different websites that I like to read now and again (ok - fine - I have them saved on my favourites) - Grantland and The Comics Journal website (which is worth tuning into if only for Tucker Stone's Comics of the Week column - which is always so very enjoyably caustic [2]) - extracts from a new book called Marvel Comics: The Untold Story (by some dude named Sean Howe) [3]. Looking back - I don't really know how I got to this point - sitting - eating breakfast and reading about the history of Marvel comics (and like I said - not once - but twice - on two previously unconnected websites) and it not being something awful (I mean - about two years previously I think that if you'd given me the option of reading about the history of Marvel - I would have given you a polite smile and a "thanks but no thanks" - and yet here I was - reading this stuff willingly and with no hope that I would be getting anything out of it apart from the pleasure of reading it...). And - well - I guess that made me think that maybe - reading a whole book about Jack "The King" Kirby (well - reading as in - picking up from where I left off at least...) wouldn't have to be quite such a chore.

So: I went back and decided to give Kirby: King of Comics another go and (you know what? you know what?) I'm super glad that I did.

But then I guess a lot of what made my second-go-around so much more fun than the first-time-a-go-round is that - as the book is arranged chronologically (boring) all the fun stuff (ie Marvel and Stan Lee) doesn't really happen until Chapter 4 ("Facing Forward") and so before you can get to all that you need to make your way through all the build-up and well - frankly - that's the bit that I could have done without (and if you want some advice? If you're starting the book and you're getting bored then I would just skip to the good part - you're not missing much if you do): I mean - it's like if you're reading about John Lennon - who cares what he did before the Beatles? Let's get to watching him fighting it out with Paul (is that so wrong?)

I guess I'll also say this just before we start: the thing is with non-fiction book reviews (that is - you know - the proper books: without any pictures ) is that for me it feels like it can be a little bit tricksy to work out what exactly to write - with comic books (yes those are the ones with the pictures) even if you give away the whole plot it can be difficult to give away too much as long as you only stick to just writing about it. Because (unless of course you scan in images and pages from the book: which is something a lot of review sites tend to do - I guess because it makes things a lot easier to talk about - instead of trying to sum up how the art looks in words you can just go: see? It looks like this [4]) words can never really come close to replicating the experience of actually reading a comic. But books - I mean - what I'm going to do now is basically just highlight and quote all my favourite bits of the book which means that (by the time I'm done) there might not be much left for you to enjoy (it'll be like watching Goodfellas when someone's already done the "what am I clown?" bit - you know?): but whatever. I just wanted you to know I guess that it's something that I'm aware of (and feel a little bit bad for) - but then - well - deal with it - because I'm gonna do it anyway (hell yeah).

But on to the fun: and like I said up above: the best bit of this book is around the halfway mark when Jack and Stan get together and start producing hit after hit after hit after hit (that's: The Fantastic Four, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, The X-Men and (depending on who you believe - and for me this wasn't something that I was previously aware of) Spider-Man [5]. I mean - yeah before that there's stuff about his life as a street-kid and all that (and for your hardcore Jack Kirby fans - you should know that towards the start there's a rare Kirby story (presented in sepia tones) that comes across like Will Eisner (if you like that sort of thing) and then after that (altho there's an early career highlight when he creates Captain America with Joe Simon) there's his wilderness years when - not really being equipped to do much else apart from draw comics - he bums around doing cheap knock-offs and romance comics that all seem to only last a few issues before they're cruelly cancelled... But then: most of this was stuff that I already knew from reading that Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book - so it didn't really manage to hold much of my interest... (sorry Mark). It's only just before we get to the good part that we start to get hint's that something big is coming (and the foreshadowing is almost farcical - like if it happened in a movie you'd think it was too chessy) like: Kirby making a short story for DC about a man finding the hammer of Thor and transforming into the God of Thunder... a story about "a brute called the Thing." ...several creatures named the Hulk and (my favourite) "a sorcerer named Dr. Droom (Dr "Droom"? What the hell is a "Droom"? An evil broom maybe?) for Amazing Adventures magazine. (As well as getting a sense of just how dire and unprofitable comics were:  "Jack told of walking into the offices one day around 1961 and finding Stan [Lee] weeping. The comic line had been discontinued. "They were taking out the office furniture" Kirby recalled on more than one occasion  "I told them to stop.")

And then: yeah - it's on to the Stan and Jack show: with the white-hot fire of creation (did you know that the mighty Galactus was inspired by "science magazines" and the fear of a hostile corporate take-over?) slowly giving way to the smouldering flames of resentment as Stan nabbed all the glory while Jack was left worrying about whether he would ever get his due recompense and recognition (and so we get heart-breaking sentences like: "There was a steadfast belief that the company's financial success would trickle down his way.") And it's interesting seeing the different reasons why it happened that way: one suggestion is that it was hard for the general public to make sense that one person did the writing whilst the other one sorted out the artwork [6] - so that even when Stan and Jack would meet journalists together - the article that was printed would only just mention Stan. Then there's the fact that Stan had more connections and was way higher up in the corporate rankings - while Jack was just a lowly artist: the janitor to Stan's executive manager. And (most cruelly of all) there was the fact that Stan Lee was just - well - (if you've ever seen Stan Lee talk then you know that this is just stating the obvious) - a natural showman: He "...gave a much better interview than Jack. He was witty, charming and eminently quotable." While Jack Kirby was more. Well - like he man himself says: "If you'll notice the way the Thing talks and acts, you'll find that the Thing is really Jack Kirby... He has my manners, he has my manner of speech and he thinks the way I do." So - you know: not so good at being presentable [10]. And (at the risk of making too much hay out of it - and being a little bit too earnest): there's kinda one of the problems with the modern world - forget about when American is going to have it's first women President - you know what are the chances of them electing someone who isn't photogenic? (At this point - pretty much non-existent I'd say - no? [11]).

I don't know if this was intentional (I suspect not) but I like the way that the more you hear about Stan Lee in this book - the more that rosy image of American's favourite uncle starts to slip away: and there's loads of little remarks scattered throughout the book (and I know - maybe this is just me) - that start to seem like cheap shots: Like: "Cosmic rays. and all forms of radiation, in those days of atom bomb testing and scares, would prove to be an all-purpose, one-size-fits-all origin device for any comic scripted by Stan Lee." [12]

And then - well yeah - after the highs - the rest of the book charts the slow descent of Kirby's career as he's subjected to various humiliations such as seeing one of his poster artworks (artworks posters?) for the Incredible Hulk being "redone" by another artist - where the guy does nothing more than just change the face: and then gets all the credit. And lot's of stuff like that. (Oh - and I don't want to forget to mention Marvel's head honcho Martin Goodman who sounds amazing: here's the book talking about Spider-Man's first appearance in an anthology magazine called Amazing Fantasy: "Goodman hated it and cancelled the comic before receiving any sales figures... Subsequent reports, bolstered by reader mail and Stan's enthusiasm for the property, would prompt him to launch a Spider-Man comic the following year - the same month, in fact that he declared The Incredible Hulk a flop and cancelled the book." [13]. I mean - it ends on a high note: but then I guess when you have a whole life to pick and choose from (and especially someone as influential as Jack Kirby) you can spin the narrative in whatever way you like: I mean - it would have been equally possible to leave the reader feeling bummed out and howling at the injustice of it all (maybe just a sentence comparing the amount of money Kirby earned and the money that Marvel earned out of him - or something like that?).

But: hey - I'm gonna do the same kinda thing and just mention my favourite bit tucked away at the end: (This isn't actually connected to any of his comic work - but what the hell). Around about the time of the launch of the  The Pioneer 10 spacecraft [15] (which for some reason (?) the book calls the "the Jupiter Plaque") a newspaper thought that it would be a good idea for an article to approach a bunch of artists and have them submit their designs for what they would have done if they had been lucky enough to be asked to send their artwork out in space. Kirby drew (what else?) two superheroes (which the book says was done to scare away any aliens who saw it [16]) and the following text (which I managed to source from elsewhere - the book doesn't have the first part): "It appears to me that man's self-image has always spoken far more truthfully about him than does his reality-figure. My version of the plaque would have revealed the exuberant, self-confident super-visions with which we've clothed ourselves since time immemorial. The comic strip super-heroes and heroines, in my belief, personify humanity's innate idealism and drive. However, I would have included no further information than a rough image of the earth and its one moon. I see no wisdom in the eagerness to be found and approached by any intelligence with the ability to accomplish it from any sector of space. In the meetings between 'discoverers' and 'discoverees,' history has always given the advantage to the finders. In the case of the Jupiter Plaque, I feel that a tremendous issue was thoughtlessly taken out of the world forum by a few individuals who have marked a clear trail to our door. My point is, who will come a-knocking - the trader or the tiger? [17]"

But yeah. Would I recommend this book? Well yeah - if you're a Jack Kirby fan: then apart from all the word stuff - there's loads of full-colour reproductions of his art to smack you - WHAM! - in the face (I mean - I haven't really read that much Kirby stuff - but still: I've never seen his stuff look better than how it does here): and it's nice how it all feels so honourable - as in: you can tell that it's written by someone who's doing his very best to try and honour Kirby's name and legacy: at the start of each chapter there's a different quote from such high profile names as Nicolas Cage ("It's clear when you see it that's it him. That's what art is about."), Harlan Ellison ("No praise is too much.") and - erm - the drummer from System of a Down (that's John Dolmayan as if you didn't already know...) - so that's nice too. Plus: like the book says: "To several generations Jack Kirby was comics." so it's cool to be able to take a peek under the hood and get a sense of both the legend and the man.

Here's to you to Jack.

[1] And in fact the only notes that I had written for it so far just said: "This is a nice book - super-sized and heavy" and "And - yeah - I mean - ok - that's a cool cover. HULK SMASH! And all that." - which such give you some idea of how empty my tank was... All I could think of to say was how the stupid thing looked. Never mind what was inside.

[2] Sample quote: "Did you know that Nicholas Gurewitch posted a new comic at the Perry Bible Fellowship site last month? Because if you did, then hey, screw you pal: that’s the sort of thing I would have liked to have known about, and I had to find out on wiki-fuckin’-pedia, and you know how I feel supporting Julian Asspackages, or whatever that guys name is. Wikileaks? Wikiwhatever, I don’t have time to listen to your keester anymore, as I just got an email that the cancer might be back. New PBF! It’s part of a string of heartbreak comics that might hit closer to home if I hadn’t gone full Zero Dark Thirty into not knowing anything about what goes on in the lives of the people who churn out the milkshakes that fill my particular trough. In other news: I now refer to comics as milkshakes, and I now think of reading as an experience akin to eating liquidized food out of a long piece of metal not dissimilar to a urinal."

[3] The Grantland one is here (it's pretty boring at the start - but gets better about halfway through (be warned: it's a pretty big article) and after that Shannan the She-Devil picture you start getting stuff like this: "When they weren't at each other's apartments getting high, they were rampaging around with Starlin, Al Milgrom, and artist Alan Weiss, a Las Vegas–bred ladies' man who shared a Queens apartment with a rotating cast of five stewardesses. Together, they'd ingest LSD and wander Death Wish–era Manhattan at all hours. "We sort of took New York as this vast stage set," said Weiss. "We would launch ourselves to some part we hadn't seen yet, and go explore, day or night." There was the time they traipsed by security guards and wandered through the World Trade Center while it was being built. On one July night they went to Lincoln Center for a screening of Disney's Alice in Wonderland and hatched a Doctor Strange plot that included a hookah-smoking caterpillar. Then they walked to the U.S. Customs House in lower Manhattan and climbed around on Daniel Chester French's four statues of the continents, where they envisioned a Defenders story in which Doctor Strange transformed each statue into thousands of living soldiers to battle hordes of Atlantean invaders.") The Comics Journal one is here. (It's a lot shorter and more concerned with showing how evil (and stupid) Marvel could be in the face of the 90s comic gold-rush than the joys of the creative process): my favourite bit: “If the Punisher appears in a panel with another character,” Jim Starlin was told, “that character should be killed within the next few pages by either the Punisher or someone else. If the Punisher appears with any object, it should be destroyed in an explosion as soon as possible.”

[4] And yeah - I will admit that recently I have been thinking about maybe following suit and adding pictures into the main body of the text of these posts (you know: it would make things look a bit prettier, and would help to break up the text - and would make talking about the artwork a lot easier ("See? It looks like this.")). But - well - if I started then it would feel like I would have to retroactivily go back and do it for everything: and - well - that could take a while: plus - there's something to be said for committing to a certain way of doing things and just sticking to it no matter what. And - hell - someone it's good not to have those crutches (and - hell - now I think about I guess it's something that I can hold my head up about? "Pictures? On a comics blog? No thank you. I'm much better than that if you please." etc)

[5] Yep. There's a contingent of people out there that think that Jack Kirby had a hand in the creation of everyone's favourite web-crawler (and - no - I'm talking about this). But - hey - I'll leave it to you to read the book and let you make your own mind up in the face of the evidence (What do I think? I dunno if I could say for sure either way...).

[6] In fact - due to the "Marvel Method" (writer and artist sit and have a chat and work out the basic story beats - artist goes away and draws it all - and then writer comes in afterwards and fills in the word balloons) - it's more like Stan Lee would says something like "Wouldn't it be great if the Fantastic Four had a fight with God?" and then Jack Kirby would go away and then come back with the Galactus trilogy. In fact - Stan Lee had so little to do with the story that the first time he ever saw the Silver Surfer his first remark was something like (sorry - I should have written it down - but I think this is pretty much right): "Who's the nut on a surfboard flying through the air?" [7]

[7] And yeah: the way that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby came into conflict is worth it's own footnote: the author doesn't make that much of it - but there's a moment when he remarks that: "Jack saw the Surfer as a creature formed of pure energy, one who had never been human, which explained why he'd been roaming about the Fantastic Four comic, asking Earthlings to explain love and hate and other (to him) alien concepts. In Stan's story, the Surfer had been a man on another planet who scarified human form to save the woman he loved." Because that right there seems to expose the fault-line in the way that tended to do stuff: the fantastical versus something a lot more down to earth: the cosmic instead of the mundane. Of course when these view-points were blended together you got the kinda of great mix that you get in the Fantastic Four - where one second they're battling space monsters while the next - they're squabbling amongst themselves (families huh? Who'd have 'em?) but it also makes sense in terms of their characters - Stan always with one eye on how things were gonna play and the best way to game the system: while Jack spent most of his time with his head in the clouds - staring up into the infinite and orchestrating epic battles between demi-gods and beings of awesome power [8]. And even tho (yeah - I'll admit it - I'm not that much of a fan of his artwork [9] - shocking I know) I still know which mentality I prefer: and which one tends to produce the stories that it entertains me to read (here's a clue: it's not the one with the cornball ideas of people sacrificing themselves in order to save the women they love: that's a bit too much like cheap overwrought melodrama for me...).

[8] Which I guess is how he managed to successfully predict the rise of the San Diego Comic-Con. Quote: "It will be where all of Hollywood will come every year to look for the idea of next year's movies."

[9] In fact (and I hope that all the Kirby fans out there won't hate me too much for saying this?) but my favourite bit of art in the whole book was the Sky Masters of the Space Force stuff (yeah - not the most subtle name out there...) only to then discover that it's one of the few bits (only bits?) of artwork where it's Kirby working with someone else (some guy called Wallace Wood). Oh well - I guess the pure unadulterated Kirby just isn't for me. Maybe it's too potent (actually - claustrophobic would be a good word to sum up how it makes me feel) or something - I dunno. But hey - I tried.

[10] In fact it sounds like Jack Kirby talks the same way I write: "He had a tendency to ramble from topic to topic, leaping about and leaving one sentence unfinished while he began three others." (A kindred spirit!)

[11] But hey - as with most things - Doug Stanhope says all this stuff much better than I ever could.

[12] And working my way through the book I kept being reminded of a thing Tim O'Neil over at The Hurting last month where he basically listed every single major comic book writer (from Alan Moore all the way to Jim Davis) and then wrote down the nastiest possible thing he could about them (I least I think that was the point - maybe I got the wrong end of the stick? I dunno - you can read it for yourself here) the Stan Lee one (the thing that kept springing into my head as I read) puts it really succinctly when it says: "Probably deserves every bit of credit alongside his collaborators, but will go to his grave vaguely dissatisfied by the fact that no one likes a company man." (and yeah Stan Lee = a company man through and through). (Or (even better) like Alan Moore recently said: "...back in the day “there was a reason why “Jolly” Jack Kirby wasn’t always jolly, why “Sturdy” Steve Ditko wasn’t always sturdy, and why “Smiling” Stan Lee was always smiling.”")

[13] To which the author Mark Evanier [14] (for some reason I kinda imagine him as sounding something like Troy McClure) wryly notes: "Talk about a guy who was slow to realise when he had a hit on his hands."

[14] I was looking for some more information about him and found this on amazon: Mark Evanier met Jack Kirby in 1969 and became his assistant and official biographer. A writer and historian, Evanier has written more than 500 comics for Disney, Gold Key, DC Comics and Marvel Comics, several hundred hours of television (including eight seasons of Garfield) and is the author of Mad Art (2002). He has three Emmy Award nominations and received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Writers Guild of America - which well left me a little stunned. I mean - if he's written so much and has a Lifetime Achievement award then how on earth did he write such - pedestrian and unimaginative (oh the irony) sentences as: "He was the guy who took comics to new levels of imagination... and then he took those new levels of imagination to still newer levels of imagination." (I mean - really? That's the best you can do?)

[15] From the mighty power of wikipedia: "Pioneer 10 (originally designated Pioneer F) is a 258-kilogram robotic space probe that completed the first mission to the planet Jupiter and became the first spacecraft to achieve escape velocity from the Solar System." At the behest of Carl Sagan Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 carry a 152 by 229 mm (6.0 by 9.0 in) gold-anodized aluminium plaque in case either spacecraft is ever found by intelligent life-forms from another planetary system. The plaques feature the nude figures of a human male and female along with several symbols that are designed to provide information about the origin of the spacecraft."

[16] You can see it here. (Although if it's meant to scare aliens off then I don't know why they're both smiling - wouldn't it have been better to have them looking stern with their arms folded?)

[17] In other words: DAMN YOU SAGAN - YOU'VE DOOMED US ALL!

Links: Andrew Tunney Article: Some Thoughts on Nick Fury.

Further reading: Marvel Visionaries: Jack KirbyAlan Moore: Storyteller, Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book, SupergodsSupreme.

All comments welcome.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Books: Murder Mysteries


Murder Mysteries
Written by Neil Gaiman
Art by P. Craig Russell

Available now from Islington Libraries
You can reserve this item for free here:

Going from that title I assumed that this was going to be a some kind of detective story starring a private eye with a dirty tenchcoat and a furrowed brow ("...and just one more thing.") - but no. But least - not in the way that you would think. Because altho the bare bones of the story that sits in the middle of this book is as familiar and old as - well - a murder mystery - except wearing a costume that most people would find a little bit - unlikely.

But - hey - if you wanted to sum up Neil Gaiman's writing style - a lot of the time he deals with pretty well-worn concepts and ideas (dysfunctional families and stuff like that) only twisted up and made new by virtue of being pinned to mythical beings from dusty legends and faraway lands (so - a dysfunctional family - only it turns out that they embody powerful forces or aspects of the universe that have existed since the dawn of time (so - yeah - it's not exactly Shameless [1])).

But yeah Murder Mysteries: a comic based on a short story by Neil Gaiman [2] (and also - according to the credits in the book it's also been transformed into - a radio play (!?) Ooh - along with this and Signal to Noise - it seems that Mr Gaiman has a little sideline building up as a radio-play-maker - would love to be able to hear it - but (alas) - I can't them on youtube [3] and my curiosity (unfortunately) doesn't extend so far as to actually wanting to actually pay money). But - sorry - the comic. Well - once again - it's been adapted by the always lovely P Craig Russell who (along with this and Sandman: The Dream Hunters and Coraline seems to be fighting Neil Gaiman's retirement from comics by adapting every children's book and short story he can get his hands on... hey: more power to him I guess - I'm not gonna be a killjoy and gently suggest that maybe he should let it go and more on to pastures new - when the result is a chance to read more books like this... But whatever).

So - yeah - I haven't actually read the little (I assume little - maybe it's a 100 page monster? I dunno) prose story that this is based on (in fact the only Neil Gaiman short story that I have read is A Study in Emerald which is a pretty cool Sherlock Holmes / Lovecraft type thing that was recommended to me by Jan from the Comic Forum - so - thanks Jan!) - this comic left me satisfied enough that I didn't have the urge: which I'd probably say is the best thing that any adaptation that can do [4]. Typically for a Neil Gaiman story (yeah? Or is it just me?) Murder Mysteries is written in a very personable first person - almost as if he were leaning other your shoulder and reading it to you as you go along (and I guess this is why I'm not really that surprised that Gaiman has gone off to make radio plays - seeing how quite a lot of the stuff that he tends to do is very concerned with the human voice and different types of speech patterns and stuff like that (I would love to give a few examples to back this up - but at the moment they all escape me: still - if you've read the stuff he's wrote - I'm sure you can think of your own [5] - like - nine times out of ten - his stories feel like they belong written down and more like they should be spoken aloud: "Sure. Tell me a story.") - with (as is his wont) lots of little brief digressions (I like it!) and little offhand thoughts thrown in to help you along ("Every seven years each cell in a body dies and is replaced." / "Memory is the great deceiver" /"People named Tinkerbell name their daughters Susan." [6])

The art is excellent - and whether it's shadows cast by overhead freeways or the wavy lines around a person's head as they get a - well - a blowjob (I'm sorry if there's any children reading this - normally I would never be so crude - but didn't quite know how else to phrase it ("oral relief"? God no)) I mean yeah - come on - P. Craig Russell always knows exactly what he's doing... (he has been around forever [7] after all - which I guess is what gives him the freedom to do whatever the hell he wants - I mean hey - yeah - you wanna adapt three different Neil Gaiman things? Go right ahead...).

I will admit that I was a little bit trepidatious when I first started - because - hey - due to the subject matter of - you know - celestial beings and stuff  - I thought that maybe it was a mistake to read something that seemed designed to leave so much to your imagination (there's one point especially where it talks about bodies that seem to glow from the inside that - sorry dude - P. Craig Russell just isn't able (and - well - doesn't really seem to try and capture in the artwork) - that left me thinking how much better it would have been if it was left unseen in say a book (or even a radio play!) but then (and this was good) there was a line about halfway through that spoke about the story having been put in a "form you can understand." and that actually - (this was implied - but what the hell): the whole story was - if you somehow got a chance to deal with it 'direct' somehow beyond actual human comprehension. And - well - I dunno - there's something about ideas which lie beyond our (puny human) ability to understand that always makes me a little bit - erm - tingly (that means I like it basically) - so that's a good: but it also made me feel better that it had almost made an acknowledgement that the artwork of the comic was just a peception of how things happened rather than - the real deal (is this all a little bit too vague and metaphysical for you? Sorry: ex-philosophy student and all that...). So. Yeah.

And also - I guess I should acknowledge that if you wanted (and if you're like me - there'sa small surge of pleasure that comes from this - yeah yeah yeah) you can read the whole thing as a Sandman prequel - not in any direct way - and it doesn't tie in with Dream or any of his brothers and sisters - but there is one character who all Sandman readers will recognise - whose driving motivations are made - a little bit more clear.

So far I've done a pretty good job of not expressly giving away what the story is about and so - to try and stay in that area and not tell you too much for those who haven't had a chance to read it yet - I will stay vague by just saying that I also enjoyed the way that the language hadn't quite developed: "There has been a... wrong thing." / "The inner fluid." / "So that's green is it?" and (I don't know why - but I really got a kick out of the description of their duties ("Advising, correcting, suggesting, forbidding.") and - last but not least - it's very hard not to fall in love (just a tiny bit) with a story where a character points at the Universe and asks "what's it for?"

[1] And just in case there's one person out there that doesn't know what I'm referring to - it's called The Sandman - and you should totally be reading it already.

[2] If you wanna: the original story (with no pictures) can be found in Gaiman's collection Smoke and Mirrors and in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror (St. Martin's, 1993)

[3] Oops - actually tell a lie: here they are! (Narrated by Michael Emerson?! (Better known as - Mr Ben Linus from Lost) Squeeeeeeee! Gonna need to make time to listen to this all methinks: and if you're very lucky - I will report back later to let you know how it went).

[4] Check out my tribulations with The Dark Tower comics for my own little case study for when comic book adaptations go wrong (and there's a great title for a TV show right there if anyone's interested).

[5] Here we go: Matthew the Raven - if you can read The Sandman and not hear his voice in your head when you read it (I guess it's somewhere in-between Joe Pesci and Martin Freeman (and how's that for a hellish mash-up?) then I just don't know what's wrong with you.

[6] Which sometimes have a habit of not actually been so disconnected from the story after all.

[7] Well - ok - 1972.

Links: Biting Dog Press Neil Gaiman Interview, The 52 Review Review.

Further reading: The Sandman: The Dream Hunters, Coraline, The Sandman, Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book Stories, Lucifer, Violent Cases, Neil Gaiman's Midnight Days, StardustSignal to Noise.

Profiles: Neil Gaiman.

All comments welcome.