Sunday, 28 February 2010

Meeting a Wizard in Bloomsbury

NOTE: This is an older piece I wrote for (believe it or not!) The Kapi-Mana News, the local paper covering the Kapiti Coast and Porirua Basin in New Zealand. It came from an email I sent my Mum. She showed it to the editor of the KM News and he asked if I could develop it into an article and here we are. It acts asa a companion piece to this review I wrote of Black Dossier for the Zone, but with a more autobiographical focus. I quite like it, so here it is!

It was an Alan Moore-ish sort of day from the start. We played in a park on Drury Lane, nearby to the Grand Masonic Lodge that features so heavily in From Hell. We sought out mummified cats in the British Museum, the HQ of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. We encountered a skeleton in the back streets of Covent Garden, like some mystical apparition from any number of Moore's weird and horror comics. And, of course, we met Alan Moore.

We hadn't intended to meet Alan Moore when we embarked on our journey. I take the kids into town for the day once a month or so, to give their mum some space, and to visit the comic shop. At 40 years old I'm still a comics fan, and Alan Moore is one of the main reasons for that. When I was a kid growing up in Titahi Bay, 2000AD – which I used to get each week from Melva Holland's Stationery and Gift Shoppe on Whitehouse Road – was my weekly reason for living. It was a series of particularly clever and Funny Tharg's Future Shock's that made me, for the first time, take a note of the writer's name. It was Alan Moore. I knew some of the artists – Brian Bolland and Carlos Ezquerra were my favourites – but for the first time it occurred to me that someone else had a role in creating these amazing stories.

By the early 80s, Alan Moore was getting work from the big American publishers, Marvel & DC. It was around this time he started working on DC's Swamp Thing, a title that changed the face of comics forever. He was also working on the more grown-up than 2000AD British title, Warrior, where he created Marvel Man and V for Vendetta, recently filmed by the Warchovzkis. In my first year at university, Watchmen was released, one agonising issue at a time over twelve months. It was such a revelation, an extraordinary vision of what super heroes could be and the sorts of story they could tell, what the comics medium could do. I've followed his work ever since, and I've probably read more of his books than any other writer I've ever loved.

So, over a quarter of a century later, every month or so we slog through Covent Garden from Charing Cross Road, up to Gosh Comics for a snoop around the shelves. My boy is quite interested, and vacillates between Batman and Spider-Man, occasionally going for The Justice League. My girl – just two and a half – couldn't really care less, although she did bring the shop to a standstill one time when she spotted Spider-Man and bellowed out a pretty good version of the old Spider-Man theme - “Spider-man, Spider-Man, does whatever a spider can...”

On this visit, the comic shop was a hive of activity, in contrast to the usual air of genial slackerdom. Comic shops are the sort of place where the staff are always ready to chat. Nothing's so important that it can't interrupted for a discussion of the latest travails of Iron-Man or the shenanigans of the Hulk. When I in the sixth form, I discovered VMS Comics in Edwards Street in Wellington, and they were excellent the same, and I remember their easy-going enthusiasm and slightly dusty atmosphere everytime I go to Gosh. In those days, my mother would – insanely – give me a blank cheque every couple of months to pay a visit, and I'd rack up thirty or forty dollars worth, big money in the 80s! When I got my first student overdraft, I immediately blew a hundred dollars on comics. I was crazy for it!

So, I asked the comic shop guy what the story was, and he pointed to a sign. It said, “Alan Moore will be signing copies of Lost Girls, 2nd February 2008.” I couldn't believe it! Alan Moore! Not only an idol of mine, but notoriously publicity shy, never attending cons and certainly never doing anything so vulgar as a signing. But then, never say never, I guess, and events like this sell a lot of books. And let's not forget that the world is full of fans like me dying to shake the hand of our hero! The man's got an obligation!

However, as always, there was a catch. After I'd made our purchases, we had a look outside and there was already a queue forming down the street, with an hour and a half until the appearance of the great man! With two small children in tow, I knew that queuing was not a practical option, so we went off and performed our other missions – lunch with cat mummies, a play in the park near the spooky masons – then returned at three to see what the state of the queue was. It was round the block now, but I dutifully joined it, making the children pledge patience and good behaviour.

Twenty minutes later, with the kids beginning to play chicken in the passing London traffic, and with no movement in the queue, I decided to call it quits. As much as I wanted to meet Alan Moore, I 'd have a hard time justifying a dead child or two to my wife. We went around to the front of the line to see if we could spot him, just so I could say we'd seen him. At the head of the line, though, was a closed black door: people were being shown into Gosh's tiny cellar in groups of ten, and there was no spotting him.

We were about to head home, thwarted, when one of those things happens that, I reckon, only occurs when fans – fans of anything – gather in one place: we were the recipients of a random act of human kindness. The group at the head of the queue looked at the kids, and said that we should go first. I've lived in England long enough that I demurred, with thanks, but they insisted “It's what Alan would want!”

The children got very excited. They didn't have a clue who Alan Moore was, but one of our new friends revealed to then that he is a wizard. While it's debatable whether Moore actually has magical powers, he has made some unusual proclamations about worshipping an ancient Roman snake god, and perhaps “wizard” is a reasonable short-hand for young children for this sort of thing. My two were immediately intrigued!

Presently, the door opened and the next group was admitted down a steep flight of stairs with two small children at the front and myself wielding a baby buggy immediately behind. Behind a desk sat Alan Moore, long hair and beard, dandyish embroidered jacket and patient twinkle in his eye. I explained how we'd been admitted to the front of the queue, and he agreed that it was, indeed, what he would have wanted. The kids were shy, my girl a bit nervous, and I gabbled like a fool, typically. He was affable and avuncular and I shook his hand and thanked him for the pleasure he'd given me over the years.

I didn't get Lost Girls – it's a bit pricey at forty pounds, and Mum's not paying any more – so Alan signed a copy of the latest book in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series, Black Dossier, “To Patrick, Louis and Isabella, with love and best wishes, Alan Moore.” Fittingly, the book ends with Prospero, another wizard, and leader of the first League, turning to the reader and saying (in Shakespearean pentameter, of course):

“And more, the very personality
That scrys this epilogue was once unformed
Assembled hastily from borrowed scraps
From traits admired in others, from ideals.
Did fictional examples not prevail?
Holmes' intellect? The might of Hercules?
Our virtues, our intoxicating vice:
While fashioning thyself, were these not clay?”

Maybe that's not true for everybody, but for me, certainly, part of what I am today comes from reading Alan Moore. Books and writers can have a magical effect on us, and in this way I guess Alan Moore is a sort of wizard.

On the way home, though, the kids chattered excitedly about meeting a wizard, and on the train my son asked me, very seriously, “Daddy, if Alan Moore is a wizard, where was his wizard's hat?” We pondered the question, the three of us, and agreed that he probably only wears it when he's actively wizarding.

Friday, 26 February 2010

Superman vs Batman

Can't you just see Clark Kent weeping a silent tear? "Why does no one love me? *sob*"

Crack for the ego

Speaking of the Guardian comment is free blogs, I placed one of my trademark haw haw hiLARious comments on this story about the old Martin Amis kerfuffle and was amazed when it started getting recommendations. Mostly my comments might get a one or two recommendations, from net bots or sufferers from Parkinson's disease whose fingers twitch over the mouse button at the wrong time, but this one rapidly climbed from five, to ten to twenty and finally topping out at twenty eight!

I sat there refreshing the page view watching the number climb with a sick mix of pride, embarassment and dread (and sure enough, along came someone to wilfully misinterpret what I was saying). I'm a little scared by it now, and while it's gratfiying that my wee skit hit a chord with readers, I find the feelings it evoked frightening. When one receives unlooked for praise, unlooked for condemnation cannot be far behind!

More on writing tips

Over on the Guardian blog about their writing tips wotsit, I made a comment that I think is worth hanging on to and expanding a little. I'll do it, cos no one at the Guardian's goona be interested. Hell, no one here's going to be interested, but at least i don't have to answer to Alan Rusbridger.

For myself, the only thing outside the obvious I have to say is write what you wanna write. The chances of getting anywhere are so slim you might as well enjoy the process. (And if you don't ever enjoy the process, find something else to do with your time.)

Lots of people have said to me over the years, "Oh, you wanna be a writer, why don't you write one of them RPG tie-in books/mills & boon/doctor who novel/cheesy fantasy trilogy". It's a good question, lots of perfectly decent writers make money that way, and I guess my response can be taken as self-sabotaging or even somewhat arrogant: "Because I don't want to."

The fact is, I don't actually want to be "a writer". I want to write, and that's a little bit different. I have a day job I vaguely dislike, and thankfully it's unconnected from my writing life. It's still wordy, that's my skill set, but it has no bearing whatsoever on what I do in the evening on my own time (free cell and masturbation - only joking!).

Obviously, I could still be the writer I want to be while working on this work-for-hire stuff, but my current day job pays me much more than a gig hacking out Warhammer novels or what have you. I'd probably enjoy the lifestyle much more, but right now I need money and lots of it, and that's what my day job brings.

FInally, I'm not certain that I'd be any good at that. I hate those kinds of books, by and large, and the world's full opf people who are not just talented writers but genuinely love that shit. I've read cheesy novels before from writers who evidently feel they're above all this crap, and I don't wanna be one them!

When I write, i want to express things about who I am, and if i can't do that I might as well take the money and stick with the fund reports.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Short Fiction Wednesday

Welcome to the first short fiction Wednesday here at Pointless Philosophical Asides! I haven't been reading enough short fiction recently, so I've decided to make a point of reading a story or two every fortnight and making a post about them. Or possibly weekly, I haven't quite decided. We'll see how the time goes.

I've always read short fiction, from when I was a kid reading big collections of stories from Amazing, Astounding and Galaxy, through the big magazines, the small press and now online and in the occasional themed collection. I've written a few myself, with a current published output of ten short stories scatted hither and yon. A couple of years ago I made a point of reading free online fiction, and read a lot of good stuff, so I thought I'd do that again. I'm keeping track of them for the sake of my reading log, and hopefully I'll be able to push some traffic their way and provide a litte encouragement and feedback. Having published stories myself, I know that I scour the internet from time to time seeking some kind of response, and know the joy of finding it, even if the opinion is equivical.

Doctor Diablo Goes Through the Motions by Saladin Ahmed
This is a short super-hero pardoy that hits all the right notes and has some nice character touches. The central idea is pretty good - a supervillain's schemes that come full circle, and Ahmed's dry, characterful approach, made it a bit chewier than the average comics parody, although it does feel a little bit like the sort of thing that Alan Moore might have done in 1985. That's no bad thing, though, and this short and funny story is well worth ten minutes of your time.

Biting the Snake's Tail by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
This near future crime story is set in an over-populated Mexico City. It's got a strong procedural flavour as Gendarme Soledad follows up the murder of a the brass-with-a-heart bar girl. It turns out one of several girls to turn up killed and mutilated in recent months, and she appears to be on the track of a serial killer. She goes from witness to expert, attempting to pick up clues, but not getting very far. Moreno-Garcia does a good job of capturing the crowded out world of the slum where even the roads are blocked by the over-flowing humanity. In my own limited crime reading experience, it reminded me of Doll by Ed McBain, as it follows a similar line of crisp pacing and reliance on interrogation to provide a lot of the drama. I was kind of expecting it to end more conventionally, but that's not quite where it went. It took me a little while to appreciate what the story was up to, and it still feels a little like the first part a longer story and left me wanting to know more about where the case might lead her.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Today In History

On this day, in 1786, Sir Percy Dashington and his young ward Edwin Marshall were walking in the streets around Petticoat Lane in picturesque old London town. Edwin was a young engineer who had been enthused by the new technology of steam and had come to London in the hopes of meeting James Watt, who was alleged to have been in London at the time consulting the Lords regarding various of his patents.

As they turned the corner of one of the picturesque cobbled streets of this filmed-in-Prague scene, young Edwin exclaimed: "Why, nuncle! I believe my quarry is in sight!" He pointed into the crowds around the market. "Is that not James Watt himself?"

His guardian, being a Georgian fop somewhat like Leslie Howard in them Scarlet Pimpernel movies, arched his eyebrows er... archly and said, "Indeed?" He raised a pair of slightly anachronistic opera glasses to his face and scanned the crowd.

"If I can just explain to him my theories on pnuematics and hydraulics I am certain he will give me a place in his workshop!"

"Do you now," drawled Sir Percy, feeling an opportunity coming on to school the young fellow in the ways of the world. "I think you will find, young man, that prior acquaintance and family connections will serve you better in securing such a position." He dropped his opera glasses on their string and turned to his nephew. "And besides, as is ever the case, it's not Watt, you know. It's a hugenot."

His nephew regarded him blankly.

"Watt you know. Hugenot," said Sir Percy, leadingly, although his cloddish nephew was none the wiser. "Ah well, no matter. Tis time to sup cocoa."

Sunday, 21 February 2010

To the Devil -A Daughter!

I picked up this Dennis Wheatley occult thriller from the secondhand book stalls under Waterloo Bridge one wintery night in January. I love these book stalls, especially for finding these great old vintage paperbacks in good condition. This one's a handsome Arrow paperback with a rather stiff montage on the front cover, heavy on the goat's head and the suggestion of nubile nudity. The back cover has a terrific publicity shot of Dennis with a pen in his hand in his book-lined library, obviously hard at work in a blue satin dinner jacket and bow tie, fag in one hand and a glass of red wine nearby. When I was young, this is what I dreamed being a writer was all about!


These occulty thrillers always had an air of erotic eeriness about them when I was a kid. I remember in the seventies the salacious reputation of the Hammer movies of The Devil Rides Out and To the Devil - A Daughter; his books were also advertised in the back of colour supplements with imagery just like the cover of this edition.

The movies are far less sordid than their reputation suggests - The Devil Rides Out is pretty good, in fact - and the books are also a lot less shocking than the back cover blurb and imagery. They have much more in common with detective stories of Dorothy L Sayers and Sapper than they do with sex'n'gore exploitation paperbacks they shared shelf space with when I was a kid.

I read the Devil Rides Out a couple of years ago and found it very enjoyable - old fashioned, of course, but the Duke du Richelieu is a great character and Mocata an excellent villain. This is similarly old fashioned and also quite a lot of fun once you get used to it. It's set very tightly in the fifties, and deals entirely with the upper middle classes - everyone above is probably a decadent toff, while everyone below is either mean and cunning or the salt of the Earth. Wartime experience hangs over all the characters' back stories - I quite enjoyed that, as a matter of fact, as it gave a lot of interesting texture to the stories.

The setting is largely an entertainingly fashionable South of France, where everyone dresses for dinner and goes to the casino. It's a bit like James Bond, with a similar line in name dropping fancy food and drink and flash fifties brand names. A large proportion of the final third is occupied by a sojourn of rural Essex, where, away from the bright Mediterranean sunshime, the horror gets ramped up to apocalyptic levels.

In fact, it's interesting how Wheatley holds back any overt paranormalism until the final movement of the plot. What comes is all all the more effective because of this initial restraint, and Wheatley does a great line in suspense all the way through.The sequence where John Fountain attempts to infiltrate Comte de Grasse's yacht where Christina is being held is a fantastic example of balancing protagonsist action with antagonistic reaction to keep the reader on the edge of their seat regarding the outcome.

I liked the eccentric characters that populate this novel. Anna Fountain is middle-aged lady crime novellist with a taste for weapons; her son john Fountain is a two-fisted interior designer who pays careful attention to the decor of every setting; most of the heavy lefting is done by MI5 agent Bill Verney, known throughout as "C.B." or "Conky Bill" on account of his huge nose.

I enjoyed this a good deal. It makes me wonder why I don't get on with more modern iterations of the thriller and crime novel. Maybe I enjoy the camp? Like fantasy, it seems to throw the absurdity of it all into sharp releif, like an exceptionally well worked parody.

Ten Rules for Writing Fiction

Generally speaking articles like the Guardian's Ten Rules for Writing Fiction make me a little quaesy. The entries are often sarky or whimsical, and even those that really try and address the topic boil down to "read a lot, write a lot, edit a lot". It's my experience that gaining that knowledge is the easy bit; the tough bit is the arduous process of drafting and redrafting, which no one can help you with. The entries ring a bit hollow to me, therefore, and the occasional showing off makes me sigh. I'm sure the writers involved are generally aware of the pointlessness of the exercise, and one can't blame them for taking the cash (such as it is, not much I imagine) and the tiny breath of publicity that it will afford.

As a reader, though, I think they throw an interesting light on an author's work and what they value, and I always scan them for writers whose opinion I'm interested in to see what they have to say. One of my favourite writers is Will Self, and so I checked out his tips, reproduced below:

1 Don't look back until you've written an entire draft, just begin each day from the last sentence you wrote the preceeding day. This prevents those cringing feelings, and means that you have a substantial body of work before you get down to the real work which is all in . . .

2 The edit.

3 Always carry a notebook. And I mean always. The short-term memory only retains information for three minutes; unless it is committed to paper you can lose an idea for ever.

4 Stop reading fiction – it's all lies anyway, and it doesn't have anything to tell you that you don't know already (assuming, that is, you've read a great deal of fiction in the past; if you haven't you have no business whatsoever being a writer of fiction).

5 You know that sickening feeling of inadequacy and over-exposure you feel when you look upon your own empurpled prose? Relax into the awareness that this ghastly sensation will never, ever leave you, no matter how successful and publicly lauded you become. It is intrinsic to the real business of writing and should be cherished.

6 Live life and write about life. Of the making of many books there is ­indeed no end, but there are more than enough books about books.

7 By the same token remember how much time people spend watching TV. If you're writing a novel with a contemporary setting there need to be long passages where nothing happens save for TV watching: "Later, George watched Grand Designs while eating HobNobs. Later still he watched the shopping channel for a while . . ."

8 The writing life is essentially one of solitary confinement – if you can't deal with this you needn't apply.

9 Oh, and not forgetting the occasional beating administered by the sadistic guards of the imagination.

10 Regard yourself as a small corporation of one. Take yourself off on team-building exercises (long walks). Hold a Christmas party every year at which you stand in the corner of your writing room, shouting very loudly to yourself while drinking a bottle of white wine. Then masturbate under the desk. The following day you will feel a deep and cohering sense of embarrassment.

There's some of the usual advice here (and Will shows off a little) but I was struck by the commandment in point four to stop reading fiction. I smiled at the expression "it's all lies anyway," but it also appears to contradict the usual-advice staple "read a lot". He makes it clear, of course, that you must have already absorbed a great deal of fiction in the past, and so he doesn't abandon the idea entirely, but at the same time he seems to think it is something a writer should have done, rather than should be doing.

In the sixth comandment he develops the idea a little further, exhorting us to write about life, rather than "books about books" (which on the surface is an odd thing to hear from the author of The Book of Dave, but I don't think he's talking about books that are, literally, about books here, in fact that's just a kind of lame joke). Rather than drawing forever on their influences, or even on the easy prefabrications of genre, a writer should discover stories in the real world through experience (and, presumably, study through non-fiction).

In that sense it's pretty good advice for the mature writer, someone who's passed the early stages of imitation and stylistic experiment and has found their metiere, but it also tells us something about Self's own work. He has a keen analytical eye that probes and picks at the world, and he reports what he sees very clearly. All his books reflect his mellieu, even Great Apes, where everybody's turned into a chimp. That's what gives his work its grounding, no matter how outrageous the subject matter. It's based on observation and experience of people and the world around him transformed by his imagination into another form of truth.

I'm still going to read fiction, though, because I enjoy it so much. Why should I perform that kind of ascetic sacrifice for art? In the meantime, though, I think he's right that we should seek translate the real world into fiction, rather than dwell on what, in the end, amounts to a hobby only tangentally connected to the writer's mission.

Friday, 19 February 2010

Jack and David

I came across this image of Jack Nance and David Lynch making Eraserhead at Mostly Forbidden Zone, and it filled me with happiness!

I really like how David Lynch looks here. It's such a fashionable, urbane look totally at odds with the "I'm slightly deranged, dontcha know" thing he's had going on since Twin Peaks or so. He actually looks rather dashing!

Jack Nance is so cool in this movie. He is the epitome of nervy, twitchy New Wave masculinity. Did Tim Finn swipe his look from Jack? You be the judge (second from left, for those what don't know):

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

A monkey picking up stones

Noel Edmonds develops TV quizshow starring a monkey. I suspect I'm not the first to come to the conclusion that Noel Edmonds = Alan Partridge. EDIT: Actually, every second commenter on that story seems to have made the connection.

Later: "... with that distinctively Noel quality of a bit of sour as well as sweet." A bit of sour, a bit of sweet, entirely shit.

Seriously, Beat the Monkey?

Friday, 12 February 2010

Final Crisis

I re-read Final Crisis, as I threatened I'd do after reading The Seven Soldiers of Victory. This is my third round with the series - once as it came out, again when it was complete to get a perspective on the whole thing - and I think i got much more out of it. Some of this is certainly due to context provided by the Seven Soldiers series, inparticular it gave me a better understanding of what was up with the New Gods. As I have previously mentioned, I don't keep up with DC continuity.

Additionally, after an online discussion about it a few months ago, I had a much better handle on what was goin on in the last couple of issues. The break downs of time and narrative causality are easier to deal with when you're ready for them!

I was struck this time around by the influence of Alan Moore's Supreme on the Superman sub plot, this time around. At the beginning of issue six there's a scene between Superman and Braniac 5 of the Legion of Superheroes where they are descending a spiral staircase that was amazingly similar to that featured in the Legion analogue in Supreme, and the army of multiple versions of Superman also seemed like a development of the ideas in Supreme (themselves, of course, following various ideas established in Superman during from the fifties to the seventies through to their logical conclusion).

On the whole, I was once again really impressed by Morrison's work here. DC tends to take a more high brow and serious approach than Marvel, and while that can be incredibly pretentious and pompous, when it's done right it really is quite something!

Metropolis: further lost scenes restored

Rejoicing in film nerd circles as more lost scenes are found from Metropolis. Yes, EVEN MORE lost scenes. How long WAS this movie on first release? I remember the big hiss and roar that accompanied the Moroder soundtrack version in the 80s that rstored crucial lost scenes, and I'm certain - in my grumpy Daily Mail columnist way - that there have been at least two recuts since then (one to eliminate the deeply annoying Moroder soundtrack). Maybe the whole robot/Rotwang thing is just a side plot in a much longer movie about rabbits or something.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

The Seven Soldiers of Victory

I've been reading quite a bit of Grant Morrison scripted comics recently, one way or another. Over the last couple of years I've followed the big DC events Infinite Crisis, 52 and Final Crisis, as well as All Star Superman, parts of his run on Batman and Batman & Robin (which seems to haev stalled, so who knows what's happening there). On a whim, I decide to take a look at his "mega-series" The Seven Soldiers of Victory.

I'm not sure why I chose to read it, really. Unlike my usual pattern of relying on fate to deliver me something to read, I had to actively go in search of these (later volumes don't appear to be in print, even!). It's true that I like to read comics at bed time rather than prose, so I'm often after something to fill this wind-down part of the day, but I can usually make my monthly comics purchases last, and then a new copy of Fortean Times will arrive or a Private Eye to fill in the nights before I can get back up to Gosh.

However, I seem to be on a bit of a Grant Morrison kick at the moment. Over the years I've read a lot of his work starting with early 2000AD and bits and pieces in Warrior and Crisis. Back then, he seemed to be over-shadowed in the younger generation (that came after Alan Moore, Pat Mills, Wagner & Grant etc) by Pete Milligan, who was producing some pretty nifty work with Brett Ewins, Brendan McCarthy and Steve Dillion, among others. However, in the meantime Morrison's star has ascended through his work on American comics, starting with mini-series and graphic novels for the then-new Vertigo label, such as Kid Eternity, and then on his big breaks, Animal Man and then Doom Patrol. After these came even more cultish work The Invisibles (which I have yet to read) and similar stuff like The Filth and We3, which have made him a cult figure for certain types of comic fans (of which I guess I am one, although I hasten to point out that I am neither tattooed nor excessively pierced).

Alongside that stuff, though he's been working steadily for some of the main characters of the big two, which seemed to climax with with Final Crisis in 2008. Only Alan Moore combines these two streams of mind-bending oddness and deep understanding of super heroes and who they work. Like Moore, the oddness absolutely feeds right inot his supers work, is absolutely necessary for it, and I think it's that aspect that I really like about Morrison. There's nothing I like more than a beautifully unapologetic nutter willing to back their vision to the hilt!

The Seven Soldiers came out a year or so before Final Crisis and seems to be an early run on some of the themes, albeit with a cast of minor-characters in the DC Universe. In this one, the re-envisioned New Gods get their first (I think) outing and we get a glimpse into the fourth-wall busting metaverse that Morrison has flirted with for years (on Animal Man, eg).

So, for those who can't be bothered looking it up one wikipedia (which is a great source for comics continuity) THe Seven Soldiers of Victory were a golden super-hero group of those old-fashioned type of superheor that are always a little kooky and strange. Super heroes are tied to the fashions and concerns of their time, of course - Morrison (and even more so Alan Moore) have spent twenty years or more telling us that's so - and these guys are no different, existing in that strange transitional period when pulp cowboys, detetctives and generic adventurers still mixed with the super-powers.

Morrison doesn't bother much with these original characters, except for an update of the Shining Knight, and concentrates on various other obscure characters,plus Zatanna, daughter of Zatara and occasional member of the Justice League. That continuity's pretty much superfluous here though as anything other than background detail. While it's clearly set in the DC Universe of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, this is more of a generalised deconstruction of various super hero cliches. The difference between this and Top Ten, say, is that this has that DCV resonance to rely on that Alan Moore has to create whole cloth. This is most effective in the recasting of the New Gods - the names Darkseid, Mr Miracle, Granny Goodness, Metron and the Black Racer immediately evoke decades of comics history. It also provides vital emotional context for Zatanna's story - the death of her father (during Alan Moore's Swamp Thing run, of course) weighs heavily on her mind and she gets similar scrapes along the way.

Morrison notes in the introduction his desire to create a team of heroes who never meet, but make up a separate part of a larger story, unaware of the role played by the others. Each of the Soldiers' four issue miniseries is illustrated by a different artist, and each one has a very distinct atmosphere and plot arc, yet they all kind of join up into one long narrative, book-eneded by a one-off at the beginning and the end. He largely pulls it off, but as with all his more disjointed works I found it a little hard to keep up with the main story line. Actually, I think it's simpler than I thought, just complicated by the presentation (although I'm still not entirely certain how Melmoth fits into the Shee plotline). That's okay, though, I expected to have to work at it and it's nowhere near as baffling as Final Crisis!

This comes in four trade paperback collections, featuring the comics in the order they were published, rather than as discrete miniseries (at two to a book, or something) although you can read them that way if you like. I may well do so in a few months when I've let the first read through settle, and in fact I'm rereading the Final Crisis at the moment. However, I do hope to get to the comic shop soon and I'll have another big pile of fresh comics goodness then.

Friday, 5 February 2010

The Blade Itself

I don't read much bookshop fantasy, as a rule, as it's not really my bag. I'm not sure what it is exactly, but I find all the thees and thous, and related mullarkey a bit annoying. It seems too stagey to me, unnaturalistic and unconvincing. The fantasies I do like tend to empahsise the artifice rather than attempt naturalism. Jack Vance, Clark Ashton Smith, Michael Shea and Gene Wolfe dress their stories up in melodrama and ornate language which lends them an archaic style as if the texts themselves originate from another world.

The contemporary fantasy series strives for a kind of naturalism similar to a historical novel. We are asked suspend disbelief and inhabit their world for a while, as if it was a consistent reality realated to our own. For whatever reason, I've always had trouble doing this and so I struggle to engage with fantasy a lot of the time.

But, there's a lot of experimentation going on in genre fantasy at the moment and it's obviously a bad idea to cut onself off from that sort of thing. Writers of intelligence and craft who grew up with the genre have started to appear - China Meillville being perhaps the most notable, but also Jeff Vandemeer, Richard Morgan and George RR Martin (among many others I probably don't even know about). The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie is a book that comes up when the new fantasy writers are mentioned, and so when I saw it in the remaindered bookshop for a pound, I snapped it up!

The buzz around the new fantasy writers reminds me a bit of the buzz around super hero comics in the 80s. Back then, the fimiliar form of the super-hero comic was being similarly re-examined by a new generation of writers. The Blade Itself is like a gritty Frank Miller super-hero book. Abercrombie establishes the reality of his world through its muck and grime and blood. The vividly described action is full of crunching bones, spurting blood and dismembered limbs; the world around the characters elsewhere is filthy and smells bad.

Like the grubby reality of the fnatasy world, we're introduced to the grubby reality of the fantasy archetypes, which emphasises darker traits of humanity. The three main characters are a Jezal Luthar, the dashing egocentric scoundrel of the Flashmanesque type, the hulking Northman warrior Logen Nine Fingers who is raddled with aches and regrets and the crippled inquisiotr Sand dan Glokta radiates hatred for everyone and everything. Abercrombie deftly shifts style with each point of view, giving each character a unique feel. The outstanding character is Glokta, portrayed by Abercrombie through well-chosen and vivid details of his physical agonies and tortured spirit.

It was Glokta that kept me reading but Jezal's story was full of excellent intrigue and the adventures of Logen with the mage Bayaz and the rest of the fantasy spooky crew is obviously does the most work for outlining the cosmic scale of the conflict. I was a little frustrated by the introduction of more voices about two-thirds in, but I guess they'll be important in later volumes.

The plot is standard fantasy fare, but deployed through characters who have convincing motivations and drives. As the super hero comics of the eighties generally stuck to the standard generic elements - secret identities, colourful spandex, ultraviolence - Abercrombie sticks with the standard generic elements of epic fantasy but lends them great depth through characterisation. The standard elements spring from the personalities of the cast as well as the engine of the plot. Even the legendary bust-up of the wizards millennia before seems to have its origins in the coolly bellicose personality of Bayaz.

I prefer single books to series, but I've read a few different series in recent years (such as Moorcock's Col Pyat quartet, Neal Stephenson's Baroque trilogy, the Book of the Long Sun and the Soldier series by Gene Wolfe, eg), but on those occasions I've already secured the necessary volumes before embarking. In this case, I have only Book One of The First Law, and I'm not even sure what Book 2 is called (google time: Before They Are Hanged). I'll keep an eye out for it though, and if I see it cheap I'll snap it up, too.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Communicating with the nearly dead

From the Guardian, I see that scientists have been able to establish communication with a supposedly brain dead patient.

It's good news for this guy, and I hope it helps other people, but a few thoughts occur.

First off, previous discussion of such communications through twitches or hand squeezes are fraught with suggestions of carers/assistants either consciously or unconsciously providing the stimulus themselves - is this just a high tech equivalent? I'm not a scientist but I wonder...

Secondly, how wierd would that be? If you were lying there, could you even trust the voices? What choice do you have, of course - the answer to solipsists everywhere - but still, if it were me I'd be thinking, trapped there in my cage - is this for real? Or is my mind just playing more tricks?

Axe Cop!

I'm not a fan of web comics, by and large but Axe Cop, by the brothers team Malachai & Ethan Nicolle (aged five and 29, respectively) is achingly funny and cool! (Via Mostly Forbidden Zone)