"People Come Here For Their Holidays." NOT COMICS! PROSE! Sometimes They Probably Aren't Going To Win Any Awards From The UK Tourist Board!

What could be better than War Comics? Western comics! But what’s better than Western comics? Why it's surely when I don’t talk about comics at all, and start banging on about some book like I even know what the Hell I’m talking about! Truly, we here at The Savage Critics know how to serve your needs. Look, you’re probably going on holiday, so why not let a complete stranger recommend a really upsetting, but very well-written book? Dettol©® won’t help with this boo-boo, because this? This isn’t just violence, this is…GBH!  photo GBHStartB_zpsx1djc2qe.jpg

Anyway, this… GBH By Ted Lewis SOHO CRIME (Soho Press, Inc), h/b, £19.99 (2015)

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As all connoisseurs of thatch-cheeked 1970s Brit-crime authors know, the very great Ted Lewis popped his clogs in 1982 so what we actually have here is a 2015 reprint of his final, sublimely unpleasant novel from 1980. This edition is ballyhooed as its first publication in America, so I thought I’d better let America know it was out, and what America has let itself in for. Then America can run out and buy it and tuck into the magic of Ted Lewis. Don’t make me feel like I’ve wasted my time here, America! I know you’re out there, America! I can hear you breathing.

First up, even if you don’t realise it you’re probably aware of Ted Lewis’ work from JACK’S RETURN HOME (1970) which was filmed in 1971 as “Get Carter” by Mike “Flash Gordon” Hodges. Everyone’s seen that one, and if they haven’t, well, they just aren’t trying and those people need to up their game; just like the poor in Cameron’s Britain. Word on the street is that it was also filmed Blaxploitation style(?) by George Armitage in 1972 as “Hit Man” starring Bernie Casey and Pam Grier. I haven’t seen that one, but I imagine it’s…something. In 2000 another movie called “Get Carter” appeared and I did see that one; it starred Sylvester “F.I.S.T” Stallone and it was…nothing. As remakes go it was like Blackpool Tower is to the Eiffel Tower. And I mean a plastic souvenir Blackpool Tower that’s fallen behind the radiator in that tat and crap shop; the one next to the fortune teller’s with the picture of Madame Zsa Zsa shaking Sid Little’s hand in the window. So successful was the 1971 movie that the novel was renamed thereafter, and even today Hodges’ movie remains an unsettlingly accurate visual record of a time and place best left gone. Due to its surface wit and style “Get Carter” is frequently perceived as a stylish lad flick, but it is in fact the deeply unpleasant story of a vile man who is quite happy dishing shit out but reacts quite badly when some of it splashes on him. There were two print sequels (JACK CARTER’S LAW (1974) and JACK CARTER AND THE MAFIA PIGEON (1977)) and while the quality decreases as the titles lengthen, neither are quite as pointless as the end of the original might lead you to believe. They are a good time, but not a great time, basically. From what I’ve read (7 of his 9 novels) Ted Lewis never actually wrote a wholly bad book as such and, even better, he wrote a couple of real corkers. GET CARTER being one and GBH being t’other.

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GBH is often referred to as Lewis’ “lost masterpiece”; over here (in the UK; the clue’s in my name) it’s only seen print in 1980 and 1994, and in paperback at that. So you are being truly singled out for special attention, America. Don’t throw this back in Soho Press’ face! Anyway, “lost” means no one bought it, I guess, because in the 10 years since GET CARTER Lewis had written some good books but hadn’t had a run of consistent crackers like that one everyone liked, so he’d probably slipped out of the public eye somewhat. Also, drinking. Unfortunately there aren’t any hard and fast rules about booze and creativity; some authors thrive on it but, let’s face it, most only think they do. Largely because they are drunk and their senses are impaired, obviously. After five pints even a ceaseless self-loather like me thinks he’s fucking marvellous, so Christ alone knows what happens in writers’ heads, modest folk that they often be. Anyway, it was his liver to do with what he would. Where the booze paid off (that price – Lewis died at 42. Ker-ching! Beat that Hot UKDeals!) was in a pretty honest portrayal of it, particularly on these pages. Like many a man in a hard-boiled yarn George Fowler sucks the booze down like it’s going out of fashion. Unlike most men in hard-boiled yarns the liquor isn’t used to enhance his manliness (and by proxy that of the (mostly male) audience) but rather ends up unmanning him. George Fowler gets very drunk indeed and the man who wrote George Fowler knew what it was like to get very drunk indeed. Getting very drunk indeed doesn’t do anyone any favours; fact. And getting very drunk indeed is the last thing a man in George Fowler’s position needs. George Fowler needs his wits about him. Because George Fowler is trapped in Mablethorpe. Out of season.

 photo GBHTedB_zps3qc1iygb.jpg Uncredited photo of Ted Lewis from the back cover of JACK CARTER's LAW.

See that probably fell a bit flat because America probably isn’t as up on Mablethorpe as it expects the rest of the world to be on, say, Portland. (No, me neither.) So, Mablethorpe is a British seaside resort; a loose but highly centralised collection of shops, hotels, bars, bright lights and fast, thrillingly rickety rides which clings to the coast purely to soak up cash off visiting inlanders during what we laughingly refer to here as Summer. Things have probably changed by now, but back when the book was written (and is set) the British seaside’s charms were more of an exercise in collective wishful thinking than an actuality. Mablethorpe! Where dreams come alive! No one has ever said that. Cheap and cheerful was the order of the day back then, British seaside wise, but we didn’t know any better so we made do. Donkey rides! Postcards of toothbrush tashed husbands leering at ladies melons! Chips trod in vomit A sea too brown for comfort, and too cold to breach! Proper holidays they were. Out of season things were even less fun, with just the sea sullenly remaining but now even browner and colder; a vast turd consommé. The suicide rate in such places probably challenged that of dentists. And Lewis beautifully evokes this drab Purgatory Fowler has exiled himself to, from the awful architecture beneath the perpetually overcast sky to the snippy, chippy malcontents who fill the hours until the brief salvation of the next Summer with booze and backbiting. Fowler stands out amongst them as a sophisticate because Fowler is from The Smoke (i.e. London) and the attention his novelty attracts distracts him from his problems, but because of his problems attention’s the last thing he needs.

Fowler’s problems are back in The Smoke and he’s not overly keen for them to appear here in The Sea. When the book opens we know he has some problems, set-backs if you will, but not what they are. In a series of alternating chapters (The Sea, The Smoke, etc) we find them out as these twin narratives reveal Fowler’s twin losses; first that of his lifestyle and then, perhaps, that of his sanity. Or maybe his sanity’s already flown the coop and the final loss will somewhat more final in nature. Hard to tell with a bloke like George, sanity wise. Now, Jack Carter’s a crap but George Fowler is a monster. Of course, like all good monsters George thinks he perfectly normal, so it’s a clever move to tell the tale (mostly) from his POV. And then we did this, and then we did that, says George , all matter of fact, all low heart rate and slow eye-blink, and then the pieces come together in your mind and you choke back a bit of sick, but you can see George is wondering what all the fuss is about, of course, he continues, after that we had to clean up, and you wonder where the door is, but Ted Lewis has locked it behind him, and it’s just you and George now. And then the lights go off.

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George is such a deep, dark pit of shit in fact that it’s entirely due to the titanic level of skill Lewis applies throughout that this reader could not only bear the big shitter longer than a page but even, every now and again, caught themselves actually rooting for him. Sure, I felt dirty but I admired the trick. George is a nasty man in a nasty business but he sees neither as such; he’s just a man and business is, well, business. And we get to know George’s business intimately as the book progresses, and while business may be good for him it is also very, very bad for others. Actually, it’s bad for him as well but he can’t see that. Lewis was always good at showing men arrogant in their belief that they were untouched by the things that damaged others, and then detailing the slow explosion of their unravelling when this belief evaporated like Scotch Mist. (Which is a drink; get me?) That’s only a piece of the parting gift Ted Lewis gave us here, as GBH also provides a convincing depiction of the underworld of the time, with its nasty antics and corrupt symbiosis between villains, filth and hacks and a good old wallow in the abhorrent brutality of a life lived in crime without once glamourising it. Some people (men, mostly) come away from GET CARTER liking Jack, but I can’t see anyone coming away from GBH liking George. It doesn’t mean you won’t feel for him though, because Ted Lewis’ parting shot is to convince us that even evil can love; but it’s still evil for all that. VERY GOOD!

Evil might well love but it gives short shrift to - COMICS!!!

"Always Prepared. Always Ready." BOOKS! Sometimes You Get What You're Given And Just Make Do

Okay, let's stop pointing fingers, dry our eyes and just accept it’s a BONUS SKIP WEEK! (Bonus Booo!). Caught me on the hop a bit, I’ll admit. Unfortunately I haven’t anything in my head about comics but there are a couple of books I’ve been thinking about. Why not, eh? You never know your luck in a raffle. So, it’ll be a bit rough and ready this time out (yeah; no change there then) but I’ll probably find my flow after a couple of dozen words. Anyway, this…  photo SkySleepRedB_zpse518c49a.jpg

THE WIDE, CARNIVOROUS SKY AND OTHER MONSTROUS GEOGRAPHIES By John Langan Hippocampus Press, 2013 £15.00 (Kindle: £4.02)

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It’s refreshing to find an author who not only knows the difference between Sabretooth and Wolverine but also mentions John Byrne’s Alpha Flight. He mentions the latter in the back matter which he provides for each story. And I know you comics lot like your back matter. It’s in the back matter that he chattily unpacks each of the short stories herein so that you know exactly what he was up to. Turns out what he’s up to is reinvigorating all the old horror tropes; the ones as familiar as that dream where someone makes you eat your own face. Yes, my little chubby cheeked chums, all the old favourites are exhumed once more; zombies, vampires, ghouls, werewolves, Lovecraft, Poe and so on and so forth, yea until the stars come right again and the Old Ones rise.

Which would be worthy of little remark were it not for the stylistic panache with which Langan executes each of his macabre modernisations. You know, speaking plainly, this was by the far the best book of (modern; no one beats Aickman) horror stories I read this year. And I read a lot of short horror stories; you didn’t know that did you? Mysterious creature that I am. Anyway, it was the best book of horror stories I read because John Langan writes like a real son of a lady and no mistake. He’s a bit of a stylist is John Langan; a bit of a shit hot stylist as it turns out. He’ll keep you on your toes and wide awake with his magnificent ability to inventively riff on concepts which looked dead only seconds before. Langan playfully pressgangs Thonrton Wilder’s Our Town into imbuing the listless zombie trope with a real sense of horror again. He beautifully uses the backdrop of a Cthullu scoured Earth to play out an emotionally flensing one hander concerning how it feels when your child moves on and away. There’s even a post-mod lyric to lycanthropy that loses none of its savagery amongst the stylistic trickery. Somewhere in there he also throws in the weight of autobiography, although probably not in the one about the Iraq War vets up against a very different vampire indeed. It’s a clever book, it’s a moving book, it’s an entertaining book which, all in all, I guess, makes it a VERY GOOD! book.

RED OR DEAD By David Peace Faber & Faber, 2013 £20.00 (Kindle: £7.79)

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Repetition. Repetition. Repetition.” Those are the first three words of David Peace’s new book and they are both a statement of intent and a warning. Those three words are the book. The entirety of the book is encapsulated in those three words; no, that one word. Repetition. (Repetition. Repetition.) Because Red or Dead is a book about Bill Shankly and how Bill Shankly took Liverpool Football Club to success. Peace takes the brave and unfashionable tack of shunning mythologising and renders down the story of Bill Shankly’s success to its essence. To its basics. This is the portrait of a man. Bill Shankly had insight and Bill Shankly had talent but mostly Bill Shankly had the guts for the long haul. Tedium and slog. Slog and tedium. These are the things that got Bill Shankly results. That got Bill Shankly’s team the results. The results for their supporters. Results for the people of Liverpool. For the people. Always, always for the people. Working for the greater good. Toiling for the larger whole. And as the pages pass, as the years die Peace’s subtle subtext shimmies into view. For as the pages pass, as the years die Bill Shankly’s world slips into the past. The England of people like Bill Shankly. And a new England is born. An England not about the people but about the person. An England not about society but about the self. An England in which people begin to ask what have I got and why have they got more than me? An England in which people end by asking what have I got and why have they got anything? England: before the match, after the match. England: before The Thatcher, after The Thatcher. This book is work. This book is hard work. No, no, no. This isn’t working. This isn’t working at all. Half time whistle. Oranges and a re-think…

…Okay. Look, that’s all very well and good, all that up there; it’s nice I get to pretend to write all proper like in my little half-arsed way, but I’ve read the reviews. A lot of people seem unhappy about this book. So let me speak plainly for a change; this book is a fucker. It could not give less of a shit what you want from it. Huge swathes of it are repeated. (Repeated. Repeated.) It will bore you. You will be bored. To get through this thing boredom is something to be mastered. Or befriended at least. This is not a mistake. It is not an accident. David Peace is not a numbskull. It is a device. A literary device. To understand Bill Shankly, to understand Bill Shankly’s achievements, Peace puts you in the same position as Bill Shankly. Tedium and slog. Slog and tedium. These are the things that will get you results. And at first the results are small (the simple switch from players’ surnames to forenames is weighted with emotional import). Then after the slog, after the tedium come the real results. The last third of the book portrays Shankly after success, after retirement. The last third of the book is where your heart gets a work out. The last third of the book is where the results come in. The last third of the book is the pay off. But to get to the pay off, to get to the result you have to put the hours in. You have to put your back into it. You have to work for it. Look, I’m not fussed in the slightest about football and I was a near blank about Bill Shankly but it still paid off. Red or Dead is not for everyone. But if it’s for you it’s VERY GOOD!

DOCTOR SLEEP By Stephen King Hodder & Stoughton, 2013 £19.99 (Kindle: £5.70)

 photo SleepB_zps9d406f7b.jpg I like the total uselessness of the quote on the front of the book: "Hugely anticipated”. Yeah, and…? My dinner is hugely anticipated; getting in out of the rain is hugely anticipated; the next episode of The Spoils Of Babylon is...the gist you are getting, yes? I’d have thought Stephen King writing a sequel to The Shining would merit a bit more, I dunno, oomph in the blurb department. Maybe they didn’t want to get anyone’s hopes up too high. Because this is no way the equal of The Shining. Now, I’ve not looked so I don’t know what the consensus is on this one is but I’d guess it’s mixed? Doctor Sleep’s got a strong start and a solid finish but the bit in-between lacks conviction, and there’s a lot of in-between here. The Danny Torrance bits which start, finish and weave through the book are great (and we’ll swing back round to that later), but they’re sandwiched around an idea more suited to a short story than the length of this brick. I mean, having old people in RVs being evil kid killers and eating schadenfreude is a droll and smart way of talking about the sick way we (“we” as a society; not me and you, we’re awesome. It’s everyone else; It’s always everyone else.) process tragedies these days together with the dangers of assumptions. But it isn’t smart enough or droll enough to carry something this hefty.

Unfortunately because the bulk of the book is less than gripping King’s late period tics stick out quite a bit. There’s the momentum sapping return to an earlier already documented event but in even more deadening detail (as though excessive attention to tedious minutiae as will effectively balance the fact we’re talking about psychic vampire eldsters); the failure to invest the mundane with menace (“She had a top hat which sounds stupid but really it was proper spooky, honest.”); the kind of attempt at a quick descriptive pop that misfires into flatness (“She had a single yellow tooth like a tusk” Annnnnd?); the interminably dull reporting of a character’s internal decision not to say something (“Chad decided not to tell Betty-May about how the world had cooled and fish had left the seas to become people and how those people had built cities and societies, and how all those cities and societies fell but history and humanity never stopped moving until here they were, today, next to the roto-rooter section in Target.”) And just like all the stuff in brackets prevented that sentence from flowing smoothly through your mind all those aspects constantly scupper King’s momentum.

But Doctor Sleep is still worth reading; it’s still worth your time, and that’s mostly because of how well King deals with addiction. There’s no horseshit here about dancing through the fire and being a better man for it; King knows that if you’re an addict you’re never through the fire and you don’t dance through it you trudge; King knows that most of the time the only reward for not drinking is that you didn’t have a drink. And eventually you don’t want to drink anymore because eventually you’re dead. You know, there’s probably a reason people talk about recovering addicts but no one ever talks about recovered addicts. The fact that a man who has been there and bought the t-shirt but is now a multi-millionaire and who lives behind a wall can still understand all this so well and, better, can communicate it so directly and sympathetically is an impressive feat of empathetic writing. Due to his mind beggaring popularity King is often given short shrift as a writer, which is a tad unfair. Because somewhere along the way Stephen King became a writer good enough to handle the horrors of reality head-on without the ghoulish gee-gaws of plastic fangs and rubber bats and it’s when he trusts himself to do so that Doctor Sleep is at its best. It is then that Doctor Sleep is better than GOOD!

Next time on Words From My Head: COMICS!!!

“As You Love Me.” COMICS! Sometimes It's London Calling!

Let’s start off 2014 with a panel that fair throbs with magnificence:  photo CoWMooseB_zps386c8a5d.jpg

That there being Dog vs. Moose by Alex Nino from Alex Nino & Neil Kleid’s adaptation of Jack London’s The Call of The Wild. Kids, use your nascent psychic powers to guess what I’m on about this time!

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Jack London's THE CALL OF THE WILD Illustrated by Alex Nino Adapted by Neil Kleid Puffin Books, $10.99 (2006) Based on the original novel by Jack London

Those not hammered to the brink of psychosis via Holiday overindulgence will have already deduced that what we have here is a paperback adaptation of Jack London’s "immortal classic" The Call of The Wild. Despite London’s book having been around since 1903 I’d never actually read it. It was one of those books that when a child one’s parents would heavily suggest one read and was thus one of those books one strenuously avoided. And as is so often the case it turns out I’d been robbing myself. Turns out Jack London’s The Call of The Wild is a pretty damn good book, combining as it does two perennial childhood favourites; snow and cruelty to animals. Technically, I guess, I still haven’t read it but I have read a graphic novel adaptation by Alex Nino and Neil Kleid which was good enough to suggest I should have maybe gone to London sooner.

So, for all the other insolent children of the world: The Call of The Wild is the tale of a dog called Buck who is torn from his pampered life of domesticated bliss and thrust into a harsh world of servitude in the Klondike Gold Rush. As civilisation is quickly shredded by the brutality of the wild Buck finds nature has equipped him better than any human for survival. The unsentimental conclusions London reaches about nature vs nuture are tempered by the mutual respect and admiration that grows between Buck and The Man, Thornton. I would have used the word love there but this late in the world’s day that would only be incitement to snickering. They really hit it off is what I’m saying there. And then, ah, and then

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Upsettingly it transpires that Jack London died at the youthful age of 40. On the plus side, for us anyway, he did so after writing his way out of poverty via a series of extraordinarily popular novels (and more importantly - good novels), these being based on a couple of periods of hard scrabble living he endured along the way. Obviously you don’t have to be savaged by wolves to write about being savaged by wolves; that’s what imagination’s for. But if you have been and they leave you enough fingers to set it down in words it’s probable that authenticity will give your work a little extra kick. Of course, you do still have to be able to write. Being savaged by wolves isn’t going to make up for any lack in that department. (But it’s worth a try, Dan Brown!) What I’m getting at is; Jack London wrote from experience and he wrote well. Sure, in the book at hand I’m experiencing his words at a certain remove but they are still his words. For the most part Neil Kleid’s smart enough to step out of the way and let London’s language determine the course for the most part. While largely blunt and simple, as befits his subject, London’s words via Kleid glare with brilliance in brief and arresting bursts. Now, “..his anger swelled like a kidnapped king.” are not, I believe, London's words precisley but they lose none of the magic for having been adapted.

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Here Kleid arranges London’s words to sit atop Alex Nino’s striking images. Alex Nino (b. 1940) is a Filipino artist whose work I first recall seeing in ‘70s DC Mystery comics (House of Mystery, House of Secrets, House of Secret Mysteries, Secretive Mysterious House, etc). His art was striking at the time and it is striking still. Not literally, no, but close; I do feel like I’ve been slapped whenever I look at his pages. In a good way; suddenly refreshed and attentive. He’s kept on going and kept up the same high standard all the way. The last time I saw his work was in the Image Comics series Dead Ahead which was about zombies on a boat and was visually insane. Seriously, I’ll have to dig that out; it’s nuts. The big thing about Nino’s art for me is how it teases incomprehensibility without ever actually falling into it, or if it does you don’t mind. Well, that’s when Nino has his druthers anyway, which he hasn’t here so it’s a far more sedate and populist performance on these pages. It’s still Alex Nino so it is still pretty spicy stuff.

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Like Joe Kubert, Nino knows the best way to draw snow is not to draw snow; so most of these snow set pages consist of whiteness. There’s no short-changing though; Nino makes what ink there is work like a harried sled dog. His figures, flora and fauna are reduced to, mostly, rough assemblages of lines; the close proximity of one to another is the only clue that they delineate the same shape. At times Nino seems to be testing how dispersed he can make his lines and still ensure the reader’s eye can herd them back together as a dog; a bush; a party of three with a heavily laden sled disappearing under fracturing ice. Maybe he’s having a bit of fun with the fact that the conditions he’s drawing are so elemental and thus reducing his work to its elements. Probably not.

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In keeping with London’s unimpressed view of humanity under duress Nino’s lumpen tuberous fizzogs give everyone the look of grumpy goblins. Everyone, that is, except The Man, Thornton, who is drawn in the classical hero mould and so stands out visually from his fellow humans as much as London’s text would wish him to. Throughout Nino’s art is smart and sophisticated but he’s smart and sophisticated enough to know simplicity works too; the eye is always drawn to Buck as Buck is given heavy black markings which make him immediately stand out in any given panel, largely white as they are. Fans of Nino will be pleased to note several panels of Pure Nino (a group of dogs that resemble crystal automata; a primordial vision via Nino’s signature fantasmagoria). He’s one talented son of a lady. The book closes out with a nice chunk of backmatter with script pages, sketches and preliminary layouts. From this it appears Kleid specified the page layouts for Nino. They aren’t high art but they don't have to be they just have to work, and they work well in that they carry the reader through the pages unobtrusively. Ideally, I think, at some point the reader should forget they are reading and just be reading; the simple layouts achieve this. Additionally, their basic nature provide a necessary buffer, an essential corral, for the signature manic intensity of Nino’s art.

So, yeah, dogs, violence, emotions, great art by Alex Nino, a thankless task well executed by Kleid (good use of black panels, sir), great source material; The Call of The Wild is VERY GOOD!

“Choke!”, “Gasp!” Not A Podcast! BOOKS! Read 'Em On The Beach, Read 'Em On The Pot!

Despite the fact that I am sat in the middle of a thunderstorm I understand Summer, as it is commonly understood, is still on. I also, understand that the Podcast Magic Gentle Jeff Lester and Graeme McMillion$ provide is delayed due to things. Maybe even rain. So, here are some more potential beach reads for you to stain with sugary drinks, crisp salt, tanning lotion and tears of rejection. But who are the Arthur Haileys, the Wilbur Smiths of this, the sparkliest generation? Probably not this 'orrible lot. This is just a bunch of books an old man read. I wasn't even on a beach. My whole life is a lie. If I tried hard I could probably find it within myself to care. Anyway, this...  photo CoversB_zpsc81fa130.jpg

THE FLAME ALPHABET By Ben Marcus Granta Hardcover (2012),£16.99 Paperback (2013), £8.99 Kindle £4.63

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It’s a nice cover,right? I know we shouldn’t do that, shouldn’t judge a book by its cover (so why do they have them?) but judging a cover by itself is permissible, right? It’s such a nice cover that My Lady Of Infinite Patience plucked the book from my feeble grip and started complimenting it on its general loveliness. Then she asked me what the book was about, because usually I (so the popular perception chez K(UK) has it) read only dour, depressing, mentally exhausting exercises in nastiness which curdle my world view for at least as long as it takes my unerring internal radar to locate another such book. Confounding no one’s expectations then, I was able to tell her the book concerned a universal plague whereby language becomes toxic and the source is children. Laughter, ahoy! There are a lot of fantastic tricks played with language here but the biggest trick is that it enables the wholly insane premise and developments to, after a brief period of immersion, appear sinisterly plausible. The Flame Alphabet starts out as a coffee dregs dark satire of how parents with teenagers feel like they are victims of some senseless and fatally draining force for which there is no defence. Then it swings out into a post-apocalyptic narrative which rivals J G Ballard for its presentation of insanity accepted as sanity. Finally the book’s scope shrinks backwards and inwards and you realise that it was about love all along. I don’t want to spoil this book any more than I have; it is terrifying in its terrible beauty as are the talents of the author. This is a magnificent fucker of a book and if you are a parent it will fuck you up, and you will thank it for it. I can’t deny it was VERY GOOD!

ORWELL'S REVENGE: THE "1984" PALIMPSET By Peter Huber Simon and Schuster Hardcover (1995),£OOP (OOP = Out Of Print)

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This is a truly bizarre book; unique maybe? Because what Peter Huber did here was write a refutation of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four using Orwell’s own words against him. Literally. Huber loaded most of Orwell’s writings into his PC and used (with mid-90’s tech!) only Orwell’s language, phrases, similes etc to write a sequel to Nineteen Eighty-Four. A sequel which seeks to unwrite its predecessor. Because Huber’s contention is that Orwell’s book failed to predict the future and since he, Huber is living in Orwell’s future he can go back and correct the book. And so we read about Blair (Eric?) who discovers Winston Smith’s Diary and eventually faces O’Brien revealing to him, and us, the fatal flaw in Big Brother’s society. A flaw, it turns out, which was there all the time, in plain sight, but Orwell missed it; the fact that I have written this and you are able to read it is a clue. But it isn’t so much the what but the how.  And interleaved with the fiction is a non-fiction analysis of Orwell, his works, Nineteen Eighty-Four and how and why the central conceit was flawed from the start.

Initially I thought Huber was just being picky but thankfully what is of greater interest to Huber is why Orwell missed the things he did. No one can deny that Orwell was sharp as a tack, yet with Nineteen Eighty-Four he’s in error because of two convictions so ingrained in his otherwise elastic mind that they veer on the obsessional. Huber isn’t unsympathetic, despite his final chapter illustrating that the evidence of Orwell’s faulty thinking was all around him in his own time. He isn't unsympathetic because he can see where Orwell’s biases originated and how the ideas became fixed. And he can see that because it is in practically everything Orwell wrote. And he can do that because he is actually using practically everything Orwell wrote. The revelation of these two mistaken convictions is enlightening and not a little surprising and wittily illustrated in example revolving around gramophones and a Ministry for washing up. There’s a slight stumble at the end with a final chapter so dryly academic I swear I heard a dying fly spinning uselessly on the windowsill of the classroom of my mind. Perhaps that’s because Huber has left Orwell’s words behind by that point making it plain that if there were things wrong with Orwell’s wiring there was nothing wrong with his writing. Orwell’s Revenge is an engaging and entertaining mash up of fiction, meta-textuality, economics, psychology and literary innovation. You’ll probably argue with it while you read it but a little bit of cerebral stimulation is always GOOD!

HAWTHORNE AND CHILD By Keith Ridgway Granta Hardcover (2012),£16.99 Paperback (2013), £7.99 Kindle £4.12

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I have no real inkling why I picked this up. Probably the cover (don’t judge me!, it pleads. But we do. We always do. Good cover.) A précis of the premise is just the kind of trite shite I’d chuck across the room at a Dan Brown fan. Two mismatched cops (it’s in the UK so ‘coppers’ or ‘bobbies’ we’re talking about here)! One’s black! One’s white! One’s gay! One’s straight! One’s Troubled! One’s Not really all that fussed to be honest! Together they fight crime! Sounds like one of those brick thick things with the wide line spacing and broad margins about them there cops with their troubles, with their burdens. Those burdened, troubled coppers that despite the alcoholism, debts, broken marriages, estranged children, dodgy tickers, gammy ears, undescended testicles, in-growing toe nails and burdens, those ever present burdens, manage to catch the cleverest criminal minds of all time. Again and again. Annually at least. But not at no cost, because, burdens. More burdens for the next book. Burdens. But…So, yeah, anyway, Hawthorn and Child! together they fight crime! Except they don’t. Or they do, but the book isn’t interested in that. Yes, there’s a crime but that’s soon left behind and the book wanders off looking in on minor characters, veering into tangential magical realism, slapping you with a short sharp hostage situation, drawing pornographic parallels between kettling and salty bath house frolics, wherever it wants basically. Which is alright by me. Please don't worry about the homosexual intercourse depicted within as none of them are married so no bigots should be offended in the reading of this book. Any offence whatsoever should be dulled by the evidence that Ridgway is a sensationally fine writer. You know what language is to him? No, me neither but I know what it isn’t. A burden. Given the nature of its structure some may question whether Hawthorn and Child is a novel or a suite of short stories linked by themes and recurring characters, or maybe both. Sure as eggs is eggs, as soon as people start discussing what a novel is then it’s just a matter of time before some smart arse brings up that (anecdotally at least) Hemingway’s shortest novel ever “For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.”, and then steps back radiating an almost unholy satisfaction. Fine, now go and charge someone £16.99 for that and see how you get on, buggerlugs. Hawthorn and Child might be a novel or it might not but it is certainly worth the £16.99 and more besides. Because it is VERY GOOD! I think that’s what matters most, but then I’m a simple man. Without burdens.

Next time - COMICS!!!

"Choke!", "Gasp!" Not A Podcast! BOOKS! Y'Know, Like In The Long, Long Ago!

This is you, right:From "The Whipping" by Wallace Wood & Al Feldstein/Jack Oleck from "CAME THE DAWN and other stories illustrated by Wallace Wood" (Fantagraphics, 2012)

From "The Whipping" by Wallace Wood & Al Feldstein/Jack Oleck from "CAME THE DAWN and other stories illustrated by Wallace Wood" (Fantagraphics, 2012)

And good luck with that because it's a SKIP WEEK! So I have thrown some words into the path of your thwarted desires and curdled expectations. Words about books because it is summer (or so rumour has it) and people like to be told what to read on the beach. Then they ignore it and buy that Dan Brown shit.  I've seen you. I've seen all of you!

Also, it transpires Boisterous Brian Hibbs has done his sales charts for the year thus far and posted them just below this. You are now content rich. Enjoy! Anyway, this...

DIRTY WEEKEND By Helen Zahavi Flamingo (1991) Kindle Edition - £1.99 Dirty Weekend (E-Book) by Helen Zahavi

This was Helen Zahavi’s debut novel and it is VERY GOOD! It’s written in raunchily rhythmic prose delivered by a swaggeringly sarcastic omniscient narrator who takes a sadistic pleasure in every blow our heroine takes, but savours even more every crack she gives back.  Because this is a book about Bella and how Bella woke up one morning to find, as she makes plain, she’d had enough. Had enough of the shit that men give that women are expected to take. Bella works her way through a menagerie of misogyny leaving no doubt as to her feelings on the matter at hand. You could say they asked for it, and Bella thought it rude to refuse. Murder, I’m talking about there. She kills ‘em. You may be thinking that it sounds quite a lot like a female Death Wish. Well, it sounded enough like a female Death Wish for it to be filmed in 1993 by one Michael Winner the director of, yes, Death Wish. 

For those blissfully unaware, Winner is a tireless self-publicist who has had occasional cinematic success with films that ,while derivative, do , at their best, possess an entertainingly  grubby energy  and disarming absence of taste. At their worst, which is most of the time, they are just puzzlingly shit. Basically, Michael Winner is the cinematic equivalent of Mark Millar. Although Millar probably won’t end up trading on his status as national laughing stock and appear in daytime TV Insurance adverts. More’s the pity. Anyway, the movie is precisely as good as you would imagine a feminist fable of retributive violence would be if it were filmed by a man who titled his restaurant review column Winner’s Dinners. Stick with the book is what I’m saying there. Also, be nice to ladies.

THE LAST WEREWOLF By Glen Duncan Canongate (2011) Print - £7.99 (p/b) Kindle Edition - £1.99 The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan

The title helpfully cues you into the fact that this is, ostensibly, about the last werewolf. And some vampires with whom he fails to get along with quite violently. Oh, and the human organisation which hunts them both while you doze, sedated by light ale, in front of Mad Men, wishing you too dressed like an adult. Because, as you have known in your bones since birth, there is a supernatural world hidden behind the net curtains of the mundane. It is of course a sexier and more exciting world too. There’s little doubt about this as our narrator takes great pleasure in regaling us at tedious length about the arousing and, yes, rousing existence he has suffered, lo, these two centuries past. And is it all about to end? Is the world to suffer not only the loss of his self-centred self but his very species itself? After a pretty gripping start I soon failed to care, alas.

Duncan’s primarily hobbled himself in presenting the story in the form of a journal written after the fact. This means he’s (mostly; no spoilers!) limited to one POV and all the most interesting shenanigans occur offstage. This does mean the exposition is smoothly delivered but it also means there’s a lot of exposition required, as all manner of shit has a tendency to just suddenly happen out of nowhere. This latter is okay in moderation but it’s taken to excess here. Tension and suspense aren't exactly engendered when a helicopter spraying garlic napalm could burst through the wall at any second to save our lycanthropic lead. Speaking of whom, he sure soon wore out his welcome. Yammer, yammer, yammer, that’s this guy. And it’s all about him, and how hard it is to be a sexy, dangerous and dangerously sexy manly wolf. Wotta maroon, this fella is. The guy’s had two hundred years to get used to the fact that he kills and eats someone once a month. After two centuries of failing to psychologically adapt he comes off as narcissistic nincompoop. People have got used to far worse thing in far less time, like being a Tory.

Oh, it’s OKAY! Duncan can write, and he writes well at that. He’s got an interesting premise and I was, I really was, really into bits of it, but the combination of overly facile plot machinations and self-pitying narration just rubbed me up the wrong way. Seemed to me that the biggest danger of being the last werewolf is you spend far too long sniffing your own arse.

THE UN-DIVIDED SELF By Will Self Bloomsbury (2010) Print - $30.00(h/b) The Undivided Self by Will Self

This is an overseas only selection of Self’s shorter fiction culled from each of his collections existent at the date of publication, together with a brief new piece. As such it’s a VERY GOOD! overview of his work from the early stylistically ostentatious stuff concerned primarily with effect to the more disciplined and, thus, more emotionally affecting later work. Here you can read Self gravitate from the impressively deadpan evocations of drab horror (“Grey Area”) to a tale which quietly allows you a peep at the singular level of Hell which can flare open in a moment of parental inattention (“The Five Swing Walk”). Some of it is quite funny too. Honest.

Um, that's it...Next time - COMICS!!!


"Choke! Gasp!" Not A Podcast! Not Comics! BOOKS! You Know, Like In Days of Yore!

It's a SKIP WEEK so the dulcet toned duo of Gentle Jeff Lester and Glamorous Graeme McMillion$ are off...um...doing, er, stuff and things. Probably. But we here at The Savage Critics love and value each and every one of you (especially you, sir! (or madam!)) and thus I have provided some hacky trash about some books you, let's face it, have no interest in. I know, you can hardly wait! Anyway, Jeff (who lives at home) and Graeme (who works from home) will be back next week. (Please, God.) Grin and bear it is my advice.  Say, anyone remember that time Howard Victor Chaykin got trapped in SWORD OF THE ATOM#3 (DC Comics, 1983) by Gil Kane & Jan Strnad?  photo Atom_B_zps07e47e43.jpgNo, because (as our Savage Legal Dept were fast to point out) that didn't happen. Anyway, this...

TRAPPED IN THE SATURDAY MATINEE by Joe R Lansdale PS Publishing, £19.99 (2012)

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This one’s another career spanning grab bag of bits’n’bobs from the Mojo storyteller hissownself. It’s mostly short stories but there’s also a couple of non-fiction pieces about how imaginative fiction and hard work (also, although modestly whispered, talent) saved the sturdy sensei from a life spent building aluminium lawn furniture. I’m sure we can all agree that aluminium lawn furniture’s loss is weird fiction’s gain. Back there I said another because Lansdale’s career’s so lengthy and his output so vast that there are now several of these retrospective things studding his bibliography. They are all pretty much of a muchness. Each effectively represents the progression of Lansdale’s relaxed and down home style and how he has used it with increasing success to corral his wild flights of fancy into work as entertaining it is deceptively sophisticated. To misquote the American poet and visionary Jon Bon Jovi; He gives pulp a good name (good name). The actual contents of these samplers vary some but they are consistent in demonstrating Lansdale’s vulgar vigour, his inexhaustibly inventive imagination, a nice line in potty mouthery and also the sure sense of place his work delivers. Well, if it’s set in Texas anyway. Which, no fool he, most of his stuff is. Since that’s where he was born and formed Lansdale’s work is deep fried in his Texas surroundings and the colourful vernacular thereof. This is extraordinarily appealing to someone who lives in a country as grey, damp and intrinsically self-hating as England. Hey, I guess if you live in Nacogdoches, Texas then Joe R. Lansdale would be gritty kitchen sink realism. That’s a wild and woolly thought right there. Fair warning for Lansdale fans: this volume includes Lansdale’s Hellboy novelette Jiving With Shadows And Dragons And Long Dark Trains. This being a tale which Lansdale doesn't own and so this will probably be the only book with his name on the spine in which it appears. Hey now, it’s one of them there books by that there Joe R Lansdale and that’s GOOD!

THE QUIDDITY OF WILL SELF by Sam Mills Corsair, £12.99 (2012)

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Thanks to the benevolence of the titular man with the face like a despairing hound Sam Mills uses the name and work of Will Self to lure readers into what would otherwise be a daunting work of bewildering convolution and disorienting stylistic facility. Yes! This is what you want! It’s several hundred pages embodying what Kingsley Amis found so unattractive about his own son’s work and graced with the phrased “titting the reader about”. Or as we mere plebs know it: post-modernism. Apparently this is Sam Mills’ first novel intended for an adult audience (adult as in grown up not adult as in brown paper bags, wandering hands and heavy breathing) and it took her nine years to complete it. Given all that and the fact that Will Self’s work haunts every page (if not every word; if not every letter; you get the drift) then I’d have to say Sam Mills is quite the fan of Will Self. Fans of Will Self or lovers of the use of the word "sesquipedalian" will get the most out of this, I guess. But that doesn't mean folk unfamiliar with Will Self will get nothing out of it. Mills is canny enough to have a character unfamiliar with Self’s work act as the reader surrogate and the various Self-ish sections are based in familiar genres (murder mystery, future dystopia etc) to aid immersion if not actual outright comprehension. It’s fun stuff but most of the fun comes from the bizarre turns and confounding twists this wonkily weird beast takes, so I'll not spoil any of them. I will note that that the underlying theme of how creativity in one person is insanity in another and is thus, by necessity, unique to each of us (if we have any) is vividly and entertainingly plumbed throughout this odd duck's duration. In sum, as Terence Blacker’s Kill Your Darlings is to Martin Amis so is The Quiddity of Will Self  to, well, Will Self, obviously. Keep up now. Or to put it another way The Quiddity of Will Self is VERY GOOD!

UMBRELLA by Will Self Bloomsbury, £18.99 (2012)

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From what I can gather the writing of this book was pretty challenging for the lugubrious human lexicon known as Will Self. His previous book, Walking To Hollywood, was decidedly not a success (an unsuccess?) and he appeared somewhat shaken by its poor sales. I stress that he appeared so in interviews etc not in close personal encounters as I don’t know the man or anything. So, I certainly don’t have access to his sales figures but I can’t imagine Will Self has 7 Shades of Shit level sales in the first place so those must have been some pretty sobering sales. Which is a shame because it was a good book; a mix of psycho-geography, insane asides and a moving consideration of the debilitating encroachment of Alzheimer’s. It didn’t sell despite a scene where the Hulk bums a car and also an extended bloodily ferocious fight between the morose flaneur himself and James Bond (Daniel Craig flava). People just ain’t got no taste, I tells ya! Stung Self retreated, regrouped and reconsidered. The result was a book written in very short sentences about a vampire boy wizard’s adventures in sex and shopping set in space. My little elitist joke designed to raise your hackles there. No, the book Will Self wrote, Umbrella was a decades spanning examination of the effects of technology on the human psyche presented via the experiences of several characters ranging from a coma patient, her ambitious but flawed psychiatrist, her WWI trenches bound class agitating soldier brother and her icy, almost robotic arms manufacturer other brother. And to really reel in the punters, to really bother the upper levels of the sales chart, to ensure those units shifted, Self chose to do it all in a stream of consciousness stylee. In effect it’s a 400-some pages long single paragraph in which the text is so molten that there can be a shift in character and a jump of decades in a single sentence. Paying attention is required I’m very much afraid, but you will be more than amply rewarded for your payment.

The big sexy hook on which all this majestic Modernism (yes, Modernism not Post-Modernism) hangs is the Sleepy Sickness (or encephalitis lethargica for any Romans stil kicking out there) of 1915-1926 and the use of L-Dopa in the ‘70s to briefly awaken the surviving sufferers. Yes, that’s right, this is similar ground to Oliver Sacks’ Awakenings or, for the cinematically inclined, the Penny Marshall directed 2007 motion picture adaptation of same. But Sack’s was fact(ish) and this is fiction and if it were (and it won’t ever be) filmed it should come off like Terry Gilliam directing a mash up of Awakenings, Charley’s War and Britannia Hospital scripted by a maniacally focused Dennis Potter. Umbrella is a beautiful thing is what I’m getting at there. Self's been quite open that his choice to apply the Modernist style was a direct reaction to what he perceived to be a lack of invention in the fiction nominated for such literary lottos as the Man Booker Prize. In a move that could leave only a stone unmoved Umbrella went on to adorn the Man Booker Prize short list for 2012. That’s irony in action there. But! Hilary Mantel took the prize with Bring Up The Bodies the second in her more traditionally honed Richard III Thomas Cromwell trilogy. That’s the literary establishment putting someone in their place in action there. And when you hit the crossed out words you'll see reality taking me down a peg or two too. As the splendidly well read and  factually accurate Jacob pointed out in his comment - I was talking out of my (smart) arse with this next bit. I wrote this stuff on paper, typed it up and forgot to do a basic fact check.  N.B. It is particularly important to fact check books you haven't read.  I've left it in because who doesn't like to see someone humbled? Gandhi? Are you Gandhi? No you are not, sir; so enjoy the schadenfreude it's free!... Still, there’s no shame in Self’s loss as the cosmic fix was clearly in anyway as, shortly after her win, the actual corpse of Mantel’s main character was found buried in a car park. Richard III just pops up for fuck’s sake, what are the chances?!? When reality is pulling publicity stunts on your behalf then winning the Booker’s a walk in the park. I’m sure Hilary Mantel’s book deserved its award but Umbrella was my book of 2012 because it was EXCELLENT!

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Well? What did you want? COMICS!!!

“They Were Stacked Criss-Cross, Like Cheese Straws…” BOOKS! Sometimes I Fancy A Change!

I didn’t really get around to any comics this week what with one thing and another. But I did read some prose and I ended up writing about that. It was a couple of books of short stories written by the co-founder of The Inland Waterways Association. Sounds gripping, huh? Well, if you’re going to let preconceptions hold sway then, I guess, this one’s for me. I know! The gall of the man, the sheer, wicked nerve! Anyway, this…  photo both_B_zpse0754c84.png

COLD HAND IN MINE By Robert Aickman Faber, £12.00 (2008) THE UNSETTLED DUST By Robert Aickman Faber, £13.00 (2009)

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The written work of Robert Fordyce Aickman (1914-1981) was a staple of my young life via his collections of, to use his preferred term, “strange stories”. Memory, ever unreliable it should be noted, maintains a plenitude of these books populated the stacks of the library around which much of my young life revolved. For the child library books have their own unique wonder. The primary source of this wonder being the sure discovery, on a page turn, of the, seemingly obligatory, trapped and flattened hair of an oddly pubic cast. So inevitable did such lightly disquieting discoveries seem that a youth possessing an imagination lightly foxed by morbidity might consider it not entirely beyond the pale that, down a quiet and municipally taupe corridor, there could not fail to be some secluded room within which, ill-lit by a crackling bulb, some hirsute creature crouched, snuffling wetly while delicately plucking and pressing a single hair from its own plentiful fund between the pages of a book. Said volume having been taken from the piles mazed around the bristling creature, doctored as stated and finally replaced upon the shelves by a man with a strangely fungal pallor and slurred gait. And upon this book the hand of a child would alight…

…Some three decades later and deciding to add some agreeably bound volumes of Mr. Aickman’s work to my own modest, and largely hairless, personal library I was aghast at the lack of availability of such volumes. O, they existed; their existence could be in no doubt but then nor, alas, could the height of the prices they demanded. Existence and availability should never be assumed to be twinned as many a convicted sex offender has discovered to their chagrin. After a little piggish truffling I did, however, find the paperback volumes noted here which, while not precisely cheap, are at least within reach of most budgets. True, they are a bit on the perfunctory side, with the only variation design wise being the name of the collection in question. A biographical note is also lacking; so one would not know that Mr. Aickman was renowned in his time for his efforts to reclaim Britain’s inland waterways and edited the first 8 volumes of the Fontana Book Of Great Ghost Stories; modestly excluding his own work from vol.s 4 and 6. Proof reading, particularly, with The Unsettled Dust, leaves something to be desired; Aickman being a most fastidious writer this is not groundless carping. Nor are there found hereabouts any testaments to the high regard with which Mr. Aickman’s work is held by today’s fantasists and fabulists. So, the modern reader would not be attracted by the fact that such as Peter Straub (who attempts to write in the key of Aickman upon occasion), Neal Gaiman (whose less fey work can approach the Aickman-esque) and the British dark comedy practitioners The League of Gentlemen (whose work is sodden with Aickman’s influence) are amongst the many who flit around Aickman’s darkly warming flame still.

With rare exceptions Aickman’s shorter works are primarily allusive and flee from concrete meaning with a singularity of purpose akin to a man who has bolted from his home upon noticing his wainscoting labours as though breathing and, indeed, has done so for some time…But, fret not, it does this in a welcoming rather than an exclusionary way. Aickman’s lithe use of language and precise prose draw the reader in before baffling and unsettling them to pleasantly discombobulating effect. Recently I, perhaps unwisely and certainly rather blithely, posited that the popularity of British war comics in the 1970s was not a result of us being a nation of blood thirsty racists backwardly yearning for The Empire, but rather the result of complications born of adjusting to the unavoidable upheavals such a prolonged period of warfare prompts. Had I finished these books in time they would, perhaps, have helped mitigate the apparent inanity of my premise. For, it soon becomes apparent, that much of Aickman’s work is concerned with the inadequacy of the brittle social conventions of the time (these collections date from 1975 onwards) to endure in the face of the psychic mayhem unleashed by two debilitating wars in quick succession. Aickman’s stories mostly document minds and lives as they intersect with subtly chaotic and leisurely overpowering forces and, as a consequence, dissipate with the tranquil violence of paper separating in a puddle. In doing so he also attempts to convey the dislocation and unease felt by a society as paradigms shifts far too suddenly for comfort.  I feel no shame in revealing that as a child all this completley passed me by. It appears that Aickman's work is work that grows with you, how simply marvellous! There’s another collection in this series, The Wine Dark Sea, now I haven’t acquired that one yet, but be assured I shall. For now I must return down this municipally taupe corridor to my room, ill-lit as it is by a crackling bulb, and bend my back to my task…

Oh, and how does Robert Aickman bear up? Well, brace yourself and let me pour you a stiff brandy because it appears, to all intents and purposes, that Mr. Robert Aickman remains…EXCELLENT! Next time, probably, - COMICS!!!

Prose is a Five-Letter Word

(that title somehow made sense in my head) Like I mentioned the other day, between school restarting, working on our September DC relaunch plans, a possible store remodel, us repainting the downstairs at our house, and what seems like 47 other "big" things happening at once, I've had a less time for reading comics. It also doesn't help that giant chunks of prose have been chucked at my head recently as well!

So, below the cut, some not-comics reading, even if it is related-to-comics!

THE COMICS JOURNAL #301: I really did miss TCJ. The deeply in-depth interviews, the in-depth criticism, and really more than anything else, the investigative reporting. We don't have anything like that kind of what I think of as shoe leather reporting -- long phone calls, attempts to look at issues from multiple sides, designed to examine and protect our field, rather than to score headlines in and of itself. Rich Johnston has taken over a tremendous amount of that role, but Rich comes from the Gossip Columnist angle, rather than Paper Of Record angle, so he runs a lot of shit that's sensational for it's own sake, and, far too often that's wildly wrong or misinformed.

Heidi is mostly our Social Secretary, and the "news sites" (Robot 6, CBR, Comics Alliance, etc.) seem more interested in entertaining or opinionating then in really getting to the heart of news (which is fine -- those are consumer entertainment sites, really).

I think Spurgeon (and, let me take a second to link you to his astonishing piece on his health problems if you haven't already read it -- all of the Savage Critics wish Tom very very well health indeed!) is the closest we have to Advocacy journalism, any longer, but I'd think even he'd admit he seldom uses Shoe Leather much in the (excellent!) work that he does.

I just sometimes daydream about what could have been if the Journal's News mandate had continued to this day -- I would have loved to read their in-depth coverage of, say, the Disney deal... or could you imagine what Michael Dean might have been able to get out of the DC reboot? Yeah, woulda been nice.

Damn, but I got off on a tangent there, didn't I?

ANYway, like the Meatloaf song sez, two outta three ain't so bad, as the Journal returns in a new bricklike bookshelf format (seriously, this thing has like 600 pages!), anchored by a massive Robert Crumb interview, and a whole freakin' lot of really strong criticism. I most especially liked the Cerebus retrospective by Tim Krieder. Cerebus is one of those works that I think is 90% genius, but the bits that aren't are really really hard. It was fascinating to see Krieder go through in a few weeks, the emotional range that some of us sustained for 25 years! I need to read Cerebus again, huh?

(I also miss the Cerebus Diablog where they petered out only by #11! Come back Laura, come back Leigh! You didn't even start getting to the GOOD issues!)

Wow, digressive much?

Right, so, Journal, yes! Great great great read! I'd still love to see it be maybe quarterly in the 200 page range -- there's a lot of Interviews that could be happening, and a lot of posterity that needs to be captured -- but this is way better than nothing. VERY GOOD

One last digression, which is actually kind of properly related. As some of you may know, Amazon really erred somehow with TCJ #301, and they offered preorders at a price that was about 20% BELOW their (and my!) wholesale price. Fantagraphics assures me THEY didn't offer Amazon any kind of special deal or promotion, so that was all on Amazon itself.

Whatever, I'm not dumb, I ordered my copies from Amazon, instead of from Diamond, and chose the free (very very slow) shipping option.

We had our copies two weeks ago.

Diamond, as far as I can tell, STILL has not distributed TCJ #301 to the West Coast.

So cheaper than Diamond by 20%, AND I received it weeks earlier, go figure!


A DANCE OF DRAGONS: I've been a fan of George RR Martin's "Song of Fire and Ice" long before "Game of Thrones" aired on HBO, and I really really really wonder what they're going to do when they start getting to the parts of the book that simply CAN'T be filmed (or faked!) on the budget they'll have. As is often (but not always) the case, as good as the adaptation is (and it's really swell!), the original material is much much much better.

We've been waiting a really long time for this, book five, because of what Martin termed "the meereenese knot", where a specific character find themselves in a specific place and simply wasn't able to leave because of the nature of the character themselves.

To an extent, you can't force plot on characters - plot should always stem FROM the characters, and some writers say that strong characters "write themselves". I believe this to be true, especially in this case. This is the first one of these books where I could really see the scaffolding (surrounding Meereen). It's not just the specific character, but everyone and everything related to it. Most of the Meereen stuff, I hate to say it, even some of the bits that I LIKED (Tyrion, in particular, takes the sharpest loss he has so far on a particular ride), probably should have been chucked... but they COULDN'T be because of what happened previously, and how a strong character with a strong POV simply wouldn't let it.

The problem is solved... or, at least, is set upon the path to probably being solved, and the solution is non-terrible, but it's still a little far from good to this reader. It does make for fascinating reading, however, playing "look for the welds".

On the other hand, all of the stuff that WASN'T tied in the Knot? Awesome awesome material -- maybe some of the strongest yet. In super particular, I nearly shuddered with joy when a certain sibling showed up about halfway through the book, and this one is rapidly becoming my favorite character.

Other than the Knot (which isn't GRRM's fault, per se), I was fairly outraged that he introduced a new claimant to the throne, one, who appears is legitimate, and not just a feint of some kind. I am firmly of the mind that it is far far far too late to be doing so, given the length of the narrative (and the idea that we're finished in just two more books). It's only like three chapters worth, but I was profoundly uneasy reading those, thinking "not FAIR!"

I think that GRRM is more likely to feint about who the leads really are, and what the battle and stakes even are in the first place (I largely think that the central question of who will sit on Westeros' throne will be mostly irrelevant in another thousand pages or so), just like the big switch at the end of "Game of Thrones" itself.

Overall I want to give A DANCE WITH DRAGONS a mild GOOD, but there were absolutely parts that I thought were EXCELLENT.


(how was that for spoiler free, huh?)


As always, what did YOU think?



To the end of taste: Douglas reads Carl Wilson's new book

I figure if movie reviews are fair game here, so's a review of a book with "lots of little words and no pictures," as Fred Hembeck once put it--especially when it's a book as relevant to criticism and savagery as the Excellent book I just read, Carl Wilson's Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, and especially at the let's-recap-our-judgement moment of the end of the year. Wilson's book never mentions comics, but it has everything to do with why people (including me) get so vehement about loving one cartoonist, or kind of comics, and hating another. It's the most recent volume in the 33 1/3 series of short books about albums (full disclosure: I wrote one in the same series a few years ago, about James Brown's Live at the Apollo). This one is about Céline Dion's 1999 album Let's Talk About Love--the one with that Titanic song on it. What's unusual about Wilson's book is that he can't stand Dion's music. But this isn't a book about why her music sucks: it's a book in which he tries to understand why he thinks so, and why the tens of millions of people around the world who adore it think it's wonderful.

And that takes him straight into the problem of taste. (The book's subtitle is a little joke--a reference to another famous Céline.) Dion, in Quebecois slang, is kétaine: tacky, naff, Liefeld-esque. The first few chapters of the book ("Let's Talk About Hate," "Let's Talk About World Conquest," "Let's Talk About Schmaltz") talk about how she got that way: they run through the curious particulars of her biography, her commercial domination of the globe, and the history of the particular pop-music aesthetic she embodies. Then we get to the core of the discussion, a pair of chapters called "Let's Talk About Taste" and "Let's Talk About Who's Got Bad Taste."

Wilson runs through the old but still vexing question of criticism's relationship to populism (e.g.: which is a more important or meaningful seal of approval: critics raving about Exit Wounds or Thor selling 100,000+ copies?); he talks about Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid's brilliant Most Wanted/Unwanted Paintings project, and the related Most Wanted/Unwanted Song project. (What would be the Most Wanted Comic, using the same principles?... I'm tempted to say Countdown: Arena or something.) He quotes David Hume's description of a person with good taste (which is essentially someone who likes things that will stand the test of time), and points out that that standard tends to favor tradition over innovation.

And then he gets into Pierre Bourdieu, whose name is commonplace in cultural-studies circles and not terribly well known otherwise. To quote Wilson's summary: "What we have agreed to call tastes, he said, is an array of symbolic associations we use to set ourseles apart from those whose social ranking is beneath us, and to take aim at the status we think we deserve. Taste is a means of distinguishing ourselves from others, the pursuit of distinction... In early twenty-first-century terms, for most people under fifty, distinction boils down to cool. Cool confers status--symbolic power. It incorporates both cultural capital and social capital, and it's a clear potential route to economic capital." Wilson has plenty of points of disagreement with Bourdieu (and so do I), but he notes that "even if Bourdieu was only fifty percent right--if taste is only half a sub-conscious mechanism by which we fight for power and status, mainly by condemning people we consider 'beneath' us--that would be twice as complicit in class discrimination as most of us would like to think our aesthetics are."

The rest of the book is Wilson playing around with taste in general and taste for Céline in particular. He interviews a handful of big fans (of one of them, he writes: "His taste world is coherent and an enormous pleasure to him. Not only does it seem as valid as my own, utterly incompatible tastes, I like him so much that for a long moment his taste seems superior. What was the point again of all that nasty, life-negating crap I like?"); he goes to see "Brand New Day," excuse me, "A New Day" in Vegas (and has a miserable time that leads him to meditate on why sentimentality in art gets such a bad rap, and how aesthetes tend to sentimentalize ambiguity); he forces himself, at last, to listen closely to Let's Talk About Love and write about it. And then, in the final chapter, he tries to imagine a new and more "democratic" kind of criticism: "What would criticism be like if it were not foremost trying to persuade people to find the same things great? If it weren't about making cases for or against things?... It might be more frank about the two-sidedness of aesthetic encounter, and offer something more like a tour of an aesthetic experience, a travelogue, a memoir."

Which leads me to the question I'd like to open up, as this calendar year ends, to the questionable democracy of the comments section. I've been asked, various times and in various contexts this year, where I think arts criticism is heading and where it should go. But Wilson's book suggests that people like me aren't the only ones who should be answering that question. So I'd like to know: what kinds of comics criticism are most meaningful or interesting to you, and why?

Comics Prose

Because comics are "hot", I guess it isn't any real surprise that there's more and more "proper" books about comics, or by comics people. Not like I even have enough time to read comics, dang it!

But, I plowed through two books in this spectrum this last week, and here's my report for you:

SOON I WILL BE INVINCIBLE: is kind of an odd duck -- it's straight prose doing Marvel-style superheroes. Its not that there hasn't been superhero-prose before -- I'm a pretty big fan of the WILD CARDS series of books for instance -- but, usually, those try to set their superheroes in the "real" world. This novel is pretty unapologetically a story set in a "superhero" world, where the logic of the superhero comic is presented at face value.

There's two main threads of story here, one that focuses on the villain, Dr. Impossible (no, not from JLA), as he battles his foes in The Champions (no, not from Marvel.... or Heroic, either for that matter); and one that does the hero team-POV from a new cyborg member, Fatale.

Its reasonably effective at what it does, though one has to question why the reader wouldn't just read CIVIL WAR instead -- there are JLA or Avengers-style analogues on display here, and the prose is zippy enough, but its not like it breaks any new ground, or adds anything to the genre that the actual comics cover. Its a fast read, and highly OK, but there was a pretty large sense of "just do the real ones" to this reader.

THE DEVIL YOU KNOW: is Mike Carey's first novel. It is going to be inevitable to compare the protagonist here to John Constantine, Hellblazer -- and it would be just as inevitable had not Carey had a successful run on HELLBLAZER. There's certainly differences -- Felix Castor isn't a mirthless bastard for instance; and the world-building going on points to a very different world than JC's London -- here the set up is that for some unexplained reason, the dead have been reappearing en masse (as ghosts, or zombies, or loup-garou [explained as animal spirits rewriting the flesh of their hosts]), so there's a whole class of exorcists who are there to put those spirits down -- but, other than that, yeah, this could have easily fit into JCs world just fine.

Carey is a strong writer, and the prose drips with Britishisms like "All Mouth and Trousers", and what I liked the most about the book is that it ends up in a place that JC probably never would have. That is to say: I'd very much like to read a second book with these same characters and to see what it goes from here.

It is solidly GOOD work, but I think you're going to have a really hard time, like I did, separating out FC from JC. If you've never read a JC story before, this might work even better.

SOON I WILL BE INVINCIBLE is available now; THE DEVIL YOU KNOW I read in galley form -- the front cover says "Hardcover publication July 2007", so I guess it will be out real soon.

Not that you've probably read either of these, but if so, what did YOU think?