Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Books: Saga


Vol 1
Written by Brian K. Vaughan
Art by Fiona Staples

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

Comics can do anything.

Yeah - ok: sure - they can't make you a cup of tea (etc) - but facetiousness aside - (and trying my best not to sound too much like Scott McCloud) the potential of types of stories you can use them to tell is (pretty much) limitless: you know - words and pictures working together and all that: I mean - yeah - (ok) maybe there are a few stories out there that only work in terms of sound (although the only one I can think of would be Orson Welles' infamous War of the Worlds broadcast): but at least in this point of human history [1] - telling a story with pictures is the thing that we all respond best to. Which I guess is why I always end up feeling a little bit (hell - a lot) let down by a book that (on the one hand) is all real world locations and people talking in kitchens or (on the other hand) opts for the usual superheroes having fights with supervillains fare ("Take that! Evildoer!"). Like - come on! Give me something I haven't seen before. Something that pushes up against a few limits - or jumps over a few boundaries - (do I need to break out the caps lock?): GIVE ME SOMETHING NEW.

As basically (as far as I see it) - if you're a comic book writer or artist or whatever then (well) for all intents and purposes you basically have the power of god. Why then are you merely content with serving up more the same? With the entire spectrum to choose from - why is everyone seemingly content to serve up the same shade of brown?

In fact - I recently stumbled across an introduction that Alan Moore wrote a book called The Vorrh [2] that (talking about the fantasy genre) managed to hit the nail precisely on the head: "By definition, surely every fantasy should be unique and individual, the product of a single vision and a single mind, with all of that mind’s idiosyncrasies informing every atom of the narrative." Except I don't think that this is just a problem with fantasy - I think it's a problem with all stories everywhere: with not enough storytellers willing to take risks or stretch themselves past the point of the people who came before them. I don't know if any of you saw that Patton Oswalt Parks and Recreation Star Wars speech that was making the rounds on the internet last week [3]: but - if they ever made it (and hell the way things are going - I really wouldn't be that surprised if it did happen) - it would be the omega point/singularity of nerd/geek culture (and after it finished - I guess we could all pack up our bags and go home): but that's the (imaginary yeah) culmination of what I'm talking about I guess - where the greatest creative act isn't to make something new - but to join up the parts and pieces of the stories that came before (and maybe this is all just a roundabout way of moaning about the never-ending proliferation of sequels and reboots: but whatever): that's not my point.

My point is - (like I said at the start): comics can do anything.

I'm guessing that most of the people reading this have already heard of Brian K. Vaughan. In all the pictures I've ever seen of him he's wearing a black shirt and a red tie and an impish grin on his face that looks just a little (if you lean in just a bit) like he's trying too hard. But - what the hey: it looks like it's working for him seeing how he's basically one of the only (that I can think of anyway) success stories of 21st Century mainstream comicdom (and by success I mean - he's not trailed by bitter fans complaining that his early work was much much better: and he's sold out all the things he used to stand for etc etc etc). He first broke big with Y: The Last Man and Ex Machina (amongst others)- then followed that up by landing a job working as a Lost writer (jumping ship before the final season [4]) - and (after his movie projects stalled) has now returned to the comics world in a big way with Saga.

The artist - Fiona Staples - is more of an unknown quantity. Nosing around her wikipedia page it seems that before Saga she was existing on the out-skirts of the industry: doing the colours on Book IV of Button Man, doing one shots of minor superhero characters ("The Secret History of the Authority: Hawksmoor") and series that no one really mentions anymore (sorry Northlanders: but you know it's true): but having treated my eyes to the beauty of the artwork in Saga - all of that seems more like people not being able to spot the treasure right beneath their noses rather than some sort of lack on her part: putting it bluntly - the artwork in Saga is spine-tingling fantastic. At the outset I'll admit that I was a little non-plussed - it all seemed a little bit too round on the edges - like a pair of child's safety scissors wrapped up in candyfloss: but it only took a few issues before either my defenses melted or her technique improved for me to fall into her arms. The grace and simplicity she manages to capture her characters with - I mean: well - it's cool. And: in places - kinda reminds me of Sean Philips: only if he's a dog - she's more like a cat (and I don't care if that only makes sense to me). And - in fact - comparing the art in Saga to Y: The Last Man and Ex Machina - it's seems like Brian K. Vaughan has managed to find the perfect person to split the difference between the rough and ready lines of Pia Guerra (of Y: The Last Man) and the hyper-stylized / frozen in amber look of  Tony Harris (who did Ex Machina [5]): Fiona Staples manages to draw characters who feel alive and dynamic whilst at the same time - capturing them at the moment in which they're most beautiful.

And - together: well - right at the start there's this bit about what a great thing it can be when two people join forces to create something new and even tho (being English and all) it made me cringe like I was having a spasm: I've got to (begrudgingly) admit - there is magic in these pages. With both Vaughan and Staples coming together to create something that - well - feels new.

Of course - yeah yeah yeah: the basic building blocks of story is as old as time - but then what isn't you know? What's exciting tho is the way that they decide to tell that story and the fabulous creatures they cook up to make it run (my favourite so far being The Stalk): there's a feeling that only a few comic books have managed to give me - that everything is kinda floating on air and absolutely anything can happen and - hell - you know what? - I don't think I've seen such an interesting blend of science-fiction and fantasy since Star Wars (which I realise might be setting the bar a little high - but there you go).

Yes: there is more sex and violence than what you'd get from an average Game of Thrones episode [6]: but it's done with such a cheeky smile on it's face that it never really feels like a cheap shot. Instead - it feels more like a fairy-tale that never feels the need to keep things sanitized - Neil Gaiman with a few drinks inside him: holding forth whilst dressed up in a Boba Fett costume (if that helps: I'm guessing not - but what the hey).

But - yeah: totally worth the price of admission: when you've got a comic like this the only thing you need to worry out is how to get your hands on the next volume.

[1] I remember learning back at school that people used to say that they were going to "go hear a play" as opposed to go see on: as there used to be a much greater emphasis on aural rather than the visual (which is apparently why Shakespeare could be so virtuosic with his dialogue): but I don't know if that's true or not.

[2] You can read the introduction here (and - oh - hat tip to Mindless Ones): the book itself is by someone called B. Catling and unfortunately - sad face - it's not currently available from Islington libraries (oh well).

[3] I'd include the link here - but I can't find it (the one that everyone else has been using is only available to view in America). And - damnit - I can't find a transcript (oh well): summing up then - it's his crazy pitch for the next Star Wars film and how it could bring in The Avengers, Thanos and the X-Men (in fact - just look at the poster someone made: that should give you the right idea).

[4] Which obviously you could interpret in a number of ways.

[5] And - which - I would mostly put down to the fact that his technique seems to consist of taking photographers of people posing in various positions and then coping them into his drawing: with the result that - well - a lot of his artwork looks like people posing in various positions (as opposed to actually just - you know: being natural).

[6] True story: one of my friends was on an aeroplane - watching Game of Thrones on his laptop when the stewardess came around and asked if he'd like anything to drink - he looked up as he paused the DVD and said that he was alright when he noticed a strange look on her face: and as she walked away he looked back at his laptop and realised that he'd paused the screen so that all you could see was a pair of boobs. Such is the dangers of watching Game of Thrones.

Links: The Founding Fields Review, What Would Ellen Ripley Do Review, AVClub Interview with Brian K. Vaughan.

Further reading: Y: The Last ManEx MachinaArrowsmith: So Smart In Their Fine Uniforms, ProphetOrc StainNikolai Dante: The Romanov DynastyThe Umbrella AcademyJoe The Barbarian, Button Man, Northlanders, Stardust.

All comments welcome.

Books: The Avengers: Secret Avengers: Run the Mission, Don't Get Seen, Save the World


Secret Avengers: Run the Mission, Don't Get Seen, Save the World
Written by Warren Ellis
Art by Jamie McKelvie, Kev Walker, David Aja, Michael Lark, Alex Maleev, Stuart Immonen

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

Even before I had even started one single word (or image) of Secret Avengers I opened up a new document so I could note down the stuff that came to me as I read it [1] and wrote down: "Good old Warren Ellis." At this point - that's how confident I am that having his name of the front cover of a comic means that - at the very least - it's a book that will be worth the time it takes to read: and - hell - if he's on form: then the sky is much less than the limit.

Of course: seeing how this is a mainstream marvel book (and not even a proper stand-alone one: I mean: at the start I was confused by the fact that it started at issue 16 and wondered if I was missing important story-stuff by starting at the middle [2]: but after deciding: "what the hey" I jumped in and realised that none of this was even an issue: and that the Vol 3 thing is a bit of a misnomer: seeing how it reads as a collection of short stories more than anything else: but we'll get to that in a bit) it's Ellis working for a (what I assume is a fat) paycheck more than trying to set the world on fire: but there's enough here to keep your brain (well - my brain at least) ticking over and twisted in knots: plus the fact that the artwork is (at points) pretty cool (I'd classify it as B-list [3] - which is several letters above the type of thing you normally get in your typical mainstream superhero comics so - you know: that's something at least): or - to put it another way: ok - yeah: it's basically just bubblegum - but it's well made bubblegum: with a lot of interesting flavours.

What that means: it's got a robust vocabulary (which means that you get lots of lovely words like "stellify" and "indubitably." [4]), Ellis' typical gonzo dialogue (with "Where is your Bluddy Steve Jobs Tricknology now, rich yankee pigs with your tight pants?" on one side and "People always forget that a time machine is also a space machine." on the other) with a healthy smattering of ideas (including: how to use city as a bomb)   and a deft touch with superhero characterization (with basically just means everyone gets to say one cool line at some point): like it says in the book: "it's clever and insane at the same time."

What's even better is that (taking a cue from Planetary): each issue is it's own self-contained little story: which means that it's really easy to dip in-and-out (because - you know: reading a whole comic can be such a major chore). In fact - forget Planetary: a much better example would be the short-lived Global Frequency: I mean - all you need to do is swap Miranda Zero for Steve Rogers and it's practically the same - only with the science-fictional volume turned all the way up (hey: I mean - it's superheroes so that's expected - right?): compact little action-adventure tales poking holes in the fabric of the world: short stories that are all quips and teeth.

I mean: for me - if you wanted to know what would make it better then I'd suggest that it cut down on the fighting (and: man - there is a lot of fighting) and ramped up the M C Escher style craziness: but that's just niggles. But like I said at the start: it's Warren Ellis - so (at this point) you should know exactly what it is you're going to get. And - hell: I'm always game for whatever good time he has to show me: even if the next day I can barley recall what it was that we got up to: but that's bubblegum for you.

[1] Here's my tip for anyone out there thinking of reviewing stuff - it helps a lot if you write down your thoughts are you read it / watch it: trying to remember the things you were thinking of afterwards isn't really a viable option.

[2] And nosing around I discovered that there are two volumes of Secret Avengers that came before this (courtesy of Ed Brubaker): plus a tie-in to the Fear Itself blah: not to mention the Rick Remender series that comes directly after. However: I don't think I'm gonna bother to read either of them (let alone write them up on the blog - so (for the time being) this is as much Secret Avengers insight you're going to get from me: so enjoy it while it lasts.

[3] Notable artists (for me anyway) include: Kev Walker (a 2000AD graduate done good), Michael Lark (best known for his work on Gotham Central: and his lean, mean drawing style), Alex Maleev (the guy who did all the heavy lifting on Bendis' Daredevil run: who's even better at that realism feeling: and messing around with different drawing old-fashioned styles) and Stuart Immonen (who worked on the tail-end Ultimate Spider-man: and whose artwork looks like it would bounce if you threw it up against a wall).

[4] Which - obviously - reminds me of this

Links: Forbidden Planet Blog Review.

Further reading: Global Frequency, Thunderbolts: Faith in Monsters / Caged AngelsThe Avengers: The New Avengers: IlluminatiUltimate Comics: Iron Man: Armor Wars, Gotham CentralDaredevil (2001 - 2006), Ultimate Spider-ManPlanetaryS.H.I.E.L.D..

Profiles: Warren Ellis.

All comments welcome.

Books: Judge Dredd: The Cursed Earth Saga


Judge Dredd: The Cursed Earth Saga
Written by Pat Mills and John Wagner
Art by Mick McMahon and Brian Bolland

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

"I play with a ball... Dick and Jane play with a ball... Judge Dredd will not play with a ball."

At the last meeting of the Comic Forum someone (I forget who and I forget why) mentioned Judge Dredd: to which someone else responded - with a snort (I think it was Wayne but I can't be sure): "Judge Dredd? That's for children isn't it?" [1]

I mean: ok yeah - strictly speaking it's true: Judge Joseph Dredd: born and raised on the pages of 2000AD was created as something to keep young boys entertained and away from the evil grasps of punk rock or whatever back in the late 1970s: since then tho he's ascended through the ranks to the upper tiers of society and there attained the heady status of cultural icon: I mean - even if you've never read a comic (or seen the two film adaptations) you still know who Judge Dredd is and what he stands for - right [2]?

But - man - dismissing it as just being that is like thinking that adults can't enjoy fireworks: it's just - well: it's just silly (sorry Wayne). Because even though - yeah: it's been calibrated for the brains of teenage boys: when it reaches it's proper sweet spot and has all the right elements  in place (namely: concept, plot and the proper artists) then: well (oh boy) - it becomes (pardon me) transcendent.

Which brings us to The Cursed Earth Saga: and - well - basically (not that I want to build it up too much or anything) one of the best comics of it's era (1978 - a whole decade before all your Watchmens and Dark Knight Returns): I mean - yeah yeah - it is fantastic that Judge Dredd has managed to keep going and going and going well past the point that anyone ever thought that he would and that is obviously part of the reason why he's still such a thing and people are still making movie and whatever - but (and seriously I have no problem at all in saying this) even if 2000AD had been cancelled after this story was completed [3] - people would still be talking about it today and referring to it as a high-bench mark of - well - the science-fictional comic genre (I realise that maybe that sounds like faint praise - but it's not supposed to be).

(And - just so no one there gets too confused: I should point out that - this is a story that's been collected in the Judge Dredd: Complete Case Files 02: only Islington currently doesn't have a copy of that - so we'll have to make do with this mini-sized copy instead [4]).

But - whatever - what makes it so good then?

Well - like it says on the back cover ("A road trip through hell") this is an epic that takes Dredd outside from the comforting clutches of Mega City One and subjects him to the berserker craziness outside the walls: I mean - at this point it's pretty much a genre staple to have your heroic figure venture through an unforgiving post-apocalyptic wasteland [5] - but mostly (in film terms at least) that kind of thing is done because it's a hell of a lot cheaper to go and shoot in desert and pretend it's the year 2100 rather than: you know - build a future city with flying cars and whatever - of course - seeing that Judge Dredd doesn't have to worry about anything as niggling as a special effects budget - the writers are free to go as crazy as they want: and - hell yes: having an entire landmass to fill means that they give full rein to all of their sick and fevered imaginings - which means that it's total jackpot time for all the lucky readers out there.

Because - like I said: it's all basically written for the short attention spans of teenage boys (who we all know need constant stimulus or else their heads explode in a big fat sticky mess) the barrage of cool things is non-stop right from the get-go: as you should know - 2000AD is a weekly anthology comic and so all the Judge Dredd stories come out in 5 or 6 page installments [6]: over time the writers have got a lot more self-assured with spreading things out and not making things feel too crammed - but at this early point in time there's this great feeling of having nothing to lose and everything to play for and this amazing frantic energy that means that it feels like you're reading the entire thing on fast-forward with all the best bits jammed next to each other: with anything deemed unnecessary left on the cutting room floor ("Never a dull moment when you're a Twenty-Second Century cop!").

But - as it's all welded to a story that's timeless in it's simplicity (I've never read The Odyssey - but I'm guessing the story structure is exactly the same - get to the place and try not to get killed by all the monsters you meet on the way) it free to luxuriant in it's many splendid diversions: you know that phrase - it's not about the destination - it's about the journey? Well - it's in full effect here: with a feast of freaks and otherworldly sights and smells to enjoy: safe in the knowledge that if there's any of it that starts to drag - well: it won't be long until you're on to the next thing.   

What also makes it such a great trip is the company. I've remarked before (I'm sure) that Dredd isn't much of a character with interesting nuances or hidden depths (but I'd argue he's not really supposed to be) and as much fun as it is to watch him punch people - after a whole epic his one-noteness would (I'd fear) start to get a little bit worn out - thankfully then - he gets a lot of support from elsewhere (in fact - towards the end there's a massive double-page spread of everyone featured in the Cursed Earth that makes you realise just how populated a barren wasteland can be): number one mention has got to go to Spikes Harvey Rotten: a 22nd Century man who cribs all of his moves (and fashion-sense) from 20th Century punks (who were all the rage back in 1978): I mean - yes - on the one hand he's a bit of a stereotype: with dialogue full of "dis" and "dat" and not much in the way of subtlety - but then again: there's a reason why if you play Anarchy in the UK everyone in the vicinity will get up and start to jump around like their neck's on fire: it's loud and it's noisy and that's what makes it fun.

The artwork by Mick McMahon [7] is fantastic. The best way I can describe it - is that it's like Moebius woke up in a bad mood and a shaky hand: it's detailed and feels like you're only ever seeing a small part of a fully realised world - but conveyed in such a way that it's always "BAM!" and on to the next thing: like he was so excited to get this stuff down that he didn't want to get too bogged down in making things look too pretty: and it's absolutely perfect for the story.

And - yeah - the story: full of proclamations like "It was not a nice way to die." and "sometimes the human race makes me sick!" - it's beautifully stark and ugly in the world that it depicts. Unlike the majority of kid's stories nowadays where it seems that most of the muck and danger gets cleared away and put into tidy little boxes - The Cursed Earth is a sprawling, teeming mess of muties, criminals and - ah yes - dinosaurs.

I mean: I really hate giving plot points away - but I feel like I should briefly touch upon the dinosaur aspect of The Cursed Earth - especially seeing how (oh my god) it bears striking similarities to a well known 1993 film directed by Steven Spielberg. I'm not accusing anyone of deliberately ripping anyone off: I mean - we all know the story of how two people invented the light bulb at the same time right? And - (if you don't mind sounding like a hippy) Idea Space and all the rest of it [8]: well - yeah - I guess it just means that Pat Mills was the first person to stumble upon something and then - years later - Michael Crichton came (independently) to exactly the same place [9]: and - hell - if I was Pat Mills I don't think that I would ever ever shut up about this - but what can you do huh? (and if you think that maybe I'm over-selling this or whatever - then pick up a copy of this book and read pages 85 - 88 and we'll talk - ok?).

(And - also: yeah - to be fair - I should point out that there is a strange understanding of cloning happening - namely that clones have the memories of the subject that they were cloned from  ("For a moment, memories of his first life flashed through his tiny brain"): but then - that's a mistake that tends to get repeating in a lot of films [10] - so I can't really blame Pat Mills too much)

But that's really the only niggle. And - hell - there's so much style and wit infused throughout this whole comic (as my literary flatmate put it so succinctly: "Satanus is a great name for a dinosaur.") that it seems churlish to complain about - well - anything really. I mean - it's all just for kids right? So - just strap yourself you: marvel at the construction and the pulsating thrill power and get ready for the ride of your life.

"Oooh! I get so excited just looking at it's multi-level kill power."

"Calm down, McArthur. This is unseemly behaviour for a Judge... and kindly remove your hand from my uniform."

[1] You know, for kids.

[2] Or is this assuming too much? I don't know: people who don't read comics or watch science-fictiony films are a mystery to me: so maybe don't listen to anything that I have to say. In fact: I rewatched Dredd (Karl Urban version) with my girlfriend and it took her a while (until his "I am the law" speech in fact) to get into the swing of things: for the first hour or so she was screaming out in horror things like "This is horrible!" "These people are being brutalised!" and "The reason there's so much crime is because the system is corrupt." Still: eventually she acclimatised and towards the end was cheering along with the skull-smashing: which I guess goes to show that even if people have heard of Judge Dredd - they don't really know what it's actually about: it's like if people thought that that Doctor Who was a medical drama or something...

[3] And - holy moly - this was just progs 61 to 85 (progs = issues: with one per week) - which - to give you some perspective: last year was prog 1800: so - you know - this is practically (in 2000AD terms) the Jurassic period or something.

[4] For some reason (maybe they're aiming it at kids or something?) - unlike the Complete Case Files - this book is published at half the size of the original comics. As my literary flatmate put it best: "it's annoying small." - but what the hey - the story is so good that by the time it's sucked you in - you won't even notice. Me - I was just happy to get a chance to finally read the whole thing. Back when I was a kid I used to have Book Two but never managed to get my grubby mitts on a copy of Book One (and - shockingly - even tho it's been - what? - 15 years? - I can actually say that it was worth the wait - wooo!).

[5] The example that springs to mind first is Mad Max but - surprisingly for me - that didn't come out until 1979 - the year after The Cursed Earth came out: which I guess is just one of the many things that puts it ahead of the curve (see also: Jurassic Park - which we'll come to in a bit...).

[6] Yes yes - there's also the Judge Dredd Megazine which allows for much longer chunks of stories - but that didn't come out until 1990 - so at this point it doesn't really count.

[7] Ok - yes - and Brian Bolland as well: but (and I think this is due to the fact that Bolland is famously slow when it comes to turning in pages - a side-effect of the fact that his art always looks so squeaky clean and freshly polished) nowhere near (in percentage of pages or whatever) as much as Mike McMahon.

[8] I thought that Idea Space was a common concept - but looking it up - I realise it's something from Alan Moore and so (I dunno) maybe not in common usage? So - here's him talking about it (to help you realise what it is I'm talking about): "A space in which mental events can be said to occur, an idea space which is perhaps universal. Our individual consciousnesses have access to this vast universal space, just as we have individual houses, but the street outside the front door belongs to everybody. It's almost as if ideas are pre-existing forms within this space… The landmasses that might exist in this mind space would be composed entirely of ideas, of concepts, that instead of continents and islands you might have large belief systems, philosophies, Marxism might be one, Judeo-Christian religions might make up another."

[9] There's a good Grantland article that goes into the ins-and-outs (that - I would say - should (if life was fair) include a reference to the Cursed Earth - but what can you do?): "When was Jurassic Park hatched? We could start in 1924, when the American paleontologist Henry Fairfield Osborn wrote about an "alert, swift-moving carnivorous dinosaur" — Velociraptor mongoliensis. We could start in 1970, when Steven, a young movie director, and Michael, a young novelist, had a chance meeting on the lot at Universal Studios. But I'm thinking we should probably start in 1983. Entomologist George O. Poinar and his wife, Roberta, had begun taking DNA from insects trapped in prehistoric amber. They'd published an article about it in Science. One afternoon, a stranger dropped by their office in Berkeley, Calif. "Tall, pleasant guy," Poinar recalls now. "Really lanky." The man quizzed the Poinars about their work. He asked about amber mines in the Dominican Republic. Then, with his notebook filled, the man left. He never mentioned anything about a dinosaur novel. Michael Crichton, in fact, was already trying to bring dinosaurs back to life. But he'd gotten stuck. "It is always a problem for me to believe in the stories that I am writing," Crichton later wrote to Poinar, "and a dinosaur story especially strains my own credence." When Crichton discovered the Poinars and their bugs-in-amber, he stumbled onto the foundation of a billion-dollar enterprise. It was a beautiful premise for a thriller, in that it both contained cutting-edge science and was ridiculously easy to understand."

[10] (from TV Tropes) "While probably impossible, the popularity of this trope can be attributed to the Rule Of Cool, and how in Real Life biology, DNA acts like a form of advanced memory storage (containing massive amounts of data for production and assembly of various complex proteins). However, this won't become a fully Discredited Trope until and unless someone succeeds in creating a viable clone of an adult human being."

Links: Judge-Tutor Semple Review, Grovel Review.

Further reading: Judge Dredd: The Day The Law Died, Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files 03Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files 05, Orc StainProphet, CrossedWasteland, Just a Pilgrim.

All comments welcome.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Books: The Nao of Brown


The Nao of Brown
By Glyn Dillon

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

Nick - one of the Comic Forumers regulars - has been going on about this book for ages and ages and ages. I mean - I've moaned about this before on here (I know): but Islington isn't exactly the quickest when it comes to getting copies of whatever the hot new thing is [1] and so - finally having this book in my hands after months and months of hearing Nick sing it's praises and seeing that washing machine head cover appear across the internet (and on the tops of seemingly every comics blogger's best comics of 2012 lists [2]) made me feel a little bit - I dunno - like I was the guy who only saw Inception when it came out on DVD: like I'm several steps behind the rest of humanity: still wearing flares while everyone else has already moved on to giant shoulder pads.

The good thing is tho is that - thanks to successful diverting of eyes and ears and lots of strategic instances of "no spoilers please!" I'd managed to make it all the way to my first read with no idea about what the book was actually you know - about: other than the fact that it was about someone with a washing machine for a head [3].

Now - of course I'm not going to blab anything about what the book is really about (but if you're looking for something like that then check out some of the links below and I'm sure that they can give you a précis): it's not really my style and after I went to so much trouble to keep myself ignorant I hardly want to go and spoil things for someone else - but what I will say is this: you know that type of mid-brow indie film where everything looks like it's been filmed with handheld cameras and everything rests upon the acting and stolen glances and all the things that the characters never get around to actually saying? Well - the Nao of Brown (in most respects) is the comics version of that. If you're expecting a machine with giant sledgehammers connected to a roaring 5000 horsepower engine built like a skyscraper with monster-truck wheels and designed to pummel you to the ground with it's over-whelming, bombastic might then (sorry) you're going to leave unsated. The Nao of Brown is more like a delicately pieced together musical instrument half-origami half-wind chime where the point isn't to have your breathe taken away - but more to lean in and admire the beauty (and make no mistake: (in terms of the water-coloured artwork [4]) it is frequently quite beautiful in the way it captures (to pluck two random examples from the air) submerged facial expressions [5] and the way a body balances on a bike as it swerves around a corner). The thing with that tho is that it makes things a lot more precarious: if you just want to bludgeon your readers - well: all you need to rely on is brute force: but if your aim is to make their hearts sing - well - then in that case: you need the steady hand and careful eye of a surgeon. And (oh dear) if I'm going to be completely honest here (and maybe I should whisper this next part): Glyn Dillon [6] whilst being totally aces at the whole drawing, arting, painting thing kinda lets himself down (just a bit) when it comes to the writing side: at least for my tastes (I should try and flesh this out a bit shouldn't I?).

I'm sure I've briefly touched this idea before - but what the hey: let's go again: in terms of my entertainment products (films, books, comics, whatever) my predilections always tend towards things which work towards exploding the fullest possibilities of the whatever format in comes in: or (to put it another way less convoluted way): I like films which do stuff that only films can do [7], I like books which do clever things you can only really do with printed words on a page [8] and with comics - well: my brain feel into Alan Moore's clutches at a pretty impressionable age and (as all those who've come to a meeting of the Comic Forum will attest) Bryan Lee O'Malley's Scott Pilgrim is my always ready to-go as the answer to: "So - what's your favourite comic ever?"

The point of me saying all that is so you have some idea as to why - for me - the Nao of Brown feels a little bit of a disappointment and why I'd classify it as a weakness that you translate the whole thing in a "proper book novel" and not really miss too much (apart from: you know - the lack of pretty pictures). With only a few small exceptions here and there (and for me: those exceptions are the best part) most of the storytelling is done with the words rather than just relying on the interplay between the two: at one part a character talks about turning into a flower and the illustration right next to it is the character in flower-form: which (I dunno) seems a little bit lacking in imagination: both the art and the writing are delivering the same message and (for me) comics are at their best when they're combining to create an effect that neither one could accomplish alone. And - well yeah - strangely (and this seems to be the curse of lots of modern day comic book creators [9]): and this is maybe the way to put it first - the overall feeling I got when I finished it was that Glyn Dillon is more enamored with words than he is with images: like he wants to be writing Booker Prize fiction and it's just the comics holding him back: while I'd say: his strengths and abilities lie the other way and that really: he should be cutting out the words and focusing more on expanding the limits of his artwork.

But - hey: that's just me.

For the rest of you: I dunno - I mean: it's not as if the book is bad: the artwork (as I do believe I've already said) is - what's the right word? - resplendent. So much so that at times I felt guilty letting the story carry me on when it felt like I should have been taking the time to properly study each panel on each page. And yeah - well: (like I said) - it's like an indie film: it takes this issue and explores it - so that when you've done with it you can feel like you've learnt something and had some-sort of insight into a different world (wow - I never realised homeless people lived like that / or whatever) but it does so with a light enough touch that you don't need to worry about being too emotionally shaken or anything like that (I mean - while I was reading it - it seemed like strong stuff: but having finished it: it didn't really linger with me or anything like that).    

I mean - Jessica Hynes (who as Daisy Steiner [10] will always hold a special secret place in my heart) wrote the introduction: so it gets bonus points for that.

[1] I don't know if we have an official mascot: but if we ever decided to get one - then my vote would be for Slowpoke ("Hey guys did you hear? There's this great Slowpoke meme.")

[2] This one by Good Ok Bad was actually posted on the Comic Forum's facebook page back in March by Nick: so you know I'm not just making stuff up.

[3] (although - actually - turns out that's not the case at all: oh well).

[4] My source here is Nick (yet again) who went to a thing with Glyn Dillon who did some live-drawing thing and who said (if I'm remembering this right?) that it was done with water-colours. So. Yes.

[5] Submerged as in: when someone's trying hard not to smile and they push it down underwater - but you can still see the faint outline on the side of their mouth. Trust me: you'll know it when you see it.

[6] Fun geeky comics fact: he's the younger brother of Steve Dillon: who most of you (should) know from his collaborations with Garth Ennis - namely the blasphemous brilliance of Preacher (speaking of: did anyone else notice the major similarity in the endings of Preacher and the Nao of Brown? I mean: I don't want to give things away for people that haven't read one of the other (or both) - but they both do the same thing and - in both cases - it's a major cop out).

[7] Examples? Well - my favourite two (and the ones which spring to mind the quickest) are: Speed Racer and Cloverfield. But if that's too low-brow for you then - 2001: A Space Odyssey is a good example. I mean - yeah: there is a book version - but (and I think we can all agree on this point) Dave Bowman going through the Stargate makes much more of an impact when you see it (rather than when you read it): which I guess is kinda my whole point.  

[8] See: Alasdair Gray, B. S. Johnson. would be the best two examples of that - also (I guess) David Foster Wallace: although I prefer his non-fiction to his fiction - and haven't got round to reading Infinite Jest yet (oh well).

[9] Best example of this: Alison Bechdel.

[10] I would put a Spaced quote here - but my brain can't decide which one to use (if you haven't seen Spaced ever at all - well then: you really should: especially as (although it's a TV show) it's also a really good example of - you know: using moving images to tell stories that you couldn't tell any other way).


Further reading: SolaninThe PlaywrightI'm Never Coming BackPhonogram, Lost at Sea, Ghost World, BuddhaAmerican Born Chinese, ShortcomingsAre You My Mother?.

All comments welcome.

Friday, 12 April 2013

Books: Daredevil: Born Again


Daredevil: Born Again
Written by Frank Miller
Art by David Mazzucchelli

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

I think us comic fans (all the comic fans in the house say "yeah!") can all agree that Batman: Year One is one of the best superhero comics out there. Right guys? I mean - come on: it's got pretty pretty everything - the dark and gritty gloomy atmosphere (that thankfully never skews too dark [1]), a sense of realism that lets you believe in it's premise (without making you realise how gosh-darn silly a man all dressed up like Dracula would be) and a non-stop frantic energy that makes you bounce from page-to-page like a pinball on some kind of unholy mixture of crack coke speed and caffeine [2]: what's not to love?

But for those of those who know - well - they know that before Year One Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli [3] combined their forces to create a comic that's still rated as one of the best Daredevil stories ever (I realise that that sounds like I'm damning with faint praise - but it's not supposed to: I mean - come on: if you know where to look there are a lot of great Daredevil stories out there - most especially in Brian Michael Bendis' 2001 - 2006 run: which always manages to go out like extra delicious hot cakes when I get them for the Comic Forum meetings....). The late 1980s was a period when a lot of classic epoch-defining comics came out which ended up changing everything for ever (or whatever) but (sadly) one of the inevitable   consequences of all the big love going to the smash-hitters is that - well yeah: there's a few other books that came out at the same time that kinda of got left in the shade a little.

Of course the end of that thought is that Daredevil: Born Again is one of those unsung masterpieces (or - well - unsung in comparison to blah) but - well - the truth is a little bit more tricky than that (damn it).

If I was only going to use one word to describe it then that word would be: immense. Not so much because it has big gigantic spaceships or world-smashing machines or anything like that - no, no, no. This isn't Jack Kirby or Grant Morrison or whatever: nah - the immensity here is of the emotional sort: it's taking your operatic mainstays like: doomed love, existential depression, thwarted something-or-other (thwarted anger? thwarted chances? I dunno -but thwarted is such a good word so - what-the-hey) and - most especially - consuming, all-enveloping, life-defining revenge.

The old Klingon proverb says that revenge is a dish best served cold [4] but - come on - that's not really much of a recipe is it? (Imagine buying a Delia Smith cookbook and that was the total amount of the instructions you were given: it wouldn't be very helpful now - would it?). Thankfully in Born Again Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli present a culinary masterclass in just how to prepare, spice and season one of the best accounts of superhero-flavoured revenge that I think I've ever seen. I mean - I wasn't the one who was eating it: but I could still feel it in my mouth - fizzling on the tip of my tongue.

Skip past reading the introduction (which reads like the person who wrote it swallowed a thesaurus and it keeps returning on him through his fingers) and just jump straight into the hard-boiled (it is Frank Miller after all [5]) beat-down that awaits within: "Winter hit Manhatten like an unwanted relative. Drops in with no warning and seems to stay forever." and stuff like that.

The other thing you should know is that it's very much front-loaded in terms of the goodness: that is to say - that when it starts (and if you're anything like me) the tautness of - well: pretty much everything (if you could pluck a comic: then it feels like this one would ring out like the bottom note on a cello): the plot, the art, the little character moments: it all joins together to make something that makes me crackle with (I dunno how to say this properly) - artistic electricity?

The first four parts especially especially [6] are spell-binding in their comics-style mastery: check the way that Matt Murdock's [7] sleeping body gets smaller and smaller at the start of each chapter or the two-page scene with Ben Urich on the phone. The way that the backround conversations weave into the throughline. That slow zoom in to his face. And the way it ramps up the colours in his face until realism has been left behind and his skin is red and his eyes are yellow: it's cool is what I'm saying. I mean - yeah: ok - it gets laid on a little thickly at points (at one point Matt's superhuman senses are described as: "a great way to catch all the misery of being alive." - which I know is a bit much but (at the same time) is utterly fantastic - no?).

But then: I dunno - (after all that bliss) towards the end: it hits somekind of wall and starts to deflate a little - a trait which it shares with Batman: Year One (and which I put down to the limits of trying to write something that feels complete within the limits of a franchise where nothing is ever really allowed to change too much [9]  ): I mean - I can see that Frank Miller is trying to write about something about the misuses of patriotism (or something): but the problem is that Matt Murdoch's struggle kinda of gets lost underneath: plus (for me) there's only so many scenes I can take of the Kingpin [10] being mean to his underlings before it all starts to feel a little bit like Dr Evil [11]: but what the hey - it's a fun ride while it lasts.  

[1] By which - of course I mean - no one gets raped (for those of you that don't know: having someone rape one of your (female) characters was the default option of choice for superhero comics searching for some sort of prestige back in the late 80s and early 90s: because that's the one thing that made Watchmen so great -obviously: and hey (by the same logic) - if you get a mop-top haircut then - yes - you too can be as big as the Beatles).

[2] Yeah - ok: so I googled "drug that makes you jittery." Leave me alone.

[3] Frank Miller on the final page writes: "It's almost criminal how easy David makes it to write a script. He makes a three-dimensional stage of the individual panel, complete in authentic detail, nonetheless uncluttered and utterly readable. He creates actors whose dramatic range is startling, whose best and most compelling moments are wordless. He's talking of writing his own comics. Keep an eye out for them. I will." Little did anyone know but it took over twenty years (!) before David came out with his own book: Asterios Polyp (which you should check out if you haven't already).

[4] "It is very cold in space."

[5] And I bet I know how he likes his eggs.

[6] And just check out the names! Part one: Apocalypse. Part two: Purgatory. Part three: Pariah! (and that exclamination mark is theirs not mine: so you know they're serious business - right? Right).

[7] I'm sure that someone else out there has already pointed this out - but still - isn't it funny how there's this split between superheroes who you (mostly) think of by their superhero names: Superman is mostly referred to as Superman, Batman is Batman, Wonder Woman is Wonder Woman etc: and then there's the slightly lower tier of costumed do-gooders who foreground the human over the super: Peter Parker probably being the most well-known example: where the drama (mostly) comes from the trials and tribulations suffered by the hero when he's not wearing his spandex. Well (in case you didn't know): if you're talking about the comic Daredevil: you're going to find yourself thinking about and referring to "Matt Murdock" an awful lot more than you will "Daredevil" mainly (I guess) because as a rooftop super-ninja vigilante dressing up in a leather devil-horned outfit he's pretty much invincible ("The one relief i can give myself when... it all gets to be too much." [8]) - but as a blind lawyer with a string of ex-girlfriends: well - he's got more weak points: that's for sure - something which Frank Miller knows how to exploit to the maximum.

[8] The less said about that the better.

[9] And no one can ever die.

[10] I don't know if I'm reaching a bit: but I'd say it's notable that the Kingpin (as Matt Murdock's main bad guy nemesis) isn't some freak in clown make-up or somekind of hideous mutant animal thing: nope - he's just a criminal: "The boss of everything bad that makes money in what must be most of the free world.": but with no real further motivations than to increase his revenue stream (no Pinky and the Brain style: "try to take over the world!" for this guy: he'd much rather just control things from behind the scenes).

[11] And if you read the book I'm sure you'll all know which scene I mean (I think - or maybe it's just me).


Further reading: Daredevil (2001 - 2006), Batman: Year OneBatman: The Dark Knight Returns, Elektra: AssassinAsterios PolypThe Life and Times of Martha Washington in the Twenty-First Century.

Profiles: Frank Miller.

All comments welcome.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Events: Islington Comic Forum 2013/05


Ok. So you know what? It's kinda hard to describe properly what a typical meeting of the Islington Comic Forum consists of (relax: - I'm not going to use that hoary old cliché about there's not really any such thing as a typical meeting of the Islington Comic Forum because - we're better than that - right?) - I mean: in the strict physical sense - it's a big table full of comic books (at a rough guesstimate I'd say there's usually around - what? - 150 books available for people to take home at each session) and a bunch of people (typically we get about a dozen or so people turn up) all from various walks of life and all with different backgrounds (yeah - I know you're thinking that's it probably all nerdy white guys - but seriously - we're as multicultural and diverse as a corporate video - with an age span from 6 to 90) all sitting around and discussing / arguing / sharing their thoughts and ideas about one of the most exciting and diverse mediums on the planet (nowadays if you're talking about something that's just "all about superheroes" my first guess is you're talking about films - but whatever). It's a little bit more chaotic than a book club but with the same sort of relaxed and open friendly atmosphere: all presided over by an excitable librarian (that would be me - hi!) who has pretty much read every comic book out there (even the terrible ones) and is willing to tell you where you're going wrong with whatever you're reading (and is most happy when people disagree with him). If you're curious as to what sort of books we discuss - then take a look around this blog - every book here has been included at one point or another. And if you want to know what sort of things we talk about: - well - it's never really that properly thought out but we touch upon everything from the best way to construct a story, to how far genre limits can go all the way to if Frank Miller was right about who would win in a fight between Batman and Superman.

Books available this month will include (unless - of course - they are reserved by other people): The Avengers: The Avengers (2011 - 2012)Saga / The Nao of Brown / Solanin / The Big Guy and Rusty The Boy Robot / Aetheric Mechanics / Y: The Last Man / The Walking Dead / B.P.R.D.: Hell on Earth / Stray Toasters / Superman: Red Son / The Unwritten / Batman: Knightfall / Signal to Noise / The Avengers: Secret Avengers: Run the Mission, Don't Get Seen, Save the World / DC Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore / Stardust / Red / Grandville / Batman: The Black Casebook / The Chimpanzee Complex / A Taste of Chlorine / Superman: Secret Identity / Prophet / Jar of Fools / Batman: Earth One / Locke & Key / Thor: The Mighty Avenger / Mezolith / Chew / Point Blank / The Silence of Our Friends / The Bulletproof Coffin / Nikolai Dante: The Romanov Dynasty / JLA: Earth 2 / Breakdowns / Understanding Comics / plus many, many, many (many!) more.

There's also a book of the month (so that at least we can all talk about something we've all read). This month it's: Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere Written by Mike Carey Art by Glenn Fabry . If you get a chance please read it. You can reserve yourself a copy here. (For those of you that don't get the chance - don't worry - you can still come and join in with the discussions).

The next one is: Tuesday the 7nd of May / 6:00pm to 7:30pm in the Upstairs Hall at North Library Manor Gardens N7 6JX. Here is a map. Come and join us. It's free. All welcome.

For more information (or if you have any questions and/or would like to be added to our email list: we send out a reminder a week before with a list of the books that are going to be available) you can email us here.

All comments welcome.

Books: Stardust


Written by Neil Gaiman
Art by Charles Vess

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

Ok - so howsabout I try and keep this short (for once?).

No I haven't seen the film. Don't much want to either [1]: I mean - just judging from the clips and bits of trailers and that it looks like it's got as much soul and authentic rustic English atmosphere as a McDonald's Happy Meal [2].

I did try reading the book [4] a long while back: but didn't get very far. I think it's the thing where if your headspace is in "comics" it can be a bit much to be suddenly attacked by a multitude of words coming at you from all sides: it's like if you think you're going to watch an episode of something and then all of a sudden it's a film - and you're like: what the hell is this? And your brain can't take it and decides to flop out through your ears - you know? (see also: Posy Simmonds' Gemma Bovery and Tamara Drewe).

But - what the hey: I was stuck for something to read: this was on my "maybe" pile - so I thought what the hey: let's give this baby a go.

And: well - yeah: to be perfectly frank - it really hit the spot: and I'll tell you - spending your Thursday lunchtime with a hot soup and a nice little homemade sandwich by your side: with the first two Strokes albums on your ipod and looking up from your reading to watch the April snow drift outside - well: it's a pretty sweet set-up: thank you very much (or - like it says at one point in the book (talking about something totally different admittedly): it's "exhilarating, and intoxicating, and fine.”

The guy who does the pictures (which like I said: aren't really "comics" but are more like the type of thing you'd find in a top-of-the-line children's book from the late Victorian age: in fact - the whole book is like: the kind of thing that seems like it would be best discovered in a small library at the bottom of an sun-drenched English garden when you've somewhere in the wilds between still being a child and not quite yet a teenager: and you've been given the whole of the day to do whatever the hell you want... So you find this library: in fact - maybe it would be better described as a little hut with books inside (but whatever) and somehow you get the door open by giving it the biggest shove you have: inside it's all dusty: so dusty that you can see it floating in the air in the beams of sunshine that smash in through the windows and you nose around all these handsomely bound leather books with strange names: that are half-English and half-something else (French maybe? You can't say for certain) and then - right at the end - on a bottom shelf where there's nothing else: there's this book: and you know (even before you pick it up) that it's the book you're going to spend your whole weekend getting lost in: well - Stardust is that book: or (at least) that's the way reading it (if you're reading it properly) is going to make you feel): but yeah (sorry that got a way from me a little) the artwork is by Charles Vess (not - as I thought when I started: P. Craig Russell: but then that's an easy mistake to make right? Especially how P. Craig Russell does the art for every other Neil Gaiman comic out there....): Vess some of you Sandman readers might recognize as the guy who illustrated the two Shakespeare stories: A Midsummer Night's Dream [7] and The Tempest [8] (the final issue of the series): as good as those two stories were tho - the artwork didn't actually manage to leave much of impression in my mind which leads me to the conclusion that maybe Vess isn't cut out for comics work: especially as - well: pretty much everything that he does in the pages of Stardust feels top-of-the-line [9] with a delightful lightness-of-touch that (compared to the smashing drums and distorted guitars of other comic book artists) makes you feel like you're listening to a piano sonata or a string quartet.

(Although - I must say - there were a few annoying points here-and-there where the placement of a picture managed to ruin the surprises and twists before you managed to read them: but - I don't know - maybe that was part of the point or something?).

Of course (or maybe this is just obvious to the hardcore Neil Gaiman fans out there?) it's seems like it was written to slot alongside the Yoshitaka Amano version of the Dream Hunters: and while that's a fairy-tale story told with all the ingredients from the far East - Stardust is a very English affair (maybe I should have been listening to The Kinks or something instead?) - it takes it's own sweet ("Years passed.") time to get to where it's going: but - hey: what you rushing for anyway? Sometimes it's nice to have something a little bit ballad-edy - right? Without any frivolous modern references or whatever (see: any kids cartoon based on a classic fairy-tale: you know what I mean - right? Like how they all have a bullet-time reference or a joke about bodily functions): the nearest Stardust gets to that is when one character (when asked her name) replies: "I answer to "hey you!" or to "girl!" or to "foolish slattern!" or to many another imprecation." (and what the hell is a slattern? Or an imprecation?).

I mean: I could try and devel a little bit more into what and why exactly the whole concept of fairy-tale does and the hold that (if it's done right) it can still hold over us (it's like soup or something you know? Basic ingredients that everyone knows backwards - but if you serve and season it with enough care and love and attention: well - it hits a spot inside you that nothing else really gets close to - because (and this is because yeah - you know: you hear them most when you're a kid blah blah blah) - it hits you somewhere in the centre: somewhere in your core).

But like I said - I'm gonna keep this one short. So maybe just pick up a copy and read it yourself. "Here, truly, there by Dragons. Also gryphons, wyverns, hippogriffs, basilisks, and hydras."

[1] Matthew Vaughn? Layer Cake = Yes. Kick-Ass = Ok. X-Men: First Class = No Thank you.

[2] If anyone asked me then I would have recommended they got the 80s version of Terry Gilliam to direct it for them: I'm thinking particularly of Time Bandits and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (but then he is my go-to-guy for most fantasy adaptations (oops - pun unintended: ha)- so what the hey): and if he's busy then - I dunno - Ridley Scott in his Legend phase or whoever it was that directed Labyrinth [3].

[3] Holy moly - Jim Henson!

[4] And - urg - like with seemingly all Neil Gaiman books [5] I guess I should make clear which book I'm talking about seeing how there's two different versions: there's the Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess version (cover above) that is described as a "story book with pictures" and isn't really a comic book: but - what the hey - that's where the library shelves it seeing how it doesn't really fit anywhere else: that's the one we'll talk about (and that's the one that came first). But - just so you know: there's also a "proper book" (ie no pictures version) that was released by Neil Gaiman a few years later (I haven't read it so couldn't tell you if it has an extra words or whatever: but judging from what's written on the wikipedia page: it doesn't seem like it.....But hey - if that's wrong - I'm sure someone will show up in the comments and correct me - right?).

[5] See also: Neverwhere, Coraline, The Sandman: The Dream Hunters and Murder Mysteries: all of which are available in multiple formats (I don't know if this is a good thing or bad thing: make up your own mind).

[6] Not that I'm a total Strokes devotee or something (in fact: I'm probably floating in the same sort of orbit as Nick Southall: "Sometimes I listen to this record and I enjoy the fact that it’s just 11 great scuzzy pop songs. And sometimes I listen to this record and think it’s an ideological black hole, a vacuum, a vortex, an evil, dark, empty, hollow, selfish, greedy, solipsistic thing, the death of culture, and that it shouldn’t be allowed.").

[7] As collected in The Sandman: Dream Country.

[8] As collected in The Sandman: The Wake.

[9] This is the bit that I will mention that Vess also drew - as so delightedly described on wikipedia - "a prose-based inset that appeared in Sandman #62": which is a really good example of how weightless his art can feel when freed from the stifling restrictions of the comic panel.


Further reading: The Sandman: The Dream HuntersCoraline, Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, Murder Mysteries, Gemma Bovery, The Sandman, The HobbitSagaSmax, The Unwritten.

Profiles: Neil Gaiman.

All comments welcome.