Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Breakfast of Champions


Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Breakfast of Champions (1973)
Back in my days of being what has come to be described as a Marvel zombie, fiftieth issues of any given comic were usually celebrated with an expanded page count and a load of unexpected monkeying around with established characters - someone back from the dead, someone quits the team to concentrate on his ice hockey, Irony Girl marries the Sarcasmatron, and so on. Here, approaching his fiftieth birthday, Kurt Vonnegut sort of did the same thing, reviving Kilgore Trout, the pulp science-fiction author from Slaughterhouse Five, Eliot Rosewater from God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, and others, expressly in the name of clearing his head of all the junk, as he puts it.

I am programmed at fifty to perform childishly—to insult the Star Spangled Banner, to scrawl pictures of a Nazi flag and an asshole and a lot of other things with a felt-tipped pen. To give an idea of the maturity of my illustrations for this book, here is my picture of an asshole:



Accordingly the novel is illustrated with felt-tipped pen scribbles, and Vonnegut introduces himself into the narrative, interacting with Trout and the others and explaining why he created them. So it's kind of a mess, but then that's probably what you expect with Vonnegut, and it is at least an educational and entertaining mess offered in summary of how the world actually works:

The man who told me how to diagram a segment of a molecule of plastic was Professor Walter H. Stockmayer of Dartmouth College. He is a distinguished physical chemist, and an amusing and useful friend of mine. I did not make him up. I would like to be professor Walter H. Stockmayer. He is a brilliant pianist. He skis like a dream.

And when he sketched a plausible molecule, he indicated points where it would go on and on just as I have indicated them—with an abbreviation which means sameness without end.

The proper ending for any story about people it seems to me, since life is now a polymer in which the Earth is wrapped so tightly, should be that same abbreviation, which I now write large because I feel like it, which is this one:



In other words, everything is connected by one means or another, which is why Vonnegut writes how he writes with all of the digressions and synchronicity, making connections and points which might not otherwise be obvious.

I had no respect whatsoever for the creative works of either the painter or the novelist. I thought Karabekian with his meaningless pictures had entered into a conspiracy with millionaires to make poor people feel stupid. I thought Beatrice Keedsler had joined hands with other old-fashioned storytellers to make people believe that life had leading characters, minor characters, significant details, insignificant details, that it had lessons to be learned, tests to be passed, and a beginning, a middle, and an end.

As I approached my fiftieth birthday, I had become more and more enraged and mystified by the idiot decisions made by my countrymen. And then I had come suddenly to pity them, for I understood how innocent and natural it was for them to behave so abominably, and with such abominable results: They were doing their best to live like people invented in story books. This was the reason Americans shot each other so often: It was a convenient literary device for ending short stories and books.

Why were so many Americans treated by their government as though their lives were as disposable as paper facial tissues? Because that was the way authors customarily treated bit-part players in their made-up tales.

And so on.

Once I understood what was making America such a dangerous, unhappy nation of people who had nothing to do with real life, I resolved to shun storytelling. I would write about life. Every person would be exactly as important as any other. All facts would also be given equal weightiness. Nothing would be left out. Let others bring order to chaos. I would bring chaos to order, instead, which I think I have done.

If all writers would do that, then perhaps citizens not in the literary trades will understand that there is no order in the world around us, that we must adapt ourselves to the requirements of chaos instead.

It is hard to adapt to chaos, but it can be done. I am living proof of that: It can be done.

But is it any good, one might reasonably ask. It's very funny and very readable, but it somehow lacks the craft of Slaughterhouse Five - which is made apparent by how similar the two novels are in certain respects. This one differs with Vonnegut breaking the fourth wall, entering his own novel to spell out why he wrote it. It feels too easy. Back when I was at school, we had an English assignment which meant writing a book over the space of a term, or something which could reasonably be called a book. I waited until the night before we were due to hand something in then cobbled together some twenty or so pages with paper, felt-tipped pens and selotape on the subject of how my book was kind of shit and probably looked as though it had been scrabbled together at last minute; which is kind of what Breakfast of Champions reminds me of. It's good, but it just isn't as satisfying as it should have been.

Monday, 24 April 2017

Dusty Sideboard #1


John Bagnall Dusty Sideboard #1 (2017)
I wouldn't ordinarily review a single issue of a comic book, there usually being a limit to what can be said about anything under thirty pages, but sometimes you have to make an exception and this is just such an occasion.

Dusty Sideboard is more of John Bagnall's highly-stylised exploration of something which isn't quite nostalgia, although it comes close. The art is, as always, very much its own language - as arrestingly timeless as any ancient Egyptian or Mexican mural, yet with the kind of warm silence which makes it possibly the closest visual analogy to the poetry of Ivor Cutler that I've seen. Bagnall explores the world of his youth - and my youth for that matter - but this is something quite different to Peter Kay tittering over spangles and Fireball XL5. Dusty Sideboard evokes a world which has almost entirely slipped away by this point, a world of social interaction, physical objects, and very little else because that was enough. It's affectionate - although pleasantly musty is probably the better term given the lack of sentiment, or at least excessive sentiment - and yet eschews the usual rose-tinted focus on collectibles to instead perfectly capture the atmosphere of a lost England, something I'd describe as the language of society as was if I weren't so worried about how pretentious that may sound. Bagnall's observations regarding jokes cracked by milkmen, apprenticeships, and tea dances are spot on and strangely moving, and a style of art one might imagine would be quite limited turns out to be extraordinarily expressive when required - sort of like Dan Clowes but without the cynicism; so no - it isn't quite nostalgia so much as the preservation of something seemingly inconsequential which should be remembered before it's gone entirely. I hope this is the first of many because it's one of the most powerful independent comics I think I've ever seen.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Batman: I Am Gotham


Tom King, David Finch & others Batman: I Am Gotham (2017)
I have to confess I've never really given much of a shit about Batman. I loved The Dark Knight Returns obviously, not only because both art and writing were great, but because a character who routinely smashes kneecaps as means to a judicial end only really works as an antihero; but Tom King's Vision was the possibly the greatest comic book I've ever read, and celebrated children's entertainer Barnaby Salton reckoned I should give this a go, and I was feeling fat, unwell, and incapacitated due to a combination of interrupted sleep, chicken in walnut sauce, and one of those shakes you can use to grout bathroom tiles. I needed the reading equivalent of comfort food, the sort of thing my mummy would have brought back from the shops for me if I was poorly - hence Batman, even though it's probably the very last thing my mother would have brought back from the shops for me. I would have more likely ended up with Thomas Hardy or one of the Brontës.

I Am Gotham is beautifully written with concise prose applied sparingly - no thought bubbles or inset panels of exposition, their modern equivalent - and the art is beautiful, so it's distinctly filmic in terms of pacing, atmosphere, and how little it gives away or pauses to explain itself. Aside from anything else, this additionally tends to suggest that the comic book has become merchandising to the CGI-heavy superheroic television serial, of which there are now a great many, although I very much doubt this being intentional or conscious. Here Batman saves lives, gets caught up in fights, is made subject to governmental skulduggery, endures the occasional crisis of conscience and so on; and whilst it's beautifully done and atmospherically powerful, it didn't feel that satisfying. In fact it felt a bit like one of those television shows, just with a bit more artistic integrity, and I've yet to see one of those television shows I liked. I saw twenty minutes of The Flash the other night. It was fucking shit.

Anyway, while I felt as though I spotted what I presume to be one of King's enduring themes - namely great power as something terrible in the hands of persons who don't know what to do with it, as we saw in Little Worse Than a Man, ultimately this one didn't really quite seem to be about anything, which I found a little unsatisfying. Then of course I now realise that I Am Gotham is just the first of a three part story, so it's really just getting warmed up. Interviewed online, Tom King was asked of all of Batman's qualities and attributes, what's the one that really speaks to you?

To me, it's his mortality. It's the idea that he could die—that he's human. There's something about Superman and Wonder Woman that says to me that they go on forever. If you came to Earth one hundred years from now, Superman and Wonder Woman would still be here. But Batman's like one of us, right? He can die. He has that risk factor to him, and every time he goes out at night, he faces that and still triumphs over it. That just makes him the most human character in the DCU to me, the idea that he's not a god. He lives among the gods and tries to do his best.

So okay, fair enough. I can see this one may well be going somewhere and I guess I'll be picking up the rest. It may not get off to quite such an arresting start as The Vision, but it still pisses over most other versions of Batman I've seen.

Monday, 20 March 2017

Time Tunnel


Murray Leinster Time Tunnel (1964)
Leinster's Time Tunnel is surprisingly nothing to do with the better-known television series - which it predates by a couple of years - but to further confuse matters, Leinster later wrote a couple of tie-in books based on the television series to which this earlier novel is unrelated; so I'm inclined to wonder if Irwin Allen didn't at least consciously pinch the title, resulting in some kind of deal being struck. Anyway, for what it may be worth, Leinster's Time Tunnel of 1964 doesn't have anything much in common with later versions aside from the premise, and time travel was in any case a fairly common theme in science-fiction literature by this point.

Leinster's story here forges a link between present day and Napoleonic France through some doubtful-sounding process wherein molten metal is left undisturbed once it has cooled, in this case a cannon in an old foundry. Time travel is suspected when antiques and antique materials of suspiciously fine quality begin to turn up in modern France, and the hunt is on for the elusive De Bassompierre.

It was not reasonable for so remarkable an achievement as a time-tunnel to be used only to deliver exotic perfumery to Paris in which very few people bathed. It was not reasonable for the return traffic to be ornamental snuff boxes, out of date newspapers and flintlock pistols to be used as paperweights. The fate of Europe hung in the balance at one end of the time-tunnel, where Napoleon reigned. At the other end the survival of the human race was in question. The tunnel could have been used to adjust both situations, but it was actually used to keep a shop going.

Even by the standard of time travel fiction, this one is a fucking mess. It feels as though it might have benefited in being allowed to sprawl beyond its relatively slender page count, maybe granting Leinster more space in which to introduce his characters. As it stands, I spent most of the time trying to work out what was going on and whether this was the same guy from the previous chapter.

On the other hand, Time Tunnel remains immensely enjoyable in spite of itself. The historical Parisian setting is well-realised and gives this novel a quite unique feel in respect to both its vintage and its genre; and there are frequent incongruously philosophical digressions, at least incongruous for a novel with a fifty cent cover price. As I may have mentioned before, Leinster was the science-fiction incarnation of William F. Jenkins, a man who churned out one novel after another, hopping from mystery to romance to western before apparently settling into writing just stuff involving robots and spacecraft during the fifties. Once again, Time Tunnel reveals him to have been a writer who learned a lot from excursions into other genres, and reads like something which might have quite easily been published by Penguin, being more of a narrative than an adventure. The confusion is aggravating, but not so much so as to detract from the pleasure of the text, and of Leinster's peculiar and fascinating digressions on subjects such as free will, cause and effect, the anthropic principle, and the nuclear arms race. Also, considering how long ago this was written, and how much of this time paradox stuff I've read, it's probably worth noting that the ending still came as a complete surprise to me.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Century 21: Adventures in the 21st Century


Chris Bentley (editor), Frank Bellamy, Ron Embleton & others
Century 21: Adventures in the 21st Century (2009)

We were in one of those massive clearance sales, table after table of books in a warehouse the size of an aircraft hanger. Everything was a dollar, and anything left unsold would be pulped, and so I picked this up because it seemed a shame to let it get smushed.

I was massively into Gerry Anderson and all his works back before my voice broke, and I was massively into it because I loved those weird futuristic vehicles; so when I say I was massively into Gerry Anderson and all his works, I actually mean I was into the Dinky Toys and maybe the occasional annual because they contained photographs of those weird futuristic vehicles. I liked the television shows too up to a point, but often felt that the characters got in the way of the story. It's therefore possibly ironic that the traditional pubescent surge of testosterone more or less cured me of these Jeremy Clarkson-esque preferences, and it's why I'm inclined to suspicion when I encounter adults waxing lyrically about the worlds of Gerry Anderson. The models were beautiful, but I'm not convinced there's anything much to get excited over beyond the models, certainly nothing which works without the benefit of arguably unhealthy levels of nostalgia.

TV21 had been cancelled by the time I was old enough to read it, so this is really the first I've seen of this body of work - strips based on Fireball XL5, Thunderbirds, Stingray, Captain Scarlet and others. The art is lavish and unusually beautiful as you might anticipate given the credentials of those involved, and is exactly what is required to communicate the magic of those weird futuristic vehicles. However, even the most gorgeous art is undermined by what I guess must have been editorial insistence on readers being able to recognise the individual faces of their favourite string puppets, not to mention stilted narratives which may as well be variations on Timmy having fallen down the well. The stories are about the same standard as what you saw on the telly, being mostly excuses to get Troy Tempest, Mike Mercury, or Scott Tracy back into the cockpit. The more satisfying efforts are those which stretch the envelope a little - the one in which Captain Scarlet joins a football team, for example; or where artists like Mike Noble or Brian Lewis capture some required resemblance to whoever we saw on the box without invoking Charlie McCarthy or Lord Charles; and then there's Planet of Bones in which the crew of the Zero X - a weird futuristic space vehicle featured in one of the Thunderbirds film - experience peril on a world where all the dinosaur skeletons have come to life due to evolution having taken a bit of a funny turn. Chris Bentley's introduction hails it as being ludicrously brilliant, but erm...

Yes, I know it was for kids, but then so was Dan Dare and I can still read those without wincing because Eagle at least aspired to elevate its young audience without talking down to them. For all its aesthetic appeal, TV21 mostly just wanted you to tune in next week, aspiring mainly to remind you of something you saw on the television - which isn't necessarily a terrible thing, but makes it tough work qualifying this stuff as genuinely classic, unless it's as kitsch.

I really wanted to like Adventures in the 21st Century, and whilst it's harmless, I just can't quite bring myself to love it as some might. The funny thing is that I recall plenty of those TV21 Dalek strips from their reprints, and unless I'm remembering wrongly, there was a plenty imagination at work in that material, as the esteemed Sarah Hadley noted on facebook:

What I think is amazing is that it essentially makes the Daleks protagonists. They're "villainous," yes, and there are occasional characters out to stop them - but this isn't Terry Nation's Dalek series (which would've had Space Security agents Sara Kingdom and Marc Seven in the leads). Almost every single strip, you're implicitly being called to side with the Daleks and hope they win.

Of course The Daleks featured monodimensional supporting characters from Doctor Who placed centre stage by the TV21 strip and obliged to do something a bit more interesting than we'd seen on the box. Accordingly, the better material in this collection is that which either screws with the formula by having Captain Scarlet pull on the old football boots, or which expands some subsidiary element of a show into a thing in its own right, as with the Lady Penelope strip - nothing earth shattering but still preferable to the Stingray crew wobbling around a spooky haunted castle just like on Scooby Doo.

As a point of lesser interest, considering how lyrically Stephen Baxter waxes about Fireball XL5 in the opening chapters of Coalescent, the resemblance of the somewhat blobby Astrans from The Astran Assassination to Baxter's Silver Ghosts - as described in his Xeelee novels - is difficult to miss.

Monday, 13 March 2017

The Best SF Stories from New Worlds 6


Michael Moorcock (editor)
The Best SF Stories from New Worlds 6 (1970)

In his introduction, Moorcock states that he prefers to simply call this fiction, while the back cover qualifies the SF as referring to either science or speculative fiction. I've never liked speculative fiction because as a term it makes me think of Margaret Attwood and Jeanette Winterson sneering about how space travel is such a boy thing, but I like science fiction as something incorporating all the weird shit which doesn't quite fit anywhere else - which is what we have here.

New Worlds was never scared of printing weird shit, and I'd say some of the best stuff from the magazine was also the weirdest, at least if we're to take a sciencey man smoking his pipe as he heads for Mars in a rocket with his robot best friend to be baseline normal. Surprisingly, whilst there's some reasonably strange stuff here, the collection feels sober by the standards of the well from which it is drawn, and is subsequently not so great as it might have been - as though someone might even be reigning it in a little, although I suspect this impression to be only a pattern emergent from possibly unfair comparisons with the magazine.

In Reason's Ear by Hilary Bailey - who sadly passed just months ago - stood out for me, as did Moorcock's The Delhi Division, a story which demonstrates how his own weirdly non-linear narratives were always so much more readable than those of the many who seem so obviously inspired by him, I guess some of whom also feature in this collection. Langdon Jones' The Eye of the Lens has an immensely promising start with page after page of dry, dreamlike descriptions of imagined machines, evolving into something even stranger, then goes on for a bit and eventually overstays its welcome, which is a shame. There's also J.G. Ballard's The Killing Ground which reinforces my hypothesis that Ballard simply isn't for me; and then there are the rest, and they're mostly pretty darn great - certainly nothing you would want to skip - but I somehow felt my brains should have been dripping from my ears by the end of this lot, which wasn't the case; so I guess that's a recommendation, but just not one entailing any significant quota of fists pumping the air.

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Nemo: The Roses of Berlin


Alan Moore & Kevin O'Neill Nemo: The Roses of Berlin (2014)
This time it's the daughter of Verne's character invading a Nazi Germany combining elements of Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator with Fritz Lang's Metropolis. The villainess is herself from H. Rider Haggard's She with cameos by Dr. Mabuse from the Norbert Jacques novel and nods to Verne's The Master of the World, Robert Weine's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and doubtless a ton of other stuff I didn't notice. Once you're done with the trainspotting aspect, The Roses of Berlin is generally fun, and the art is obviously wonderful, but somehow it feels a bit phoned-in compared to previous Extraordinary Gentlemen books, and when Nemo observes:

This strange place is putting me on edge. I'm nearing fifty. Perhaps I'm too old for all this...

Well, I mean it is Alan Moore, the guy who can barely scratch his arse without it allegorising five different things, and the same Alan Moore who recently announced he was packing in the comics; and the later duel between the youthful Nemo and the ancient Ayesha seems potentially symbolic when the timeless immortal accuses the newcomer of stealing from her. As to what it might actually be saying, if anything, I have no idea. I suppose it could be something along the lines of old masters not getting the recognition they deserve, that being what Moore seemed to be suggesting when he recast Harry Potter as the Antichrist elsewhere in the saga.

True enough, I was born in the sixties and I read a lot, but I barely get some of the references made here, which isn't something I'm particularly proud of; so I guess Nemo might be an exercise in pinning certain fading cultural artefacts to the present simply because they should be remembered, and remembering them enriches contemporary culture for the better. So that's good.