Wednesday, 17 July 2019

Doctor Who and the Zarbi

Bill Strutton Doctor Who and the Zarbi (1965)
This would have been the third or maybe fourth book I ever read, excepting Asterix, Tintin and stuff like Where the Wild Things Are in which the pictures are either equal to or more important than the text. Being a children's book, this one features a token line illustration every few chapters so as to sweeten the pill, I suppose, but I'm not counting those. I'm guessing I would have been about eight. I was ill with something or other, and my mother had let me spend the day - or possibly days - convalescing in my parents' bed, probably because it was more comfortable than my own. On one of these days she came back from Stratford, our nearest town, with a copy of Terrance Dicks' Target novelisation of Spearhead from Space, probably because I'd spent so much time gaping at the cover in WHSmith. So that was, in theory, the first novel I ever read, and the other four Who adaptations then in print followed soon after, although I'd presumably recovered from whatever had struck me down by that point.

The Web Planet, here retitled so as to remind us that our purchase shall be rewarded with monsters, had accumulated the reputation of being amongst the worst Who tales ever to disgrace the screen last time I looked, although that was admittedly a while back. It was too long, too slow, and the effects were comical, leading to the Zarbi being sarcastically described as pantomime ants by Steve Lyons and Chris Howarth. I never shared this view, having enjoyed the VHS release on several occasions. It was slow, but I felt the weird pensive, atmosphere more than compensated; and whilst it's true that if you look very closely, you can see they're in a television studio rather than actually on the planet Vortis, and those creatures are really just underpaid human actors in costumes knocked up on the cheap, I never really saw why this should be considered a problem.

The novelisation worked better for my eight-year old self than it does now, probably because it duplicates the television script so closely, specifically identifies the star as Doctor Who at every opportunity - just like the strip in TV Comic - and is mostly a cycle of our heroes being captured then escaping, over and over until someone explains that they've just invented what may as well have been named the anti-Animus-gun and saves the day, the Animus being the entity which is controlling the Zarbi and causing them to behave like a set of cunts*.

In its favour, someone had actually bothered to teach Bill Strutton how to write a sentence, so it's competent, reasonably paced given the somewhat repetitive structure of the story, and with none of that tedious reliance on full-stops and non-sentences as an easy source of dramatic tension, the usual ham-fisted attempt to imply the cadence of a portentous voice-over. Also in its favour is that the original six telly episodes were at least trying to do something different in a peculiarly alien environment populated by creatures trying hard to be something stranger than yet more humans with knobbly foreheads. Subsequent authors have found Lovecraftian overtones in this one, which actually isn't too much of a stretch; and whilst a bit slow for me, the novelisation has a weirdness which very much reminds me of van Vogt, albeit in simplified form; so in summary, it's nothing amazing, but I've read worse.

*: The Animus isn't identified by that name in the book, and I don't remember if it was named as such on the telly, so probably that detail came later courtesy of Virgin publishing. Similarly, whilst I'm sure Hartnell's Doctor may well have referred to the Zarbi as a set of cunts, this wasn't in the book either.

Monday, 15 July 2019

Lobo: Infanticide

Keith Giffen & Alan Grant Lobo: Infanticide (1993)
I vaguely recall this having been the third four-issue series to star Lobo, who is more or less Vyvyan from the Young Ones in space. The first two were decent as I recall, but this was the point at which the law of diminishing returns had patently kicked in. Where it was once thought that puerile humour of the gratuitously violent and wilfully offensive kind should, logically speaking, become funnier with repetition, research undertaken by the Insane Clown Posse has since demonstrated this to be a falsehood. The problem with this one was the abrupt absence of the distraction of Simon Bisley's gorgeous yet ridiculous artwork on the first two series. Giffen drew Infanticide himself, but did so in a style varying wildly from his usual thing, presumably imagining it would better fit the subject in the absence of Bisley's spacehopper muscularity and guns bigger than the people firing them. It's not a bad style but it's a bit of a mess, and without colour to give definition would probably resemble Jackson Pollock; which is probably why I noticed that the enterprise wasn't actually very good, and that there's something a bit pitiful about the hyperbole of brace yourselves because it's gonna get real fuckin' offensive up in this bitch any moment now in a DC comic which won't allow naughty words. There are a few smirks, I guess, but once you get to the Schulz pastiche doodled in the margin - Lobo as Charlie Brown shooting his Lucy equivalent when she pulls the football away, or blowing up the kite-eating tree - it all starts to look a bit familiar and a bit bleeding obvious. The problem is that Giffen himself is well aware of this:

I have no idea why Lobo took off... I came up with him as an indictment of the Punisher, Wolverine hero prototype, and somehow he caught on as the high violence poster boy. Go figure.

So Lobo was never a labour of love, which should probably come as something of a relief, and Infanticide feels like something churned out to a very limited formula because that's what it is - good for one joke, which is admittedly a great joke, but not something you want to hear told over and over again.

Tuesday, 9 July 2019

Mister Miracle

Tom King & Mitch Gerads Mister Miracle (2019)
Just over a month ago I wrote about an Avengers comic book, suggesting that to describe it as ludicrous would imply that there's such a thing as the ponderous superhero equivalent of Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge, which there really isn't. Whilst I haven't actually had cause to revise this opinion, it turns out that there actually is a ponderous superhero equivalent of Samuel Beckett, and it's Tom King's version of Mister Miracle.

Mister Miracle is some kind of super escape artist, a sort of cosmic Houdini with a cape born from the peculiarly vivid imagination of Jack Kirby as part of his Fourth World mythology. The aforementioned Fourth World never really featured in anything I read, so I don't fully understand what it's about beyond that it's something to do with Apokolips, New Genesis, the New Gods, and Darkseid's search for the anti-life equation which will eliminate free will across the universe; so the whole deal is about a million times weirder and more interesting than most of the rest of DC's jock-infested whitebread canon, and at the risk of seeming repetitive, there's something very van Vogt about it all.

Here we see our escape artist fail a suicide attempt and father a child with Big Barda, then war breaks out on New Genesis and Darkseid demands custody of the child as a price for ending the war. The more dramatic, far-fetched, cosmic elements of the story occur in the background almost to the point of being off the side of the page, and as such come across as belonging to something truly vast and unknowable, having been spared the diminishing effects of a sharper focus. Yet even when we can see the fighting, battles we wouldn't understand conducted with bizarre technology, these details are just background noise, of no more significance than a car journey or a trip to the drug store. The real story is that of Scott and Barda having a kid, sleepless nights, trips to the hospital, the sort of stuff you would more expect to find in something written by Harvey Pekar and told with the same muted tone: it's the small details which matter, which is the whole point of the story.

The art is gorgeous too, in case anyone was wondering, tender realism which emphasises the strangeness of certain events unfolding in the background, and doing so without anyone jumping up and down screaming look at me, I'm weird! This thing is simply beautiful, and possibly even the greatest comic book ever published, or at least I'm having trouble recalling anything which has impressed me more right now. As for Watchmen and other beacons of supposed graphic eloquence, Mister Miracle makes most of them look like Scrooge McDuck.

Monday, 8 July 2019

Inside the Castle

Josiah Morgan Inside the Castle (2019)
There's an episode of the sitcom Birds of a Feather wherein it is discovered that Dorien, the pushy next door neighbour, has written a novel. Sharon reads the manuscript and announces that it was like a proper book with bits I didn't understand and everything. I haven't seen the episode, but this detail was quoted by Blair Bidmead when commenting upon my own novel, and which I savoured as a compliment. Anyway, Inside the Castle was mostly bits I didn't understand.

I looked for clues online, hoping to find Morgan handily explaining what it was all about, instead coming up against his statement of the only work by which one might decipher Inside the Castle being Inside the Castle itself.

Important too, to paraphrase Beckett when asked to explain his own work; to drill a hole into language and find what's behind — I am interested in aesthetics because the prison of a text is the binding it's held inside. My words are held within the structure that binds them on the page. Anybody can use the word eats but its manipulation as a visual body belongs entirely to me in its transmission to the reader. I do believe there is a responsibility on the behalf of the creator to make any work as clear as possible. That doesn't mean I'm interested in my work being easy, but once you find the key to the work it should be easily penetrated.

Oddly I found that some of this seemed to chime quite well with what little had already occurred to me, suggesting that I had perhaps understood more than I'd realised without quite being able to form that understanding into anything coherent; so I read it again.

Burroughs once said something about writing being so many years behind painting, and so for want of a better comparison, this is cubist text - not really cut up because there's no truly random element here, but language is that which is carried by words - amongst other things - rather than a simple description of text. My guess would be that Inside the Castle is read through cumulative impressions formed by the words, which may seem a fucking obvious thing to say given that it is equally true of more or less everything ever published, but the structures within which those words are ordered resemble abstract thought more than they resemble linear grammar; and this, I presume is the key.

With this in mind, the Castle would seem to be the author's person, either his body, his consciousness, or his sense of self, assuming those categories can be regarded as distinct from one another; and Inside the Castle is an inventory divided into three acts, possibly reflecting Morgan's theatrical background. The first act amounts to raw experience recorded as sensation and impression; the second seems to be subjective analysis of that experience; and the third looks outwards from the crenellations (which I can scarcely believe I just wrote) as an objective summary of the whole in the context of our guy's existence. At least, I think that's what it's about.

Strictly, my bones are in my bullet points. I've put it all on the page but it's still unmarked by sense. If I were to make it all make sense, I'd need to know you'd still like it, even though you've already made it this far. Like, is it as good as the egg you perfectly poached for breakfast is it as good as the first kiss you gave to your life, I don't expect you to answer these questions really or well.

This has been a toughie even by Amphetamine Sulphate standards, but it pays off providing you're willing to put in the work, which isn't to suggest that it lacks immediacy, for the imagery is potent and powerful even before the reader has worked out how it all fits together. If you stare long enough, you will see a pattern, except in this case the pattern is a deliberate construction consciously set in place, something for you to find - which is impressive. I doubt this answers the question well, but yes - I liked it.

Tuesday, 2 July 2019


Jonathan Morris Anachrophobia (2002)
Regardless of all of the usual claims made on behalf of Doctor Who, most of which tend towards hyperbole, its appeal and its greatest strength is to be found in its sheer weirdness, in my opinion, and by weirdness I mean that which unsettles and borders on horror rather than mere whimsy. My earliest memories of the television show are of scenes which disturbed me because they were unlike anything else I'd seen either on the box or out here in the real world - Pertwee menaced by a flapping gargoyle and the weird electronic visual effects of innocents zapped by nightmarish beings. Although my oldest memory is of that particular scene from The Daemons of 1971, I'd presumably already watched bits and pieces of the show because I recall informing my mum that it'll be okay for me to watch this from now on because it doesn't scare me as much as it used to, which was probably a lie. I was five, and from then on I kept watching until it was no longer practical to do so, and its greatest appeal remained, for me, in just how fucking weird the thing often was. Not even the less adventurous, more generic stories were quite able to diminish this aspect, for even when we were reduced to the primary colours of our jolly adventurers being chased along a corridor, the collaborative effort of the show had developed this back story of which we never truly received more than tantalising glimpses, ensuring that new revelations served only to increase the mystery.

So we had this race of near-omnipotent semi-immortals who may or may not have engineered the development of the universe for reasons we couldn't even understand, and in doing so had reduced themselves to sterility, even something akin to senility; and the Doctor is quite naturally one who chose to flee from this awful society. They routinely travelled in time, changed history, and their people were grown from looms, and so this was a civilisation genuinely beyond our imagination, revealed by means of hints rather than anything so reliable as a statement, generally foiling attempts to consolidate any of this back story as canon, canon being something which usually matters most to those who have missed the point and would prefer neatly modular adventures in which escapade five neatly concludes just in time for escapade six and everything remains the same. This is why it all went tits up around the time of that half-human on my mother's side bollocks. It wasn't that the idea contradicted an established continuity so much as that it was blatant button pushing targetted at those whom some focus group had identified as being in the market for a fun time travelling Byronic dreamboat; and, like the notion that David Tennant and John Simm could have attended the same time-kindergarten, it was an attempt to root the whole thing into something more familiar, something safely quirky like one of those cool Tim Burton movies.

Anyway, it seems the viewing public didn't really want Who as dreamy Mr. D'Arcy after all, at least not back in 1996, so the property - as marketing executives and twats so charmingly refer to it - crept back to the book shelves, notably less weird than it had been, but still trying, and nothing like so bland as it would become once it got back on the box.

I was a sucker for this shit up to the age of forty, dutifully buying a couple of these things a month, and I distinctly recall this one being amazing; except my reading age has increased since then just as my tolerance for foolishness has decreased, so revisiting Anachrophobia has been a mixed pleasure.

To first dispense with initial objections, Anachrophobia really picks up in the last five or six chapters, meaning that it's a bit of a slog up until that point - hundreds of pages of a base under siege, running down corridors, doors slammed
just in time to shut out slow moving monsters, essentially all the cliches.

But he had to look back. He glanced back up to where the creatures were standing.

As one, they turned to look at him.

Unfortunately this means it reads as a book which would rather have been a television show, and to such an extent that there were passages during which I swear I could sense Moffat feeling pleased with himself. Of course, some will doubtless regard a book which captures the atmosphere of a television show as a triumph, to whom I'd say you might be better off watching the box instead, maybe leave the books to those of us who actually enjoy reading, yeah?

Also there's the additional problem of occasional touches of what reads like fiction aimed at young adults - because apparently they can't handle proper fiction and need to feel that what they're reading somehow includes them, addresses their concerns as young people; so rather than simply describing something, we're told how Anji feels about it. It reminds her of her granny's kitchen, because we all have grannies, and many of our grannies will have had a kitchen. It suggests Geoffrey from Rainbow smiling and suggesting, 'maybe you too sometimes feel a bit grumpy like Zippy?'

However, as with a few of the shitier shows on the telly, we have that weird back story to compensate for failings of the author's imagination. The back story running through these Who books as of 2002 was that the Doctor's entire race had been erased from history leaving him without a memory and in a very different universe, again relayed as rumours and vague mythology, and it was more than enough to keep things interesting. On top of which, Anachrophobia - once we're done with all the corridors and Doctor, look out! - is a genuinely peculiar allegorical novel almost in the vein of Kafka. Here we have two societies at war, purposefully kept at war for awful reasons which would have doubtless warmed Ayn Rand's objectivist little heart; and this is told in terms of what might almost be surrealist cinema between the wars, which is at least preferable to imitating something from the telly. Once it gets going, Anachrophobia is sufficiently gripping to erase the awkwardness of the earlier chapters, and actually reads like a book rather than a book impersonating some other medium, so that's good, and means I didn't entirely imagine having once enjoyed this one.

Monday, 1 July 2019

A Man Without a Country

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. A Man Without a Country (2005)
I've recently been cutting down on social media, mostly so as to diminish my exposure to the opinions of shitheads. Where once I believed there might be some good in communicating with shitheads, engaging in hope of helping them to understand the extent of their own shitheadedness and by extension making the world a better place, or at least a less shitty place to some miniscule degree, these days I'm not so sure; and I'm not convinced of that which shitheads express being anything you could legitimately call opinion. It's usually something some bigger boys said and they thought it sounded cool so now they're saying it too, for example:

We love President Trump in Alabama. Our UN-employment rate is lower than it has been in 50 years. Which proves people will work if the democrats will stop trying to make the USA a socialist country. The democrats have become the new hate group bc they hate democracy.

See? Is there really any point arguing with such a complete fucking tool? Are these the words of a person who seems likely to respond to reason? Do these seem like the words of a person to whom you would entrust the care of an animal or another human being? This isn't even one of the serious shitheads who blames immigration or liberal values or science or black people, just some numbskull with comprehension issues. Should I choose to engage with this individual, it seems likely that he or she would only become more firmly entrenched within his or her shithead convictions, and I would become unhappy for, as Henry Rollins says, when you engage with an asshole, you become the asshole.

To some this doubtless means I'm one of the sneering liberal metropolitan elite, but I really couldn't give a fuck. When a four-year old child I've never met runs up to me in some park and calls me a pooface, I couldn't give a fuck then either, because the wrath of people who barely understand anything is meaningless and carries no value. Shitheads don't deserve a reasoned response. They deserve to be punched hard over and over and over and over in the face with a clenched fist until bones crack and blood begins to gush so that they shut up, stop, or go away, whichever comes first.

I would guess that Vonnegut understood this, although I don't know where he would have stood on the punching thing. I would guess that Vonnegut understood this because it touches on what most of his novels were about, to one degree or another; and this, his last book, written in his eighties and borrowing from material first published in In These Times magazine, boils down everything he said into one easily digestible helping, very high in fibre, and entirely without illusions regarding the shit we've gotten ourselves into. Either read it and understand, or just fuck the fucking fuck off. Those seem to be the options here.

It's also very funny, somehow.

Tuesday, 25 June 2019

Voices from the Sky

Arthur C. Clarke Voices from the Sky (1965)
This is a collection of Clarke's opinion pieces, essays from magazines, and even an award acceptance speech. I picked it up assuming it would be fiction, but it isn't a problem because he writes this sort of thing well, even seeming a little more confident talking about communications satellites and space travel without having to wrap the ideas around a cast of fictional characters. Clarke is of course celebrated as having predicted the communications satellite, and what is written here further illustrates the significance of this, and how much it has changed our society - although the man himself demonstrates healthy reticence when it comes to blowing his own trumpet, which is probably for the best given certain other predictions. Whilst Clarke was unusually insightful regarding his thoughts on where technology would take us, Voices from the Sky serves as a reminder that science-fiction reveals more about the time during which it was written than anything genuinely predictive, despite its best intentions. Clarke's hit rate probably doesn't significantly improve on that of poor old Hugo Gernsback, and for every premonition of the internet, there's some screwy dead end counterpart - how global communication will oblige the entire world to learn English, and we'll be looking into accelerated sleep machines which allow us to get by on just two hours, making it easier to communicate with people in countries where it's the middle of the night.

Nevertheless, his essays are fascinating, even where he's been proven wrong; and if certain inevitably colonial attitudes seem a little musty in places, as with Kenneth Clark - of Civilisation fame but no relation - his understated, slightly astringent sense of humour never fails to lighten the tone.