Tuesday, 28 June 2022

The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys: National Anthem


Gerard Way, Shaun Simon & Leonardo Romero
The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys: National Anthem (2021)

I'd been meaning to at least have a look at this since I read Umbrella Academy, although it turns out this isn't even the thing I've been meaning to read. From what I understand, the Killjoys began life in Gerard Way's head as the idea of a comic book which was expanded into an album by My Chemical Romance, and The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys, the original Dark Horse title, was either a companion piece or a sequel to the album. National Anthem on the other hand is apparently closer to Way's vision before it was turned into a record, so it isn't book two or even early demos, but something else entirely. My Chemical Romance continue to sound like the Bay City Rollers to me, and I still haven't read the version which was published back in 2013, so I've just had to let this one live or die by its own strengths.

It's fucking phenomenal, as it turns out. I've come to think of Umbrella Academy as wearing the influence of Grant Morrison's Doom Patrol very much on its sleeve - although this may well be a memory forged by the underwhelming TV adaptation more than by Gabriel Bá's comic book - but National Anthem feels like its own thing. The influences feel more akin to points of reference or allusions - as with Umbrella Academy, to be fair - incorporating pop art, surrealism, They Live, European comics, art cinema, Wacky Races and the Banana Splits just for starters. The narrative is so heavily allegorical that that there's not much point trying to root it in anything other than its own somewhat bendy reality, at the heart of which is a thoroughly teenage war against the forces of growing up and turning into your parents. It could have fallen flat on its arse but the telling is so beautifully literate and screwy as to prove irresistible. In fact it's so literate that it's quite difficult to follow in places, which is possibly why it works so well - suggesting glimpses of a fully formed and working, albeit thoroughly peculiar reality rather than explaining everything into tedious oblivion. The worst of the forces of evil, for example, seems to be a gang of smartly dressed young men called Books on Tape, who draw their power from the books they constantly listen to, which is all the explanation you get and, honestly, all you really need.

The art is thoroughly gorgeous, for what it may be worth, like Daniel Clowes illustrating the Dark Knight Returns as someone from Alternative Press observed. This one comes pretty close to perfection in comic book terms.


Tuesday, 21 June 2022

Fantastic Stories of Imagination July 1966


Sol Cohen (editor) Fantastic Stories of Imagination July 1966 (1966)
Here we are with another one of these, and mostly reprints this time for some reason, excepting Chad Oliver's Just Like a Man, which is relatively readable and set on a planet so indistinguishable from Earth as to actually have lions. The point is anthropological, focusing on the absolutely fascinating means by which Oliver's alien lemurs failed to evolve into anything resembling humanity. My use of the term absolutely fascinating in the previous sentence may contain trace elements of sarcasm.

David V. Reed first enquired as to Where is Roger Davis? back in 1938, the answer apparently revealing that those swastika toting hordes about to sweep across Europe may have been aided by Martians. It's one of those first person account tales impersonating  private correspondence which opens with I know you're not going to believe this, but the other night as I charged my trusty meerschaum with a goodly plug of tobacco… To be fair, that sentence doesn't appear in the story because I just made it up, but somehow it feels as though it did. Also, the Martian invasion force comprises just three of them, which is probably understandable when you're trying to make a kid's show on the cheap, but—oh never mind.

Simak's The Trouble with Ants is one of those short stories which was eventually included in City, which is approximately a novel; and I know it won a million awards and that it's Simak and I generally love Simak without exception or reservation, but I've always found City a little overrated with its cast of talking dog and their robot pals just a little too silly to work. This one is about how the talking dogs and their robot pals realise that you have to be careful with ants, otherwise they develop technology. I sort of wonder if Cliff was experiencing trouble with his heating that month, because City suggests the influence of certain powerful fumes. I'm told it can get a bit nippy at times up there in Wisconsin.

Almost Human by Tarleton Fiske, who was actually Robert Bloch, author of Psycho, tells of an innocent robot corrupted by the kind of toughs commonly portrayed by James Cagney and who end each statement with a quasi-interrogatory see, see. It's readable, if nothing life-changing, see.

Theodore Sturgeon's The Way Home is short and pleasant but didn't make much sense - or maybe I mean didn't seem to have a point - but never mind because the last two pretty much justify the entrance fee. Henry Kuttner's Satan Sends Flowers is one of those tales where someone has an actual conversation with the devil and is very satisfying; leaving just Isaac Asimov's Satisfaction Guaranteed, which apparently I've read before although I don't remember it. It's one of his Susan Calvin things, but herself is thankfully only a secondary character. Being written by Asimov in 1951, we probably shouldn't be too surprised to meet a housewife who just wants to keep her home clean and her man happy, which I'm sure will have gone down a storm with the usual Goodreads wankers. I sometimes find this sort of thing a bit painful, and true enough, when Asimov falls on his arse, he falls hard; but here the focus on the actual thrust of the story - yet more robot stuff - is of such elegant precision that blaming Asimov for a) the fifties and b) having been born as someone other than Andrea Dworkin seems both unfair and a bit of a waste of time, tantamount to whining about Silas Marner seeming dated.

I'm still not sure why Fantastic went tits up. I guess maybe there were just too many of these things and not enough readers coughing up to a monthly timetable.

Tuesday, 14 June 2022

Phoenix


Jeff Rovin, Sal Amendola & others Phoenix (1975)
Phoenix was somehow one of the first three American comics I ever saw with my own eyes. There was the first issue of this, then Marvel's Worlds Unknown #4 and Astonishing Tales #35, respectively dating to January 1975, November 1973, and May 1976. I have no idea which came first and they were, in any case, encountered second hand at jumble sales rendering those dates of publication more or less irrelevant. Anyway, the point is that although I'd read plenty of black and white UK reprints of Spider-Man, the Inhumans and the like, these were the first actual US comics I saw, and I was fascinated by their size - smaller than I was used to, full colour throughout, and obviously aimed at readers slightly older than myself.

That issue of Astonishing Tales featured the penultimate chapter of Rich Buckler and Bill Mantlo's Deathlok which had an effect tantamount to slipping a Stooges album into my ABBA, Wurzels, and Wombles playlist of the time. Phoenix represented slightly less terrifying territory than ...And Once Removed From Never, but still made a massive impression on me, enough so for its influence to have been felt in at least a few things I've written since*.

To start at the beginning, Phoenix was one of a number of titles published by Atlas, a short-lived mid-seventies company founded by Martin Goodman after he sold Marvel Comics to Perfect Film & Chemical in 1972. Goodman had been a big name in the funny books since the thirties, having famously brought us Captain America and the Marvel imprint itself, amongst other things, and Atlas was going to be a rival to the big two. Atlas would mean that Goodman was still very much in the game, and it would succeed by taking risks rather than simply duplicating what Marvel and DC had been doing.

The company hit the ground running, chucking a whole bunch of titles at the public in a short space of time, but nothing really stuck as Goodman hoped and the operation folded within the year. Colin Smith has written in engrossing detail about the short, unhappy life of Atlas Comics.

Yet of all Atlas' debut titles, Phoenix remains, paradoxically, both the most puzzling and the least intriguing. For writer/editor Jeff Rovin and artist Sal Amendola's storytelling displayed little familiarity, beyond the most obvious of conventions, with the then-dominant traditions of superhero comics. Nor did their work seem to deliberately hark back to redundant approaches to costumed crime fighter tales either. Neither rooted in the present or the past, Phoenix failed to offer any convincing measure of the superhero genre's pleasures and satisfactions. Underneath its glossy surface, it appeared to be a comic that was approaching its subject matter in an almost entirely random manner. In that, it was as if Rovin and Amendola had been shown a few random covers featuring a sci-fi flavoured superbloke before being told to emulate whatever virtues they perceived there. Perhaps Phoenix was an attempt to produce something that broke, to one degree or another, with superhero tradition. But if so, it stumbled because it failed to reflect a grasp of whatever the conventions were that Rovin and Amendola wanted to challenge.



I have a different take on the title, doubtless tinted by my first encounter all those years ago, and yet Smith is absolutely right about its failure as a comic book.

Phoenix, as is probably obvious, was a superhero title, but one which took a different tone, seemingly attempting an unprecedented sense of realism relative to previous superhero books, and it had a cold, pragmatic tone. It wasn't going to hold our hand. Our hero is technologically augmented during an encounter with aliens, but these aliens are the Deiei, essentially a variation on the creatures described by abductees in the UFO lore of the time but with certain identifiable human characteristics. They're aliens from Shatner's Star Trek or even Dan Dare more than they're Kree, Skrull, or Dominators. They initially seem to belong to a universe which is more or less our own, wherein Phoenix is the only superhero, and in which miraculous powers require at least some explanation - albeit one rooted somewhere within the grey areas of pseudoscience and its attendant mythologies. This was part of what appealed to me at the age of twelve or thereabouts - Phoenix seemed to take place in a world which might exist, or at least which could not yet be fully ruled out so easily as those places where insect bites bestow abilities regardless of physiology. Phoenix felt like part of the same world as the ponderous science-fiction cinema of the seventies with its jumpsuits, moral quandaries, and somber mood.

Sal Amendola had already drawn his fair share of Batman, Aquaman and others, yet - as Colin Smith suggests - his art on Phoenix seemed to ignore many of the conventions of sequential story telling. To my eyes, it looks more like illustration than comic art in the traditional sense, which worked fine for me because it seemed to suit the tone of the book, and worked at least as well as the strips in, off the top of my head, Doctor Who annuals, which similarly seemed to lack precedent - as though drawn by persons who had never read a comic strip.

Given that I distinctly recall my discovery of Phoenix, Deathlok and Worlds Unknown occurring prior to 2000AD showing up, these three seemed to represent a consistent, vaguely adult vision in contrast to Dan Dare and The Whizzers from Space - both of which retained an awful lot of schoolboy DNA - and the strips in TV tie-in annuals which always felt like button pushing crowd pleasers for all their otherwise admirable qualities.

Sure enough, Phoenix is wonky, massively uneven, and riddled with inconsistencies, none of which mattered to me when I was twelve, and even now I can still feel the faint residual glow of what first drew me to this material. There remains some appeal in a superhero strip which refuses to wave the magic wand without having a really good reason, or which at least suggests this was part of the original proposition. By issue three, we've had sufficient peculiar Biblical allusions to suggest some impending revelation - Phoenix is casually likened to Jesus Christ, he parts the waters, and so on; then Satan himself is unmasked as a renegade Deiei as part of an arc which feels somewhat in debt to Richard S. Shaver; and the letters page appears, and it seems everyone is on board...

Then issue four is upon us, following three in which the standard did indeed seem to dip, and Phoenix is reborn as the Protector with a whole new costume by an intergalactic council of Kirby knock offs. Apparently the bold new direction wasn't paying off after all, and Ric Estrada couldn't even be bothered to make his flashback panels look like anything which had happened in previous issues.

 



Phoenix was a good idea which simply could have been done a lot better. There are some beautifully arresting images in at least the first issue, and if the narrative is all over the place, I've probably read too much van Vogt to be troubled by the inconsistency or the wild leaps of logic which don't actually make a whole lot of sense. I once wrote and drew a nine panel superhero parody wherein the main character experiences four sequential secret origins in rapid succession, one after the other, but it turns out Gary Friedrich got there before me, and probably got paid for it too.


*: 1987's Berserker, a comic strip which went through various incarnations - including one drawn by Charlie Adlard - before I realised it was a non-starter, was more or less a rewrite of Phoenix with a big helping of Richard S. Shaver thrown in for seasoning. Also, The Sixth Day, a short story from 2007 which appears in The Great Divide makes a number of references to the Phoenix comic book.

Tuesday, 7 June 2022

So the Wind Won't Blow It All Away


Richard Brautigan So the Wind Won't Blow It All Away (1982)
This was Brautigan's final novel, one which supposedly foreshadows his suicide in 1984 - which I don't quite buy. So the Wind Won't Blow It All Away is told from the perspective of a twelve-year old boy who accidentally shoots his only friend and spends the rest of his life regretting that he didn't spend what little money he had on a hamburger rather than bullets on that unfortunate day. If not without humour, it's nevertheless a solemn, introspective novel lamenting the advent of a world which no longer makes so much sense as it once did, and while the author did indeed shoot himself in the head, two whole years had passed and you could pick almost anything from Brautigan's body of work as a foreshadowing of his demise.

Of those I've read, of all Brautigan's novels this one does seem a little more specific in its focus, less-meandering than he can be; and it's a sombre read with its doubtless autobiographical focus on extremes of poverty and the impermanence of existence, hence - I suppose - the somewhat tenuous suggestion that it could count for a suicide note. Whatever the case may have been, it's an astonishing and powerful piece of writing which once again raises the question of how Brautigan, whose voice is nothing if not distinctive to the point of being absolutely his own, managed to keep from repeating himself or writing the same novel over and over. I suspect had he been writing a couple of decades earlier, his posthumous reputation would have been colossal by this point.

Tuesday, 31 May 2022

England, My England


D.H. Lawrence England, My England (1922)
Given that this was first published after Lawrence had taken to a semi-nomadic existence, having left England after some kids threw rocks at his wife, I'd assumed these ten short stories might represent an exercise in nostalgia - capturing moments of an English working class life which, for the author, had become past tense. However, it turns out that the stories were written between 1913 and 1921, albeit with some revision prior to publication, so I could be way off the mark. That said, I suspect there may be some element of attempting to capture a whiff of the old country even if it's hardly one seen through rose tinted spectacles. The cover promises the decline of a whole social ethos in the wake of the first world war, which is pretty much what it delivers, albeit as emotional conflicts - some fairly low level - which are surely as much part of the human condition as the hallmark of any one particular era. There's betrayal, drama, grief, and disappointment, although no more so than usual for one of Dave's books.

Unfortunately, a few of the tales don't really seem to do much beyond invoking the mood of a gloomy Sunday afternoon in rural Nottinghamshire, or at least I found them a little bogged down with their own introspection. Tickets, Please has its moments, and The Blind Man, Wintry Peacock, and You Touched Me are all blessed with just enough texture to keep things interesting; and Fanny and Annie opens with a paragraph so structurally startling as to foreshadow some of A.E. van Vogt's weirder excesses.


Flame-lurid his face as he turned among the throng of flame-lit and dark faces upon the platform. In the light of the furnace she caught sight of his drifting countenance, like a piece of floating fir. And the nostalgia, the doom of homecoming went through her veins like a drug. His eternal face, flame-lit now!


Regrettably, three day later I don't remember anything about Fanny and Annie, and it's the same for a couple of the others. England, My England has its moments, but it's probably not the one you want to start off with.

Tuesday, 10 May 2022

Strangeland


Tracey Emin Strangeland (2005)
I didn't even know this existed until John Serpico wrote about it on his excellent blog, the Art of Exmouth. To start at the beginning, I attended Maidstone College of Art at the same time as Traci, so I knew her and, seeing as it's the question everybody always asks, no - my name wasn't in the tent and the only thing I have to say on that subject is how surprised I was by the name embroidered in the largest letters, which was that of a quiet, vaguely lumpy looking bloke from the sculpture department. I met Traci through my friend Carl, and her first words to me were in't your 'air 'orrible? delivered with a caustic scowl, although to be fair my 'air was indeed pretty 'orrible at the time. She set up a reading event in one of the lecture theatres for herself, Sexton Ming, Billy Childish, and Bill Lewis. I don't recall much of what she read but it may well have included some of the material reprinted in the first part of this collection. I'd actually forgotten she ever wrote this sort of thing. Her delivery was kind of harsh and forceful but I don't remember much else about it. Childish on the other hand was impressive, dark and bitter, painfully honest, and he gave the impression that he really, really, really didn't want to be there. Traci mentioned that she had a few of his books for sale after the show - slim collections of dyslexic poetry he'd published himself. I bought one and was so knocked out by it that I asked if she had any others. She was in the process of breaking up with him at the time and had no problem selling me everything she had, a few of them even signed for Traci love Billy x. I never saw much of her art, at least not until the final year. She had an exhibition in the college gallery of oil paintings done in Amsterdam over the summer, mostly canals, barges and the like, and they were actually pretty great. The last time I saw her was in Rochester High Street, a couple of years after we'd all finished college. She was pushing a supermarket shopping trolley full of junk and said that she'd just married a Turkish fisherman which had proven problematic due to his already being married. Under other circumstances it would have seemed a bit unlikely but I don't recall being particularly surprised.

So that's my Traci Emin story, such as it is. A couple of years later she began turning up on TV as the next big thing. She had apparently reinvented herself, or had at least been through a personal year zero by which all previous work no longer counted, presumably including the Amsterdam paintings. This also pertained to a painting she'd sold to the late Tim Webster for a fiver*, as Tim found out when he attempted to have it valued and was told that she denied having painted it. I was quite fond of Tim (and am still depressed by the fact of his having kicked the bucket back in 2020) so this struck a bit of a sour note for me. I never had any strong feelings about Traci's reinvention as a notionally conceptual artist, beyond enjoying Billy Childish observing that (and I'm paraphrasing here) the difference between my paintings and what Tracey does is that if you chuck my stuff in a skip, it's still art; but I nevertheless got a massive vicarious kick out of her success. It felt as though one of us had broken through, regardless of why it happened, even if she's disowned the rest of us.

Anyway, Strangeland is divided into three main sections dealing with her early life in Margate, then in Turkey, and then everything else. The first two parts are astonishing, vivid, and enough so to leave me hungry for more. Some of it is pretty harrowing, but nevertheless powerfully told because Traci is very, very funny and the horror is contrasted with a surprisingly tender insight. The third section is mostly what came after year zero and feels patchy, barring the chapters dealing with her abortion. David Bowie's private jet gets a mention, as does one of Vivienne's tops, and Billy Childish is written off in a couple of paragraphs without actually being named. Childish himself has admitted that he treated her like shit and the downs and even further downs of their relationship are detailed in unflinchingly brutal terms in those chapbooks Traci sold me back at Maidstone. At the time I recall being told that he was on at least a bottle of whisky a day. All the same, that single scathing paragraph seems a little unfair, truthful though it undoubtedly is, at least given the extent of his influence on her work and by extension presumably even her reinvention. There was a time when she was regarded as more or less an extension of Billy, and his influence is discernible throughout Strangeland. That said, the notion that she was ever truly an extension of Billy is clearly bollocks, and Traci's near relentless burst sewer pipe of hard reality may also serve to explain what drew the two of them together in the first place.

I have a feeling Traci would have ended up either well known or at least notorious for something, and her career in the art world from the nineties onwards would have looked the same or similar had she never met Childish. What you see is what you get, as they say. She has a relentless, near indestructible quality, and the biggest gob in the world, which I state out of admiration. She genuinely seems like she would be hard to kill, as Henry Rollins would put it, and Strangeland captures this in what may be more detail than you need.

I just wish she'd carried on in the vein of the Amsterdam paintings.

*: I remember this as being an actual portrait of Tim himself, but I may be wrong. For what it may be worth, I wrote a memorial to him called Let's Think About Living which can be found here.

Monday, 2 May 2022

Man Plus


Frederik Pohl Man Plus (1976)
I've read most of the stuff he co-wrote with Kornbluth including short stories, and at least a couple of his own short stories, but Man Plus is somehow my first full length undiluted Pohl. It's nothing life-changing - and I have to wonder what else was up for a Nebula award that year - but is nevertheless a reasonably solid read. Our main guy is named Roger Torraway, an astronaut undergoing surgery and cybernetic augmentation so as to allow him to live on Mars, and we need to live on Mars because Earth is fucked. It's hard science-fiction without being too much of a dick about it, and Pohl writes well - so well that it's fairly easy to see why he was such a great match for Kornbluth, and Man Plus makes good use of just the sort of ludicrously ambitious ideas which put the lead in Cyril's figurative pencil; and Man Plus has the added advantage of being free from the sort of incoherent jabbering to which Kornbluth succumbed from time to time. Classic may be an overstatement, but it's nevertheless very satisfying.