Saturday, 10 August 2013

Marshal Law: The Hateful Dead & Super Babylon

Pat Mills & Kevin O'Neill
The Hateful Dead (1991) & Super Babylon (1992)

Further disgusting adventures of Mills and O'Neill's leather clad lawman and anthropomorphic expression of hatred for the entire superhero genre: this one's roughly speaking a single story which ended up divided into two parts. The Hateful Dead was originally published episodically in the short lived Toxic! comic, then completed a year later in the one-off Super Babylon after Apocalypse Limited went under. Read in one go it makes for a somewhat patchy whole.

The Hateful Dead seems to be trying too hard - which is quite something for a Marshal Law comic, never really the James Taylor of strip fiction even on a quiet day - and the product placement gets a bit wearing after a while, barrels of Toxic! waste and the slogan go with the flow all being references to the weekly comic in which the story first appeared. Furthermore, read in one sitting, it's a little jerky with the narrative delivered in conspicuous eight page chunks, and with no clear indication of where it's heading beyond the general direction of loads more shocking stuff and veiled references to things going up the bum. Actually, on the subject of things going up the bum, I can't help but notice a lot of this in Marshal Law, alongside all the usual references to superheroes fiddling with small boys. I don't for a second doubt Pat Mills' credentials as a brother unto all regardless of race, sex, or orientation, yet at times I can't help but wonder if it doesn't sail a bit too close to those value systems it purports to satirise, and I think if I was myself keen on the chaps of the same sex in romantic terms, it would probably get on my nerves a bit.

The story roughly comes together in Super Babylon, and turns out to be Marshall Law doing to all those golden age superheroes what he already did to Superman, Batman and so on; so it's really another variation on the theme, except it feels like they've fumbled the ball a bit with the preamble, never quite finding their feet in the second half - to resort briefly to football commentary. The art is as ever fascinatingly weird, and some of the jokes are okay, but it all becomes somewhat didactic in places, and frequently in the wrong places so that the grimly serious message ends up jarring against all the up-the-bum-caped-kiddy-fiddler gags. The last few pages wherein the reanimated corpses of war veterans rise up against their golden age super-figureheads works well, but it's almost too little, too late.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

First He Died

Clifford D. Simak First He Died (1951)

First He Died is better known as Time and Again, the title it gained upon reprint. I read Time and Again only a couple of years ago, but saw a copy of this earlier incarnation amongst the titles some person had up for auction on eBay. I'd already bagged Clark Ashton Smith's Zothique collection, David Lindsay's A Voyage to Arcturus, and George MacDonald's Lilith off the guy, and somehow I just couldn't leave this one behind, even given that the bid would mark my crossing over from reader to collector.

Anyway, I still can't tell if this is quite the same as the retitled version. There are scenes I don't recall having read first time around amongst other apparent discrepancies, although quickly comparing the two, flipping from one copy to the other, I strongly suspect  they're identical and this is simply a book which improves quite dramatically with repeated reading. Certainly I don't remember it striving for quite such philosophical depth last time, or at least not doing it so well.

First He Died is yet another curiously early novel about a time war, predating Fritz Leiber's The Big Time by nearly a decade, and of course the All-New Doctor Who Comedy Slam by half a century, and whilst we're here, let's not hold back from pointing out that Asher Sutton, the novel's protagonist returns from a mysterious region of space cut off from the rest of the universe, reborn with two hearts and a secondary nervous system - not sure if that one rings any bells.

Sutton, who somehow arrives on Earth in a ship which should never have flown - the engines don't work and it isn't even airtight - discovers he will one day publish a philosophical text entitled This is Destiny which discusses the fundamental truths of existence, the universe and the place of humanity therein. The trouble is that humanity isn't going to like what he has to say, not least because of the immense influence this book will have on future history; and so war has broken out between those factions who wish to prevent Sutton writing his book, and those sympathetic. Curiously, this results in two future versions of This is Destiny, only one of which is true to Asher Sutton's vision, which in turn presents an odd parallel to the alternately titled editions of the novel we're reading; and if this weren't in itself sufficiently self-referential, Sutton travels back to 1977 in search of an ancestor and finds himself discussing the subject of his magnum opus with a character called Old Cliff:

'But destiny? you said something about destiny?'

'Interested in it, lad,' said the old man. 'Wrote a story about it once. Didn't amount to much. Used to mess around some, writing, in my early days.'

For some time I've regarded Clifford D. Simak as something like the rural Philip K. Dick, a cleaner living, more traditional counterpart to the urban paranoia of his junior, but nevertheless similar. As authors, whilst they may be worlds apart, they both speak from a blue collar perspective, telling stories of the little guy who works hard and generally tries to do the right thing; and their respective careers were in each case engaged with repeated attempts to reach a broader understanding of the universe. Dick regarded that which we experience as the universe to be possibly illusory, whereas Simak held it to be real, but perhaps ultimately beyond our comprehension. Also they both made use of a middle initial and had some of the same letters in their names...

Whereas Dick made frequent and occasionally inscrutable reference to historical philosophy, Simak kept it simpler - just a brief nod to Henry Thoreau in First He Died and the rest otherwise discussed without bringing in anything beyond that which is directly experienced by the characters of the novel.

'We've lived by faith alone,' said Sutton, ' for eight thousand years at least and probably more than that. Certainly more than that. For it must have been faith, a glimmer of some sort of faith, that made the Neanderthaler paint the shinbones red and nest the skulls so they face toward the east.'

'Faith,' said Dr. Raven gently, 'is a powerful thing.'

'Yes, powerful,' Sutton agreed, 'but even in its strength it is our own confession of weakness. Our own admission that we are not strong enough to stand alone, that we must have a staff to lean upon, the expressed hope and conviction that there is some great power which will lend us aid and guidance.'

This idea is the foundation of Simak's writing, and one which in its deceptive simplicity has probably denied him a posthumous reputation of the kind now enjoyed by Philip K. Dick. Simak writes simple, communicative sentences in the voice of occasionally somewhat homespun characters. That which Asher Sutton will one day write in his great work is likewise straightforward:

We are not alone.

No one ever is alone.

Not since the first faint stirring of the first flicker of life on the first planet in the galaxy that knew the quickening of life, has there ever been a single entity that walked or crawled or slithered down the path of life alone.

Read a little too quickly, it seems to amount to hey like we're all brothers so let's all just try to get along, mkay? but of course such would hardly require elaboration by means of an entire book; and with this arguably being Simak's first full novel - Cosmic Engineers and Empire both having been guided by John W. Campbell to varying degrees - you can tell he's really going for it, piling on all his biggest ideas, making concessions to no-one but his own conscience and hoping some sense will result; and it sort of does, or at least it did for me during this second reading.

Destiny by Simak's terms might almost be considered an inversion of all those 1950s supermen, utopian science-fiction futures with man - and it usually was quite specifically man - stood at the technological pinnacle of creation. Sutton's Destiny is more like an understanding of the equilibrium of existence, or at least its potential, with all that lives as part of an indivisible whole, and one illustration Simak provides of this is that not even a cell can be considered a single discrete organism given the presence of mitochondria. In essence, First He Died strives to communicate a quite subtle philosophical model without recourse to either religion or even the language by which it might best be communicated; and this seems to provide a glimpse of Simak's almost existential view of the universe, a view which, by the by, might also be characterised by his writing time travel as a psychological rather than temporal process - an idea later revisited in Time is the Simplest Thing in which the past is revealed to be an empty stage from which all trace of life has vanished; and all this even without getting into Asher Sutton as a man returned from death with the potential to save humanity from itself...

First He Died or whatever you want to call it is a bit of a mess in terms of traditional narrative, and yet seemed to me quite straightforward first time around, mainly due to Old Cliff's insistence on communicating everything through the medium of folks who just like to sit on the stoop awhile with their faithful hound chewing a straw and maybe getting in some whittling; but don't be deceived, these still waters run surprisingly deep.

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

From the Earth to the Moon

Jules Verne From the Earth to the Moon (1865)

I was left massively underwhelmed by Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, a novel seemingly so dry and plodding as to leave me with the impression of Verne as an overrated institution, particularly when compared to the eminently more readable H.G. Wells with whom he so often shares a sentence. Shortly after forming this impression, it was pointed out to me that I had most likely read a poor translation, so I picked up From the Earth to the Moon to show Verne's disembodied spirit there were no hard feelings, and in hope of a good read. Alarm bells began to ring around the chapter in which one retired colonel type delivers a series of announcements comparing the strength to weight ratio of iron and aluminium, each droning suggestion prefixed by his friend exclaiming hurrah!, which becomes annoying after seventy pages.

Two dud translations in a row, I sneered to myself, rather a coincidence, wouldn't you say?

'Or could it simply be,' I replied out loud for the sake of a faintly amusing image which could later be incorporated into a review, 'that Jules so-called Verne was just a bit shit?'

Apparently not according to Arthur B. Evans whose 2005 essay  Jules Verne's English Translations makes for slightly depressing reading, presenting the possibility that you're actually very lucky to pick up a random Verne translation which hasn't made a complete pig's ear of the original; and my From the Earth to the Moon it turns out, as translated by Lowell Bair, isn't among the good ones. Knowing this actually rendered it a little more readable for me, allowing for some focus on what may have been said in the original rather than the somewhat cak-handed means by which it has been reduced to English. Even knowing as much, this apparently hobbled version does pick up somewhat after the chapter in which a man wearing a top hat says hurrah! over and over, thus unwittingly inspiring another four-thousand trilogies in Worthington P. Bonio's The Penny-Farthing Interface series of generic steampunk landfill moneyspinners; and it was impossible to resist the charm of the following paragraph:

Among the groups of all kinds which assailed him, the "lunatics" were particularly aware of what they owed to the future conqueror of the moon. One day several of these poor people, rather numerous in America, came to him and asked to be allowed to return to their native land with him. Some of them claimed to be able to speak the lunar language and offered to teach it to him. He good-naturedly indulged their innocent mania and agreed to deliver messages to their friends on the moon.

From the Earth to the Moon seems admittedly dry in terms of its story, a clear precursor to the hard science-fiction of Asimov and others, being mostly concerned with the mechanics of building something capable of hurling nineteenth century people into space. The incredible thing is that for the most part, Verne's calculations seem to have been on the mark, right down to Florida as a good place from which to launch such a mission, the practicalities of a renewable air supply, and so on; and even told as a series of conversations about gravity, escape velocity, thrust and the like, once over the potholes, it's still quite readable even given the presumably mangled narrative.

I suspect I've thus far been quite wrong about this author, so next time I'll make certain it's one of the better translations.

Sunday, 4 August 2013


Mark Millar & Steve McNiven Nemesis (2012)

Collecting all four issues of Nemesis, this is a slim volume, but nevertheless just about the size it needs to be to tell the story. Nemesis, being the tale of a caped millionaire genius who sees himself as an extralegal righter of wrongs, is almost a real world Batman at least in so much as Millar's Kick-Ass is real world; except the twist is that Nemesis is an absolute cunt, blowing up trains full of innocent people and shooting anyone who gets in the way as part of some obscure vendetta apparently waged against just one man; and more worryingly, he's a devious and unstoppable cunt.

If whoever is presently turning this into an action blockbuster wants he's a devious and unstoppable cunt as the strapline for their movie poster, be my guest.

Nemesis is beautifully drawn, ingeniously plotted, and laced with just the right quota of sparky dialogue; and as such oozes at least as much class as any bande dessinée you care to mention, albeit with some emphasis on those bandes dessinées where something gets blown up every third page. It's the kind of story that has become generic Bruce-Willis-vehicular action blockbuster shite on the big screen, and yet done this well in the pages of a comic book, I can't help but be impressed; and as something of an aside, not least because although Nemesis is violent to the point of absurdity, Millar pulls back from anything too needlessly visceral or psychologically stomach churning shoved in the reader's face, perhaps recognising such shock tactics as potentially detrimental to the story.

The only flaw I can find is that with so much going on over so few pages, relatively speaking, the narrative seems to collapse under its own weight towards the end, genuine surprises yielding to the perhaps inevitably nested twists which don't quite make sense, at least not to me.

Still - musn't grumble.

Friday, 2 August 2013

The Transmigration of Timothy Archer

Philip K. Dick The Transmigration of Timothy Archer (1982)

This was Dick's final book, alternately either the third of the thematic trilogy begun with VALIS and The Divine Invasion, or else just a regular novel with that lost third part actually being The Owl in Daylight which he sadly never got to write.

The Transmigration of Timothy Archer is effectively a late mainstream novel, containing no specific element demanding classification as science-fiction, another journey through Dick's version of our world told roughly as the story of Bishop James Pike, a friend of the author in real life. Pike was a vocally liberal and thus inevitably controversial Episcopalian minister and occasional civil rights campaigner of the 1960s who famously and tragically died whilst searching for proof of the historical existence of Jesus Christ in the deserts of Israel; which is more of less what becomes of Bishop Archer here, with the twist being his apparent transmigration to the body of his friend, the somewhat schizophrenic Bill Lundborg, an obvious author stand-in. However, Bill is almost certainly no more able to offer an objective view of reality than the author, and so the worth of his testimony remains ambiguous.

Dick himself appeared in a lot of his own fiction, particularly the later novels, and the tendency is pronounced with this cast of characters, most of whom can be identified as different aspects of the author; and yet despite the implausibility of all these people each being equally familiar with Goethe, Thomas Aquinas, and the German language, it holds together because Dick writes such a compelling argument. Unusually The Transmigration of Timothy Archer is told from the first person viewpoint of a female character apparently representing Dicks' scepticism. Essentially he seems to be stood back, taking a look at himself and all of his manias and asking if it's really been worth it, if any of it amounts to anything more than Bishop Pike's doomed quest for what was most likely a mirage. Specifically, despite future plans laid out in Dick's letters of the time, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer reads like the work of a man who knows he is writing his last book:

I am terribly frightened of death, I thought. Death has destroyed me; it isn't Sri Krishna, destroyer of all people; it is death, destroyer of my friends. It singled them out and left everyone else undisturbed. Fucking death, I thought. You homed in on those I love. You utilized their folly and prevailed. You took advantage of foolish people, which is truly unkind. Emily Dickinson was full of shit when she prattled about 'kindly Death'; that's an abominable thought, that death is kind. She never saw a six-car pile-up on the Eastshore Freeway. Art, like theology, a packaged fraud. Downstairs the people are fighting while I look for God in a reference book. God, ontological arguments for. Better yet: practical arguments against. There is no such listing. It would have helped a lot if it had come in time: arguments against being foolish, ontological and empirical, ancient and modern (see common sense). The trouble with being educated is that it takes a long time; it uses up the better part of your life and when you are finished what you know is that you would have benefited more by going into banking.

Whilst this may seem to take the opposite view to that which Dick had written in VALIS and others, it should be remembered that even at his most manic he remained, to a greater or lesser extent, a passive observer within his own consciousness.

He said one time in group therapy that all he wanted to be was a pair of eyes bugging out from the wall, so he could see everyone but no one could see him. Just an observer, not a part of what was going on, ever.

To suggest that Dick's religious understanding was no more than a thought experiment, trying on a theological world for size, seems quite wrong and overly simplistic, although I've probably said as much myself back when I was a bit more stupid. Whatever he believed at any given time was subject to revision and evaluation, and no part of it was considered sacrosanct, which this book shows. Unlike the best of Dick's oeuvre it tends to be somewhat lacking in humour, but once you've read it, you should understand why; and saddest of all, after nearly a decade of struggles and freak-outs, it reads like he was finally beginning to level out.