Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Batman Incorporated

Grant Morrison & Jim Nick Nick Davidson Batman Incorporated (2012)
Ever since Stewart Lee described him as such, I can't quite pull back from thinking of the guy as Batman the children's character, and probably because I've never really found him that interesting. Although I haven't read it in a while, I recall loving Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns in which our man is portrayed as a vicious nutcase, which seems about right. He's more or less a vicious nutcase here, but a vicious nutcase inhabiting a story which may as well be derived from the goofy 1960s television show, albeit a version of the  goofy 1960s television show without much in the way of humour.

The story is that Batman, having decided that crime is a disease and that there's only one cure and so on and so forth, trains a whole team of international Batmans so as to cure the disease of crime on a global scale. It starts well enough, and seems beautifully told regardless of whatever it is that's actually being told, and then it sort of gets lost in an undifferentiated mush of narrative and stuff you might understand if you're some kind of Batman expert, which I'm not. I'm all for showing rather than telling so as to instil a comic book with the portentous atmosphere of a Fassbinder film, but occasionally it helps to tell your audience what the fuck is happening, particularly when what you're showing is mainly ingenious plot points and obscure references to Jorge Luis Borges punctuated with scenes of Batman kicking someone's head in. It tends to give the impression that the point of this comic is principally as a vehicle for Jim Davidson's beautifully cinematic illustrations of Batman descending upon ne'er-do-wells from tree, balcony or tall building and then kicking their heads in; so it's more or less Judge Dredd, except there's a point to Judge Dredd and it's usually funnier.

Come to think of it, I very much enjoyed Keith Giffen's Batman in the old Justice League comics, but then the point of that Batman was giving the other characters something to take the piss out of.

Raving Communist that I apparently must be, the thing I took from Batman Incorporated is more or less the same thing I take from Donald Trump's presidential campaign - tough on crime but protect your investment in the causes of crime, so let's get the drug dealers and kick their heads in and shit. Chavs too - let's add them to the list whilst we're here, the greedy bag-snatching work-shy fuckers.

Conversely, I suppose you might point out that we also have a Native American Batman here - which is a nice idea - and Morrison takes the trouble to explain in the appendix how he identifies and empathises with the slow genocide of the native American because he went to a reservation and it was a lot like some parts of Glasgow.


Well, it's not so much an appendix as pages of Jim Davidson's preliminary sketches, mostly of amazing new character sensations - some of whom you'll miss if you blink whilst reading the actual comic - notarised by Morrison listing the obscure 1950s issue of Detective Comics in which they first appeared.

Also there are schoolgirls wearing stockings and suspenders, like they do. Phwoaar! Eh? Eh? They love it!

I have no idea what I've just read, but it wasn't for me.

Jim Davidson didn't really draw it by the way. I just couldn't be arsed to type out the four million names of those who did, although they all did a really tremendous job.


Tuesday, 26 January 2016


Brian Aldiss Greybeard (1965)
Just to recap, the things which drive me nuts when it comes to Brian Aldiss are principally his dismissal of John Wyndham as an author of cosy catastrophes - as Brian termed them - and that he writes such bloody awful short stories, which I discovered the hard way, picking up no less than five Aldiss short story collections second hand before I'd realised any of this; and of course it's rare that I'll leave a book unread or unfinished no matter how painful it gets. These things drive me particularly nuts because they contrast so starkly with how great his writing can be at its absolute best, by which I'm referring to the novels.

Greybeard occurs after the collapse of civilisation with the dwindling remains of humanity living a pseudo-mediaeval existence in the wilderness. The Accident has left everyone sterile, so no children have been born for a while, and the youngest generation are now in their fifties. It comes fairly close to pastoral science-fiction in the tradition of Simak, although I've a feeling this may actually be Aldiss saying Oi Wyndham! This is how it's supposed to be done, it being a distinctly Wyndhamesque catastrophe stripped of those supposedly cosy elements, and certainly there's nothing too comforting here; although we tend not to notice this, the focus being on the main characters surviving from one moment to the next.

Curiously, Greybeard seems to hold some clues as to why the novels of Aldiss work so much better than his shorter pieces. As I've mentioned in previous reviews, his great strength seems to be in the environments with which he populates his people - always something familiar by some terms but distorted into weird, unorthodox shapes; Greybeard's world is accordingly familiar and yet utterly alien, and is mapped out in the behaviour of the people who live there, which I guess requires a decent page count. Perhaps it is simply that Aldiss doesn't get the room to do this, to really expand, in short form, so the settings are sketchy with the narrative reliant on details at which he is less adept. Greybeard is punctuated by three flashback sequences to times before and during the Accident, all taking place in more familiar domestic settings, but significantly less engaging than the main part of the tale, not least because they don't really tell us anything we don't already know, and they almost read as parodies of Wyndham - the usual stuff with rationing and barricades and assorted colonels discussing what is to be done.

Anyway, minor reservations aside, Greybeard is beautifully written beyond expectation and has the sort of narrative confidence which really makes me wonder how it never - at least not to my knowledge - became a classroom standard alongside Lord of the Flies and others, seeing as how Golding's book gets a mention on the cover of my copy. Aldiss will be ninety this year, and given that we're no longer exactly swimming in science-fiction authors of either his vintage or stature, we should probably make the effort to appreciate him whilst we can.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016


Grant Morrison & Cameron Stewart Seaguy (2005)
Having been looking in the other direction when this came out, I was slightly pissed off to find it apparently only available for silly money on Amazon and eBay - silly money here meaning lots of dollars rather than payment by fish, hamburgers, lego bricks or whatever; so I was hugely chuffed to find a copy at Half Price Books for less than the cover price. I guess somebody screwed-up.

Seaguy was sold to me as something wonderful during discussion generally themed along the lines of how The Invisibles is shit and Grant Morrison disappeared up his own arse around 1998 and is yet to resurface - Seaguy and We3 being exceptions to a general trend. True enough, it's decent, and it commits none of the sins of his absolute worst writing, although I probably wouldn't go so far as to call it a classic. I suppose it's sort of like David Bowie's Black Tie White Noise, which was actually somewhat shite and yet seemingly garnered a fairly respectable reputation through sheer force of relief that at least it wasn't fucking Never Let Me Down.

Just to get it out of the way, I can't help but notice some faint similarity to Underwater Guy from Shannon Wheeler's wonderful Too Much Coffee Man, but anyway...

Seaguy is sort of like Morrison's Doom Patrol as a Saturday morning cartoon - all primary colours and things that only make sense if you live in a Hanna-Barbera version of reality.

...actually, Chubby da Choona is a lot like Billy the Fish from Viz, come to think of it...

Where was I?

On the surface of it, Seaguy is mostly enjoyable surrealism and general stupidity, but knowing some of Morrison's preoccupations I have a feeling it may also constitute some kind of statement on comic book narrative. The narrative is full of big ideas and improbable concepts provided without explanation, and none of the adventures or scrapes encountered by Seaguy and his fish buddy ever quite play out to the end or amount to anything, just like in a Saturday morning cartoon show. We get evasions and distraction rather than conclusions, at least up to the point at which Chubby comes to a peculiarly realistic and gruesome end, before quickly hitting the reset button and we start over again with a new animal sidekick. I suspect the point of this amounts to two fingers up at the supposedly gritty and realistic comic narrative as supposedly introduced by Alan Moore - perhaps represented here as the She-Beard, which itself suggests the slightly odd possibility of Morrison wanting to shag Northampton's finest.

The message is, I suppose, nothing deeper than this shit is more fun than all that frowning; which is fine, because they don't all have to be the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. So I wouldn't call Seaguy a masterpiece, but there's nevertheless plenty to like.

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Count Zero

William Gibson Count Zero (1986)
It was the only one I hadn't read, and I have a feeling I may even have owned a copy once before without ever having got around to it, so despite everything I thought why not? The reason why not can be gleaned from the contents of the aforementioned everything - or at least everything I've read except Pattern Recognition, which is great - namely that whilst William Gibson wields a positively breathtaking turn of phrase and his sentences are frequently assemblages of great poetic beauty, his novels can be mystifyingly dull and incomprehensible. At least that's how I've found a few of them, and Count Zero is unfortunately in this tradition. His narrative is all about surface, fixating on the details of gadgets, gizmos, products, and labels, which initially makes for a fairly vivid read but gets repetitive after a while, particularly in combination with largely interchangeable personality-free characters whose job is seemingly to provide definition for the gadgets, gizmos, products, and labels. I suppose otherwise the book would just be a list of stuff.

As I've probably said in previous reviews of Gibson novels which I'm probably just rewriting because I can't be bothered to go back and read what I've already said, and in any case the same applies here, I suspect he's making some sort of point about the shared hallucination of society as an artificial construct held together only by everyone agreeing to play the game; and I suspect Gibson's cyberspace is a metaphor for this; as are the attendant references to voodoo and numerous loa which appear throughout this one, but not with quite the frequency or depth to make it as interesting as - just off the top of my head - Lawrence Miles' This Town Will Never Let Us Go. On the other hand, I took the talking book version of Distrust That Particular Flavour - Gibson's collected essays as read by himself - out of the library recently, and he just sounded like some dribbling hipster burbling on about buying really rare Soviet wristwatches on eBay, so perhaps the focus on surface is really all there is to this stuff.

Surface was more or less all I could follow after the first fifty or so pages, that being the point at which I'd ceased caring who was who, what they were doing, or why. I made it to page two-hundred with forty left to go, then Mark Hodder sent me a few chapters of his next book so as to get a second opinion, and it looked about a billion times more engaging than this droning shite; and then David Bowie pegged it, and life suddenly felt too short to bother with Zero on the Clapometer.

Perhaps one day I'll give it another go and I will enjoy it a little more, but right now I just can't be arsed.

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

The Complete Nemesis the Warlock volume one

Pat Mills, Kevin O'Neill, Jesus Redondo & Bryan Talbot
The Complete Nemesis the Warlock volume one (2006)

Considering how much I enjoyed this, it seems strange to think that Nemesis the Warlock was instrumental in my giving up on 2000AD way back whenever. Specifically it was a combination of regular strips going down the toilet along with slightly shitty new material such as The Mean Arena, Meltdown Man and Comic Rock. Okay, Comic Rock only ran to three episodes, but even at the age of fifteen I could tell that the premise of Thargtastic thrills based on top pop parade hits was a bit of a dad in a backwards baseball cap.

'Fuck this!' I exclaimed, throwing the sponge with which I'd been washing shoe polish from a pig into the murky waters of the tub. 'I'm going to spend my fourteen pence on something else.'

Then about a year later a friend gave me a big stack of more recent water-damaged 2000ADs which had been ruined when the pipes burst in his house during a cold spell. I hadn't really thought about the comic since I stopped buying, but it looked like it had got some of its mojo back so I got to work on drying them out, one issue at a time. I didn't recognise half of the stuff in there, and it took me a while to recognise Nemesis as having spun off from its Kenny Everett cameo-having origins as suggested by the album Killer Watts, the tough lovin' hard rockin' collection that brought you Journey, REO Speedwagon, Ted Nugent, Rick Derringer's Need a Little Girl (Just Like You) and many, many more - woaoao
aoaoaoaowoaoaoaaarrrrggghhhhhhhhh yeeeeeaaaaahhhhh! Let's rock!


Nemesis the Warlock, as you probably already know, was essentially dystopian future as one of the more disturbing works of Heironymus Bosch with the forces of exciting weirdness pitted against an evil censorious state based on the Inquisition, and it could really only have come from Pat Mills and Kevin O'Neill with the perfect combination of piss and vinegar in sledgehammer scripting offset by what probably remains some of the weirdest, most hallucinatory material that O'Neill ever drew. The beauty of Mills writing is revealed here - if beauty is quite the right term - as something big, crude, and of sufficient stupidity to work as a kids' comic strip told five pages at a time, garnished with genuine wit and a strong sense of purpose; and he's probably never quite enjoyed the reputation of a Morrison or Moore because he made it look so easy, and because of how quickly we forget all the stuff like Meltdown Man which may have aimed for similar effect but got the balance hopelessly wrong.

The importance of O'Neill becomes apparent in this collection with books two and four of the saga, drawn respectively by Jesus Redondo and then Bryan Talbot. Whilst it may be a minority view, Redondo remains one of the greatest artists ever to draw for 2000AD in my opinion. Every panel is beautiful, a real work of art, and yet with the possible exception of Mind Wars, he never really seemed to get the break of a regular strip with which his name would become associated, and by which he could really show what he was capable of. His work on Nemesis is characteristically wonderful - not least the sequence of the Vestal Vampire, having taken a vow of silence, attempting to mime that which she has been told by the disembodied spirit of Torquemada - but in the wider context book two sadly remains a Nemesis strip which wasn't drawn by Kevin O'Neill. The same is unfortunately true of Bryan Talbot's Luther Arkwright variant, The Gothic Empire - it's fucking brilliant, but it still isn't Kevin O'Neill. I've encountered the additional criticism that The Gothic Empire was the point at which Nemesis the Warlock lost it a bit as Mills started throwing various ABC Warriors into the mix, but that aspect doesn't bother me. It's just the sort of thing Pat Mills does, and that's why we love him. Moaning aside, this is still one of the finest British comics ever published by my estimation.

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Network News

Nigel Ayers Network News (2009)
Fourteen issues of Network News appeared between 1990 and 1999, an A5 newsletter of twenty or so pages on average and featuring whatever Nigel Ayers of Nocturnal Emissions had fixated on at the time - essays he'd written, or just incoherent notes, jokes, observations, letters he'd been sent, occasionally dismissive one sentence reviews of fanzines and tapes, and a few postal interviews conducted with pals. This probably won't make Network News sound particularly promising, and even in its day it seemed a slim, variable effort, something appearing sporadically in one's mailbox prompting raised eyebrows rather than unalloyed excitement. It looked like a parish magazine or something run off on a duplicator, and even the newspaper cuttings had been retyped so as to blend with the rest of the text. Most of this can be attributed to Nigel Ayers most likely not giving a shit about competing with Re/Search or Music from the Empty Quarter or whatever, and to Network News being compiled in accordance with his fairly singular vision.

And now here they all are again for anyone who might be interested, collected as a lavish Lulu paperback preserving the original tiny and not always legible print, all the obsolete contact information, and the parish magazine aesthetic of the original newsletters. Woohoo, I hear you say.

Well, as it happens, Nigel Ayers has long been one of the more interesting figures loosely associated with weirdy music, and he's never been lacking in wacky ideas even if his methods of communicating those ideas may sometimes seem wilfully obscure. Consequently I'm pleasantly surprised at how well this material communicates something or other in this collected format, at least in comparison to the original sporadic drip of material. I say something or other because I feel neither sufficiently knowledgeable nor pompous to invoke the term psychogeography with impunity, although for the sake of argument, that is more or less the thrust of what we have here. Much of Ayers concerns throughout the nineties seem to have been to do with the reinvestment of humanity as connected to the land it inhabits, physically, culturally, and spiritually - and specifically as something in opposition to the forces of law, order, capital, and tedium. These concerns were expressed as lengthy and occasionally confusing articles about the Beast of Bodmin, geological zodiacs, symbolism, art, Cornish antiquity, Lady Diana Spencer, and generally causing trouble; and it is possibly due to the strength of Ayers occasionally wandering focus that Network News can be read as a more or less single body of work with consistent themes. Although the last two issues - let's call them chapters thirteen and fourteen for the sake of argument - are overtly written as either fictional or autobiographical accounts, they also seem to draw upon and summarise much of what what has gone before; so if it's not quite like reading a novel, it's not that far off, and is actually a little closer than at least a few of the things Burroughs labelled as such. I suppose it would be at least fair to say that we're in Stewart Home territory, roughly speaking, which is weird for me because I know a few of the people in here; in fact, even some of my own self-published crap gets a mention, and I'm pretty sure none of us were aware of being fiction at the time, excepting possibly the Muslimgauze bloke who comes across as a bit of a nutcase, quite frankly.

I suppose what you have here - and this results in part from even the newspaper cuttings having been retyped so as to present everything in the same font - are big blocks of raw, seemingly disparate information jammed together in sequence without much to differentiate one from the other, no preamble or justification, and certainly nothing along the lines of how this week our Nigel takes a wry look at ancient brewery lore in the Peak District. One subject switches rapidly to another, even ending mid-sentence or recurring as a previous page is duplicated - possibly not on purpose - thus creating a sort of information texture with interference formed from the conflicting patterns of an article about McDonalds jammed up against one about stone circles, for one example. What this amounts to is that the collected Network News presents a surprisingly rewarding and often very funny read, certainly more so than one might expect of a title probably doomed to sit on shelves next to tedious histories of industrial music written by people who weren't there. On the strength of this, I sort of wish he'd have a go at something which is more obviously a novel.

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks

Jack Kerouac & William S. Burroughs
And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks (1945)

I walked right past this one when I first saw it in the used book store. I'd heard the title from it being listed amongst a vague group of Burroughs' lesser works and related oddities, but had never really considered it as something which would interest me, which is partially due to the involvement of Kerouac. I have nothing against Kerouac, but neither have I ever felt a strong desire to read anything he wrote, which is possibly an adverse reaction to people who don't really know me telling me to read On the Road because it's just the sort of thing I would like. Such recommendations further foster my impression of Kerouac as a sort of written equivalent of Jim Morrison - great singles and a decent voice, but I probably wouldn't want a whole album, and anyone who seriously regards all that frowning and glowering as indicative of something profound is probably an idiot.

Anyway, I bought it on my second visit to said book store because I realised that I would have been pissed off had I gone back to the rarities shelf and seen that someone else had beat me to it; and I'm glad I did because it's a fascinating curio, you might almost say Burroughs' first novel. In 1944, he and Kerouac were unpublished writers, or aspiring writers, hanging around together, drinking beer, taking on the occasional dead end job and generally just drifting. When one of their loose assemblage of friends murdered another, they decided to write a novel about it, each fictionalising the tale in alternate chapters told from his own point of view. It's fascinating as a period piece of life amongst not quite Bohemian types in New York as the second world war grumbled towards its conclusion across the other side of the horizon, and it's decent as a novel in its own right, even beyond the element of curiosity.

I gather both Kerouac and Burroughs had agreed to stick to a fairly basic, stripped down form of narrative so as to maintain a certain consistency; and although I'm not familiar with Kerouac, Burroughs' voice is already beginning to take shape:

Later, when we were sitting in Riker's at the counter eating eggs, Ryko told me that Betty-Lou had taken a great dislike to Philip.

'There's something rotten about him,' she had said. 'He has the smell of death about him.'

'That's one for the book all right,' I said.

The title derives from a news report coming over the radio during a conversation between Kerouac and others, with alternate lines of unrelated dialogue mashed together in a way which prefigures Burroughs' later use of cut-up technique - which probably indicates the intimacy of the collaboration given that it isn't Burroughs writing it in this instance.

Most of the detail of daily life falls somewhere between Hemingway and Bukowski, albeit a Bukowski who hangs out with poets or occasionally considers paintings by Modigliani. It is vivid and well-paced, with Kerouac's efforts to find work on a ship and travel to Europe providing a backbone of narrative across which is framed the complicated relationship of David Kammerer and Lucien Carr, leading to the murder of the latter by the former. An odd note is struck by the defining of the Kammerer-Carr relationship as homosexual in contrast to whatever else the other characters have going on, which isn't really given a name beyond a heterosexual default suggested by occasional use of the term fag as applied to David Kammerer, or Ramsay Allen as he is named in the novel. Initially some of this read a little like self-loathing on the part of the authors - at least to me - but given that neither of them were otherwise particularly reticent regarding expression of their respective sexual preferences, I'm guessing they simply may have felt it prudent to tone things down to some extent in hope of getting published; and it is clear that this was written in hope of publication, but then forgotten following a series of rejections.

Additionally there seems to be a theme tantamount to the random, meaningless interactions of wild animals gathered at a waterhole, and the occasional frictions which might arise: the hippos boiling in their tanks, one lion killing another over a piece of meat, or Lucien braining the obsessive David before pushing him from the top of a tall building. I suppose that might be the existential element of the narrative, as promised by James Grauerholz in the afterword.

The fact of this remaining unpublished for over half a century says more about the publishing industry than the formative talents of its authors, although I suppose had it seen print they might both have ended up on very different paths.

... and it's great, by the way - seeing as I haven't actually yet said that out loud; which means I should probably read me some Kerouac.

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Zenith: Phase Four

Grant Morrison & Steve Yeowell Zenith: Phase Four (1992)
Hallelujah and all that. I realise Grant Morrison disowns this one as mere work for hire most likely on the grounds of it being the one everybody liked, but he's wrong as usual, and it makes my little heart go pitty-pat to have it back in print. In 1992 I was still buying 2000AD as a grown man with a full-time job, and every Saturday morning I would sort the mail, bag it up, and then go out on delivery, but before the first brown envelope went in anyone's letterbox I'd pick up Tharg's latest from the newsagent in Dunfield Road, Catford, then rush across the street to my first block of flats and sit in the stairwell for ten minutes with a fag catching up on Zenith, because I just couldn't wait any longer. No-one was expecting a giro on Saturday, so ten minutes wasn't going to make a lot of difference.

This final instalment of the Zenith saga worked better spread out over weeks and months, it transpires, because read in one go it reveals itself as not actually having a story, really just a punchline - which on close inspection may as well be it was all a dream - forestalled by a sequence of vaguely cool images: the ancient scientist unravelling as his ageing process is reversed - sending him back to childhood, superpowered Michael Heseltine as prime minister, the black sun, Lovecraftian entities, and an acid house robot. It has about as much substance as an advert for car insurance, but it still fucking works because somehow cool is the whole point; at least I think it is. It works in the same way a piece of music works, because Morrison was Zenith, pretty much, or Zenith with a load of self-deprecating piss taken so as to defuse the potential absurdity of a man who would have given his left one to hang out with Kylie Minogue if there was just a way to do it whilst still appearing cool. It works in the same way a piece of music works, because just listen to the Sisters of Mercy at their most epic - and who knows what the fuck any of those songs are about either?

This probably reads like negative criticism, but it isn't meant to be. For all its flaws - even that Steve Yeowell's artwork was probably better in black and white - Zenith remains a masterpiece. This collection also includes a couple of er... later efforts from various 2000AD specials, neither of which really do anything much, but you don't have to read them if you don't want to.