Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Phoned-In Adventures from the DC Universe

Alan Moore etc. Phoned-In Adventures from the DC Universe (2011)
What the fuck, I thought, it's Alan Moore - how bad could it be?, and so here we are again. I wondered about those issues of Green Lantern, Vigilante and other historically unremarkable DC titles written by the lad with the beard, having failed to notice them in their day. Specifically I wondered about them a little later by which time I was approaching thirty and somehow still young enough to be able to read X-Men spin-offs without wincing. Had I picked up the material collected here when it was new, I probably would have thought it amazing, but in 2016 I am no longer quite so comfortable extending the benefit of the doubt because a bloke in a cape is fighting crime.

DC Universe - to give the book its actual but arguably less descriptive title - collects old issues of Batman, Superman, Secret Origins and everything else Moore ever wrote for DC comics which wasn't Swamp Thing. There's nothing I'd call genuinely terrible. On the other hand there's a limit to how much you can reasonably expect from a comic about a vigilante who fights crime, drug dealers, drug dealing pimps, drug dealers who sell drugs to the kids on the street, and who calls himself Vigilante; and his superpower is that he has a gun with which he shoots drug dealers who commit crime, I suppose. You can tell that Moore is making the best of it, struggling to work with what is essentially crappy material, but you can also tell that while his heart wasn't really in it, that lecky bill wasn't going to pay itself. Even with generally great art, most of this is roughly as good as a decent run of Tharg's Future Shocks in 2000AD. I've read the Superman strips before in a black and white eighties collection called The Man of Tomorrow, and they're decent for what they are, but what they are now seems underwhelming even given that I'm about four decades past the reading age of the target audience.

The second half of the book derives from comics originally published by companies which were ultimately assimilated by the great DC Comics Borg Cube - much to Alan Moore's public displeasure - mostly relating to Jim Lee's WildCATS about which I know next to nothing. Surprisingly I found this stuff a little more engaging, which I suppose may be down to the less familiar territory and Moore having been granted license to do the sort of thing he does best. Voodoo, centred around some WildCATS character of the same name, is fairly enjoyable as yer typically brainy mainstream Moore fare, although it probably helps if you can pretend it isn't a story about murdered strippers drawn by someone with a massive collection of Bratz dolls. Then there's Deathblow which is incomprehensible and more or less bereft of dialogue, but is nevertheless justified by Jim Baikie's wonderful moody artwork.

Even when he's phoning it in, Alan Moore still makes most of the competition look like wankers. DC Universe is a reasonably enjoyable exercise in barrel scraping which should under no circumstances be mistaken for Homer's Odyssey just because author of Watchmans, V of the Vendettas blah blah blah...

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

The Lathe of Heaven

Ursula LeGuin The Lathe of Heaven (1971)
I've now read most books published by most of the authors I really, really like. I have therefore reached that point of realisation that if it's considered a science-fiction classic and there it is right in front of me on the shelf in the second hand place, then I may as well bag me a copy providing it isn't Heinlein. Whilst Ursula played a blinder with The Left Hand of Darkness, it somehow didn't quite inspire me to run out and grab everything else carrying her name. I'm not even sure why not, but anyway, here I am four or five years later, submerging that toe to greater depth.

The Lathe of Heaven is characteristically beautifully written in so much as that it reads like a proper book - you know, even Margaret Attwood might enjoy it; and I suppose it belongs to the satirical tradition of science-fiction in the broadest sense. At least it has enough in common with later Philip K. Dick as to account for why a LeGuin quote should in particular have graced the covers of so many of his novels when Granada reprinted them back in the eighties.

Our man in The Lathe of Heaven has dreams which change the world, leaving only himself with the memory of how things were before his own subconscious somehow influenced reality. He seeks psychiatric help, but the psychiatrist only primes his patient with suggestions leading to dreams which depopulate the Earth and bring on an alien invasion. There's no explanation for how the dreams of one person can have such a devastating effect, but that's hardly the point of the novel, and the point of the novel is, I suppose, that one should be careful what one wishes for. It's neither inordinately original nor particularly profound, but nevertheless makes for just the kind of well-rounded, satisfying read you probably expect from Ursula LeGuin. I suppose my only criticism, if we really need one, is that it felt like an overly extended short story rather than a novel in the sense of The Left Hand of Darkness and so doesn't seem to quite attain escape velocity equivalent to that of the aforementioned, although of course they're both very different books.

Still - very readable and better than a kick up the arse.

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

The Garments of Caean

Barrington J. Bayley The Garments of Caean (1976)
I read The Cabinet of Oliver Naylor and The Four-Colour Problem in New Worlds collections and was a little bewildered as to why I hadn't otherwise heard of this seemingly underrated and under-publicised author; and The Four-Colour Problem stood out in particular for betraying a profound William Burroughs influence, for making use of the cut-up technique, and for getting away with it without reading like the work of a tribute act. Obviously I whipped this one from the shelf the second I saw it, unable to resist the lure of a cover so fabulous as to make the cast of Glee performing an Elton John medley sound like Pierre Schaeffer; and against all odds, it lives up to my already elevated expectations.

The story revolves around the much-feared Caean empire and is told from the perspective of their less-sartorially elevated galactic neighbours. There's something weird about the Caeanics, notably that whilst obviously of human descent, the near-hypnotic Caean personality is seated entirely within their admittedly sumptuously tailored clothing. Their bodies are only the fleshy machines by which garments are conveyed from one place to another. I won't give too much else away, but the story spans numerous worlds including one where all plant and animal life has evolved natural sonic weaponry, and a colony of variant humans adapted to life in open space.

The Garments of Caean doesn't make any attempt at aping Burroughs as I half-expected, but it's clearly sprung from the same peculiar imagination as those earlier bits and pieces I read in New Worlds. It's bursting with wonderfully bizarre ideas thrown out in passing, ideas which other authors would have expanded to at least a trilogy. It's one of the most engrossing things I've read in a while, and is engrossing by similar terms to the very best of Philip K. Dick or A.E. van Vogt, with whom it seems to share some sense of kinship, or at least equivalent surrealism. The key to this is probably that it has purpose beyond just spinning us a space opera, and whilst the philosophical dimension - mostly discussion of the relationship between image and self - may not be anything new, it makes a pleasant change to come across such musings in so hugely entertaining
a context as we have here.

It's been a while since I added any new names to the I must read everything this person has written list, but Bayley definitely makes the grade.

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Planet of the Apes

Pierre Boulle Planet of the Apes (1963)
I was never a massive fan of the films although I liked the first one well enough. As it happens my first commissioned book cover was for The Planet of the Apes Chronicles by Paul A. Woods, essentially a collection of vaguely scholarly essays about the films, television series, and so on; at least I assume they were vaguely scholarly as I probably skipped a few of them. Nevertheless, Boulle's novel struck me as worth buying when I chanced upon a copy, it being sufficiently interesting in itself regardless of the films it inspired, even just as a piece of science-fiction history.

Although there were quite a few significant changes made to the story between this original novel and Charlton Heston shaking his fist at the Statue of Liberty, most seem well-made for once, given that Planet of the Apes is science-fiction by a fairly liberal reading of the term, having more in common with Gulliver's Travels than The First Men in the Moon. In fact, you might be better off reading it as a prequel to Will Self's Great Apes than as formative to the Charlton Heston vehicle. For starters, Boulle's apes are more technologically advanced than their cinematic descendants, and at least have technology sufficient to send experimental satellites into orbit, some with human test animals inside. Beyond this they're pretty much in the tradition of Victorian tables turned caricature, wearing suits, puffing away on pipes, driving cars - whatever Boulle thought would best shock us into taking a long, hard look at ourselves and the institutions of our society. Ape civilisation here is rigidly divided as a parody of the class system with gorillas as an arrogant aristocracy, orang-outangs as the stubbornly scientific class, and chimpanzees standing in for more or less everyone else.

Despite the bold text represented by this mirror image of ourselves as apes, and despite a lively and readable prose without too much in the way of fannying around, whatever Boulle was trying to say often seems oddly ambiguous with his focus shifting from animal rights to the absurdity of the class system, even taking a parodic swipe at the stock market at one point. Ultimately the statement is a broad one concerning human vanity and the misplaced faith we have in our own institutions. The conclusion is radically different to the one we saw on the screen, although it has to be said that the film actually makes more sense of its story in being significantly less reliant on coincidence and with less convoluted purpose. By contrast, Planet of the Apes with all of its laboured twists and raised eyebrows is of such Swiftian thrust as to count as a Surrealist novel. It's also a very good book, possibly just not the one you might have expected it to be if you've ever heard of Roddy McDowall.

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Frankenstein, Agent of SHADE: War of the Monsters

Jeff Lemire & Alberto Ponticelli
Frankenstein, Agent of SHADE: War of the Monsters (2012)

With great characters, a solid story and perfectly fitting artwork, Frankenstein, Agent of SHADE remains one of DC's best books, it says here on the back cover, which really makes me wonder how bad the shit ones must have been. Jeff Lemire wrote an approximately decent run on Animal Man, and the premise of this sounded like the right kind of stupid so I just had to take a look. Of course, Grant Morrison used the DC version of Mary Shelley's monster in Seven Soldiers of Victory, which I recall as being a thing of wonder even though I can't actually remember anything else about it, much less whether the Frankenstein episodes were anything special.

For what it may be worth, I gather that Shelley's monster wandered the Earth for some time following the events of her book - at least according to DC lore - before eventual recruitment by one of those typically shadowy government agencies you always hear about, in this case the Super Human Advanced Defence Executive. Thusly does he now wander the Earth writing wrongs with the help of his Creature Commandos, respectively a mummy, a Dracula, a werewolf, and a woman from the black lagoon.


I gather some of this stuff was in Seven Soldiers but as I say I can't remember any of it, and reading up on Wikipedia ringeth no bells. As an aspiring mangafied Ditko tribute, it probably could have worked had Lemire upped either the surrealism or the stupidity, but he hasn't, instead writing the sort of generic combination of face punching scrapes and weird science you used to get in X-Men spin-offs in the eighties, back when we were still pretending that twelve-year old boys read this stuff. It tries dark, but can't quite seem to work out just what it wants to do and ends up as Hanna-Barbera written by someone who really should have been escorted from the premises before he got anywhere near the room with the typewriters.

'I never did like these things. They always gave me the willies,' comments Warren the werewolf as the Creature Commandos engage in a pagga with the android Humanids, one of many fights characterised by one-line zingers traded back and forth amongst combatants.

'You know what I always say, Furball,' quips Velcoro the vampire, whose name I can't keep myself from reading as Velcro, 'never trust anything that don't bleed!'

Do you really always say that, Velcoro?

Do you really?

Oddly, Frankenstein himself - seeing as we've apparently given up pointing out that this was the name of the creator rather than the guy with the bolt through his neck, because that's like soooooo boooooring - is relatively faithful to Shelley's surprisingly erudite creation, at least in comparison to most of the other versions we've had over the years, but somehow it just isn't enough. It could be that I'm just too old for this sort of thing, and in reading it I am essentially attempting to persuade programs which have run without a problem for years to work on Windows 10; but then I had no problem with the big fat eighties Captain America collection I bought last year, and that one was definitely written for kids. Alberto Ponticelli's artwork achieves Mike McMahon levels of gorgeousness and gorgeousity made flesh, and yet remains hamstrung by the weaker links of everything else in the book; although the contrast is reduced by the seventh issue in which someone called Walden Wong inks Ponticelli's pencils in the style of one of those mid-nineties 2000AD artists who couldn't actually draw, the big eyes Armoured Gideon bloke for example, whatever his name was - the guy who made everyone look like extras from Garfield.

Frankenstein, Agent of SHADE isn't terrible, but it's surprisingly average considering what went into the recipe. If it was really ever one of DC's best books, then I'd say DC are probably screwed, although to be fair the claim represents a similarly poor fit to the book having been cancelled following issue sixteen. I suppose it would be a boring world if we all liked the same thing, and clearly some people liked this. One bloke on Goodreads described it as Hellboy by way of Philip K. Dick, which probably works if you've never read at least one of those, but whatever - it worked well enough for him, I guess.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

American Jesus: Chosen

Mark Millar & Peter Gross American Jesus: Chosen (2004)
Another new one on me, I'm afraid - a comic book asking what would it be like to be twelve years old in present day America and to discover that you're actually Jesus reincarnated for all the reasons described in the good book. Millar states in an interview in the appendix that he wanted to do a book about faith that wasn't about child-molesting priests or all the usual shit you get when we liberals write stories about the Church, which is refreshing; and peculiarly, not only does this share very little common ground with Garth Ennis, but it speaks directly to Christians on their terms, or so it seems to me. This may sound about as much fun as the church army meeting I was roped into attending when I was fifteen - which actually was fun but for all the wrong reasons - but Mark Millar clearly knows what he's doing, presenting a broad message with which it should be impossible to disagree if you have any sort of moral standard, and presenting it without a hint of droning proselytisation. It's probably not a huge surprise that American Jesus might almost be considered a rewrite of his much-earlier Saviour, albeit a substantial rewrite, and the only notes that jar pertain to the American setting, principally due to a few incongruities such as references to chopper bikes and the like - details which some editor really should have caught. Given how the notes that jar in a Mark Millar comic are usually persons forced at gunpoint to saut
é and then consume their own bumholes or similar, it would seem churlish to complain. Much of the book fixates on the texture of childhood in similar terms to Millar's more recent 1985, which nicely grounds American Jesus in the real world, or a real world. I don't think the second part of the story ever came out, leaving this one with something of an abrupt ending, and yet the book still does more or less all it needs to do, so it doesn't seem to matter.

In light of recent world events, its nice to see that some Christians are prepared to distance themselves from the actions of extremists.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

The Greks Bring Gifts

Murray Leinster The Greks Bring Gifts (1964)
The more Leinster I read - although I should probably point out that this is only my third - the more I suspect his legend should loom at least a little larger than is presently the case. I'm not sure if he quite qualifies as a great lost master, but he's seriously fucking readable for someone you've probably never heard of, and I've yet to encounter a Murray quite so disappointing as certain crimes against fiction committed by numerous better established authors - Isaac Asimov, Poul Anderson and the rest.

The Greks Bring Gifts is, as you may have guessed from the title, the story of the alien Greks arriving on earth to share the bounty of their advanced technology with us humans, but the gifts come with a price and it turns out that the Greks are complete cunts. It's almost an allegory for everything ever done by white people when arriving in foreign lands populated by persons without television, although I'm not sure the parallels are deliberate so much as that this is a tale hung from the same basic lesson - something it shares with the more recent Singularity Sky by Charles Stross from what I can recall. The story is related in the comfortable tones of an elderly neighbour spinning tales from his stoop on a warm evening, following its protagonists along a detective trail of alien technology, archaeology, and the ethics of slavery. The FBI turn up to lend a helping hand from time to time, contributing to a feeling that The Greks Bring Gifts could quite easily have been an episode of The Outer Limits, I suppose deriving from an era in which government agency was held to be something you could trust at least some of the time.

I may have made the book sound unambitious or even a little dull, but the appeal is in the telling, and Leinster had a wonderful voice. By some terms he might be regarded as a hack or simply a pulp author, churning out genre fiction across the board under a variety of different pseudonyms, one after the other; but then it can hardly be denied that he'd put in the man hours and was very, very good at his craft. His conversational narrative draws you in immediately, and keeps hold for...

Well, I have to admit, this one seemed to slacken off at about the half way mark. It isn't that it lost the plot so much as that I had a feeling of characters trying to keep themselves busy until the big pay off at the end of the book. I wonder if this might be a clue as to Leinster no longer being quite the name he once was, namely that he was simply better at the short form and was less able to sustain momentum at novel length. My previous Murrays have been a short story collection and a novel which turned out to be three short stories utilising the same character. It isn't that The Greks Bring Gifts is in any sense bad, just that it feels a little like the author would have been happier writing something with less of a page count. I'm still going to be keeping an eye out for more from this guy.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

America's Best Comics

Alan Moore etc. America's Best Comics (2004)
This is a collected edition of three variety pack style one-shots which didn't quite fit anywhere else, so I'm guessing - all written by Alan Moore, apart from a few bits and pieces from Steve Moore and Rick Veitch. The Many Worlds of Tesla Strong is quite nice, and there's a short but amusing Top 10 story, and the Jack B. Quick pages warrant a chuckle; but otherwise the best way to describe this seems to be Alan Moore just pissing about. The man has of course earned the right to piss about over the years, but the lack of focus inherent in a collection as varied as this means you tend to notice the weak links all the more; or at least I did.

Fine though The Many Worlds of Tesla Strong certainly is, I still don't really get Tom Strong. Moore hates modern superheroes and has said as much on a number of occasions, and so Tom Strong is a comic aimed fairly squarely - so far as I can see - at twelve-year old boys and maybe some girls, just as it should be, just as it was when Alan were a lad and everything was better than it is now; except those twelve-year old boys and maybe some girls don't really exist any more, and the endlessly tittersome pastiches of pulp tropes of the twenties must surely be at least a little confusing to anyone under thirty who isn't actively engaged in obsessing over the history of comics, the pulps, and so on. So maybe this is recommended reading age of twelve material written for persons in their fifties or summink, like adults going to school dinner themed discos and dancing to Tears For Fears. I don't know. It's well done and thankfully lacking the arch quality you usually get with this kind of thing, but something just doesn't sit right. Maybe it's the incongruous whiff of adult sexuality informing some of the admittedly beautiful art.

Speaking of which there's also a Cobweb strip. The Cobweb is a retro-styled superheroine who wears see-through clothing and thus defeats crims and perps who presumably fall over their own tongues when they realise they can see her TITTIES and also her FLANGE. Tee hee. The Cobweb was co-created by Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie, it says in the credits, presumably just in case anyone plans on nicking such a fucking brilliant idea. I've never particularly warmed to Melinda Gebbie's work, I'm afraid, finding it borderline twee; and I'm not crazy about Dame Darcy's art either. It all feels a bit community youth project to me, but then I'm clearly an outrageous sexist who experiences daily spasms of hatred at the thought of women expressing themselves, or indeed having jobs or engaging in any activity outside of either the bedroom or kitchen. Although I wouldn't regard myself as an unreasonable man, and women certainly shouldn't be chained to the cooker as some might suggest. The chains should be of sufficient length as to allow them to serve meals to their menfolk, should the menfolk be watching sports in the lounge.

Maybe if Tom Strong occasionally whipped out his pecker and used it to beat lawbreakers into submission, maybe that would even it out a little.

Most of what we have here may well be superior to the competition, and the art is mostly wonderful, but it's all a bit confused taken as a whole - too straight-arsed to be underground, and yet a little too cranky to be mainstream, and The First First American could almost have been a sketch on Crackerjack and is as such a complete waste of Sergio Aragones.