Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Steed & Mrs. Peel

Grant Morrison, Anne Caulfield & Ian Gibson Steed & Mrs. Peel (2012)
You would think I might have learned my lesson by now but nooo, here I am again. Oooh oooh Grant Morrison - this could be interesting - fucking idiot. I didn't bother with this thing first time around as an Eclipse Comic because I never really gave that much of a shit about The Avengers, or even the sixties in general for that matter. I still sort of like The Prisoner, but mainly because it's mental, and because its decade serves as a setting rather than a self-conscious manifesto. I've probably seen The Avengers at some point, but it was never really my sort of thing.

Moz turns in an efficiently generic tale at about the level of one of those other strips you might find in 2000AD. It's clever enough in its own way but, let's face it, this sort of twee swinging sixties shite more or less writes itself - bowler hat, village green, dolly bird, antique car, giant spinning top, obscure childhood reference, man wearing spectacles with octagonal lenses, Mary Poppins, menacing fairground encounter, and any combination thereof amounting to the sort of ennatainment landfill which makes even fucking steampunk seem wildly adventurous. Anne Caulfield's story is about the same except it doesn't really add up or make any sense whatsoever, plus the supposedly south American references were so aggravatingly wrong I can only assume they were made in homage to sixties telly getting everything arse about tit - dinosaurs existing at the same time as Fred Flintstone and so on.

You probably don't care, but Caulfield's Deadly Rainbow begins with the story of a lost Amazonian Inca tribe drawn in the style of the Mixtec Tilantongo Annals and borrowing the iconography of the same - trapeze and ray year markers, step pyramids, the God Tlaloc, even hand gestures once signifying specific narrative events here reduced to just some shit that looks cool. Inca culture didn't really intrude upon the Amazon basin, and nor did it have any clearly documented contact with the Mixtec culture found more than two thousand miles to the north; and those south American cultures really aren't all the same bleedin' thing innit, and the only common ground between the Mixtecs and the Inca were sun worship and metallurgy, more or less. If this was a comic book depicting some long lost tribe of ancient Egyptians leaning heavily on longboats, those helmets with the horns that they all used to wear, and a hammer-weilding God of Thunder, we would have collectively told the artist to fuck off.

Speaking of which, the artist is Ian Gibson, who was great back when he first started drawing RoboHunter, but by this point he seems to be filling pages with wavy lines and the occasional appearance of a character who I think is probably Daisy Duck, although it's difficult to tell for sure. As some complete knob is quoted on the back cover, if you're a fan of the property, I have a feeling you'll love it, and so you probably will. For me the most telling element of such praise is the term property, because that's all this really is - a series of familiar trademarked signifiers produced from a spigot in compliance with your entertainment requirements, so pay the fuck up, suckers.

The Book of Dave

Will Self The Book of Dave (2006)
It's hard to fault the premise of The Book of Dave - a post-apocalyptic society inhabiting what islands are left of England once global warming has melted the ice caps, having reverted to a pseudo-mediaeval culture based on teachings set down by a London cab driver some five centuries earlier; so there was really no umming or ahing over shall I buy this or shall I leave it on the shelf and keep on looking?

Dave is a London cabbie, and prone to at least some of the forthright opinionising for which London cabbies are renowned - not least concerning sexual politics in relation to access to his kiddie, the fruit of a ruined marriage which brings him into the orbit of Fighting Fathers, an organisation clearly modelled on Fathers 4 Justice. Dave goes a bit mad and sets all of his thoughts down in a book which he has printed onto metal plates and buried in the garden so that his estranged son might one day dig it up, read it and discover the truth. Unfortunately the book is instead discovered by the post-deluge remnants of humanity for whom it provides the tenets of a new religion, specifically one which forbids mummies and daddies to live together. Chapters alternate between the troubled millennial existence of Dave - a bit of a monster, but a sympathetic one; and the divided future society inspired by his words, specifically the struggle of Carl Dévúsh to locate the mythic second book of Dave, the one which refutes all the horrible shit set down in the first.

I've seen The Book of Dave billed as a satire on religion, but this is only really the means by which its subject is illustrated. As to what its actual subject could be - well, it's a lot of things, but mostly it's the strictures placed on human behaviour and interaction by abstracts and cultural codes running contrary to instinct or sense, with the knowledge as a sort of metaphor for that upon which we are all obliged to agree, despite that we keep getting lost all the same. At the heart of this is the plight of the white working class male, at least so far as Dave is concerned, an unloved and unlovable cause fated to be championed more or less exclusively by the sort of arseholes who bang on about the demise of white culture, white people as an endangered minority, the tyranny of political correctness, and so on and so forth; none of which means it isn't a cause.

On a personal note, I found myself temporarily homeless back in 2006, specifically about to be homeless in London where average rent had risen to a sum in excess of my weekly wage. I went to the council to see if they had any places available and was actually told that it wasn't even worth putting my name on the housing list because, as a single white male, I was of such low priority that it would be about ten years before my number came up. Being a single white male I was counted amongst the least at-risk demographic in context of everyone else who needed somewhere to live, which sounded to me sort of like if you end up on the street, then it doesn't matter because you'll probably be able to cope somehow; and keep in mind that this was a council employee telling me this through a perspex window in the neighborhood office on East Dulwich Road. Of course, there are very good reasons why single white males might be considered low priority in terms of housing, but it can be quite difficult to take this in when you are one and you're about to be turfed out onto the street. It isn't the fault of dole scroungers, single mothers, lesbians, Muslims, or the Polish hoovering up all those cushy council places despite your having fought in three world wars, but understanding this doesn't make you feel any less inclined to do something which might get you arrested; so unfortunately the phenomenon of the white working class male as generally shat upon is not a myth simply by virtue of it having provided a rallying cry for arseholes in white vans decorated with the Cross of St. George. Capitalist society tends to shit on all but a small conspicuously wealthy minority of those concerned, including the white working class male, possibly also explaining why he remains the most at risk group when it comes to suicide statistics. So while white privilege is nevertheless a thing, it doesn't neatly divide society into the shat upon and those doing the shitting, and The Book of Dave seems like an attempt to address some of this - to defend not so much the indefensible as that which is more commonly defended almost exclusively by wankers.

Happily, Self avoids the obvious cliché of the racist cab driver spouting Sun headlines and asking wood jew fackin b'lieve it?, instead populating the book with rounded, plausible characters with no resemblance to the middle class idea of a working class person doubtless anticipated by Self's critics. On the contrary, despite slowly going mad and a generally misogynistic failure to understand women, Dave otherwise displays at least as much nobility as at least a few of the postmen with whom I worked at Royal Mail. He's not a bad man, just somebody trying his best and failing, and inadvertently shaping the world to come by writing it all down.

A few years before they had tried stratagems to make the marriage work. They'd gone away for a weekend at a hotel, leaving the boy with Michelle's mother. But once Michelle had had her spa treatments and they'd eaten stodge in the chintzy dining room, they were left even more profoundly alone together in their room, the four-poster bed corpsing them with its stagy insinuation. Michelle read property adverts in Country Life. Dave smoked at the window, blowing brown fog into the white muslin curtains. they went home early and in silence. They picked up Carl from the flat on Streatham Hill and were grateful for his unceasing eight-year old twitter, birdsong in their rotten garden.

The Book of Dave is massively depressing, but mostly engaging, often funny, and painfully true to life regardless of half the page count essentially being Margaret Attwood's Oryx & Crake, but better written and without the didactic tendencies. Unfortunately it's also a fairly tough read, particularly with half of the chapters written in some future argot descended from the present-day chatter of working class London - not just rhyming slang but phonetic spellings; most of which I can follow, but then I lived there for a couple of decades and even I found some of it a bit too impenetrable. Given that my copy was picked up from a sale at the local library here in San Antonio, I can't imagine it having translated too well for whoever read it last.

I customarily ignore the commonly made accusation of Will Self being too clever for his own good because it seems predicated on an essentially ludicrous notion related to the idea that knowing too many long words is a bad fing innit, but just this once, I wish he'd reigned it in a little.

Wednesday, 20 July 2016


John Wyndham Web (1979)
Here's one which went unpublished during Wyndham's life, emerging a decade after he went to live in the ground. It's hard to tell whether this was something he was working on just as Mictlantecuhtli came calling, or an older draft of something he couldn't be bothered to finish, and the internet isn't much help in this one instance.

The story is a thematic variation on Wyndham's characteristic ecological or environmental catastrophe, with a few related ideas thrown in for good measure. It begins with moves made towards the formation of a rational Utopian society on a remote Pacific island, an enterprise which ends in death and disaster due to the presence of an emergent species of social spider which has taken over the island. It's the same basic dynamic as Day of the Triffids, The Midwich Cuckoos, and probably a few others - not to mention a heapin' helping of Michael Crichton's career - which sort of suggests a reason as to why Wyndham might not have bothered getting the thing
published, I suppose. That said,  Web is hardly a straight retread, and feels very much like a novel in its own right. The opening chapters concerned with the drive to begin anew seem timely given the novel presumably having been written in the wake of the second world war with the rebuilding of England and Harold Wilson's white heat of technology speech, not to mention all those science-fiction authors forever banging on about futurist supermen. Wyndham uses his characters here to voice a certain distrust of the politically left, which might ordinarily bother me, although it's possibly nothing stronger than scepticism concerning the vocally progressive Labour party of the time, and certainly he seems particularly sceptical of the Utopian ideal which leads the main protagonists to the island of Tanakuatua. Given the settlers receiving a thorough kicking from the forces of nature - entailing some fairly engaging debate about evolution and natural selection - the moral would seem to be concerned mainly with human vanity - nothing terribly original, but nicely illustrated nevertheless.

All the same, Web feels like a long short story, or possibly an unfinished draft. The prose is wonderful, but the framework to which it is bolted feels rickety in places. Tanakuatua, as we learn, was initially abandoned following irradiation by nuclear tests conducted elsewhere in the Pacific, a point which is left unexplored - unless it's simply that I've been primed to expect more in that direction by all those Godzilla films. Yet it seems as though the spiders have developed organisational skills due to radioactive mutation - or at least this was how I read it - otherwise, why not just ants, termites, or wasps, or any other invertebrate which is already capable of what the spiders do in this book and which actually exists?; unless spiders were chosen principally as a tried and tested horror trope. Also, the duration of the chapter detailing the history of the island seemed disproportionally large in the context of the rest of the book, suggesting it was written for what should have ultimately been a lengthier text.

Still, I'm not complaining. It's not his best but is still a decent book, and as Wyndham catastrophes go, it's one fuck of a long way from cosy.

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl

Ryan North & Erica Henderson The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl (2015)
I sometimes forget that my comic habit, such as it is, is largely restricted to that which I recall having read as a kid, or which I missed first time around, or which I once had but got rid of during one of my infrequent purges; so in all honesty, my impression of the current state of the art is vague at best, garnered either from news items posted on facebook, or the occasional bewildering stumble around Android's Dungeon in search of something old and familiar. My local comic shop isn't really called Android's Dungeon, but I feel strongly that it should be because it would be preferable to Heroes & Fantasies, which is the actual name.

Modern comics, at least the mainstream stuff, seem to be mostly self-referential superheroes drawn by people who grew up reading either manga or things drawn by Rob Liefeld; and they appear to be aimed squarely at comic book obsessives far more than they were when I was buying the things, back in the old days when everything was better than it is now. I've read a few that were okay, if nothing amazing, and a few that were fucking horrible; and I browsed Before Watchmen in the store and just couldn't see the point at all, but then what do I know?

On the other hand, there's Squirrel Girl, formerly best known as star of all those twenty shit superheroes lists which could once be found simply by randomly lobbing a brick at the internet - you probably know the deal: Arm Fall Off Boy, Matter Eater Lad, all those other guys. As it happens, Squirrel Girl's debut - written and drawn by the talented but undeniably cranky Steve Ditko and handily included in this collection - is indeed a bit on the crap side, truth be told; or if not crap than there's something very difficult to love about it, a faintly unpleasant tone stemming from the ambiguity as to whether we're laughing at or with our patently ludicrous not-quite-a-heroine.

Girls and squirrels - dude, that's so gay etc. etc.

In context, the revived Squirrel Girl feels like both a revelation and a stroke of genius, territory clawed back from the grimacing ninjas with the Japanese swords, throwing stars and the one-liners which actually aren't that funny. It's a reminder that comics can still be for kids, seeing as we've apparently lost sight of that detail. She's still ridiculous of course - with her squirrel powers and a theme song patently nicked from Spiderman; but she's ridiculous by the same terms as the rest of us, because we're all ridiculous to one extent or another and it isn't necessarily a bad thing. Naturally, it's a funny book because it wouldn't work otherwise, but at least it's on our side in a way I'm not convinced that the Ditko version ever really was. The humour will be familiar from all of those Buffy episodes and more or less everything that presently comes out of my thirteen-year old stepson's mouth, but it's warm and well-intentioned; and of course, being Marvel, it's also kind of square - lame observations qualified as humour with a suffix of right, guys? and that sort of thing - but not in a bad way, and not everything has to be Johnny Ryan's Retard Hitler. Personally I take it as a very encouraging sign regarding the collective soul of the human race that a comic such as this can still get published.

Please, Marvel, don't let Grant Morrison anywhere near it.

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Robert Shea & Robert Anton Wilson The Illuminatus! Trilogy (1975)
I've avoided this one for most of my adult life without quite having formulated a coherent reason why, and in the end it was Andrew Hickey's testimony which changed my mind, inspiring me to the realisation that I had no good reason to not at least just try the thing.

You've almost certainly come across every idea in it before, in a watered-down form from a million wankers who think they're being amusing by repeating things other people have said, he suggested, having anticipated most of my reservations, but if you can get past that, it's a good book. Most of its innovations have been absorbed into the countercultural mainstream, so it won't blow your mind or anything, but if you can get past that, you might well enjoy it.

At the risk of sounding affected, I was already bored thoroughly shitless by the supposed twenty-three phenomenon by about 1982, the year of Psychic TV's impressively disappointing debut album. I too had read William Burroughs, and had assumed everybody nicked it from him. There was a feature about Robert Anton Wilson's Illuminatus! books in Vague, which I never bothered reading - it being too much trouble with colour images printed over faint text - so I never made the link. In the late eighties I provided artwork for a relatively popular fanzine called Hoax!, which seemed to be another variation on Re/Search with a load of fairly predictable Porridgey obsessions thrown in, but I liked the guy who put the thing together. Well, I liked him up to a point, but I didn't share his fixation with conspiracy theories, and I got tired of drawing stuff I wouldn't otherwise have drawn and drawing it for free - notably a cover for the second issue of Hoax! which I now recognise as having been an exercise in ticking off boxes on the Illuminatus! check list. In fact, having now read the trilogy, I realise that Hoax! was pretty much a straight exercise in recycling Wilson's material wholesale because plagiarism is the new originality blah blah blah...

By the time Grant Morrison came out with The Unreadables - recycling his own juvenilia as Robert Anton Wilson recycled via Michael Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius with the plates switched, I was about ready to punch the next giggling imbecile to tug at my sleeve and point out that something or other had just cost him - oooh fancy - twenty-three pence chortle chortle...

As Andrew suggested, I have indeed encountered much of this material before, often without realising it; and of course it would be churlish to refuse admission to members of the Rolling Stones on the grounds of Primal Scream being a big pile of wank, so let's do this.

Firstly, as you might gather from the title, Illuminatus! is concerned with conspiracy theory in so much as that conspiracy theory forms the fabric of the narrative, serving as the language by which the book describes whatever the hell it's trying to describe. By conspiracy theory I mean the idea that secretive organisations or forces might be controlling human society from behind the scenes. I've never really given much credence to this sort of thing, mainly because I don't believe any of those supposedly in charge of human society possess either the resources or the intelligence necessary to maintain a contrary façade or to orchestrate anything resembling a tangled web of subterfuge. In other words, there's probably a story behind the Kennedy assassination, but I seriously doubt it's even half so interesting as everybody seems to think. That said, I believe that human society - and particularly where large governmental systems have formed - tends to behave like a living organism, subject to the will of its own internal manias without much in the way of conscious influence on the part of those involved, and that this often very much has the appearance of the kind of society we would inhabit were any of the conspiracies true. So conspiracy theory can serve as a useful metaphor for the discussion of human activity on an historical scale, which is partially what Wilson has done.

It's not just Wilson though. Himself and Robert Shea were both working for Playboy when they came up with this thing - apparently inspired by cranky letters sent in to the magazine - each writing sections to play off the other as a sort of narrative duel utilising the premise of all conspiracy theories being equally valid. The story roughly follows a private detective named Saul Goodman - doubtless inspiration for Bob Odenkirk's character in Breaking Bad - investigating the disappearance of a magazine editor, a person presumed silenced by the conspiracy, whatever it may be. The narrative serves as a framework upon which are hung all manner of conflicting theories and versions of human history, at least a few of which involve Atlantis, the Bavarian Illuminati, Hassan-i Sabbah, various Lovecraftian entities, Adolf Hitler, John Dillinger, and everything else ever.

It's mostly bewildering, not least with the narrative switching from first to third person every so often, and with different passages blending into one another with no break to differentiate scene or subject. There are strong elements of satire alternating with parodies of other writers - notably Ayn Rand - then Joycean streams of consciousness, and even the main characters realising they're in a book. Whilst the prose is such as to make for generally pleasurable, even thought-provoking reading, you may as well give up on  expectations of finding a coherent story in here. It seems to have one - something about a golden submarine, a rock festival, and a monolithic single-celled entity named Leviathan - but spends most of the page count having a fight with itself. Wilson's writing is apparently influenced by William Burroughs, James Joyce, and Ezra Pound, and to me Illuminatus! reads a little like a hybrid of Burroughs and Michael Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius books in its tendency to switch between the vaguely hard-boiled and ponderous or even inscrutable philosophical discussion; and there are eight hundred fucking pages of it.

Probably for the sake of argument, Illuminatus! adopts the value system which I later found so aggravating about Hoax!, namely that no single view holds greater validity than any other, so nothing is necessarily more true or even more interesting than anything else, meaning we are obliged to accommodate a certain quota of complete bullshit - at least as I see it. Shea and Wilson therefore jam conflicting fantasies of human history up against each other so as to create confusion, and the point of this is that we might learn to be more picky about which ideas we let into our heads, or at least accept that those already incumbent might have gained access under a false pretext. The confusion seems to be a variation on Burroughs' cut-up technique, destroying the familiar patterns in order to discern what others are to be found.

Some of it is fascinating, and some of it is just annoying or boring - which probably isn't deliberate but may be inevitable given that the authors probably didn't envision Illuminatus! condensed to two-hours of screen time with a grimacing Sean Connery in hot pursuit of a mysteriously robed foe - at least not literally, the escapades of agent 00005 notwithstanding. The subject of the trilogy is more or less the nature of reality and how we experience it, so the book isn't above invoking the eternally yawnsome Timothy Leary alongside a load of guff equivalent to how quantum physicists and tribal shaman are the same thing, which they aren't, but I suppose it's forgiveable. Philip K. Dick did kind of the same thing with a more reader-friendly voice, and without quite such a page count.

More disappointing still is that every single reference to pre-Colombian Mexican culture - more or less inevitable in a book involving conspiracy theories and pyramids - is drivel of the kind suggesting that research in that specific area didn't even stretch to a  library book. For starters, there's no such thing as a Great Pyramid of the Maya, the references to Tlaloc actually refer to Chalchihuitlicue, and the famed Feathered Serpent was neither feathered nor in any sense serpentine and thus has no place in a list alongside either the mythic serpent which devours its own tail or old Snakey from the Garden of Eden; and I know it shouldn't really matter in a novel which spends at least some time hanging around in Atlantis, and the whole point is to illustrate approximate truths as worth more than absolutes; but if you're going to smuggle an indeterminate quota of complete bollocks in with the good stuff, you really need to make sure the good stuff is of a certain standard.

Anyway, against all odds, Illuminatus! achieves that for which it was written, and manages to be more or less entertaining throughout, and certainly philosophically provocative - which is more than can be said of almost everyone following in its footsteps, most of whom really needn't have bothered, Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty; but eight-hundred pages! I still don't quite get why it needed to be so long, but whatever. It didn't blow my mind, although I still sort of wish I'd read this prior to exposure to at least some of the drivel it inspired, directly or otherwise.

I think that's a recommendation.

Let's just say that it is.