Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Notes from Underground

Fyodor Dostoyevsky Notes from Underground (1864)
I didn't really get on with Crime and Punishment, and I bought this on the grounds of having heard of it and that Dostoyevsky must have written something to deserve all that reputation. It turns out that Notes from Underground is actually pretty slim, so it's fairly common to find it collected with other material as is the case here, and which presented the additonal appeal of containing shorter and hopefully snappier examples of whatever the fuck he was trying to say.

I got a little more out of it than Crime and Punishment, but otherwise I think I've learned my lesson. Here we have four tales from different periods of Dostoyevsky's life serving to illustrate an almost autobiographical narrative. Specifically, Dostoyevsky was subjected to a mock execution by tsarist authorities who regarded him as a subversive in 1849, then sent off to the stripey hole for the next eight years, all of which somewhat soured his view of humanity and his own initial idealism. We are afforded insight into the views of the young Dostoyevsky in White Nights, then his time in prison in selections from the autobiographical The House of the Dead, then Notes itself, concluding with The Dream of a Ridiculous Man which charts his descent into something resembling misanthropy.

The excerpts from The House of the Dead seem the most illuminating, and I found the most interesting, mostly consisting of straightforward reportage of the lives and crimes of those with whom Dostoyevsky shared a prison lavatory. The accounts are conversational, sober, and the crimes detailed are allowed to speak for themselves without any wringing of hands or pulling of faces, which is what spoils the rest of this material for me. It's nothing like so cloying or sentimental as Dickens, and the narrative often seems to actively resist the possibility with its focus on ugliness, contradiction, and self-loathing, its continuous refutation of idealism; but in the absence of light relief, it all becomes a little exhausting after a while. I suppose our man may have been attempting to communicate some purity of vision, albeit through grey-tinted spectacles, in encouraging us to dislike him as much as he seemingly disliked himself, but I found the effect unconvincing. White Nights was written prior to the author's time in prison, before the disillusionment had properly settled in, and strives to build drama from simpering acquaintances who wouldst be lovers but for something dull to do with somebody's grandmama, or maybe a fancy cake or some purloined napkins, that kind of thing. Anyway, the point is that White Nights is excruciatingly precious and juvenile, and after reading it I couldn't keep myself from seeing Dostoyevsky as an overly earnest upper class art student who follows you around quoting William Blake or snatches of Jim Morrison lyrics whilst trying his hardest to smoulder in a generally meaningful way; which is a shame because The House of the Dead at least seems to be worth a look, judging by what we have here. As a collection, this is not without merit, but it's a little chewy in places, and Jean-Paul Sartre's Nausea takes us to more or less the same destination in a much better book.

Funnily enough, perhaps in obediance to some obscure cosmic principle, last time I read Dostoyevsky I found myself toggling between Crime and Punishment and the first volume of Danny Baker's memoirs for the sake of light relief; and having picked up this one, the universe has somehow conspired to furnish me with a copy of Going Off Alarming (2014) just as I really needed to read something which wasn't a nineteenth century Russian bloke punching himself in the face for two-hundred pages. I only noticed the coincidence once I'd finished Notes. Maybe there is such a thing as the anti-Dostoyevsky and it's Danny Baker, a man who doesn't do dark and whom it may be useful to regard as the human analogy of Bugs Bunny, for the sake of argument. As with Going to Sea in a Sieve, Baker's narrative style is very much rooted in the spoken form, seeming occasionally uncomfortable on the printed page with infrequent swerves into footballer's autobiography territory when I opened the door and who should be stood there but my famous friend, Ray Reardon, the snooker champion…


Complaining about this would define me as an idiot, so I won't. The great strengths of Going Off Alarming - aside from it not being written by Dostoyevsky - are that it's erudite, funny as fuck, and stuffed with all manner of unexpected and peculiarly tender insights, notably those pertaining to Paul Gascoine - which probably say more about the human condition than anything in Notes. It also makes me quite nostalgic for Deptford and the company of dockyard types.

Doctor to the Stars

Murray Leinster Doctor to the Stars (1964)
Here's another three tales of Calhoun of the Interstellar Medical Service as he travels from planet to planet with just his wits and the companionship of Murgatroyd - an extraterrestrial critter resembling a lemur - to guide him. You would think that a few of those human colonies might have thought to include a couple of medical types on the passenger list before striking out, although of course had they done so, Leinster wouldn't have had so much fun transposing frontier medicine of the old west to outer space; that said, the settlers of Tallien Three actually do have a medical man of their own, but he's a bad 'un so he probably doesn't count.

If Leinster wasn't actually pitching something which might end up serialised on the telly, then he at least had one eye on inspiring brand loyalty through one of those recurring characters which soulless fan wankers tend to refer to as a franchise. Calhoun is probably a relative of one of those Asimov characters who figures out the puzzles, mostly Aesculapian in this case, and it's so rigourously formulaic as to end each tale with a Scooby Doo style zinger. As a collection, it falls short of Murray Leinster's best, but is nevertheless enjoyable for being blessed with his usual smattering of big, wacky ideas and observations; foreshadowing more recent concerns about game addiction, for one example:

But the children so kept happy would not be kept exercised, nor stimulated to act, or think, or react for themselves. The effect of psych-circuit child-care would be that of drugs for keeping children from needing attention. The merely receiving children would lose all initiative, all purpose, all energy.

Sadly, it's not difficult to see why his name has slipped into obscurity; and it's sad because even though I doubt anyone's life was ever changed by reading a Murray Leinster, his writing is difficult to dislike, and always seems savoured with a little more than you might expect.

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

The Mysterious Planet

Lester Del Rey The Mysterious Planet (1953)
This is another juvie so I probably shouldn't have sighed quite so hard when the main character turned out to be a plucky teenage lad, all full of spunk 'n' shit, whose dad is some big cheese spaceship captain on Mars. The Mysterious Planet doth tell of how the aforementioned big cheese spaceship captain takes his boy along with him on a mission to investigate the mysterious arrival of a wandering planet in the solar system, because why wouldn't you take your kid along? Our boy forms an uneasy friendship with another lad, one whose big cheese spaceship captain father is considerably richer than everyone else and has thus pulled a few strings to get his slightly thick offspring on board; and some moon or other has been colonised by mostly Hispanic astronauts, so our boy and his wealthy but stupid chum befriend another teenage astronaut.

Bob spent most of the time with Juan Román. The boy seemed to have buried his grief somewhere deep inside himself, and to be resigned to whatever happened. He was strangely serious and naive, with little of the gaiety for which his people were famed.

Should have played him a few bars of La Cucaracha. That would have cheered him up a bit.

Anyway, despite superficial resemblances of plotting to certain details of the Cybermen back story from proper Doctor Who - not least those sleek black ships - the people of the rogue planet, are a lot like us.

Yet Bob was sure now that Thule was more like Earth than its mere outward appearance. There was less difference between the race of Thule and the original inhabitants of Earth than there had been between various Earth cultures in the past.

I think this just means that they aren't Communists or something. Anyway, Thule needs a sun of its own, and Earth's orbit looks mighty fine, and any questions raised by so ludicrous a premise are answered with surprising conviction. They all sort it out in the end, although I don't remember how. Del Rey writes well, clearly and at a reasonable pace, with enough style to allow one to suspend disbelief regarding both wacky science and the cornier elements of the tale; but ultimately there just wasn't 180 pages worth of story here, so it sags in places. Never mind.

Dr. Futurity

Philip K. Dick Dr. Futurity (1960)
Back in 2008, suddenly self-conscious of being nowhere near so well or widely read as I felt I ought to be, I didst vow firstly to read for an hour each night before bed and again in the morning where possible so as to always have a book on the go, and secondly to try to write a review of everything so as to oblige me to think about each title in some kind of depth and so hopefully to learn something from the experience. It's probably not a coincidence that this coincided with my discovering the internet and the realisation of being suddenly able to track down relatively obscure books I'd never even seen in a store without having to pay a fucking fortune, of which Dr. Futurity might count as one of the first; and now I'm reading it again because a second copy has turned up glued to the reverse of John Brunner's Slavers of Space as an Ace Double, and - interestingly enough - just a few months short of the ten year anniversary of my first having read it when I began this journey, if you'll excuse the inherent wankiness of my referring to it as a journey.

This time, I'm better prepared through having read a ton of van Vogt in the interim, and I got a lot more from the book. Dr. Futurity tends to have been overlooked as a formative early work in the general public haste to adapt Dick's every last note left out for the milkman as a shit blue and orange action thriller starring one of those actors no-one can ever remember the name of. I believe it remains in print as part of a collection entitled Three Early Novels - also including Vulcan's Hammer and The Man Who Japed - the publicity of which describes its components as considerably more straightforward than his later novels blah blah Ubik blah blah Blade Runner* blah blah… So the dialogue would seem to have it that he was still finding his feet here, which is only partially true. By this point he'd written the majority of his so-called mainstream novels which would remain unpublished until after his death, so he knew how to write, just not how to get published or taken seriously, which I suspect may have been significant in his turning to science-fiction.

Dr. Futurity conspicuously reads like an attempt to get to grips with the genre in so much as that it's more or less a pastiche of A.E. van Vogt, of whom Dick was very much an admirer. That said, many of the themes to which Dick would return in later novels which Ridley Scott has heard of, were already in place - the cats, the black-haired women, the absentee God, the appreciation of boobs, and most significantly the notion of our reality as something false laid over the way things should have turned out, in this case a version of America which resisted colonisation by Europeans.

'Your forefathers,' Stenog said, 'the early Christians, I mean, hurled themselves under chariot wheels. They sought death, and yet out of their beliefs came your society.'

Parsons said slowly, 'We may ignore death, we may immaturely deny the existence of death, but at least we don't court death.'

'You did indirectly,' Stenog said. 'By denying such a powerful reality, you undermined the rational basis of your world. You had no way to cope with war and famine and overpopulation because you couldn't bring yourself to discuss them. So war happened to you; it was like a natural calamity, not man-made at all. It became a force. We control our society. We contemplate all aspects of our existence, not merely the good and pleasant.'

For the rest of the trip they drove in silence.

The presence of such themes probably shouldn't come as too great a surprise given that he'd been ticking most of the same boxes since Gather Yourselves Together from the early fifties.

The most distinctive aspect of this one however, is how faithfully it mimics van Vogt, working its science-fiction as weird atmospheric philosophy rather than technological speculation in the vein of Asimov and those guys. Jim Parsons, the protagonist of Dr. Futurity, is propelled forward through a dreamlike narrative characterised by seemingly random twist and turns very much in the style of Alfred Elton, and even the prose adopts the jarring, angular quality which van Vogt employed in keeping us on our toes whilst prompting more questions than are ever fully answered.

On all sides of him, meters and controls.
A.E. van Vogt developed his style with the intent of limiting his reader to the powerfully subjective psychological experience of a main character.
I had a lot more to digest this time with Dr. Futurity, but Dick unfortunately also channels some of the confusion one tends to encounter in a van Vogt novel; which, in combination with this tale of impersonators impersonating the impersonators who went back in time to change the past which had already been changed by someone impersonating the first impersonator, makes for a bit of a knotty read at least for the final chapters - not unenjoyable, just knotty.

*: Okay, so it actually mentions Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, but they were obviously thinking about Blade Runner.

Tuesday, 16 January 2018


Simon Morris Creepshots (2017)
For anyone who didn't notice, Simon Morris has been the driving force behind the Ceramic Hobs for the last couple of decades, and in case that doesn't help much*, the Ceramic Hobs were described as the last true punk band - although I can't remember where or by whom, possibly Robert Dellar - beyond which there's probably not much point trying to quantify them or even describe their sound. The Oz Oz Alice album sounded like ELO fed into a blender, or at least it did to me, a simile which I offer as a recommendation for both the record and as a means of preventing further crimes against music on the part of Jeff Lynne.

I mention this principally as an indication of where Simon Morris is coming from, because otherwise this isn't one of those guy in a band writes book deals. He's not fucking about here.

Creepshots takes the form of a lengthy letter addressed to someone called Ecka, rambling autobiographically from one train of thought to another in the manner of a stream of consciousness, but more lucid and with a greater sense of purpose even if the thrust of that purpose isn't exactly clear. He's following strands of memory around the inside of his head, trying to make sense of them, and so there's a strong element of the confessional, and not so much a sense of regret as reassessment, almost of disbelief at having been through all this and come out in one piece without turning into an arsehole; and not turning into an arsehole means something given the history of death, shit, madness, betrayal, drugs, and squelchy transactions in bondage clubs reported without the sensational tone you might get from someone who was just making this stuff up. Without having any particular mission, Creepshots seems to be mostly about the gap between that to which we aspire and the unfortunate sweaty reality, expressed most vividly in the middle section contrasting self-involved art gallery bullshit with grinding homelessness. Without having any particular mission, at least not so far as I can tell, Creepshots gives you one fuck of a lot to think about - as opposed to just making the right sort of noises - being written with the kind of intimacy which sucks the reader right into the author's head and has us looking out upon the most awkward and uncomfortable parts through his eyes; then concluding with a prelude to its own publication which nails everything to the real world, as in the one we're all lounging around in at this very moment.

That made sense in my head, but some of the content appears to have settled during transposition from brain to page. Easier just to read the thing, I suppose. Ecka may be some vaguely Biblical recipient of important letters, although Google's identification seems unusually vague, and for something which spends quite a lot of its page count getting drunk with minor members of the Fall, Creepshots feels similarly important because such graphic honesty is rare and is seldom expressed so well, and with so little vanity or showboating. Yes, I liked it a lot.

*: There's an interview with himself on this very subject in the latest issue of The Derek 'chucking a guitar down a fire escape' Bailey Appreciation Charivari the Wire (issue 408, February 2018) which - coincidentally - used one of my photos without asking, cheeky fuckers.

Monday, 15 January 2018

The Death of Grass

John Christopher The Death of Grass (1956)
A classic, I was reliably informed, and so - having already been impressed by two of Christopher's Tripods novels - I kept an eye open, eventually finding a US edition retitled No Blade of Grass with a cover promising the heaving of bosoms and stuff; and it is a classic, and a classic very much in the mold of a John Wyndham novel wherein stiff upper lipped types try to get by in a world ruined by agency of a massive global disaster. The difference, as Brian Aldiss clearly took great pleasure in pointing out, is that the upper lips of Christopher's protagonists soon lose their stiffness. In Trillion Year Spree, his history of science-fiction literature, Aldiss berates Wyndham for writing cosy catastrophes wherein the central characters have a jolly old romp despite the alien invasion, end of civilisation, or whatever, additionally praising Christopher for putting his own cast of survivors through a genuinely harrowing meat grinder of a tale.

Anyway, what we have is the destruction of the ecosystem through a virus which kills grass in all of its forms, notably including wheat, corn, and rice. So humanity is fucked, no more bread, and not much upon which livestock can graze, and civilisation collapses, and it looks as though the government have dropped atomic bombs on the larger cities in hope of reducing the population to numbers which might stand a better chance of long term survival. We follow Christopher's protagonists across country as they make for the sanctuary of an isolated valley one of them recalls from childhood. They have guns, they pick up strays, they encounter other roving bands of scavengers, and then it all turns unexpectedly bleak as they meet Jane's family, kill them in self defence, then debate whether it would be kinder to kill the aforementioned Jane than leave her to be raped by the next bunch to stumble upon the house. So it's a long way from being anything you could describe as cosy.

That being said, I think the cosy catastrophe label is a little unfair, and while it might apply to some of Wyndham's writing, I really don't see it with Triffids or Kraken; and on the other hand, whilst the people of The Death of Grass find themselves thrust into a world in which conventional morality will get you killed, we're nevertheless dealing with persons who would romp under other circumstances, and whose post-apocalyptic survival strategies serve as contrast to a lost golden age of traditional middle class values. Chaps are in charge and hoping things don't get too beastly, whilst women are to be protected because they can cook and bear children. The novel takes a dim view of humanity bordering on misanthropic whilst being slightly hamstrung by its harking back to moral values which arguably weren't that amazing in the first place.

Of course, it's still a great novel, and significantly one which was rewritten by Cormac McCarthy as The Road - a genuinely harrowing trawl through a similar apocalypse with a better grounding in basic humanity, less of the retired colonel, and which otherwise makes The Death of Grass look like some bloody awful Terry Nation effort.

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Lord of Light

Roger Zelazny Lord of Light (1967)
I started this several times and never really got very far. On this occasion I made it to about page fifty and then started again. The text was engrossing and very readable, but I found myself somehow unable to retain the basic details of what I was reading, what had happened and to whom. I made it about a hundred pages in and found myself in the same position, so I went back to the beginning and started all over again for a third time, and I took notes...

Siddhartha the Buddha is reincarnated as Mahasamatman, his essence reclaimed from the Golden Bridge through technological means by Yama-Dharma, the Death God, with the help of Tak, a monkey, and Ratri, the Goddess of Night. Many agents of the existing theocracy fear the return of the Buddha, so this is done in a secretive manner. Unfortunately the operation is detected by Mara, the God of Illusion, who approaches the monastery disguised as a beggar, a monk from a wandering order. Yama exposes Mara's true identity and slays him in a fight, from which the group realise that they cannot stay where they are, for those of the world outside have become aware of them. The Buddha meanwhile gambles with indigenous energy spirits, winning his wager and securing their service. As the group set off, the Buddha recalls the details of his past life.

As a youth, he visited Mahartha, the Capital of the Dawn seeking reincarnation, as was his due. It transpires that his once technological people, brought to this world from distant Earth, have succumbed to the new dark age of a society kept in its place by the ruling theocracy, a group of whom Sam - as he is known to his companions - was formerly a member. Where once this elite took upon the roles of Gods within the Hindu pantheon to rule as the Deicrat party, now they are those Gods, headed by the Trimurti of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva; and as such they have outlawed the Accelerationist party - which proposed that new human colonies settling on distant planets should be progressive. They have suppressed technological development and hold their people in servitude subject to the laws of karma and reincarnation.

Sam and his warriors stay at the hostel of Hawkana, keeping a low profile. He learns the lay of the land from Jan Olvegg, an old sea captain of his former acquaintance, then visits Brahma at his place to enquire why reincarnation is now governed by such restrictive laws. He recognises Brahma as a reincarnation of Madeleine, a former acquaintance, which angers the God. Brahma agrees to facilitate Sam's reincarnation, but it is clear that the offer is not all it seems. Sam drugs Shan, a travelling warlord and fellow guest at Hawkana, hypnotising him into believing that he is himself Mahasamatman. Shan goes to claim the reincarnation which he believes is his due. Sam encounters the warlord in his new body, and recognises it as that of one who suffers from epilepsy, confirming his fears about the prevailing theocracy. He raids the Palace of Karma with his men, and they steal away with the reincarnation technology.

Later, or possibly earlier, Sam is set up as a teacher in the city of Alundil where he is known as Tathagatha, or the Enlightened One. Rild, a follower of Kali comes to the town with the intention of assassinating Tathagatha, but instead becomes a disciple known as Sugata, following a battle fought with Yama. Yama slays Sugata and then himself seeks to kill the Buddha, being in the service of the ruling theocracy. He fails, and Sam tells him that he has already slain the true Buddha, because when Rild changed from an assassin to a disciple, he achieved true enlightenment.

Sam journeys to the underworld to enlist the aid of the energy beings which were banished when humanity first came to the planet. They engage the Gods in a huge battle, during which Sam attempts to steal Shiva's terrible chariot. He is defeated by the Gods Agni and Yama blah blah blah…

There's more, but by this point I'd grasped enough to keep hold of what was happening and I was bored of the homework assignment I'd given myself. For what it may be worth, the above covers roughly the first two thirds of the novel.

Lord of Light takes place on a distant planet settled by humans whose society has taken on the form of ancient Indian society, complete with reincarnation and a ruling elite of polytheist Hindu Gods. It reads mostly like Buddhist parables, or how I imagine Buddhist parables must read based on my having watched Monkey on the telly when I was a teenager; so there's a tendency for characters to deliver statements utilising words such as behold and yonder to one another, and there are many conversations of the kind which ask us to consider the birds in the trees, and so on and so forth. The novel is heavily allegorical, and so the style in which it is written works very well, being both appropriate to the argument and serving the atmosphere; but it probably helps if you're better acquainted with the literary territory, which is why I had problems. That said, it's a testament to the quality of the writing that whilst I lost track of a few things, I was nevertheless able to re-read some of this novel three times in quick succession without being bored. Lord of Light's great success is in its philosophical depth and how well it communicates certain ideas about the nature of reality and our understanding of the same. The novel expects the reader's undivided attention, which is only fair given the elegance of the arguments set forth, but the bottom line - at least for me - was that unfortunately it took me about two weeks to get through the thing, what with all the re-reading. I tend to finish most novels in three or four days, and so a certain degree of fatigue was probably inevitable here, regardless of the quality of the writing; so to summarise, it's a great book, but a sense of humour might have alleviated some of the heavy lifting, and it probably helps if you care about Buddhism, which I don't.


Spike Milligan Puckoon (1963)
I was struggling with Lord of Light, and Zelazny's novel was proving more demanding than I can cope with during the ten o'clock slot prior to turning off the light and going to sleep. It was fine for the seven o'clock slot when I've just woken up and I'm eating toast, and my powers of concentration are up to the task, but the evening session was a waste of time; so I decided to switch to something lighter, less demanding just for the hour at bedtime, and there was this which I recall as having been side-splitting when I was fourteen.

Time hasn't been kind to Milligan, not in the sense of the decades passing having revealed him as not particularly funny, but some of this no longer packs quite the same punch as it once did, or seemed to do. The obvious objection would, I suppose, be the seemingly endless sublimation of chuckles from the laziest of racial stereotypes, but I'm not sure it's even that. Milligan's Irish are routinely stupid, comic alcoholics with barely a brain cell between them, even before we get to Ah Pong, the implausible Chinese policeman whose grasp of English is about as good as that of any Chinese character in a seventies sitcom. The racism is boring, mainly because it's so bleeding obvious, although it's probably significant that Milligan's fools tend to be underdogs who come out on top through agency of their own screwy wits. They are grotesques, the inhabitants of satire pushed to the limits of cliché for the sake of Dadaist absurdity, and so whilst the racism may seem a bit predictable, it isn't applied to the denigration of the characters or even to any particularly racist theme; which I suppose is why we don't view Milligan with quite the same disdain as Bernard Manning, aside from Milligan having been funnier, obviously.

Apparently it took him a couple of years to write Puckoon, and it shows. The premise is an idea which may well have reduced everyone to tears in the pub about fifteen minutes before chucking out time, but it needs more than it has here to make it work as a novel - something about the Irish border redrawn around the village of Puckoon, with the IRA smuggling bombs into the north by burying them in a coffin prior to the aforementioned reconfiguration. This is padded out to novel length by means of every other sentence being some kind of joke or pun playing on its predecessor, including passages in which our main character breaks the fourth wall and complains to the author about the quality of the legs which have been written for him. After a while it becomes exhausting, and you begin to wish he'd just tell the fucking story, whatever it was.

Milligan wrote better for radio, television, and as autobiography, or at least that's how I remember it, and although there's some wonderful turns of absurdist comic phrase here, it's not anything like as much fun as it wants to be.

Tuesday, 2 January 2018


Eddie Campbell Deadface (1988)
I've not read Neil Gaiman's American Gods, but it always sounds suspiciously similar to this earlier work in an admittedly different medium, with which I'm certain he must have been familiar. Then again, I don't suppose Eddie Campbell can have been the first to tell tales of peculiarly urbane mythological persons in a contemporary setting but, you know…

Deadface is Bacchus, the ancient Roman God of wine, revelry, and the like, now of sufficient toothly length as to resemble William Burroughs in his later years, hence Deadface, although Campbell doesn't actually make use of the title anywhere in the story so I suppose it was simply deemed snappier than Bacchus. I encountered this one when the hippy guy who ran my local comic shop - above what is now the Cafe Milano in Chatham - decided I might benefit from a few titles without an X- prefix and turned me onto this and the likewise excellent Trouble with Girls. I return to it now whilst wrestling with Roger Zelazny's similarly theological Lord of Light, a great book, but a tough read when you have other shit getting in the way, as I have had.

Anyway, Bacchus is essentially a wrinkly old sea captain who spends his days drinking wine and spinning yarns, although the yarns are mostly things we'd recognise as mythology, and whenever he removes his cap it's difficult to miss the horns. Drama intrudes upon the Mediterranean serenity of our tale when it emerges that there are still a couple of others knocking around from the old days, Joe Theseus and the Eyeball Kid, the monstrous and yet oddly charming grandson of Argus. I get the impression this comic may have been played by ear from one issue to the next, depending on what story Campbell felt like telling; at least judging by how Bacchus himself is quickly sidelined in this title which at least alludes to him even if it doesn't actually carry his name; which I suppose may also have been in response to the pressures of publishing an independent black and white comic in the late eighties. Deadface was wrapped up and cancelled with issue eight, and while the run taken as a single whole tends to wander a bit in terms of focus, it's nevertheless satisfying.

Deadface succeeded mostly on the strength of tone and atmosphere. It's leisurely paced and mature, not given to ostentatious attempts to blow our minds, and thus is it able to carry the premise of those Greek and Roman Gods having been real people without seeming silly. In fact, it seems to expand and update the mythology with a veracity which makes all of Grant Morrison's hooting and hollering about his spandex Supergods appear hysterical and childish, if you can imagine that. Eddie Campbell's art is harsh, angular, and never quite what you'd call easy on the eye, but there's something fascinating about it, particularly this eighties vintage with the scratchy lines and stark blocks of letratone. Deadface looks and feels like a comic descended directly from book illustration, like neither Action Comics, Superman nor any of that other branch ever happened. Some momentum is lost in the later issues inked by Ed Hillyer who, whilst not without talent, seems less distinctive and somehow more mainstream than Campbell as an artist; which isn't to say that they're bad, because - at the risk of committing hyperbole - Eddie Campbell's touch is such as to elevate everything else in the vicinity, and even when you get the impression he's winging it, the results remain staggering.

Monday, 1 January 2018

Plastic Forks

Ted McKeever Plastic Forks (1990)
I was sufficiently invested in the minutiae of the comics industry back in 1990 to recall Ted McKeever being pushed as the new Bill Sienkiewicz, or at least that's how it felt at the time. Bill Sienkiewicz introduced something not unlike Dadaist collage to the comic books and remains one of the greatest artists to ever dabble with the medium, maybe even the greatest on a good day. Ted McKeever's art doesn't actually share much in common with that of Sienkiewicz beyond the occasionally scratchy line, but existed at a related tangent to what more or less everyone else was drawing in caped terms - think expressionist splatters and the influence of European cinema rather than mild-mannered reporters vanishing into phone booths.

Plastic Forks was issued in five luxuriously printed installments of sixty pages each, flogged on eBay when I needed the money, then repurchased more recently once I'd built up sufficient regret over the sale; but now that I have them back, I realise why I couldn't remember much about Plastic Forks, namely that I probably only read it once. I also realise why I only read it once. It's a tale of lives reduced to commodity, made disposable like plastic forks - the scientists of the tale as much as the animals upon which they perform terrible experiments towards dubious ends. The dynamic of the story spins from one of the scientists becoming the victim of his own experiments, followed by four issues of running around in pursuit of redress.

The artwork is mostly breathtaking, hallucinatory and expressionist, all contrast and jagged edges; which works beautifully as a vehicle for the industrialised cruelty of the tale, but which falls short when broaching the more tender concerns of the humans at the mercy of the machine. Another problem is that McKeever's illustration occasionally borders on abstract, leaving room for ambiguity when it's working on behalf of the story, but simply bewildering when it fails.

Doctor Henry Apt's coffee spray on page seven of the second issue is one example, a reaction to a detail of overheard conversation which becomes apparent later and meanwhile sends the reader thumbing back in hope of working out what he or she missed. So the story suffers from an impressionistic quality which seems at odds with what it's trying to do, combined - regrettably - with blandly utilitarian dialogue which feels like a self-conscious afterthought: I only hope I can cut through in time, or it's a long shot, but the only way to find out if it works is to try it, and the like. McKeever could have used a collaborator, or at least a more interactive editor.

Plastic Forks does what it does, looks fucking astonishing, but simply could have been a lot better. It's probably unfair to compare it to Sienkiewicz' Stray Toasters, but Stray Toasters was great because Sienkiewicz worked as hard on telling a story as he did on illustrating it. By comparison Plastic Forks feels like wonderful art in search of an author.