Wednesday, 22 March 2023

That Texas Blood

Chris Condon & Jacob Philips That Texas Blood (2021)
Well, this makes a pleasant change to the usual depiction of Texas in this sort of thing, this sort of thing being those special comics for mum and dad - no kids allowed! I suppose when I say the usual depiction I'm actually thinking of Garth Ennis donning his atomic powered thinking cap and cleverly depicting Texas as a place where siblings marry - chortle chortle - and have one-eyed kids - titter - who tie you up and bum you should you stop by and ask to use the telephone - guffaw belly-laugh belly-laugh - and if there have been others, they were hopefully a little more nuanced than an old Billy Connolly routine from the fucking seventies.

Anyway, That Texas Blood is described as a mature neo-western crime series on the Image Comics website, which is as good a description as any; and it inhabits a place which really does feel like Texas right down to the finer details of speech. Not only have I driven through Condon's fictitious Ambrose County but I feel like I know half of the people in this book, which serves as a testament to the power of doing one's homework and getting it right. That Texas Blood is a murder mystery, but primarily seems to be about sense of place and the possibility of escape from the same, and as with any quality narrative delivered by actual literate functioning adults, much of what it does is described in the spaces between what isn't said or clearly depicted. More than any other comic book I've read in the last few years - keeping in mind that most of them predate the nineties - That Texas Blood is absolutely cinematic in terms of pace, and to the point that it only really resembles what I tend to think of as a comic book in how it's reproduced as panels on pages with dialogue. Jacob Philips near photo-realist art is gorgeous, somewhat resembling that of his father, Sean, but more expressive, in my opinion.

I'm sure someone will try to make this into a Netflix series at some point, particularly given that they can at least save money on having to come up with a story board, but there's really no need. This thing is pretty much perfect as it is.

Tuesday, 14 March 2023

Monty - His Part in My Victory

Spike Milligan Monty - His Part in My Victory (1976)
I needed something light after On the Road, and this was funny when I was fourteen - or whatever age I would have been when I first read it - so here I am again. Monty is part three of Milligan's memoir of the second world war, reading more like the second part of Rommel? Gunner Who? than a book by its own terms, accounting for just four relatively uneventful months of 1943 in what is a distinctly slender volume. Spike and his khaki pals spend most of Monty bumming around North Africa prior to their posting to Italy, as described in the fourth volume and requiring a much darker tone; so I guess the point of this volume was mostly to round things up and keep it all tidy. Most of this occurs on the periphery of the war so there's no combat, mostly just getting by in a foreign land, missing home, and so on. As with the previous volume, the story is told through a blend of text, hastily drawn cartoons, stock photos embellished with ludicrous captions, and sheer fantasy presumably capturing the spirit of Spike's experience better than would a more sober and rigidly autobiographical monologue.

The weirdest thing for me has been that it's essentially a much shorter, funnier On the Road, with consequence being something only ever occurring over the next hill and the same jazz obsession - although frankly I prefer Spike's wacky populist version to Kerouac's hipster cat bollocksarooni. Beyond a few admittedly solid chuckles, Monty doesn't really do a whole lot, but the modest page count doesn't allow time for boredom to set in so complaints would seem churlish; plus knowing what the next book has in store for the poor bastard, only a twat would have a problem with this volume.

Tuesday, 7 March 2023

On the Road

Jack Kerouac On the Road (1957)
One of the most important and powerful novels of our time, it says here and, although I know at least a couple of people who might agree, I also seem to have heard On the Road written off as a massive pile of wank on a number of occasions - and by persons whose opinions I generally value.

On the Road is Jack Kerouac's approximately autobiographical account of travelling around America in the company of friends who share his interests in titties and beer, with the occasional syringe full of marijuanas thrown in where available. Some readers may recall having once attended a house party - usually during the teenage years - only to find oneself cornered in the kitchen by a dope enthusiast who insists on relating more or less his entire life story up to that point, usually opening with the otherwise innocuous promise of something hilarious he did with his mate whilst partaking, if you know what I'm saying, bruv. On the Road is, for better or worse, that same story, mostly less annoying but about a million times longer.

I'd be seeing old Denver at last. I pictured myself in a Denver bar that night, with all the gang, and in their eyes I would be strange and ragged and like the Prophet who was walked across the land to bring the dark Word, and the only word I had was 'Wow!'

Kerouc had many, many, many words more than just that one - and some might even say too many - but most of them amount to wow. This is probably a good thing in that a more acerbic account of all that happens here would probably be unreadable, but the wow factor does tend to even out the natural up and down of the narrative to a seemingly endless flow of undifferentiated what we did next, somewhat reducing the potential for consequence.

Kerouac's prose is beautiful, but certain passages inevitably bore, I found, just as others better hold the attention - notably hanging out with William Burroughs and his wife and the excursion down to San Antonio and then Mexico City near the end. I found the jazz references a little mannered and hence annoying, as teenage fixations tend to become with the passage of time, particularly the use of -arooni as a suffix, and referring to people as cats.

It's a bit of a slog, albeit with some value beyond the merely historical, but I really don't know if it deserves its reputation. Burroughs was funnier too.

Tuesday, 28 February 2023

The Death of Captain Marvel

Jim Starlin, Stan Lee, Steve Englehart & others
The Death of Captain Marvel (1982)

I may be wrong, not least because I don't care enough to bother looking it up, but I think The Death of Captain Marvel may have been the first graphic novel, or at least the first comic book to be labelled as such on the grounds of being square bound with fancy paper and a higher price tag, although really it's still a comic book. The idea that it might be aimed at a more mature audience, by some definition, came later, but I'll return to that.

This being a 2018 reprint, we also get five or six issues of the comic book as background to himself snuffing it during the main feature. This is good news because we get three issues worth of the first Captain Marvel story written by Stan Lee and Roy Thomas, and drawn by Gene Colan. It's superheroism as space opera, more or less, or arguably Superman rewritten as superheroic space opera given the detail of our man - an alien who passes for human - finding himself unusually enhanced once arriving on our planet. It's nothing life changing but has retained a certain power through the art of Gene Colan - surely one of the most underrated comic book artists of our time - who duplicates Kirby's monumental dynamism with his own expressionist realism to equally great effect. If his art seems hastily rendered, it doesn't seem to matter given the depth of the mood and that the reader can pretty much feel every punch and explosion.

Later issues included here date from the mid-seventies period of the comic book having grown up, as demonstrated in Jim Starlin's thoroughly peculiar Warlock and Rich Buckler's Deathlok the Demolisher - to name but two; except it didn't quite extend to Captain Marvel. Doug Moench and Pat Broderick's version is not without a certain screwy charm, but it's not Starlin's Warlock by a long shot, and, strangest of all, Starlin's Death of Captain Marvel isn't Starlin's Warlock by a long shot either. It pulls some of the same cosmic moves which were doubtless very much appreciated by one's older brother and his doobie rolling pals, but the art is anatomically clunky in places, pretty much top end fan stuff - and I've never regarded the term fan art as a compliment - suggesting as it does that this person 1) has never taken a life drawing class and 2) probably listens to a lot of Yes. Starlin, much as I love the man's work, compensates with fussy lines and an excess of detail, but it doesn't really help.

Also, particularly when compared to Warlock, the story could almost be an episode of Star Trek with more capes. It's one of those deals attempting to answer the question of why Superman doesn't end world hunger, but thanks to all the space fags and the fact of Tales from Topographic Oceans having been stuck to the turntable since October, it's a fairly safe, conservative, and even self-involved version of the question: what if Captain Marvel had cancer, just like in the real world? The answer is pretty much incorporated in the title, in case you were wondering, meaning we get scenes of the entire pantheon of Marvel superheroes all stood around the Captain's bed looking sad, interspersed with bouts of crying and the Beast asking why, Lord why? He had so much to live for.

It's not the worst thing you'll ever read, but it's burdened with the emotional sophistication of an episode of the Six Million Dollar Man and lacks the flair to capitalise upon its own essentially ludicrous narrative, even before we get to the art not being anything like so mind-blowing as Starlin's otherwise much deserved reputation might promise. Somehow, Gene Colan drawing Captain Marvel punching a giant robot who says things like know you this: he who would oppose me - - must be annihilated! has a lot more soul.

Tuesday, 21 February 2023

Rub Me Out

The Shend Rub Me Out (2021)
Legend has it that the Cravats originally had eighteen or nineteen members, and the Shend was formed by welding them all together, or at least the ones which weren't either Rob or Yehudi Storage-Heater. I'm here assuming that you know who the Cravats are, but if not I'm sure there must be some way by which you might fill this comically massive fucking gap in the apparently miniscule storehouse of your knowledge; although there's also a chance you'll recognise the Shend from almost every British TV show ever made. He's menaced both Alan Partridge and Robin Hood, delivered washing machines in The Bill, shared cheese and onion crisps with Gary Lineker - the whole gamut. I actually know a family who sit down in front of the telly to play spot the Shend of an evening. I'm not even joking.

I wasn't going to bother with this because it's a collection of lyrics and I have all the records, and the lyrics are clearly enunciated on those records, and song lyrics don't need to be reproduced in a book because printing them in a book doesn't turn them into poetry - even before we take into consideration that most poetry is wank. Happily, it turns out that the Shend seems to share this view, and even says as much in Rub Me Out, which is itself justified by incorporating a wealth of observations and semi-autobiographical material to accompany each song. So it's sort of like one of those Simon Morris tomes comprising anecdotal lists of favourite hair metal acts copied and pasted from his facebook page, but without either the sneering, the copying, the pasting, or attendant claims of having been the greatest living writer.

The Shend, for those who don't know and who didn't scurry off to Google during the first paragraph, is - for the sake of argument - a sort of Star Trek transporter accident involving Frank Sidebottom, Vivian Stanshall and Tristan Tzara, or at least these are names brought to mind by his characteristically peculiar narrative voice which belongs to the grand English tradition of surrealist subversion whilst taking in Midlands schoolboy slang. This means he's massively entertaining on record, wireless, and social media, but approaching three-hundred pages of this stuff - admittedly with pictures and guest contributions - is initially unsettling, like it doesn't quite sit right on the page. Well, it does, but it took me a while to get used to turns of phrase which would seem twee coming from almost anyone else, combined with a certain tendency to apologise for having failed to write a proper book. The term rufty-tufty is used a number of times, and stonkathon appears on page 239. It's the sort of phraseology I associate with the legacy of Richard Stilgoe; except, this being the Shend, I doubt he actually gives a flying one and is simply keeping himself amused, which is what saves the enterprise. Simon Morris wouldn't have been caught dead describing anything as rufty-tufty, which is sort of why the Shend gets away with it, and why this book - shambolic though it may be in certain respects - does nothing but underscore the potency of his candidacy for the title of greatest living Englishman. As with all his works, you just have to hang on and assume it will make some sort of sense by the time the needle lifts from the centre of the record, which it kind of does, even with Jam Rabbits.

It's probably not the autobiography that at least some of us have been waiting for without quite realising it, but it does something in that direction, at least explaining the mystery of Grimetime and why a few of those songs turned up on subsequent Cravats albums. I liked Grimetime, but they felt a bit ordinary for anything featuring the Shend, and it turns out that it wasn't just me after all.

Rub Me Out is an odd book, not quite like anything else I've read - which could be said of much of the Shend's body of work - which is its great strength. Therefore hoorah, as the man says.

Tuesday, 14 February 2023

Amazing Stories (December 1965)

Joseph Ross (editor) Amazing Stories (December 1965)
Well, the conclusion of Murray Leinster's Killer Ship failed to rescue the story, which is a shame; and my frown was sustained during Cordwainer Smith's On the Sand Planet, which doesn't seem to have improved since I read it as part of Quest of the Three Worlds a couple of years ago. As ever, his prose is delightfully ornate whilst failing to amount to anything, and it's not even engaging as a peculiarly incoherent ramble. Your average Burroughs cut-up text honestly communicates more than Cordwainer Smith's aesthetically pretty glossolalia.

Chad Oliver's Final Exam is approximately readable but mainly through being mercifully short, comparing the plight of indigenous Martians to that of Native Americans without any conspicuous excess of cultural sensitivity, and a tweedy professor lights up his pipe on the very first page; and continuing our cautious ascent towards reading pleasure, Robert Sheckley's Restricted Area is kind of stupid but fairly entertaining, amounting to a Star Trek away mission to a planet with an ecosystem designed by Dr. Seuss.

Finally, The Comet Doom by Edmond Hamilton reprints a story first published during the Gernsback years of Amazing as very clearly signposted by the arguably clunkier aspects of the tale; except it remains a great read regardless, presumably meaning Hamilton actually knew his way around a typewriter. It somehow manages to surprise, even to communicate a certain sense of wonder with stuff that otherwise feels vaguely familiar through repetition by numerous other writers - cybernetic invaders with organic brains inside robotic bodies, earth pulled out of its orbit, the one man who knows and who has to stop them, and so on and so forth. I think I'll see if I can't find me some more Hamilton.

Excepting Hamilton, Nowlan, and possibly Robert Sheckley, it seems fair to say that things weren't looking great for Amazing Stories during the second half of 1965 with tales which, for the most part, weren't amazing, and with the absence of anything amazing thrown into uncomfortably sharp relief by both the editorial and letters page. The latter reproduces a number of bewildering testimonials to Amazing as the most amazing of amazing things ever to amaze its amazed readership, whilst the editorial mounts a bitter campaign against the haters and those who might believe Adequate Stories to have been a more appropriate title, only to end up looking like a complete wanker with a diatribe approximating to yeah but no but yeah but no but Kurt Vonnegut thinks he's so lush now 'cos he says he don't write science-fiction and he thinks he's too good for science-fiction these days even though everybody knows he writes science-fiction and he thinks he's all that but he don't know nuffink.

Maybe it's just me.

Tuesday, 7 February 2023

Amazing Stories (October 1965)

Joseph Ross (editor) Amazing Stories (October 1965)
I picked this up because of Murray Leinster. The first installment of his Killer Ship is dry but approximately readable, transposing traditional nautical escapades to deep space, complete with salty sea captains who enjoy punch-ups in dockside taverns. Leinster breaks the usual supposedly golden rule by telling as well as showing, to the extent that two thirds of the text have the cadence of a synopsis for something he'd been thinking about writing. The narrative reads like Asimov minus that vaguely creepy sensation which heralds the arrival of a token female character - here the beautiful daughter of a space shipping magnate. Killer Ship does okay for something so obviously traditional and sort of foreshadows The Expanse in certain respects, but is pretty much doomed by the uninviting style in which it was written, assuming here that Ross didn't just print the initial pitch by accident.

Ray Bradbury's, Chrysalis is an early effort dating from 1946, and which presumably predates our man developing the characteristic style which made him so readable. It's okay, but falls short of delivering anything consistent with Bradbury's reputation.

Actually, a lot of these seem to be early efforts, because Amazing was seemingly all about the unit shifting big name reprints by 1965, although apparently it wasn't all about paying the authors of those reprinted stories. That being said, I'm beginning to wonder if they retained the rights to any of the good stuff. John Wyndham's The Eternal Eve, for example, is okay, and streets ahead of shite such as his Pawley's Peepholes; but it's still massively underwhelming considering this is the guy who wrote Triffids, Kraken, and Dumb Martian. Along similarly underwhelming lines, Jack Williamson's The Metal Man reprints his first published story, which was notable for being so basic that the title not only gives away the not really much of a twist ending, but almost counts as a synopsis. We open with a letter - a literary device I've really grown to loathe as the last resort of scoundrels - in which our man, already introduced as having mysteriously turned into a man quite literally made of metal, tells the narrator about some mysterious force which turns things into metal, and fuck it, he's going in. I won't spoil the ending for you.

The Time Jumpers was apparently Phil Nowlan's third sale to Amazing back in the dawn of time, with the first two being Buck Rogers tales, so that's where the character originated. Even were some of the same magic to be found in this story, I'm not sure I'd know what to look for, although it's still more engaging than anything else in this issue. The Time Jumpers features a man who invents a time car, leading to historical encounters with faintly racist Red Indian stereotypes and George Washington - who helpfully introduces himself as such, thus providing an uncanny foreshadowing of Hartnell era Who; but it's nicely told and is not without some charm.

Every time I read something by Robert Silverberg, I seem to find I like him just a little less than before. The Kensington Stone is an article rather than an example of his fiction, one examining a detail of that whole Vikings discovered America thing by means of a massive Nordically engraved stone which has since been unfortunately mislaid but definitely existed, probably. I don't know whether Vikings discovered America but, honestly, I've never really cared given that we already have a substantial wealth of information about the people who got here first and stuck around long enough to develop complex indigenous cultures. Silverberg maintains a degree of scepticism, although this in itself begs the question of why he bothered to cover the subject in the first place.

Finally we have Dusty Answer by Arthur Porges, which I read this morning but about which I don't remember anything. I think some guys in a spaceship landed on a planet. Maybe the December issue will be better...