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Thursday, April 30, 2009

Alpha Vol 2. Wolves' Wages. Mythic (Writer), Youri Jigounov (Art). Cinebook Ltd. (2009)

This is a very enjoyable sequel to Alpha: The Exchange, it would be nearly incomprehensible to anyone who had not read that book first. The story is picked up directly from where it left off in the last book and races to a very satisfying conclusion. Unlike the first book this one is packed with action all the way as the plot driven by the botched exchange from the first book continues to unwind. The Russian Government acts to assert itself after the attack it suffered, revenge is executed against the German gang who had tried to force their hand to recover their money. The Russian Mafia family are also concerned to find out who is plotting against them. On the run are CIA agent Alpha and his lover Assia, they are being hunted by Assia's husband and an unknown ally. The threads of the plot are cunningly twisted together and the truth about the exchange is revealed just ahead of a savage climax.
The cast are well written, even the minor players are imbued with a individual identity that ensures that the story never looses it bearings and descends into a simple shoot 'em up, there are always human actions driving the plot and believable agendas clash violently. The art is superb, the detail in each panel is extraordinary, they are never busy, they have a solid realism that adds great weight to the story. The cast are clearly differentiated and they move very nicely. This is an excellent action comic, written to take advantage of the structure of a comic.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Jim Croce Collection. CD. Castle Communications. (1986)

This is one of my Desert Island records, a collection of songs I would be able to listen to repeatedly without growing tired of them. Jim Croce had the extraordinary gift of making simple look easy, the songs on this collection are straightforward musically and lyrically. There is no innovation in songwriting, singing or production, there is simply outstanding levels of craft and composition.
As a singer Jim Croce has a melodious, masculine voice that delivers the songs in a direct and confident fashion, they are addressed directly to the listener and involve them instantly in the mood and thoughts of the song. The songs are amazingly articulate, the lyrics are often amusing they are always carefully chosen and carefully crafted. The words are forcefully expressive, they capture a feeling with great exactness and tenderness. I have never wished that I had thought of expressing myself the way that he does in his songs, I do get captured by how accurately he expresses the feeling himself.
The music is a subordinate element, it is essential to the expression of the song, it lies underneath the words, amplifying and supporting them with flowing melodies and power when required. These songs are so straightforward that they would either soar or fail terribly as a jumble of cliches or pedestrian conceits. Jim Croce's talent was that he could cut straight to the heat of the matter using exactly the right word backed by the right music so we can see that true plain speaking is also subtle, wondrous poetry.

Revelation. C.J. Sansom. Macmillian (2008)

A gripping thriller set in Tudor London in the last years of Henry the Eighth's reign when religion was becoming a flash point between those who leaned towards more austere Protestant views and those who had more Catholic leaning views. Henry himself seemed to be walking back from his earlier views and was appearing to be returning to a more Catholic view. There were significant numbers of people in his court who had more reformist inclinations and the tension between the two camps was spreading out across the population as each struggled for dominance. It is against this fraught background that a man is killed in a very public place and in a most unusual fashion. It is suspected that the killing may have some connection with Catherine Parr, who was being courted by the King and would become his sixth and final wife.
The man who was killed was a friend of Matthew Shardlake, a barrister and narrator of the story who finds himself entangled in the search for the killer. The search is made more difficult as those involved wish to keep it secret from the King and subsequent killings raise the stakes for everyone involved. The story is very well told, the plot unfolds at a nice pace, the strands are carefully woven and the reveals are nicely judged. The climax is excellent and forceful.
The plot is only one of the pleasures of the book, the context of Tudor London is wonderfully evoked and the cast are full of life and contradiction, they are very much people of their time, their views are fundamental to the plot and their interactions drive the story with great force. This is a hugely enjoyable book.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Supermen! The First Wave of Comic Book Heros 1936 - 1941. Greg Sadowski (Editor) Fantagraphics Books (2009)

A collection of comics from the very early days of the industry, they come from the period when original content was becoming more common and the industry was beginning to gain traction as a commercial enterprise. There was a sense of unexplored territory in the industry, this was a new venture and in the efforts to establish what would sell there was a wide and wild creativity. The collection gathers together a variety of stories from that era before superheros dominated the industry and before the rules governing what superheros could do became so entrenched. The most noticeable aspect to the stories is the colouring, it is very vivid. I am going to assume that it was a function of the technology available at the time, more subtle colours would have been too expensive for such a throwaway medium. It gives the comics considerable visual force that match the melodrama taking place on the pages.
It is fascinating to see the mash up between science fiction and crime that has become the core of superhero stories being worked out in public. Taking two really popular genres and tying them together gave a nice mix, you had the universe to play with, still there was the need to have plot and what better than a crime story. It is clear just how porous the stories were to the radio and film serials that were common at the time. The science fiction films of Flash Gordon and the gangster films have clear echos in the stories. It is a little bit of a shock to see how ingrown a lot of superhero comics are today, they draw so much from their own past without being excited or updated by external ideas.
The Jack Cole story "The Claw Battles the Daredevil" is a joy, the art is fluid and full of movement, the dialogue is full of smart alec life, just as it should be and it is bursting with a absurd inventiveness that still shines. In terms of art the standout is "Spacehawk" by Basil Wolverton, the story is inventive, the art is superb. There is a picture of a space pirate captain that is joy. All the stories in the book are worth reading for the sheer energy that have and firework's display of creativity they contain.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Maniac Killer Strikes Again! Richard Sala. Fantagraphics Books. (2003)

This superb collection of stories by Richard Sala contains a a wide variety of stories featuring disappointed love, horrible experiments in re-animation and plastic surgery, multiple deaths and the blackest humour that is never brutal. Richard Sala has a very distinctive visual style that in less talented hands could overwhelm the story. The writing is quite equal to the art and the combination of the two is wonderful and striking.
The ideas are strong and effective, the art amplifies them and makes some short stories seem longer due to the sheer volume compressed into the spaces. The ideas are usually savage and have a very film noir mood of loss and despair. The angular artwork and the typically grotesque faces of the cast add to the atmosphere. Equally matters are prevented from slipping into the realms of the dispiriting by the same factors, the highly stylised art underscores the unreality of the actions. There is a strong flavour of old black and white horror films populated by mad scientists and monsters in the collection, a gleeful gruesomeness that is playful rather than horrifying.
The words are sharp and pungent, the captions and dialogue are as distinctive as the art. The descriptions and narrations are overwrought and wonderfully literary in a way that is most unusual in comics. Richard Sala clearly likes words, there is a great relish in the way that they are used in the stories. These are truly independent comics, bursting with snarky, self-confident creativity, a pleasure.

Amy MacDonald. This is the Life. Melodramatic Records Ltd. (2007)

This a very nice collection of songs by a talented singer/songwriter. Amy MacDonald avoids the cliches of a female singer/songwriter, the music is neither introspective nor overly concerned with romantic failure. The songs are nicely varied and sung with considerable energy. The range is nice too, they mix up nicely with the production giving a necessary weight to the music as much as the singing.
Amy MacDonald's voices is very pleasant without being outstanding, she has talent and sings with expressiveness and has a willingness to push herself. There is enough of a distinctive personality infused in her singing for it to stand out and it lifts the songs. None of the songs are really memorable in their own right except the first one, Mr Rock & Roll which has a nice bite and the production gives it setting and force. The rest of the songs are good, they easily bear repeated listening, they not have quite the same sparkle. The music is strong throughout, the playing is clear and focused, it surrounds and supports her singing very well. Amy MacDonald is a talented song writer and the collection is well worth listening to.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Programme Vol 1. Peter Milligan (Writer), C.P.Smith (Artist), Jonny Rench (Colours), Pat Brosseau (Letters). Wildstorm Productions (2008)

This is a serious and thoughtful take on superheros, I did not warm to it at all. I do admire the ambition and the craft in the book, I do not like it. I found the art harsh and unfriendly and the colours were too glaring, they pushed me out of the book rather than leading me in. The story is excellent and the writing is tough and careful, I could not take to any of the cast, I do not want to spend time with them. I was not so fascinated by them either that I could balance my dislike with a desire to know more about them. One very nice thing about the book is the lack of cynicism in it, the cast are mostly deeply unpleasant, they are sincerely so they are not badly animated stereotypes. The ruthless, good looking female CIA agent is neatly subverted, she is a believable bureaucrat in a brutal industry. The rest of the cast are equally well developed and then subverted as clashing agendas and historical frameworks are invoked. The superheros are the puppets of those who programmed them, Peter Milligan has some serious fun contrasting the mixed up messages of the US programmed creature with the revolutionary zeal of the Russian dolls. There is a thoughtful political edge to the story which gives it weight and momentum. All the craft and talent of the creative team, which is abundantly on display, could not make me care one bit about any of the cast, there was not a human heartbeat among the lot.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Shadow Strikes 11. "Out of the Past". DC Comics. August 1990

This very enjoyable story from the creative team of Gerard Jones (writer), Ron Wagner (pencils), Stan Drake & Frank Springer (inks), Willie Schubert (letters) and Anthony Tollin (colours) is example of a creative team really combining well to deliver an excellent comic. The story is principally about Margo Lane, one of The Shadow's agents, she is attacked in the street and later meets with a man from her past demanding money. It is revealed that her late husband had been a stockbroker who embezzled his firm's money and committed suicide. His business partner, now out of jail wants the money and is pursuing Margo to get it. The Shadow intervenes to protect his agent and there is a sharp climax.
Within that framework Gerard Jones manages to show the reader something more about the Shadow and his relationship with his agents. He gives us a revealing interplay between Harry Vincent and Margo and some more background about Margo. Most of all he gives Margo Lane centre stage as a tough, resourceful woman who emerges as a three dimensional character in her own right.The art is splendid, the cast are all drawn with expressive faces and body language, they are nicely placed within their physical context and the details of each scene are telling and add to the weight of the story. The colouring is distinct and very effective, the scene at night in the street when Margo is assaulted is nicely lit. The lettering is unobtrusively effective and varied. A very smart and well crafted comic.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Terminator The Sarah Connor Chronicles Season 1. Pilot. Warner Bros Entertainment. (2008)

Any spin off has an problem to resolve when it starts, it has to establish its own identity while at the same time being faithful enough to the original not to alienate existing fans who are likely to be the core audience and open enough to attract a new audience not familiar with the ideas. The pilot episode for Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles solves all these problems very neatly as well as establishing the storytelling engine, to borrow a phrase, for the on-going series.
The opening sequence is a nicely choreographed action piece that introduces the threat and announces the ambitions of the series. It cannot hope to compete with the enormous budgets that the films used, the action is going to be much more personal, which nicely reflects the theme of the series, a mother protecting her son. The action sequences are excellent, small in scale they are well staged and paced and do not overwhelm the narrative.
The exposition of the set up for the series is naturally and effectively integrated into the narrative, it was succinctly delivered early enough to be out of the way and to frame the remaining action. The story nicely picks up the human problems created by the situation that Sarah Connor and John find themselves in, the way that their lives are fracturing under the pressure of running all the time. When an opportunity comes to turn and fight instead they take it and the set up is complete for the ongoing series. The cast are excellent, Lena Headly as Sarah Connor is a nice mixture of fear, resilient toughness and protectiveness and makes an impressive and credible action hero. Thomas Dekker as John Conner has a slightly underdeveloped role, I assume it will develop over the series, he has to be a target without being whiny and carries it off well. Summer Glau as a protective terminator is excellent, she has a slight blankness which adds to the role. An excellent start.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Bleak House. BBC Worldwide Limited 1996. DVD Acorn Media UK (2006)

A great cast in a great story combine to produce an engaging and substantial television drama. The single most impressive aspect to this production is how the creative team resisted the temptation to film the book. They have created a superb television drama that stands apart from the book on its own merits. Charles Dickens may well be my favourite author, I really enjoyed Bleak House, it is a great novel, as a book it would be a terrible television drama. It is too widespread and generous, Arthur Hopcraft has done an expert job of filleting the book to create a effective and gripping drama.
A dispute over a will lies at the heart of the drama, the case is being heard in the Court of Chancery, a civil court system that dealt with disputed wills among other types of disputes. The slow grinding process of the Chancery is the source of anger that runs through the drama, the case is also the spiderweb that connects and traps the extensive cast. The connections, sometimes obvious, sometimes very subtle that connect the poorest, Jo a boy who sweeps a path through the rubbish on the street to Lady Deadlock, wife of a aristocrat and a great lady are explored with a nice sweep and flourish, the plot is elegant and thoughtful and it arises directly from the on-going actions of the characters.
The actors take to their meaty roles with great energy and tremendous skill, Peter Vaughan is outstanding as the silkily venomous solicitor, Tulkinghorn, Diana Rigg is luminous as Lady Deadlock who finds that her life is steadily unravelling around her, Denholm Elliott proves that a good man can be an interesting one. They are just a few of the extraordinary performances in the drama, they bring the huge cast from the book to vivid and singular life. The pacing is deliberate and effective, the story is given the room to develop and expand while never losing focus. Hours of pleasure.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Ghost in the Shell 2. Innocence. Manga Entertainment . DVD (2004)

The opening scene announces the visual ambition of the film, which is amply achieved both in the superbly choreographed action sequences as well as the more reflective moments. The is a great sequel to Ghost in the Shell, it exceeds its predecessor in visual flair while not quite matching it in the strength of its ideas. It still towers a head and shoulders above most science fiction film, animated or live action in its willingness to create a context for its ideas.

Sex robots, prototypes given to influential customers, are killing their owners and running amok before self-destructing. The possibility that this could be a terrorist campaign, some of the victims are politically connected, brings Section 9 into the fray. Batou, a cyborg who had been the Major's partner, leads the investigation. The trail leads from a shoot out at a gang headquarters, Batou being hacked, to a city on the frontier that had once been designed as the most important data centre in Asia to a final confrontation on a floating factory and the re-appearance of the Major.

The story is well told, the action is staged with great skill with the cityscapes as well as the smaller and more intimate spaces of offices and apartments beautifully detailed. It strongly resembles an animated Blade Runner in the the shape of the city and the neon glow of the streets. There is a breathtaking parade staged in the frontier city that echoes a sequence in the first film, neither advanced the story in any way yet are essential to the total picture.

The film fails when it tries to engage in philosophical ruminations about the blurring difference between people and machines. The ideas are not articulated with skill and are poorly integrated into the flow of the film, they reflect the ambition of the visuals without their craft or flair. Ultimately they are a minor blemish on a stunning achievement.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Batman Gotham Adventures #48. DC Comics (2002)

The creative team of Scott Peterson (Writer), Rick Burchett, Tim Levins, (Pencillers) Terry Beatty (Penciller & Inker), Lee Loughridge (Colourist) Albert DeGuzman (Letterer) provide one of my all time favourite Batman stories from my all time favourite series of Batman stories. Gotham Adventures like The Batman & Robin Adventures before it had been created to complement Batman The Animated Series and together form the best set of Batman stories I have ever read. Collectively they are an astonishing achievement, a series of stand alone stories written for an all ages audience of remarkable and consistent quality.

Issue 48 is special even by the standards set by the series, it captured the elusive spark that makes a Batman story a great Batman story. The actual story is simple, Robin is talking to Alfred about an incident where he had seen Batman take off after a carjacker. He is a bit troubled because Batman seemed to take no interest in the victim, just the criminal, for Robin this was a cause for concern as there was a human element missing.

The rest of the issue examine this human element via two narratives that capture why Batman is a hero. The reveals are done with great skill, the real object of each pursuit are hidden to the end, the reveal is astonishing. That the creative team should be able to conjure up such a moment with a character that has been so worked over as Batman is extraordinary enough, that it is genuinely heroic and utterly a Batman moment is astounding. A joy to read.

The Long Haul. Anthony Johnston (Writer), Eduardo Barreto (Artist). Oni Press (2005)

Clever and entertaining Western heist story. The story takes the classic format of the heist film, the introduction of the main protagonist, the idea, the gathering of the rest of the gang and the main event itself and skillfully crafts a first rate Western from them. One of the really nice things about this book is that the Western element is more than stage dressing, it is integral to the plot.

The plot itself is a thing of beauty, the story unrolls at a very nice pace and clever thinking is prized above brute force which gives a additional layer of tension to the book. The problem is very neatly summarised by one of the cast , " So all we have to do is break into an unbreakable car, open an unopenable safe, avoid fourteen Pinkerton's, then hightail it out of there within fifteen minutes?" The mechanics of how this train robbery is intended to go is one of the highlights of the book. The action is clear and thoughtful, the coils of the plot are very tightly wound.

The plot is only one of the pleasures of this book, Anthony Johnston bring a cast to life with dexterity and brevity. The cast are steadily introduced in a series of chapters that fills in the who as well as the what they are. Each of the major players is given the space to establish themselves firmly and this means that the book is more that just a clever plot, it has a weight as a drama as well.

The art by Eduardo Barreto is superb, the detail in the panels acts to anchor the action firmly in the era and the very large cast, both principals and the supporting players are clearly drawn as individuals, the book is teeming with life and energy. The art ensure that the cast can be read in more than dialogue, the story moves in silence just as effectively with the players eloquent body language ensuring that noting is left unsaid. A smart western, and a cause for celebration.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Mail. Volume 1. Housui Yamazaki (Writer and Artist). Dark Horse Manga (2006)

An excellent collection of contemporary ghost stories. The stories manage a difficult task, each story is set up, the situation is developed and finally resolved neatly without any excess and also without feeling incomplete in a short space. The setting is Tokyo and one of the enjoyable aspects to the book are the details about Japan that are unselfconsciously present in the book, the stories are clearly rooted in a real place. The context for the stories is part of their power, how the extraordinary continues to lurk inside and around the everyday.
Reiji Akiba is a private detective with a very specialised practice, he investigates haunting, the strange events that can be brushed off as a coincidence but which retain a nagging unease about them. Akiba sees these as messages from a restless spirit, a ghost who has failed to find rest for some reason and is attempting to make their presence felt by the living. The problem is that the reason they are still involving themselves in the material world is rarely benign, they usually have a grudge against the living and want to drag them into a deathly embrace.
Akiba has a means to deal with these ghosts, his sanctified gun Kagutsuchi breaks the bonds that allow the ghost stay in the world and releases them to their own world. The stories are nicely varied and the art is first rate. Akiba is a very unassuming character, with his glasses, trench coat and sideburns he does not look like a ghost hunter, he is reassuring to his clients and forceful to the ghosts. The art is nicely detailed, the ghosts are given a nice solidity and venom that underscores the threat they pose. Thoughtful, imaginative ghost stories without any gore or excess trimmings, a pleasure.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Ghost in the Shell. Manga Entertainment Ltd. DVD (1995)

A classic, beautiful animation, strong ideas, moody effective soundtrack all combine to create a stunning science fiction masterwork. Based on the extraordinary book by Masamune Shirow it clearly stands on its own. In the near future cyborg bodies will be more common, expensive and requiring regular maintenance, still they will be in reasonably common use. The most common use is to have implants that allow you to directly connect to a network and communicate directly with another person, right up to completely cybernetic bodies housing a human brain. Major Motoko Kusanagi works for Section 9, an anti-terrorist government agency. Since she is introduced in a scene in which she assassinates a foreign diplomat , anti-terrorist may be taken as having a flexible definition. The Major and the rest of her team become involved in a plot by a super hacker, The Puppetmaster, which steadily unravels to being both considerably more and much less than expected. The film traces how something extraordinary can have very squalid roots. This nice mix of bureaucratic infighting and philosophical investigation is what gives the film its spine. It never looses sight of being a exciting thriller either with superbly staged and paced action sequences that still dazzle with their complex artistry.
Science fiction can frequently age very badly as the assumed future is left in the dust by the current present, Ghost in the Shell sidesteps this by taking a very radical approach to the future and more importantly having a strong central core to it. The art and craft of the animation has not aged either, the detail lavished on the cityscape's is still a joy to behold, the technology is wonderfully integrated into the story, it is very much the human concerns that are to the forefront and they are always relevant and up to date. This film continues to set a standard for ambitious, stylish animated science fiction that later films are judged by.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Batman Gothic. Grant Morrison (Writer), Klaus Janson (Artist) Steve Buccellato (Colours) John Costanza (Letters) Warner Books. (1992)

A cleverly constructed Batman story whose jigsaw nature tends to undermine the impact, the art remains striking and fresh. With nods to the Fritz Lang film "M" and European folklore Grant Morrison adds all of the iconic aspects of the Batman history to the story to created a patchwork quilt of a story that should be much better than it is. The non-Batman aspects of the story are by far the most successful, Grant Morrison does not feel the same freedom to play with the Batman aspects as he does with the supernatural elements and it shows. Someone is killing gang leaders in Gotham, it proves to be Mr. Whisper, a child killer whom the same gangsters disposed of twenty years ago when his abductions and murders were making Gotham too difficult for their own more commercial activities. Now he is back and taking his revenge. It appears that this same Mr. Whisper has a connection to Bruce Wayne in his school days. The story develops to encompass a plan to bargain with the devil to escape a deal that had been made three hundred years earlier, a bargain that involves the deaths of millions in Gotham.
The story is a good one, Mr. Whisper is a suitably creepy villain and his history is told with skill and craft, the working out of his plan has the correct level of mad grandiosity and is concluded in an entirely satisfactory manner. The problem in the story is Batman there is both too much and too little of him to be satisfactory. In the story we see the full range of Batman, as a detective, as the frighting vigilante to street punks intent on murder, as the unrelenting enemy of corruption with gang leaders, we get the reason his family took the fatal trip to the cinema, we see Bruce Wayne the wealthy man using his money as a wealthy man would, we see his gadgets in his Batcave. We even see him tied up in an absurdly complex death trap with the villain explaining his plans before leaving him to his death. We see him carefully assembled like a jigsaw puzzle, all we are missing is the actual character, the spark that makes Batman lift off the page.
The compensation is that we great great art from Klaus Janson, Steve Buccellato and John Costanza. Dark colours and lots of variety in the panel size and placement, the claustrophobic atmosphere is captured perfectly. The art delivers on the Gothic in the title in spades. it is the true star of the book and what makes it a worthwhile read.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Atomic Robo and the Fightin' Scientists of Tesladyne. Brian Clevinger, Scott Wegener, Ronda Patterson, Jeff Powell. Red 5 Comics (2008)

A great concept and superb execution make for an outstanding comic whose light touch and sense of playfulness disguises the depth of skill and craft that support it. In 1923 Nikola Tesla, the nearly man of history to Thomas Edison, created a self conscious robot powered by nuclear technology, Atomic Robo. In 1938, in exchange for legal status as a human and an US citizen Atomic Robo launched a single handed attack on Helinsgard, a mad scientist working for the Nazis. This is the first adventure for Atomic Robo who sets up the first science adventure firm in the world dedicated to exploring and combating the wilder fringes scientific related threats to humanity with giant ants, self propelled pyramids being among them.
The potential for this to be a terrible mess of badly managed cliches is clear and the skill with the creative team avoid them and deliver a fantastic comic is breathtaking. They have captured the spirit of the action episodes of the Indiana Jones films where the extended action sequences are carefully choreographed to be as much about wit and humour as they are edge of the seat shocks. Atomic Robo has the smart and easy charisma that Indiana Jones does, he is funny, tough and makes terrible puns while beating up giant ants. The decision to clothe him properly, he is always in a trousers , boots and a t-shirt or a uniform is inspired, it removes him nicely from the normal super hero looks. The human cast of the book are not neglected, they are lively and opinionated, their discussions of imaginary physics is one of the numerous highlights of the book. There is a small section of the book where Atomic Robo reflects on how not growing old while your friends age and die is carried off without awkwardness or sentimentality. This comic is an undiluted pleasure.

Bait. Nick Brownlee. Piatkus Books. (2008)

A enjoyable thriller set in Kenya that makes the most of its location. When a local criminal is washes up on the beach at Mombasa the stage is set for a very engaging story with a large and varied cast, a thoughtful plot , well paced reveals and a solid pay off. Nick Brownlee has pulled of a difficult feat, the story is set in an unusual location, Mombasa and the location is more that just set dressing. The environment of both the city and Kenya itself are critical to the story, the actors would not be credible on another stage, Mombasa is one of the chief protagonists in the book and it is all the better for it.
The author has a gift for swift and clear characterisation so that a very large cast, with a lot of secondary players are introduced and none are a distraction, they all add strongly to the flavour of the book. With about half the book being devoted to set up this is important if interest is to be maintained before the plot mechanics really start to kick in. As the cast are a lively lot they are able to create and sustain enjoyment and curiosity and in the second half the investment is repaid handsomely as they find themselves credibly enmeshed in a very unpleasant set of events.
One of the nice aspects of the book is that the central villain is as dangerous as he should be, he provides clear motive force for the actions of others and is never just a bogeyman, he is clever and dedicated. The other villains are just as thoughtfully drawn, none are stupid which makes them a genuine threat. Jake Moore, an ex-policeman from England now a charter boat captain and Daniel Jouma a Mombasa detective are engaging and fallible, honest without being sanctimonious. Martha Bently is something of an innovation, a credible female character in a thriller who is neither a super villain nor a victim. I imagine this is the first entry in a series, I am looking forward to the next one.

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher or The Murder at Road Hill House. Kate Summerscale. Bloomsbury (2009)

A true life murder in 1860 is the starting point for a wider investigation of the crime, detection, privacy and family in Victorian England. On the 30th July 1860 a small boy was taken from his bed and savagely murdered. It was a sensational murder that gripped the public imagination, with the most likely culprit being a member of the household it raised a host of concerns about family relations and the privacy of the home. The murder also took place at the time when the first police detective service was emerging as a identifiable element of the police service. There was a "detective-fever" in popular culture as these new professionals, people whose job was to enquire into secrets and to uncover mysteries, became a source of public fascination. Jack Whicher, was the most famous detective of his day, he was called in to the case and his "suspicions" sparked a wildfire of controversy that effectively ended his police career. Years later the culprit confessed to the crime and Jack Whicher found a second, successful, career as a private detective agent.
Kate Summerscale takes the opportunity presented by this murder to look at the wider currents in society that were laid bare by the case and the way it was treated by the authorities and the press. She identifies they way that the whole issue of "An Englishman's home is his castle" created a veil of privacy that both stimulated and prevented curiosity. The prospect that a household could hide a murderer was a cause of deeply contradictory impulses in the society and the reactions reveal them clearly. The book is a fascinating chronicle of the lives of those involved in the murder, the author presents a vivid and compassionate picture of the spiderweb of fierce emotions at the heart of the case and the long lived repercussions for all involved. A gripping read.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Doom Patrol Archives .Volume 1. Arnold Drake (Writer), Bruno Premiani (Artist). Dc Comics (2002)

Mad science has never been more creatively and enjoyably mad as in this glorious collection of stories. The Doom Patrol were "The World's Strangest Heroes" and Arnold Drake tried to fulfill that boast in each and every story and he was very successful in his work. The four characters are fun twists on standard superhero fare, Rita Farr one tim film actor now Elasti-Girl capable of growing or shrinking to incredible heights. Larry Trainor, a test pilot exposed to mysterious radioactive waves he can release an sort of electromagnetic ghost called Negative Man. Cliff Steele once an international daredevil now a robot with a human brain and their wheelchair bound Chief. The parallels with the X-Men are so clear that they are discussed on the dust cover inner front flap. Happily they are not the X-Men , they are science fiction B-film done with the unlimited budget of comics. They have the same complete disregard for logic and a belief that momentum and an a fifty foot woman would always cover for plot holes.
This is a cleaned up and vaguely modernised version of the science that Dr Frankenstein used to animated his creation, there are ray guns and aliens who want to take over the world and the sense-shattering majesty of The Animal-Vegetable-Mineral Menace. The stories fizzle and crackle with invention and imagination, wild ideas jostle with the most mundane. Negative Man gets loose and is creating havoc, two crooks who have not pulled off a heist for months, track him and take advantage of the blackouts he causes to steal. Naturally there is a genius level talking gorilla who is the servant of the Brain, a disembodied brain who is the leader of the Brotherhood of Evil. Not to mention the atomic beings from the Earth's core.
One of the nicest aspects to the stories is that the sexism rampant in stories from the period, while present is not at toxic doses, Rita is not patronised to quite the extent that other female characters were, it is still jarring at least it is not unreadable. The art is beautiful, Bruno Premiani has a wonderful clear line and the cast are all imbued with great individuality and detail. He is a great science fiction artist, he draws it in a way that captures the wonder and absurdity of the situations, at the same time they have a gravity and weight that anchors them firmly. The book itself is a very nice production, the pages are very crisp and clear and it open out nicely so the whole page is visible. Very good fun.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Britten and Brulightly. Hannah Berry. Jonathan Cape. (2008)

A powerful and very moving story of how the past can never be undone. Fernandez Britten is a "Private Researcher", he had been a private detective who worked with clients with troubled relationships, he had earned the nickname "Heartbreaker". Now he only deals with cases of murder. A client comes to him with a case, her fiancee has committed suicide, she believes he was murdered, she wants Britten to investigate. Britten takes the case and finds that it winds back into his own past as the "Heartbreaker" as much as it it involves his client and her family. The muted colours of the book and the artwork embody the low key melancholy that Britten brings to his work as he seeks to find redemption from the pain he had caused to his previous clients. He is determined and persistent. He is not a tough guy private eye, quick with fists or a gun, nor does he find romance with his client or any other member of the cast. Britten pushes through the case, asking questions and trying to find answers. The case does take a violent turn yet Britten does not react with violence rather he thinks his way out.
This is a story about secrets and how keeping them and revealing them can be equally dangerous. The mystery in the story is carefully crafted and slowly unfolds, it bears the weight of the story with ease and the resolution is satisfying and thoughtful. Hannah Berry is a very striking talent, she has produced a superb comic.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Practicing People Skills on Ballard Street. Jerry Van Amerongen.Syren Book Company (2007)

Middle-aged suburbanites have been a carton staple for a very long time, usually a satiric one, used to exploit their pretensions or the gap between their aspirations and the grim reality of their lives. In the daily newspaper , single panel cartoon, Ballard Street, Jerry Van Ameongen manages to be affectionate, very funny and truthful all at the same time. This collection is not an examination of the comic virtues of desperation, it is full of people happily and fully living out their dreams. While the dreams may be building a somewhat haphazard replica of the Great Sphinx in your back garden or being a bus enthusiast they are being pursued with whole hearted commitment and passion. There is an tremendous pleasure in the cartoons at the sheer absurdity of life and the truly ridiculous nature of it. The cast of the characters are frequently baffled by their own actions or wondering how to cope. They are never treated with a sarcastic edge by Jerry Van Ameongen, they are presented to the world with care and attention.
One of the most distinctive elements in the very funny collection is that there are no children among the cast, there are dogs but no cats. The dogs are fully fledged characters in the cartons, some of the best explore the relationships between people and their pets. Each panel is a snapshot of a life that strongly suggests the rest of the life beyond the panel. This collection is proof that amiable humour is neither weak-kneed nor stupid, these are clever, carefully crafted cartoons that cast an angled glance at life and capture the extraordinary that lies hidden out in the open.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Lucinda Williams. Little Honey. UMG Recordings (2008)

Country music forms a large portion of my musical diet, while I lean towards the drinking, cheating and dying end of the spectrum, I like a fairly broad swathe of the music. One of the things I really like about country is the upfront emotion that is so typical of it, the melodrama is clear and present. The other thing I really like is that there are a lot of female singers with very distinctive voices, not simply nice or great singing voices, they have voices that are resonant with character and feeling.
Lucinda Williams has such a voice, it is deep and drawling and luxuriates in the songs she is singing, they are given an extra dimension by her delivery. Tears of Joy could be the most sarcastic song I have ever heard except that the way it is sung wrings out the deep sadness that lies in it. On the other hand Honey Bee is is a fast moving shout of pleasure.
The standout song of the collection is Jailhouse Tears, a duet with Elvis Costello that just breaks my heart every time. This is a fresh and moving collection of songs sung with care and passion. A musical pleasure.