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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Hunter's Moon. David Devereux. Gollancz (2007)

This is very fast paced, gripping and very English thriller. The narrator gives his name as Jack, he is an agent for a very secret British security department that deals with supernatural threats. A group called The Enlightened Sisterhood were plotting something serious and Jack is sent to investigate it and if required deal with it by eliminating the Sisterhood. Jack is paired with a female agent who has infiltrated the Sisterhood and with some assistance from Jack joins the inner circle. The plot moves at high speed, the reveals are well paced and the action is really well staged. The climax is savage and satisfying.

David Devereux manages to weave the magical aspects of this story into the action in a seamless fashion, they are just one of the tools of the trade, used well or badly depending on the person involved. Jack is a great character, he is a very competent professional, dealing with dangerous problems and people with force and ultra dry black humour. The use of magic is never a means to avoid logic, it is used to increase the tension and the depth of the threat.

Happily David Devereux has conjured up a superb set of villains to oppose Jack, thoroughly competent and effective, they are a force to be reckoned with. The way that the leaders of the group control their followers is brutal and very credible, it reveals the personalities involved as much as providing dramatic force. The tone of the book is restrained, there is dirty work to be done and it will be completed, the calm and determined professional brutality is very English. Gripping and tense, a superb thriller.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Ghost in the Shell Stand Alone Complex. The Lost Memory. Junichi Fujisaku. DH Press (2006)

This is an enjoyable science fiction thriller set in a credible and well developed context with an engaging cast. The story is set in a future Japan in a world where replacing body partially or completely with prosthetic limbs or full bodies is commonplace and having a cyberbrain, a computer addition to your brain is virtually required to manage in an information saturated society.

A seemingly unrelated series of terrorist incidents carried out by teenage boys with no previous history or discernible motive, called the "Good Morning Terrorists", attracts the attention of Section 9, a Public Security group with responsibility for combating terrorism. Led by Major Motoko Kusanagi, who has had a full body replacement, the team from Section 9 investigate the incidents as well as the threat from a criminal gang to a visiting diplomat. The plot moves nicely, the reveals are well staged and the conclusion is enjoyably paranoid and explosive.

The writer manages to translate the context of the literal information society that is presented in very visual terms in the the animated series in a very unforced way. A lot of context and explanation has to be provided to ensure that the reader can understand the actions and choices of the cast and it is do in a very natural fashion. The cast are well developed, the Major is an engaging and professional security officer, the rest of her team are varied and lively. The story itself has a very enjoyable flavour of conspiracy thriller films of the late 1970's, as the plot unfolds it becomes clear that there is something very nasty lurking in the background.

While the story is set within the continuity from Ghost in the Shell Stand Alone Complex 1st Gig, it is written by one of the writers of the animated series, no previous knowledge of any of the Ghost in the Shell comic books, films or the SAC series is required to enjoy it.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

3:10 To Yuma. Columbia Pictures (1957). DVD

A classic Western, tense and gripping. Glen Ford plays an outlaw, Ben Wade, who is captured pretty much by accident by Van Heflin, playing rancher Dan Evans. A plan is hatched to move Ben Wade to a nearby town to wait for the 3:10 Yuma train to take Ben Wade to the jail in Yuma. Dan Evans takes the lead in transporting and guarding Ben Wade for the bounty on offer. The battle of wills between Ben Wade and Dan Evans as they wait in a hotel room for the train and Wade's gang arrive in town and act to free their leader is the heart of the film. The action is sparse and forceful, the tension is developed steadily as the time to the train departure draws closer. The conclusion is satisfying and truthful.

Glen Ford gives an extraordinary performance in this film, Ben Wade is highly intelligent, he is an outlaw because he wants to be, he enjoys it. From the opening scenes it is clear that he is a dangerous killer, he also commands the devotion as well as the loyalty of his men. He charms a bar girl (Felicia Farr) by actually seeing her as the woman she is rather than the job she is doing. His battle with Van Heflin is conducted with words and a deeply cruel insight into the character of his prison guard. He is fantastically dangerous and is deliberately, politely destructive.

Van Heflin gives an equally amazing performance, he has a significantly harder role to fill. He is an downtrodden everyman who takes on a job out of desperation and finds that he has a wolf by the ears. The blows that Ben Wade land on him do not break him, rather they forge him into a man who sees that what was just a job has become a duty and in deciding to do his duty Dan Evans becomes himself, a better man. This ability to make a good man watchable and interesting, to make his struggle not be sentimental nor stupidly noble, just a matter of fact acceptance of what needs to be done provides a steel core to Van Heflin's performance. It gives depth and strength to the battle with Ben Wade and gives a what is essentially a chamber piece force, tension and conviction. This film is compelling and gripping, a must see.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

CVO (Covert Vampiric Operations) Rogue State. Jeff Mariotte (Writer), Antonio Vazquez(Art), Fran Gamboa (Colours), Tom B. Long (Letters). IDW. (2005)

A solid premise and a thoughtful plot are let down by a cramped conclusion. One of the US Government's secret services is C.V.O., Covert Vampiric Operations. They are being attacked and killed while in parallel there is a palace coup taking place in a South (Central?) American country of San Felipe. The two plots run in parallel as a trio of CVO agents refuse an order to turn themselves in a proceed to establish what is actually going on. The reveals are nicely done and the action is graphic and well choreographed. The conclusion is very cramped, it feels as though the series was brought to an abrupt halt ahead of what had originally been planned.

There are a great many good things about this book, the absolute best being the complete lack of a back story to CVO as an organisation or for the agents. They were made into vampires by CVO, the how and why is not explained. This gives a welcome forward momentum to the story, there is no looking back and the reader is forced to take the whole premise for granted. The vampire trio are interesting and varied, they each have a presence and individual personality, their interactions are excellent. The rest of the major parts are well done also, there has been care taken to step beyond cliche while not straying too far from stereotypes.

The art was a bit too dark for my taste, the colouring overwhelming the details, in particular in some of the action sequences. The figure work is strong and nicely suggestive, the facial expressions are expressive and forceful. All told, while it is not completely successful it is still well worth a read.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

You Shall Die By Your Own Evil Creation. Fletcher Hanks. Fantagraphics (2009)

This is a second collection of fascinating and very distinctive comics from Fletcher Hanks. Fletcher Hanks is one of the very few people who have written, pencilled, inked and lettered all his own work and his style is very distinctive regardless of the genre he was working in. For the most part he wrote science fiction, jungle adventure, lumberjack adventure and superhero stories. The lumberjack stories, featuring the adventures of "Big Red McLane, King of the Northwoods" are the most straightforward of the stories in the collection. Big Red fights a variety of gangsters who are trying to take over his business, he deals with them directly and wins by being better with his fists than any of his opponents. They are simple slices of pulp adventure.
When Fletcher Hanks wrote science fiction or jungle adventures he was considerably less constrained and the stories are extraordinary. The formal aspect to the stories is simple and repetitive, danger threatens the explorer "Space Smith", or the inhabitants of the jungle protected by "Fantomah, Mystery Woman of the Jungle", Space Smith escapes or Fantomah extracts some terrible vengeance of the trespassers in the jungle. Within this format Fletcher Hanks manages to create truly staggering villains and extraordinary ideas. The art for the villains is always much more expressive and forceful than it is for the somewhat bland heroes, the villains smoulder with rage, resentment and desire. They also meet the most gruesome and inventive ends.
These stories show the signs of the commercial pressures that were created under, they were intended to be disposable fodder with no intent beyond being a quick and exciting read, forgotten as soon as it was put down. This pressure and lack of real scrutiny meant that Fletcher Hanks could create savage, imaginative stories that are really unlike any others without being caught and stopped. These are wild explosions of imagination, fuelled by powerful passions in Fletcher Hanks and we are very lucky to have them. Editor Paul Karasik has done a superb job with this collection and its companion, I Shall Destroy All The Civilized Planets! Comics archeology at its best.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Borkmann's Point. Hakan Nesser. Macmillan (2006)

A very enjoyable and leisurely crime story. Two people are murdered in the same fashion, most likely by the same person, there is no discernible link between the two victims. Chief Inspector Van Veeteren, on holiday nearby is sent to the small town to assist with the investigation. The local Chief of Police is happy to have the Van Veeteren join the investigation, he is due to retire and would like to have the case closed before he does. A third murder takes place, again apparently the same murder and no clear link to the other victims. The story swirls around quietly as the investigation tries to gain some focus on the crimes, the reveals are nicely done and paced, the finale is thoughtful and satisfying.

The title refers to an investigative theory propounded by an old policeman, that at a certain point in an investigation everything required to solve the cases is already known, a good investigator recognises this and uses good thinking to resolve the case. The story allows the information to accumulate carefully and nicely describes the struggle of the very well realised cast to make sense of what they are seeing.

The plot is well structured, the real pleasure of the book is the cast. They are are well rounded and come to life with armed with a pessimistic professionalism that is not cynical or bitter. This gives the book a low key tone which makes it very easy to read and allows the emotional context for the events to arise naturally and frames the conclusion to excellent effect. A very enjoyable read.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa. DreamWorks Animation (2008)

A very funny story about four animals from the New York Zoo stranded in Africa. Alex the lion (Ben Stiller), Marty the zebra (Chris Rock), Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer) and Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) having found themselves washed up on Madagascar in the first film, end up in Africa in this one. The central story line in the film is a very funny take on the Lion King. To a large extent that is just a clothes line on which to hang a multitude of very funny set pieces, visual and verbal gags and the obligatory dose of life lesson sentiment that animated films are required to carry.

Because the four headlines are forced to carry the burden of the sentiment, they are somewhat held back, they are not allowed to be simply funny, they have to be meaningful as well. Ben Stiller and Chris Rock manage this with the lowest cringe factor, Jada Pinkett Smith has sufficient character in her vocal work to keep the sentiment under control, David Schwimmer drowns. He does make the most of the few opportunities he is given, the script is steadfastly stacked against him.

The real joy of the film lie with the supporting cast, where free from any need to be anything other than funny, the film makers make the most of their freedom. The group of penguins are show stealer's, their fast verbal gags and wonderful animated character work are fantastic. They are given very serious competition by a pair of monkeys, the most formidable little old lady in film and Alec Baldwin as the evil lion. They give the film tremendous force and momentum and are tremendously funny. As the lemur king of Madagascar who travels to Africa with the New York quartet, Sacha Baron Cohen is an unmitigated pleasure.

The animation is distinctive, it is nicely cartoony and very mobile and expressive, the expressiveness of the characters in motion is beautiful. Smart, very funny with top class animation, this film is a treat.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Fart Party. Volume 2. Julia Wertz. Atomic Book Company (2009)

Julia Wertz's talent, humour and superb editing skills make this collection of autobiographical strips a treat. The single biggest obstacle to any autobiographical material in any medium is that most people's lives are barely of interest to themselves let alone to strangers. Turning the small change of an ordinary life into readable web or print content for readers who have no direct connection to the protagonist is very difficult. It takes tremendous skill to edit and shape the material so that it will sustain an audience and at the same time not drift too far from the details of the source.

Julia Wertz manages this task with a cranky charm and understated skill. The art is apparently unsophisticated and suits the single page format very well, while the level of expressiveness achieved shows that the artistic choices are thoughtful and considered. Her graphic persona is lively and very engaging, the true tales of living that are told in the strips are very nicely judged and often sharply, indeed painfully, funny and ring true. The editing skill that Julia Wertz brings to her work is extraordinary, these strips are not self indulgent nor maudlin.

The sections of stick figure travel diaries are just as good as the more finished sections, The writing is superb and the more limited drawing showcases it very effectively and the art itself has a lovely energy and tremendous charm. This is a great volume of strips by a very talented creator.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Blood On The Tracks. Bob Dylan. Columbia (1975) CD.

This is one of the collections of songs that always open up fresh and crisp every time I listen to it. Any collection that opens with Tangled Up In Blues and follows that with a Simple Twist of Fate is announcing big ambitions and possibly setting itself up to fail. The collection goes on to fulfill those ambitions and even exceed them. There is a huge lyrical density in the songs in this collection, not only are there a lot of words, they are complex and twisting. They create a significant burden for the singer and the listener. They are also interesting and intriguing, they take the listener seriously and require attention.

The music partners with the lyrics in a most unusual fashion, they do not frame the lyrics nor do the counterpoint them. The music propels the music, they lift them and add to the meaning and the emotional resonance. There is a genuine partnership at work which is not often achieved. This is where the craft of songwriting blends into art, that mysterious creative force that communicates directly with us.

While I love Shelter from the Storm and think that Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts may be one of my favourite spaghetti western, the stand out song for me is If You See Her Say Hello. There is a impossible yearning in this song, to repair what has long been broken that just catches me. An astonishing achievement.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Perry Bible Fellowship Almanack. Nicholas Gurewitch. Dark Horse Books (2009)

This collection of strips manages to be extremely funny without ever being humorous. The difference between comedy and humour has never been more starkly illustrated than in the strips written and illustrated by Nicholas Gurewitch. This is savage, biting comedy that will make a reader laugh out loud, it will never make a reader comfortable.

The content of the strips is varied, it is unified by a very bleak sensibility and a wonderful talent for compression. There are usually three or four panels to each strip and the set up and pay off have to be very skillfully composed to be effective within such a small space. The way that the strips impart the information that essentially lies between the panels is extraordinary, each strip has an unseen context that gives it an extra flavour and greater impact.

The figures are frequently white, mostly featureless, and human shaped. While this should drain some of the emotional content from the strips is manages to emphasise it instead which gives the frequently brutal pay-off an greater comedy impact. The strength of the writing is very impressive, the strips are all very tightly written, the ideas are unfurled with a strict economy of words and image and the pacing is crisp.

The layout of the book is excellent, there is a single strip per page so that each one is both of a size that is easy to read and none of the strips compete with each other. This is a great collection by a very talented creator, savage unconformable comedy with a bitter aftertaste that is truly and unforgivably funny.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Rainbow Orchid. Volume One. Garen Ewing (Writer & Artist). Egmont UK Ltd. (2009)

Excellent, fast paced and very well cast period adventure story. Julius Chancer is an assistant to Sir Alfred Catesby-Grey an Ancient and Historical Researcher. They become involved with a famous silent film actress, Lily Lawerence and her father Lord Reginal Lawerence. Lord Reginald has made a foolish bet with a mysterious businessman Urkaz Grope regarding a flower exhibition. A search for the fabled Rainbow Orchid, a flower mentioned by a Greek philosopher thousand years ago, which may have been located in India much more recently by an acquaintance of Sir Alfred. The plot develops at a steady pace, the reveals are nicely paced and done and the action is fluid, the ending is nicely set up to lead into the next volume.

The art and structure of the book has a deliberately nostalgic feel that adds greatly to the enjoyment and atmosphere of the story. The possibilities period setting, post World War I, have been utilised very well. It is a period when an adventure with trains, boats and the Mysterious East is credible and non-ironic. The plot is nice developed with a variety of threads introduced and promises of further development implied. This gives the story a nice context with the suggestions of greater plots afoot.

The cast are varied and have nicely distinctive personalities and voices, the art is clean and inviting, it suits the period and the style of the story very well. There is a lighthearted sense to the story that is very welcome. This is a very engaging story, well worth a read.