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Sunday, February 28, 2010

Captain of Rome. John Stack. Harper Collins (2009)

This is a very enjoyable story centering on the struggles between Carthage and Rome as they clashed over dominance in the Mediterranean. Following a Roman victory over Carthage, the Roman fleet is is dispatched to follow up. They suffer a crushing defeat at the hands of the Carthaginians. Unknown to the Romans this is the start of a very ambitious plan by Carthage to challenge Rome directly. Atticus, the captain whose actions in the Roman defeat saved a great many men also made him a pawn in the ambitious games of power by the senior politicians in Rome. The story has a very large cast moving swiftly from Rome to Carthage to the open seas and the threads of the various plots involving the cast are carefully and skillfully woven together. The action is extremely well described, the cast are lively and very credible, the clashing agendas and plots are well revealed the historical context is very well filled in.
John Stack manages to move a very large cast through a lot of action without ever dropping the narrative threads or having his cast be less than clearly individual. The context for the actions, the overall political structures in both Carthage and Rome and the competition between them is extremely clearly laid out. It is revealed through the actions of the cast rather than with lengths of exposition and this means that the motives of the cast drive the action is a clear and meaningful way. The final brutal collision between the two navies is superbly done, it is never crowed out with detail. Engaging and enjoyable, a first rate historical adventure story.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Rick Random, Space Detective. Steve Holland (Editor). Prion (2008)

This is a collection of ten stories featuring Rick Random, investigator for the Interplanetary Bureau of Investigations. These stories are great romantic science fiction where the future is full of far flung planets, intergalactic travel and intrigue and naturally murder most foul. The stories take the world of post war Britain and dress it up in futuristic clothes and buildings, add lashings of technology to create a hugely enjoyable mix. The adventures are full of action, the settings are varied and art is wonderful.
The limited number of panels per page and the extensive text takes a little getting used to, it slows down the momentum of the stories and there is frequently too much explanation provided. This is simply a feature of comics of the time and you adjust very quickly and take the stories at their own pace. The fewer and usually larger panels do give the art work a chance to shine and it does so. The visions of the future are wonderful, they are full of sleek space ships and robots. The details of the royal court on the Moon from the story Emperor of the Moon are simply astonishing. The level of detail is extraordinary, the panels are never crowded or busy.
The stories themselves are models of compression, there is a significant level of action and plot development crammed into each one. Rick Random is a little too clean cut a hero, he is consistently surrounded by very interesting villains and supporters who add great zest and flavour to the stories. Like a lot of science fiction the stories strongly reflect prevailing social attitudes which shine out clearly today and for the most part add to the charm of the stories. This is a great value collection of very enjoyable science fiction from a time when the future could be imagined with a sincerely romantic fervour.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Sherlock Holmes Double Bill: Spider Woman (1944) & The Pearl of Death (1943). Universal Pictures.

These are two of the films from the series starring Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson and both are very enjoyable. In the Spider Woman a series of "Pyjama" suicides occurs in London, Holmes suspects that they are in fact artfully concealed murders. His investigations lead him to Adrea Spedding, a wonderfully competent villain played by Gale Sondergaard. With elements taken from a wide range of stories this is a nicely convoluted story and a great climax at a fun fair. The source for the Pearl of Death is The Six Napoleons and the plot from that story is nicely nestled with another story about a very elusive and murderous master criminal. The plot is straightforward and the momentum is nicely maintained throughout, the final unveiling of the monstrous Hoxton Creeper is very well staged and remains enjoyably horrifying.
Basil Rathbone is superb as Sherlock Holmes, he is arrogant and autocratic in his manner, he has the restless energy required for the part. There is a wonderful verbal duel in the Spider Woman between Sherlock Holmes and Adrea Spedding where the unspoken conversation is as thrilling as the audible one. The fact that the villain in each film is competent and ruthless enough to present a genuine threat to Sherlock Holmes is one of the major pleasures of the films, the end is never in doubt, the journey is great fun.
Nigel Bruce is wonderful as Dr. Watson, he is bluff, hearty and just a bit slow on the uptake,without ever being simply comic relief. With excellent extras this DVD is a treat.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Drive-In:A Double Feature Omnibus. Joe R. Lansdale. Carroll & Graf (1988)

A brilliantly written, deeply pessimistic, blackly funny and very savage horror story. A trip to the Orbit Drive-In for the regular Friday night horror film, cheap b-movie grade horror film, showing different features on each of the six giant screens playing to an audience of four thousand cars turns into a nightmare. The drive-in become isolated and the audience trapped in a deepening spiral of madness, cannibalism and demented horror. The escape from the drive-in proves to be a journey into a terrifying creature feature where death, madness and ceaseless cruelty rule right up to the brutally satisfactory conclusion. The story is superbly constructed, the reveals are done with a gory flourish, the narrative is beautifully crafted, it is as unrelentingly funny as it is horrific and gripping.
The subtitles for each book are beautifully concise and true, The Drive-In(A B-Movie with Blood and Popcorn, Made in Texas) and The Drive-In 2(Not Just One of Them Sequels). Joe R. Lansdale takes some of the conventions of the bucket of blood B-movies and uses them in fresh and ferocious ways to describe the horrific and speedy descent that people will take to savagery. The action is vividly described with the violence and passion of the first book nicely counterpointed by the despair of the second.
What lifts this story is the glittering brilliance of the writing, the first person narrative is a joy to read, it rings true and conveys the misguided optimism of the narrator right up to the stunning climax. The descriptive flourishes are funny and apt, the dialogue is natural and unforced, the cast are vivid and forceful. The total mix makes for an extraordinary reading experience where the unbearable is delivered with such panache that the reader is expertly swept along. This is a great story, read back to back the full force and quality of the writing and the astonishing imagination at work can be enjoyed to the full. Amazing and horrifying.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Screw Heaven, When I Die I'm Going to Mars. Shannon Wheeler (Writer & Artist). Dark Horse Comics (2007)

This is a collection of Shannon Wheeler's brilliant, sharp and very funny cartoons. There are strips about religion, romance, some featuring the costumed anti-hero Too Much Coffee Man and some about the struggle involved in simply being alive. All are drawn with a deceptive simplicity that makes the very pointed writing a pleasure to read. The strips are full of life and vitality, bursting with a wonderful expressiveness. Shannon Wheeler neatly avoids bitterness or rancour, he catches the stubborn humour that lies within the struggle not to out-think ourselves.
The strips are mostly concerned with anxiety, the gnawing uncertainty that casually undermines our actions before we even commit them. Shannon Wheeler creates comedy out of doubt and advance regret, he is able to frame it so that it is both recognisable and fantastic. He is also more than willing to put himself on the spot as much as any of his fictional characters.
These comics take the reader seriously, they are clever and artfully created and they are a pleasure to read. Too Much Coffee Man is a wonderful character, he is so crippled by anxiety that he should be annoying and slightly repulsive, instead he is engaging and truthful. His actions are horribly understandable and the defeats he suffers frequently self inflicted. They are never vindictive and that makes all the difference. These are superb cartoon by a hugely talented creator.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Skin Horse. Volume One. Shaenon K. Garrity. (Writer & Artist), Jeffrey C. Wells (Writer). the Couscous Collective (2009)

This book is a collection of the first set of story arcs from the very funny web comic. Skin Horse is a secret government agency that provides basic social services to America's "nonhuman sapients". Genetically modified creatures and results of now redundant experiments and secret projects, they are assisted by the field team at Skin Horse. This team is headed by Sweetheart, a genetically modified, talking dog created by a, now deceased, mad scientist, Unity is a zombie,and Tip is an assertively heterosexual, cross dressing psychologist. The various situations this team find themselves in, including a journey through the sub basement of their building where Tip finds his negotiating skills stretched to the limit, are brilliantly funny and engaging.
The whole cast of this comic, the principals as well as the supporting players are all written and drawn with a warm affection that bring them to life. They are wonderfully engaged with the absurd situations that they find themselves in and the momentum of the story lines arises naturally from their actions and personalities. They are never overwhelmed by the high concept of the comic, it is just a natural background for their activities. The trio of Sweetheart, Unity and Tip are developed in depth and emerge as rounded characters that have a real claim on the affections of the reader, rather than purveyors of jokes.
The art is deceptively clear and simple, there is a very significant level of detail in each panel, they never look cluttered or overburdened, in particular the eloquent body language of the cast, including the non human members, is a delight. The humour is sharp and has a nice edge to it without being snarky. This is a great comic, well worth reading.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Eagle Annual, The Best of the 1960s Comic. Daniel Tatarsky (Editor). Orion Books (2009)

This is an extraordinary and potent time capsule, it brought me back to my years in national school reading Treasure, Look & Learn and borrowing where I could Hotspur and Valiant. This selection, brilliantly complied by Daniel Tatarsky plunged me back to my early schooldays as effectively as any time machine. As a school boy the 1960s were not a tumultuous decade at all, the social, political upheavals were unseen, it was a very formal decade with the divisions between boys and girls, men and women very apparent and strictly maintained.
Eagle comic with its mixture of education and entertainment for boys captures the flavour of the decade with precision. It had to, its audience was one of the most conservative in the world, young and early teen boys. One of the most evocative aspects to this book are the ads, the mixture of talking down and talking to than was exactly the normal tone of adult discourse. The letters to the editor are the other place where the true voice of the 1960s can be heard, boys wanting to speak as men did.
I never was a fan of the Eagle, I wanted my comic unadulterated by any non-fiction elements, I wanted the pure thrill of action stories. Reading the excerpts in this annual I am struck by the way class distinctions were so central to the stories. It makes them hard to read now, the action is is not fast enough to speed the reader over the bumps. Overall the range of the content, the frequently breathtaking art work, the fascinating view of what is truly a bygone era make this a delightful and for me, very pleasantly, nostalgic read. I would not like to return there, a visit is lovely.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Night Attila Died. Solving the Murder of Attila the Hun. Michael A. Babcock. Berkley Books (2005)

A very enjoyable and lucid investigation of the death of Attila the Hun. The official version of the death of Attila the Hun, the Scourge of God, is that he became very drunk on his wedding night, passed out and died from drowning in his own blood. Michael A. Babcock does not find that this version of the death of Attila persuasive, it is just too pat and convenient for the very large number of people who benefited from Attila's death. He believes that in fact Attila was murdered, probably poisoned, on the foot of a plot by the Eastern Roman Emperor, Marcian, and he makes his, persuasive, case in this book.
Michael A. Babcock is a philology, a historian of language and he uses his skill to track and trace the various ways the official history of the death of Attila was constructed, what is actually says and more importantly what it does not say. He delves deeply into the text, the account comes from the Gothic History of Jordanes, the book explores how Jordanes built his history from earlier sources and examines these sources. What potentially is an interesting if rather dry process is brought to vivid life by the passion, humour and skillful writing of the author.
The social, political, religious and military context for the death of Attila are carefully discussed and the evidence for murder is carefully and systematically gathered and presented. The likely suspects are identified and their probable motivation examined, the reasons for the creation of a narrative that gave Attila a death by natural causes are explored. One of the strenghts of the book is that Michael A. Babcock does not go beyond the evidence, he marshals it effectively and makes his case, he stops short of claiming a definitive proof. This is a very enjoyable, wide ranging and very well written book on a fascinating topic, well worth reading.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Harker. The Book of Solomon. Roger Gibson & Vince Danks. Ariel Press (2009)

This is a hugely enjoyable and thoughtful crime story. Two people have been murdered and mutilated at locations near the British Museum. Detective Chief Inspector Harker and Detective Sargent Critchley are assigned as multiple homicide case experts. Jenny Griffin is the forensic pathologist on the case and the interactions between the three is one of the major pleasures of the comic. The mutilations suggest some sort of ritual and a local Satanic group that included the last victim is uncovered. The reveals are very nicely paced, the investigation is pursued with competence and intelligence. The conclusion is very satisfying, sharp, nasty and just the right touch of humour to set it off.
The story construction is first rate, the plot has been properly thought out and is neatly obscured by an enjoyable layer of red herring. The creators do not cheat to get to a conclusion, it emerges cleanly and naturally from the story and gains considerable fore by doing so. The cast are well developed, they have clear and engaging personalities, the relationship between DCI Harker and DS Critchley rings true. Harker himself is an effective mixture of competence and mild diffidence, he is commanding when required, smart enough to be very worried when he should be.
The black and white art is very appealing, the cast are all sharply individual, the physical details of each location are nicely presented, particularly the exterior scenes in the city. There is a strong sense of context for the action, the cityscapes swirl with life and activity. Smart story and lovely art combine to create a very enjoyable comic, well worth reading.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Very Best of Herman. Jim Unger. Grub Street. (1993)

Herman is a very funny, mordant, single panel cartoon. Single panel cartoons are very tricky to pull off, there is no room for recovery, the balance between compression and information has to be very finely judged, Jim Unger is a master of the form. One of the most striking aspects to the cartoons is the lack of detail, the cast are usually rather shapeless and frequently featureless, they are fantastically expressive. The body language is eloquent and the elongated faces capture the anxiety that they are feeling.
The captions are lines spoken by one of the cast in the panel and they are little masterpieces in themselves. They never duplicate the action in the panel, they reveal it and give it bite and vitality. These cartoons are wonderfully pointed and frequently just hover above the despairing, Jim Unger uses absurdity to capture what is very funny about disaster. One of the cartoons in the collection shows a chef in a card shop asking for 143 Get-Well cards and another shows a jailer asking a prisoner in the stocks if he will be writing a book about it after he gets out. Brilliant cartoons with a sharp undertow, unmissable.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

body 115. The mystery of the last victim of the King's Cross Fire. Paul Chambers. John Wiley & Sons,Ltd. (2007)

On the 18th November 1987 there was a fire in King's Cross Underground station that killed 31 people, thirty of these victims were identified within two weeks, the final victim was not positively identified for sixteen years. This very well written and enthralling book examines the whole story from the start of the fire to the final burial of the man known for sixteen years as "body 115". It is a remarkable story of persistence, forensic investigations, luck and deep abiding tragedy.
Paul Chambers has written a sober, detailed and very thoughtful book about the fire and its long term consequences. A dropped match on an wooden escalator was the cause of the fire, it ignited the accumulated rubbish underneath the moving steps. The progress of the fire and it immediate aftermath are described in vivid detail, the extraordinary persistence of passengers in ignoring the visible danger and explicit safety instructions are mind boggling. The confusion and courage at the fire are captured very well, as are the responses of the media and relevant organisations to the fire.
The heart of the book is the extraordinary search to identify the final unknown victim, referred to for years by his mortuary tag id as "body 115". What would appear to be a relatively simple task was to prove to be well nigh intractable. The body was burnt so badly that there was scant, if ultimately, very important forensic evidence. The details that were available all lead frustratingly to dead ends. Thanks to the ongoing commitment of the British Transport Police, the case was kept live and when finally, due to an fantastically luck event the victim could finally be identified. This vivid, astonishing and very moving story is a great read.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Grandville. Bryan Talbot ( Script, Art & Book design). Jonathan Cape. (2009)

Utilising the story structure of a modern action film and beautiful art, Grandville is a hugely enjoyable adventure story. Twenty-three years after Britain has broken free of the French Empire after loosing the Napoleonic wars, a British diplomat is found murdered at his home. Detective Inspector LeBrock and Detective Ratzi follow the trail to Paris where they find themselves involved in a huge and deadly conspiracy. The action is fast and furious, the jokes are well placed and funny, the romance expertly handled and the climax explosive.Bryan Talbot manages all the required elements with great skill and an unerring eye for the telling detail.
The unexpected element in the story are the cast who are creatures with animal heads and human bodies, which allows Bryan Talbot to make some funny references to dogs playing poker and Snowy, Tintin's dog. These are happily inter grated very neatly into the thrust of the narrative so they do not impede or interfere with the action nor do they unduly call attention to themselves. The central conspiracy explicitly uses the attack on the Twin Towers in New York as a critical element in the plot. The very straightforward use of this event in the book allows Bryan Talbot make a point without sacrificing the story requirements to do so.
The art is simply gorgeous, the cast are all individual, with expressive features and body language, I particularly like a very contemptuous French fish headed waiter. Le Brock is a splendid action hero, mentally nimble, physically very strong, dangerous and determined. The rest of the cast are as villainous, beautiful, loyal and courageous as they should be. With great art on a solid story this is a superb comic.