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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Killing the Messenger. Thomas Peele. Crown Publishers (2012)

This is a heartfelt, superbly structured and beautifully written book about why a journalist was murdered on the 2 August 2007 in Oakland, California. The story is a wide ranging history of a radical religion, fraud, the hideous results of racism, greed, incompetence and the bottomless well of human malice, desire for power and dominance.
Thomas Peele places the killing of Chauncey Bailey in its context of the dreadful history of violent racism that runs through American history. Chauncey Bailey was killed because he was a journalist and he was killed to prevent a story being published. The fact that he was an African-American and was killed by a member of the Black Muslim sect in Oakland is just one of the sad and horrible facets to this case that Thomas Peele  illuminates.
There are four broad threads to the narrative, the first is the response to the attack on the freedom of the press that the murder of Chauncey Bailey represents and that Thomas Peele as a fellow journalist wants to forcefully respond to. The next broad thread is the ugly and murderous history of racist  repression and oppression that was rampant in American society throughout the last century. The third broad thread is the miserable history of Oakland, referred to memorably as the "shitbox of the west". Finally there is the extraordinary and heartbreaking story of the Nation of Islam, a cold-hearted fraud that violently traded on the rage and deep despair of African-Americans to benefit a small number of staggeringly corrupt men. In a carefully researched, artfully structured book, Thomas Peele shows how each of the these threads slowly wound across each other and finally lead to the murder of Chauncey Bailey.
The vicious depths of the fraud carried out by the Nation of Islam and its breakaway sect in Oakland are laid bare in all their sordid and mean details. The exploitation of the rage, sorrow and dislocation of fellow African-Americans is a sad and moving story. The actions of the chief fraudsters themselves are eye watering in their depravity, malice and destructiveness. In particular Yusuf Bey, the patriarch of  the Black Muslim sect in Oakland and founder of Your Black Muslim Bakery, which was the linchpin of his criminal enterprise was an appalling man. A serial child abuser on a very significant scale he ruined the lives of an uncountable number of people in the pursuit of power, vanity and money.
Yusuf Bey flourished in Oakland due to spectacular incompetence, indifference and civic apathy that has dogged Oakland throughout its history. All of these factors played direct contributing parts in the murder of Chauncey Bailey.
Thomas Peele tells a very specific and particular story, rooted firmly in a location that quietly and effectively casts a revealing light across a dark slice of  current history. This is a griping book, easy to read and chilling in its revelations. Journalism may be the first draft of history, this is is simply superbly written history.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Batman. The Black Mirror. Scott Snyder (Writer), Jock, Francesco Francavilla (Art), David Baron, Francesco Francavilla (Colours), Jared K. Fletcher, Sal Cipriano (Letters) DC Comics (2011)

A superb Batman story that uses the story possibilities of Dick Grayson becoming Batman in Gotham City in the absence of Bruce Wayne to the full. The plot is very nicely structured as Dick Grayson does more than don the costume, he becomes Batman and Jim Gordon confronts the possibility that his son is a murderer. A violent incident at a school leads to a trail of a man who holds very specialized auctions, where the lot are from crimes that are from some of Bruce Waynes's most personal cases. This is followed by an extraordinary crime at a Gotham city bank that is owned by someone who has a very close connection to Dick Grayson's past. Along side these cases Jim Gordon is faced with a terrible problem, his son James has come back to town and Jim Gordon has to establish if his son is a merciless killer or not. Both story lines neatly overlap and intertwine and finally come together with a bloody and very satisfying climax.
Among the numerous wonderful aspects to this book is the multiple ways that Scott Snyder uses the possibilities of a new person taking on the role of Batman. With Bruce Wane there is always the sense that the civilian identity is merely a shallow mask, the real substance lies behind the mask. In this story there is a much more complete and complex character who puts on the costume rather than being defined by it. Dick Grayson has a long history and it is used to wonderful effect as he struggles to become Batman and not loose himself in the process. He makes mistakes and has to struggle very hard to be successful, at the same time he is competent and very effective. A nice mix that give real life and force to the costumed action and give the narration a very satisfactory bite. It is also a great pleasure to have opponents whose motivation is greed and the lust for cruelty, the simplicity makes them considerably more dangerous.
The James Gordon story is beautifully paced, a carefully set up series of reveals that push and pull the reader as much as the cast. When the die is finally cast the story continues to move in unexpected directions and use the brutal possibilities with skill and determination. There is a distracting sub-plot featuring the Joker, it is a considerable tribute to the combined talent involved in the book that the intrusion of such a threadbare sequence does not deflate the whole book.
The art by Jock on the Batman  sections and Francesco Francavilla on the Jim Gordon sections is a joy to read in each case, both a distinctive and neither clash nor confuse. Jock's art is angular and sharp edged, it gives a great sense of the razor edges that surround Dick Grayson all the time. The cast are full of energy and force, there is a restless energy in them even when they are still. Francesco Francavilla has much softer edges for his cast, the real action is most often clearly revealed body language that shows the tensions that wrap around everyone. The intense calm of James Gordon may be good news or very bad news. There is a very welcome horror aspect to the story that the art bring out to the full without every loosing it footing in superheroics.  The colouring by David Baron and Francesco Francavilla is virtually a full blown cast member, it is prominent and outspoken while always lifting the story.  The lettering by Jared K. Fletecher and Sal Cipriano manages to be so attuned to the story that it is virtually invisible while giving weight and timbre to the words. A brilliant comic and even better a brilliant Batman story.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Inspector and Silence. Hakan Nesser (Writer), Laurie Thompson (Translation) Pan Books (1997)

A slow building crime story that quietly and forcefully builds to a strong and bitter conclusion. A young girl is reported missing from a Christian group in rural Sweden, the local Acting Chief of Police calls on Chief Inspector Van Veeteren for help. The Christian group, decline to co-operate with the investigation and there is an open question about the truth of the disappearance in the first place. When the body of a young girl, raped and murdered is discovered, the investigation gains a clear point of focus. The members of the sect, both adult and the young girls cling to silence and Inspector Van Veeteren has to try and understand what he is not being told. The investigation is seriously hampered by a lack of direct evidence and the unwillingness of the group members to co-operate. The case breaks in an unexpected fashion and finally comes to a grim and satisfying conclusion.
This is a very deliberately paced book, the investigation is a study in frustration as the team try to discover something new from scant evidence and uncooperative witnesses. The tensions of the investigation are very well drawn, as the ever present threat of another murdered child is faced with each passing hour. Running along side this are Inspector Van Veeteren's on thoughts about retiring from police work. One of the pleasures of the book is the way that Hakan Neser has avoided the cliche of a policeman afraid to retire as they have no life outside of police work. Van Veeteren is thinking about leaving without agony or severe loss, it is a matter more of having  run the course. It is a natural and difficult process and it is presented in a natural way, it overlaps with the investigation as a child murder is hard to bear.
The rest of the cast are drawn with a wry sympathy that is greatly appealing, everyone is handling a life as well as an investigation and trying to make it all work. The Acting Chief of Police Merwin Kluuge, expectant father and feeling horribly out of his depth with the investigation finds that he has to cope and manage in circumstances he could not have imagined. The way he responds and develops is very nicely written, the character is given the room to grow and develop.
There is a strong editorial voice in the story which adds to the pleasure, the cast are framed a bit by the comments, it does not intrude or act to try and force the reader to respond in a particular way. It is more of an aside that strikes off the situation. The pace of the story does not change when the final deductions are made and the murderer comes directly into the story, it is still a slow pace, the deliberate pacing makes the situation ever more horrible. The murderer is presented with care and restraint, the appalling actions that have been committed and may be committed are left to be realised by the reader and this adds to the force of the situation. This is a great crime drama that never forgets the victims are not just the dead.

Friday, March 9, 2012

WitchFinder: Lost and Gone Forever. Mike Mignola, John Arcudi (Writers),John Severin (Art) Dave Stewart (Colours), Clem Robbins (Letters). Dark Horse Comics 2012

From the classic Western opening through the superbly crafted story that neatly side steps cliches to the sharp finale this is a great comic. Sir Edward Grey, WitchFinder for the Queen of England is in Utah tracking a man from England. After some trouble he meets up with Morgan Kaler who helps he get out of town. They encounter a young white woman, Eris, who is preaching to the Paiute Indians. Morgan Kaler says that Eris is a witch and using her powers to influence the Paiute. A little later they encounter the man Grey has been tracking and find that he is now a zombie and the story moves in unexpected directions from there. The reveals are cunningly staged, full use is made of the possibilities of the Western setting and Grey being out of his normal element.
With the opening scenes of the book when a stranger arrives in town and asks the wrong questions the sense of the mythical West of the Westerns is superbly established. The rest of the story diligently undermines that prospect as the supernatural threads are pulled together. One of the strongest aspects to the story is the unexpected and clever use of zombies, which are a rather threadbare now. In this story they have a purpose beyond hunger for brains, they are part of a larger plot driven by malice and greed. There is a subtle confidence to the storytelling that makes it a pleasure to read, there is one particularly bold stroke involving the local preacher which could easily have gone horribly wrong. Instead it has a genuine force and subtle agony that gives depth and force to the story. The dignified and easy handling of the Paiute is a joy, it is nice to see them being treated as humans without guilt robbing them of the chance to be as confused as the rest of us.
The cast are first rate, Edward Grey is trying to hold on as events and context conspire against him, Morgan Kaler is wonderful. Sharp, colorful and brimming over with energy he is exactly the right Western hero. Eris is a  dangerous woman who has dark plans and the fierce will to bring them to fruition.
John Severin's art is an undiluted pleasure. He has such a complete mastery of comic art that his work is just an deep pleasure to read and linger over. It never calls unnecessary attention to itself, it serves the story with care and wit , at the same time the depth and detail that fill the pages are just a treat. They give the cast a force and presence, the body language is eloquent. The cast fill the spaces with vitality and physical presence, they relate naturally to the context and the action is staged superbly.
Dave Stewart's colouring is so sure and subtle that it nearly passes by without attention, it works for the story, adding tones and notes to the action.  It illuminates the art and gives it the palate it needs to reveal its power. Clem Robbins lettering gives the shadings of conversation without ever intruding.
Everything in this comic is there to serve the story and it does so with conviction and flair. Each element is worth savoring in its own right as it is the work of a very talented and creative artist, separately and combined they show why comics are the wonder that they are.