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Friday, November 27, 2015

The Complete Maus. Art Spiegelman (Writer & Artist). Penguin Books (2003)

Extraordinary and gripping, this is a mixed memoir about Art Spiegelman's parents experiences as Polish Jews caught in the Nazi led genocide and his own fractured relationship with his father. Art Spiegelman has resolved several very significant story problems with astonishing creativity and a very striking use of the possibilities offered by comics.
The single biggest problem that anyone writing about the Nazi led efforts to annihilate Jews and many others identified as undesirable is that the scale of the effort makes it practically impossible to comprehend. On the other hand individual stories struggle to capture the extraordinary scale of the process and the colossal bureaucracy required to drive it. Art Spieglman's first and most important creative decision is to use an anthropomorphic cast, Jews of every nationality are mice, Germans are cats, Poles are pigs. The whole conflict changes into a literal game of cat and mouse, no explanations are needed for why cats chase and kill mice, the focus can stay on how the mouse tries to elude and survive. At the same time a mouse among pigs is still a different species and the death of a mouse is not likely to be very significant to a pig, so the extraction of the Jews from Polish and other European societies is made a lot more comprehensible.
Vladek Spiegelman tells his own story to his son Art and the story starts with how he met his wife, Art's mother, courted her and married her. She was the daughter of a wealthy industrialist and the couple had every prospect of a comfortable life, the growing threat to them as Jews started to become clearer and clearer as the Nazis and their allies grew in political and social power. Valdek managed to stay ahead of capture for a long time but was finally found and sent to Auschwitz. He survived the camp and was re-united with his wife and finally emigrated to America.
This is a mixed memoir, it is a much the story of Art Spiegelman trying to come to terms with his father as it is the story of how his father survived the institutional efforts to murder him and his wife. This means that the narrative is consistently switching from Vladek telling Art about his experiences to Art dealing with his father as a difficult, aging parent. This is the second very significant story problem that Art Spiegelman solves, how to place the nearly unimaginable experiences of his parents into the context of a life that continues long after those experiences and whose life is much more than just those experiences.
By cracking the narrative into different parts, having Vladek be the narrator of his own experiences and also be contrasted as the difficult person Art knows as his father with the agile and forceful young man determined to survive the whole mixed and jumbled life comes into view.
Maus was originally published in two books and the opening of the second book is a reflection on the reception and reaction to the first. Art Spiegelman is a character in a book written by Art Spiegelman taking directly to the reader, a situation that could be horribly self serving or just intrusive. Instead it is very natural and deeply engrossing, Art Spiegelman has been as unflinching with himself as a cast member as he is about his father, the similarities between father and son are much deeper than the fact fact that both are drawn as mice. Both have a tough fiber in their characters, although Art seems to have inherited some of his mother's fragility. Creating Maus from the fabric of his own family life is a significant artistic achievement, it takes considerable courage and tremendous dedication as well as talent to turn shards of history into a  satisfying narrative whole, let alone something as imaginatively bold and engaging as Maus.  An astonishing comic from a towering talent.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Alien Hand Syndrome #1. Justin Cappello (Writer and Artist). INSANE COMICS (2015)

A very enjoyable set up for a science fiction adventure story. After a battle in space a severely damaged alien ship arrives on earth with the crew in hibernation while the ship repairs itself after hiding inside a mountain. Thousands of years later a break in at a 'abandoned' military base in Montauk, New York reveals that the base has more life than advertised and certainly many more secrets than had been expected.
Any set up has a number of difficult story problems to solve, the story has to provide enough context and momentum to involve the reader and create enough story possibilities to bring the reader back , all this to be done without revealing too much and reducing the dramatic tension. Justin Cappello has solved these problems rather neatly by splitting the set up into two parts, the space battle and the break in at the military base. Both events are clearly related, both are given the time and space to be interesting in their own right as well as quietly raising questions about the connection that can be fruitfully explored later. The space battle is rock solid space opera, a desperate maneuver that brings victory at a huge cost, the break in is a very nicely set up heist sequence that goes as wrong as it should. The story has enough possibilities to entice the reader to return and see how it will follow on.
The cast are a great science fiction selection, a very clever artistic choice for the aliens ensures that while they are clearly not human, their body language can easily be read and understood. The human cast are nicely varied, only one of them gets much real time, he is an engaging action hero without being a superhero.
The art is very distinctive and a pleasure to read, Justin Cappello can manage a wide screen space battle and hand to hand combat nicely, while the hand to hand combat is slightly stiff, the cast are developed well enough to give the violence weight and force when they collide. The sequence where a severed head is used to open a door is a a piece of smart black humour that gives the story a nice lift.
Context is crucial for science fiction, the look and visual feel must quietly support the science fiction elements of the story and they do so strongly in Alien Hand Syndrome. The interiors of the space ship and the military base are used very well to support and carry the story.
The lettering is easy to read, well positioned in the panels to inform and not distract, the sound effects are a simple joy.
Comics are a natural medium for science fiction with an unlimited budget available for special effects, smart science fiction in any medium is hard, smart science fiction in comics is a substantial pleasure. Alien Hand Syndrome is a smart science fiction comic.
Chief Wizard Note: This is a review copy very kindly sent by Justin Cappello. If you would like to buy a copy of Alien Hand Syndrome, you should treat yourself to it,it can be purchased at the INSANE COMICS webpage at Copy - $1.49, -Physical Copy - $3.50 .Visit for updates and some behind the scenes information.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

A Killing Winter. Tom Callaghan. Quercus (2015)

A violent and very gripping noir crime story set in Kyrgyzstan. A women is found horribly mutilated in a public part in Bishkek and
Inspector Akyl Borubaev is assigned to lead the investigation. When the victim is identified as as the daughter of a very power politician the Inspector Akyl Borubaev finds himself under significant pressure. When another body is discovered with similar mutilations the investigation starts to move in very dangerous directions and Inspector Akyl Borubaev is left unsure who his friends and enemies really are. The plot unfolds with tremendous force as the dangerous possibilities begin to emerge and the brutally bitter and satisfying conclusion is reached.
Any writer who chooses to write a story in a non native location faces a serious problem from the outset, how to ensure that the location and context chosen are integral to the story rather than set dressing for a story that could as easily have been set in the writers native location. Tom Callaghan solves this so completely it never arises as a question for the reader, the whole context and the ferocious landscape of Kyrgyzstan is a fully developed and vital character in the story. The plot is tightly woven out of and into the context of the country, its people and their tangled history. That also solves the second problem a writer faces, how to provide enough information about the context for the story for a reader to understand the details of the context so that the story can deliver without being interrupted by information dumps. Tom Callaghan provides all the necessary details so naturally and smoothly that they work to increase and extend the flow of the story rather than slow it down.
The plot mechanics are superb, the action is brilliantly staged to reveal and to hide the true outlines of what is going on until they are dragged into daylight. The investigation is set up hampered, threatened and doggedly pursued in a very credible way as the forces at work collide with each other. The mechanics are really tightly drawn, the plot does not give way at any point to any action that is needed to rescue it from a dead end. The stunningly brutal action is always serving a point in the story and the action is driven by a tremendously well drawn cast.
Inspector Akyl Borubaev is a great leading character, he is the first among equals in a large cast all of who muscle their way into the readers attention and demand to be taken account of. Inspector Akyl Borubaev is also a superb noir character, an accomplishment that is considerably more difficult to achieve that it may appear. He is a ruined romantic, badly bruised and scarred by life and circumstances, he still has a heartbeat and a ultimately a care for others that pushes him to know and act. His small spark of light is happily surrounded by a cast of truly horrendous, utterly credible and human, selfishly dangerous and violent characters. The contrast is vital to make a noir story work, the tension between the Inspector and the rest of the cast springs from his difference to them, he is willing to care. This apparent weakness is the deep strength that he needs to drive to the bitter conclusion.
The book is also graced with an outstanding female cast member who is allowed to be female, dangerous, clever and with phrase used to describe her that is elegant, funny, precise and not in the slightest demeaning or degrading. Of all the story problems that Tim Callaghan has solved so enjoyably, this character may be the striking, she is simply allowed to be who she is just as much as Akyl Borubaev  and the story, and the reader, benefit greatly from this simple choice. A smart, great read