Page 45 Review by Stephen
"He gave her new tokens, and this time promises came with them.
"But his eyes still slid hither and thither."
What rich language! You can picture it, can't you? He's embracing his "true love" close to his chest, so his eyes can roam far and wide. Perhaps the couple are bathed in a romantic sunset glow. Or maybe the red there spells danger.
Whatever you think of Eve's curiosity, the serpent was certainly male.
"I don't know how we're getting away with this, but we surely are!"
"I don't know how they're getting away with it, either. But I for one want to know what happens next."
Such was the triumph of Scheherazade in 'One Thousand And One Nights', successfully staving off execution at the hands of her husband through storytelling.
It is also the triumph of THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF EARLY EARTH's Isabel Greenberg yet again in such an addictively compelling set-up and seamlessly stitched-together sequence of tales that I swept through this in one afternoon, pausing only to refill and reflect.
Will handmaiden Hero similarly succeed in saving the virtue of her beloved mistress Cherry from the predatory advances of her husband's lascivious and quite ridiculous best mate? Whom her husband's encouraged for the sake of a bet and proving a point! Hero's certainly won over the guards with her carefully chosen and craftily spun yarns, but where has the one hundred and first night gone?
The answers will prove elevating. I even anticipate an air punch or two.
This is a book about stories and storytelling; of sisterhood and story spreading; of love, loyalty, disloyalty and loss; and - though laced with playful, bubble-bursting, laugh-out-loud comedy - it is also a blisteringly effective, pin-point accurate and damning indictment of women's treatment throughout the ages at the hands of men under a possession-based patriarchy which organised religion has played no small part in underpinning and enforcing.
Although I should emphasise that there isn't a single sentence within it as miserably po-faced as that one. Greenberg's much more mischievous.
"Lesson: men are false. And they can get away with it.
"Also, don't murder your sister, even by accident. Sisters are important."
What Greenberg has done here with the Scheherazade scenario - which elements she has incorporated and how she's repositioned them - is ever so clever and makes for much mockery of man-pride.
"Once there were two men. (They were called Manfred and Jerome, if you want to know.) Anyway, they sat together and they talked, as men are wont to do, of Women."
I really can't wait. Manfred makes the first move.
"Fact: there are no good women."
Pawn to king's bishop two.
"They are all scheming bitches, whores and also fiendishly boring."
I could be wrong, but I'd wager there's a fiendish scheme ahead for this crashing bore which might involve soliciting a woman for monetary gain. Also, I think you just moved your knight out of turn.
"They're only good for one thing, Jerome. And I think we both know what that is."
He leers, of course. Within the first two panels Manfred has condemned himself with his own double standards but it gets better. Or worse. For Manfred once had a wife whose fidelity he tested by sending a servant to seduce her. This is important.
"He came out with her knickers. And a precise description of a scar she had on her inside leg."
"What did your wife say?"
"She denied it. Said he had forcibly removed her knickers."
"And you didn't believe her?"
"So what happened?"
"I killed her, of course. Anyway. Back to my criteria."
We'll get to why that's important in a second, I swear. So what are Manfred's criteria for the perfect woman? This'll be rich, I reckon.
"Beautiful. Clever enough to have a conversation, not clever enough to disagree with me.
"Obedient. Chaste. Good at mending socks. Not ambitious.
"Marriage to me must be the height of her ambition.
"Interested in my passions. Falconry, battlements, maps, etcetera.
"But not as good as me at these things."
At which point Jerome declares his own wife, Cherry to fit that description precisely including the chastity, for he has yet to take her virtue himself. Goaded by Manfred's disbelief, Jerome challenges Manfred to take his Cherry - and her's - within 100 nights while he is away.
"But I guarantee she will be faithful.
"And then you must admit that I'm right.
"And give me your castle."
All kinds of crazy, then.
In 'One Thousand And One Nights' the king takes a new wife for one night only and then beheads the poor love to prevent infidelity because he'd got stiffed the first time round. But here it's Manfred's already ingrained misogyny which prejudiced him against his wife's word, and that didn't end well so every card imaginable is already stacked against poor Cherry. Plus it's all for the sake of a bet - a bet based on man-pride!
"Let us pause in the story and meet his wife. Now, everything Jerome had said was true. She was beautiful, obedient, good at battleworks and falconry. However, he had got one thing very wrong. She was far brainer than him.
"So how is that this smashing babe got landed with such a grade A pillock?"
She got married off by her Dad, of course. But here's the final twist which raises the stakes even further: she was already in love. With her handmaid called Hero. And it is a True Love.
Now that Cherry's husband's away Manfred visits every night to take her virtue - by force if necessary - and it's up to her Hero to distract and enthral him with her mad story skills. After Cherry successfully plays the piety card on night one.
"Woman. Had I not vowed to take you, and were my Manly Honour not at stake, I might feel a little ashamed...
"I don't, however, because there is not only my Manly Honour, but also a castle at stake here.
"I shall return! Until tomorrow! My love."
The tales Hero tells are full of love. Some feature true love, some feature false love and treachery, but each one is as poignant as you can imagine. In one the very words "I Love You" - written by hand on a misty window - are the cause of heart-breaking catastrophe.
In another a noble soul falls in love with one of Early Earth's three Moons. She visits him whenever her lunar cycle allows, on her nights off from shining in the sky. That too is a True Love, and Greenberg has all the right words to describe it:
"It began to seem to the man that everything that happened in between those nights was a dream; that he was sleepwalking his way through the days until she would come to him again.
"And when she was with him it was as if that twilight, muffled, underwater place he had been inhabiting was suddenly gone, and all the sights and sounds and smells of the world came back to him, in glorious technicolour."
There is a truly beautiful page with the words "I love you" whispered in the sleeping woman's ear. It concludes with a midnight panel in centre of which the two lie in bed in a moon-shaped glow which itself is lit up to one side by a warm lantern light.
As with THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF EARLY EARTH the colours the book's bathed in, deployed with restraint, add so much to the ambience and I'd watch out whenever you see red. Often they're used to connect characters emotionally.
What's striking is the new use of dry-brush textures adding surface to space and filling out figures - which strangely makes them more fragile. Teeth tend to be tiny and spiked, but the eyes are ever so important, especially when they slither hither and thither. When enraged they are positively demonic.
Early Earth is essentially a medieval world, most of which is remote and rural. There are lots and lots of trees. Its few fortified cities are depicted as they were then, as an exotic jumble of towers and tall houses, but the closer one comes to so-called civilisation here, the less likely your chances of happiness.
That's where the bald Beaked Brothers reside and preside over all in their Great Aviary erected in worship of their god Birdman. They wear their false beaks in tribute, coming across like ferocious vultures preying upon the population, especially women. Women are forbidden to read or to write, for both are seen - in women only - as a sluttish sort of sorcery punishable by defenestration from the top of tallest tower
And reading and writing are magic, it's true, with the ability to change hearts and minds.
Unfortunately not everyone's.
On publication we made THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF EARLY EARTH Page 45 Comicbook Of The Month. It went on to win the British Comic Awards for best book of the year, and it was.
There's no doubt in my mind that THE ONE HUNDRED NIGHTS OF HERO will also win multiple awards. Its storytelling is rich and riddled with iconoclastic wit - parenthetical asides and slapped-wrist remonstrations - addressing the reader directly. Refrains pop up when you least expect them, some when you need them the most. Key elements of some stories foreshadow future developments and rarely have I read a climax and conclusion so satisfying on every level.