These are such very gentle tales, laden with wisdom and wit, which may make you think about how you conduct your own lives, much like DAYTRIPPER did for me.
- Stephen on Death by Neil Gaiman, Chris Bachalo, Mark Buckingham et al
Stray Bullets: Uber Alles Edition s/c (£45-00, Image) by David Lapham.
Terrible things happen to terrified young people, turning them into terrifyingly out-of-control car wrecks. They get caught in the cross-fire of other people’s greed, grief or beef, and it sends their lives careening in completely unintended directions.
Joey’s a car wreck. You just won’t find out why for hundreds of pages and then it all makes such appalling sense. But almost immediately it will dawn on you that a main protagonist in one chapter plays another role in someone else’s story as the narrative flips backwards and forwards in time.
Everything is connected.
This is the best crime comic in the business, right up there with Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ CRIMINAL, and we have missed it terribly. The new series kicks off with STRAY BULLETS: THE KILLERS #1 at £2-75: that’s the perfect place to start and the best single comic I have read all year.
This dangerously heavily tome collects all forty-one issues of the previous series including STRAY BULLETS #41, finally published a decade after #40, making this little more than a quid a comic. Forty-five pounds is a big ask, but once you’ve read STRAY BULLETS: THE KILLERS #1 you will have no doubts whatsoever.
With more compelling individuals and more convincing characterisation in a single story than most people manage in a whole graphic novel, there is a density and intensity to these tales broken by moments of golden sunshine that make what follows all the more devastating.
In a way we are in Lynchian territory, for these suburban families seem perfectly normal from without, but wait until you see what simmers within. Also, I remember wondering what the fuck was up with the early, action-packed episode starring Amy Racecar and set in outer space. All I will say is that David Lapham isn’t the only one with a vivid imagination.
At one point these lives converge in a small town called Seaside, way out in the middle of the desert. Naturally. Young Virginia Applejack tries her best to protect vulnerable, drug-addled Nina from the advances of Seaside’s revoltingly seedy old-age pensioners, while Nina’s own friends, the ever-volatile Beth and Orson, land in trouble of their own when Spanish Scott turns up in search of his missing coke. And with Scott comes Rose, and of course little Joey. I told you everything was connected.
What follows is an accelerating climax of desperate, tangled gambits and frankly wince-worthy violence as these impossibly complicated relationships finally play themselves out. It’s an immensely satisfying pay-off for all your hard concentration that point, but we have only just begun. It’s followed by a new set of domestic freaks, and a short story which shows Lapham at his most manipulative:
After Kathy drags her boozed-up man into the house and out of the rain, she hears a knock at the door and finds two guys and a gal, pissed out of their skulls, insisting that Ricky owes them money. Kathy tries to shut the door on them, but the big guy – who insists he’s a cop – wedges his foot in the door, and the rest of that chapter grows increasingly worrying. Anything could happen. Anything.
Lapham’s command of the way dialogue can shift from confrontational to conciliatory to threatening – within breaths – will keep you on the edge of your anxious seat, but you’ll never guess from the lead-in how this story will end. To kick up the contrast, the next issue sees the return of the inimitable Amy Racecar in a private-eye spoof as ridiculously convoluted and funny as the opening credits to American television’s satirical SOAP. Amy’s on top, world-of-her-own form, and possibly Lapham’s most clever creation; I’m constantly forgetting that she’s actually [redacted].
Just when you think you’ve witnessed the worst atrocities this series of victims, survivors, chancers, bullies, losers and lowlifes has to offer, Lapham delivers a story of fatally misplaced trust which will have you turning the pages so tentatively with the words “No… no…” quietly riding your breath. You’ll start to worry ten pages in. It’s always the quiet ones to watch out for, but as soon as that photograph is surreptitiously slipped into the pile that the man is showing the boy, you’ll begin sweating. Child abduction and abuse are not subjects to be treated lightly or sensationally. Lapham does neither; you’ll soon wish he had.
The main differences between this and, say, 100 BULLETS which we all love to wit-riddled death is that this is all so intimate, so personal, and that the individuals – the victims in this series – are so young. That’s what made Lapham’s SILVERFISH such a nail-biter too.
As they reach their mid-to-late-teens with sex high on the agenda they make more mistakes. And because they’re older and so capable of doing so much more with much greater strength, those mistakes have greater consequences. Brian and Mikey… now that’s one friendship which will never be the same.
As to the art, extraordinarily Lapham starts off knowing immediately how he wants to present these tales: all 1,200 pages are completely consistent whereas during STRANGERS IN PARADISE you can see Terry Moore develop in front of you. The paper used here has a satin sheen so that the shadows shine on the page. And it is pure black and white with no grey tone at all. It’s incredibly clean but supple as well. The figure work is immaculate, the forms soft are soft and yielding, and the hair falls just-so. As to the expressions, they communicate so much going on behind the eyes whether you like what you see or you don’t. Everyone here lives and breathes. For a while, anyway.
Death s/c (£14-99, Vertigo/DC) by Neil Gaiman & Chris Bachalo, Dave McKean, Mark Buckingham, Mike Dringenberg, Colleen Doran, P. Craig Russell, Malcom Jones III, Mark Pennington, Jeffrey Jones.
Death of the Endless from Neil Gaiman’s SANDMAN:
She’s funny, she’s sweet, she’s gorgeous and gothic. She’s enormously kind and very good company – as you’ll find out for yourself one day.
But once every hundred years Death becomes human to glimpse mortality from the other side of Charon’s coins. In THE HIGH COST OF LIVING she bumps into a lank-haired and disillusioned sixteen-year-old dropout called Sexton who was hell-bent on committing suicide until he stares Death right in the face while buried under a refrigerator on a garbage dump. It’s not the best first impression.
Eager to sample life’s pleasures while she can – chief amongst them, music and food – Death drags Sexton along for a night on the town together, taking in the first live gig of new singer-songwriter Foxglove. Foxglove’s pregnant girlfriend Hazel is there but two other individuals have made a note of Death’s diary, and neither are half so welcoming.
Utterly charming, both the story and its protagonist are gloriously optimistic and remind us to appreciate all that we have in front of us while time allows, even if it’s just a bagel, a hot-dog, a compliment or smile of a passing stranger.
THE TIME OF YOUR LIFE is far more sobering, for there is always a price to be paid. A few years have passed during which Foxglove’s musical career has taken off and Hazel has had baby Alvie. They’ve moved from New York to Los Angeles where they live happily together in a vast, splendid mansion where –
No, they don’t. Foxglove is forever on promotional tour leaving her “secretary” Hazel at home. Foxglove’s second album has already garnered over 650,000 advance orders and she’s about to appear on Letterman after which she is bound for Britain. Two men have her back: her agent Larry and tour-manager Boris. Foxglove wants to come out of the closet she never personally shut herself in no matter the professional presumptions, but worldly-wise Larry advises against it, citing all manner of PR pitfalls. Plus Foxglove hasn’t exactly been faithful.
Worse still, she failed to listen to Hazel when Hazel told Foxglove that she and baby Alvie had bumped into an old acquaintance outside their mansion one rainy night last February. She was funny, she was sweet, she was gorgeous and gothic. And I am so very sorry, but there’s only one reason why you would usually do that.
These are such very gentle tales, laden with wisdom and wit, which will make you think about how you conduct your own lives, much like DAYTRIPPER did for me. There are many very good questions and the answers may not be easy, but they are surprisingly simple.
Chris Bachalo’s design sense is as glorious as his sweet, chic portraiture and oh how I loved his two-tone chequered backdrops! Unlike his equally pretty but impenetrable pages of late, there are no silly and so-easily-confusing across-the-page layouts: this is as accessible as it gets!
Additionally so skilled is Mark Buckingham that, when Gaiman was deserted by Bachalo halfway through DEATH: THE TIME OF YOUR LIFE to join Marvel, many remain unaware that it was Buckingham who pencilled the pages thereafter. Bucky is one of those rare artists who is not just an exceptional, individual force in his own right, but also an accomplished chameleon. He can do Chris Bachalo as well as Bachalo himself, and many other artists to boot. That, let me tell you, is no mean feat.
In addition there are so many extras that it is ridiculously good value for money. There’s the refreshingly non-alarmist yet candid and cautionary HIV / AIDS awareness six-pager illustrated by Dave McKean called ‘Death Talks About Life’ which guest-stars a deliciously embarrassed John Constantine, a sheepishly proffered banana and a condom. All education should be entertainment. There’s also ‘The Wheel’ from 9-11: THE WORLD’S FINEST COMIC BOOK WRITERS & ARTISTS TELL STORIES TO REMEMBER (bit of a rarity, that); Death’s first appearance from SANDMAN #8 then #20; ‘A Winter’s Tale’ from VERTIGO: WINTER’S EDGE #2, ‘Death And Venice’ from SANDMAN: ENDLESS NIGHTS; and finally a whole gallery of swoonaway pin-ups.
Death as a sex symbol: how very Shakespearian.
Sailor Twain (£10-99, First Second) by Mark Siegel.
“I’m not sure I can do it.”
“Seven loves… It’s barely manageable. Practically speaking.”
“Morally speaking, I should think not!”
“My sky needs more than one star. I’m a man of constellations, me.”
“And what of your loves, do many stars fill their sky?”
“They’re day-time beings who crave a singular sun!”
At which point Captain Twain’s eyes virtually pop out of his head. They do that a lot.
Plus Lafayette can turn a good phrase, especially went bent on distraction. Why, do you think, does he really need seven lovers? It’s not just to inflate his ego or satisfying his sexual desires. He’s working to a very specific plan, and it involves this graphic novel’s sub-title: ‘The Mermaid In The Hudson’.
Let us pull back by flashing forward six months when the book begins in the Ferryman’s Tavern on the banks of the Hudson River where Captain Twain drinks alone, staring out at the docks. A woman he knows as Miss Camomille has been searching for him ever since the trial. She has questions for him. She needs to know the truth. Twain is resistant until she pulls out a glowing pendant which he recognises instantly.
“He gave it to me… that last day. Said it came out of the river. Tell me! And it’s yours.”
Coming in at nearly 400 pages, this is a substantially story whose truths only reveal themselves towards the end, but know this now: mermaids do exist.
Captain Twain of the Lorelei passenger steamboat knows this for in May 1887, after struggling to find his poet Muse, he fished one out of the Hudson. She was gravely wounded as if she had been impaled on a harpoon. He carried her back to his cabin and nursed her back to health but she never sang to him. She never ensnared him and yet, although married, hooked he most certainly was.
He begins to suspect that Lafayette also believes in mermaids, and has perhaps been seduced himself. He suspects that is why Lafayette is courting six women with his eyes on a seventh for Lafayette’s older brother who went missing on the same steamboat wrote extensively on the subject and Lafayette is studying those journals with a feverish intensity. He is also in correspondence with a certain celebrated author called C.G. Beaverton who has just published a book called ‘Secrets And Mysteries Of The River Hudson’ which includes two chapters tellingly entitled ‘The Case For Mermaids: Disappearances And Strange Reports’ and ‘The Case For Mermaids: Cures & Remedies To A Siren’s Song’. Twain knows this for Lafayette, reluctant tot go ashore himself, asked Twain to pick it up for him.
I promise you this: it’s a lot more complicated than that.
I was enthralled myself, not least because Siegel is as interested in the art of conversation as much as anything else, and the subjects discussed by the ship’s residents of varying wit include moral outrage in the cause of control, hypocrisy, critical acclaim, the New Testament, the best use of any public platform and something I can’t mention here for giving one of the games away.
A book about spells has to be magical, and this was certainly that. There are strange apparitions who will also be explained, and the weather plays an important atmospheric role as the Lorelei makes its way up and down a river which flows in two different directions.
So much graphite is employed on the densely shaded pages that, periodically, you’ll be checking your fingers and thumbs for smudges. Combined with the cartoon figure work and ever-expressive wide-eyed wonder or consternation on Captain Twain’s part and you are indeed immersed in the sort of magical world you could expect from a century of animation.
The wit also extends to some of the chapter headings. When you come to ‘The Twain Shall Meet’ it so hilariously appropriate you wonder whether Siegel chose it purely for that pun, but no: it’s simple serendipity stumbled upon by a writer’s mind which naturally predisposes itself to word association.
It’s also a deeply melancholic book for the sun rarely shines figuratively or otherwise. A lot of time is spent alone, deep in thought, as our variously cursed characters struggle with their hearts if not with eloquence.
“You always seemed cheerful to me.”
“Yes, naturally. Despair likes discretion. Some demons howl and roar at their victims. That one preys in silence.”
A Contract With God Trilogy h/c (£25-99) by Will Eisner.
I have had very few idols in life. There’s my Mum, Rosa Parks, Tony Benn and David Attenborough. But the late and very great Will Eisner was one.
To me, it’s all about heart and humanity: the courage to stand up and be counted, the compassion you show unto others, and the ability to communicate that message thereby helping us all understand what is important and that which is but vain and ephemeral.
Exceptional value for money, this time-capsule trilogy of geographically specific but in some ways universal social history contains three of the finest and wisest Will Eisner graphic novels, all set on The Bronx’s Dropsie Avenue: A CONTRACT WITH GOD s/c, A LIFE FORCE s/c and DROPSIE AVENUE itself.
One of my three favourite Eisner books along with TO THE HEART OF THE STORM and THE NAME OF THE GAME in which Will Eisner condenses generations of intricately linked family lives and their evolving environment into 170 pages without sacrificing even a fraction of the intimacy and humanity that is Eisner’s hallmark.
It is, if you like, the life cycle of a community with its fluctuating fortunes from an open arable land farmed by two feuding families through early, spacious gentrification to the rise of the tenement buildings housing a wealth of ethnic immigrants, then their decline and fall into strip-mined ruin. Prohibition is the first nail in the community’s coffin, extortion leaching business’ rent money dry whilst setting the worst possible example to the children and making a violent example of those who refuse to comply. Then there’s the cunning of more legal profiteers luring the chief town planner into debt – their debt – to get what they want.
But most saddening of all is that each successive influx of English, Irish, Italian, Jewish, Black or Hispanic migrants are viewed with disdain and disgust as “foreigners” by the previous generation of ‘foreigners’ without any sense of perspective or acknowledgement of the benefits most waves bring. Amongst the tensions and outright hostility, however, there are some with a kinder heart and a certain self-awareness, the rabbi and Catholic priest delighting in their first inter-faith marriage and pulling together to form an early youth group.
I read DROPSIE AVENUE again this week with just as much joy as I did in 1995. Some of it is a little fanciful, like the burglar straying into the last living garden only to be charmed by its owner’s granddaughter who is, quite frankly, away with the fairies, but even that has its charm. Most of this, however, is an unflinching account of the ruthless, self-centred commerce which dictates how a whole neighbourhood lives – or struggles and dies in poverty – told with more than a passing knowledge of how real estate works. The figure work is as expressively theatrical as in any of Eisner’s books, whilst the buildings themselves in their various generations have a lifespan of their own which mirrors their inhabitants’. It is, in the end, like all Eisner’s works, about how we treat each other as human beings – rarely as well as we’d like to be treated ourselves.
A Contract With God s/c:
“Born and brought up in New York City and having survived and thrived there, I carry with me a cargo of memories, some painful and some pleasant, which have remained locked in the hold of my mind. I have an ancient mariner’s need to share my accumulation of experience and observations. Call me, if you will, a graphic witness reporting on life, death, heartbreak and the never-ending struggle to prevail… or at least survive.”
- Will Eisner from his Preface, December 2004
Hailed by some as the first American graphic novel, A CONTRACT OF GOD is actually four short stories set in the same tenement buildings in the Bronx as A LIFE FORCE and DROPSIE AVENUE. All of these have survival high on the agenda for a population trapped there by poverty, plus individuals’ personal fortunes waxing and waning with a complex interdependency.
Of the three books that make up the CONTRACT WITH GOD TRILOGY H/C, this is the most personal, the most autobiographical, and it was only in 2004 that Will Eisner revealed that A Contract With God, the first short story here was “an exercise in personal agony” written and drawn eight angry years after his only daughter Alice died, aged sixteen, from leukaemia. The details have been changed but the essential raw sentiment remains the same, and it’s one I have seen in so many parents who have lost their children including my Uncle and Auntie and my best friend Anita’s no-longer-Catholic parents: a complete loss of faith in a God who could betray their trust so spectacularly as to deprive them of their child.
Here Frimme Hersch had been told over and over again as a child that he was “favoured by God” and that God would reward him for his many kindnesses. That’s not why he was kind; he was kind because he cared, and so when a baby girl was abandoned on Frimme’s doorstep he took her in and raised her as his own. This, to him, was all part of his contract with God which Frimme honoured to the letter, to the very full-stop. But as the story opens he is returning alone to 55 Dropsie Avenue after having buried his daughter, and the weight of the water pouring from the heavens on the man’s hat, coat and shoulders is immeasurable. That single page, as he struggles to heave himself up the tenement’s stone steps, water streaming over the balustrade and obliterating all but a streetlight behind him, is one of Eisner’s finest-ever illustrations.
What happens next is typical of Eisner in that it involves property and finance which rarely benefits those who need money or accommodation the most. The fourth story here is also prime Eisner in that love, money, marriage and social standing become the seemingly inseparable issues with infidelity also quite high on the agenda. But it’s also a coming of age story involving the tradition amongst Bronx residents back then of going on holiday to farms which they would share with other families, do their own cooking and help out with the chores.
‘The Street Singer’ is also based on a phenomenon Eisner was familiar with: random individuals wandering the back alleys of the Bronx singing with some accomplishment in the hope of receiving loose change. A single woman becomes entranced by one of these singers and hopes to revive her own career in a partnership but in her vanity she is oblivious to the degree in which the self-fixated drunkard is using her, while for him it’s an opportunity well and truly squandered. Domestic abuse is no stranger to Eisner’s works and so it is here, but I’ve a feeling the third story as well as some elements of the fourth will shock those who think of Eisner as but a kindly old gent.
Eisner was full of humanity – bursting with it – but humanity has its atrocious sides which Eisner was all too aware of and never shied from addressing. It involves a tenement’s Super – its bully of a live-in, do-little custodian – who more than meets his match in a ten-year-old girl who uses his warped lust against him.
A Life Force:
“Staying alive seems to be the only thing on which everyone agrees.”
The second book available as part of THE CONTRACT WITH GOD TRILOGY H/C along with DROPSIE AVENUE and A CONTRACT WITH GOD, this is an intricate, interdependent affair gradually built around America’s Great Depression during which unemployment rocketed, wages crashed, starvation set in, Hunger Riots exploded and swarms of moths were apparently thick enough to stop New York traffic. Biblical!
No one is immune, not even the affluent Manhattan stockbroker whose fortune is wiped out and fine-living obliterated as stocks tumble faster than those bankers decent enough to throw themselves out of the fucking windows.
But the ordinary residents of Dropsie Avenue, already hard-pressed by penury, living figuratively under the shadow of Manhattan island, find it even more difficult than ever. No one has these immigrants’ best interests at heart: not the mafia-like enablers who now call in their favours, the brutally bullying unions, and most certainly not the Nazis back in Germany or the American government seeking at the very same time to deny as much access as possible to Jewish refugees. Eisner knows his history and presents it occasionally in bursts of newspaper clippings to give events here their proper socio-political and historical context.
Each of these forces exerts itself on individuals in this book and it’s their particular, tightly interwoven stories that Eisner is telling. The sequence in which Jacob so generously, so desperately attempts to free Frieda and her family from Germany’s anti-Semitic claws and America’s red tape – when he himself has nothing – is agonising. At the same time, however, Jacob’s reaction to his own daughter’s romantic involvement mirrors that of the Nazis’ to mixed marriages:
“My daughter Rebecca is going to marry Elton Shaftsbury!”
“But Elton is a… a… Goy!”
One of the many things I love about Eisner is his zero toleration for hypocrisy, exposing it whenever and wherever he sees it. Jacob’s wife, for example, proclaims that her children are her sole reason for living yet she refuses to meet her son’s fiancée whilst emotionally blackmailing him round for dinner. Neatly done!
Humanity in all its kindness and cruelty, that’s what Eisner’s about, as well its foibles and flaws. There’s an informed depiction well ahead of its time here of a mental illness that leads Aaron to recoil from reality, and it’s eloquently explained:
“Unhappily, somewhere in the divine cauldron where mysterious forces fabricate life, something went awry for Aaron, and in the soft circuitry of his brain an infinitesimal welding failed.”
Eisner is renowned for his expressive body language and a certain degree of overacting when the characters overreact themselves, but his mouths in particular can be ever so subtle. No one does glum or bewilderment quite like him. Also, there’s such a variety of panel structures here that you almost don’t notice it, panel borders and gutters often disappearing entirely without once confusing the reader, such is his impeccable sense of space. He really does make it all look so easy.
Easy to do, easy to look at: lives not so easy to live.
Noah h/c (£22-50, Image) by Darren Aronofsky, Ari Handel & Niko Henrichon…
“You lied to me. You cheated me. You cheated the human race. I should have killed you a long time ago.”
“You were too busy leading your people astray.”
“And you? Your own son plots against you and wishes you dead.”
Absolutely no idea how close the current megabucks film adaptation is to this work, but this basically reads and looks like a Humanoid publication i.e. glorious to look at and a bit off the wall. The graphic novel came first and I believe Aronofsky then basically reworked (i.e. dumbed down) the script for the movie, though rumours that Russell Crowe insisted on all the cast and crew referring to the ark as Tugger during filming are probably apocryphal.
This is great, though, a real epic, and it does touch upon all the central points of the Old Testament story whilst incorporating other fantastical, mystical and indeed almost sci-fi elements. I think have seen it commented somewhere that this story could almost be set several thousand years in the past or future, and indeed on a different planet, and I can understand those comments. Always nice to see someone really going for it in terms of scope. This will hopefully prove as successful as adaptation as say SIEGFRIED has here; it deserves to.
Sock Monkey Treasury h/c (£29-99, Fantagraphics) by Tony Millionaire.
Whopping collection reprinting the majority of the SOCK MONKEY series – 300 pages in both colour and black and white – which started out so innocently that we thought it was aimed at children. Whoops! Even early on, Dominique had her suspicions. She wrote:
I love the setting: a large turn-of-the-century house full of colonial nick-knacks and potential death traps, living dolls houses and miniature galleons, bristling with wee little guns. It’s twee comedy with a darker edge – Uncle Gabby and Mr. Crow are sweet but meddlesome and idiotic, and nothing they embark upon ever seems to end well. The faux colonial / Victorian dialogue at first put me off, but actually it works very well, reinforcing the oblivious stupidity of our heroes and injecting the necessary dose of morbidity. Pity the poor creature that these two try to help out, it can only end in evisceration, immolation or shipwreck.
Not sure I’d give either of these books to my children unless I wanted them to grow up all weird in the head.
So yeah, actually, maybe I would.
For the The Glass Doorknob I appear to have gone off on one about the colours.
It’s the colours. Every single page, elegantly composed and delicately drawn, radiates warmth. From the first spring morning, throwing its soft light across the gables of the toys’ wooden-roofed house and through the misty, pink-purple mass of the huge, pendulous tree behind it, to the blustery autumn afternoon, when the winds toss the vermilion and russet leaves up into the cold blue sky, swirling them away from the windows, this picture book delivers page after page of understated beauty.
Nor is it easy to discern just which media have been employed: some colours are flat tones, others appear to have been applied in washes and perhaps sponged out, whilst others, like the sage wallpaper behind the cream mantelpiece which Sock Monkey climbs in summer, must surely have been patterned by computer – I can’t see a stencil providing such regular or intricate shapes. Finally, there’s the linework which delineates each major area with a crisp, darker hue, never, thankfully, with the use of a ruler.
I’ve stared at some of these for ages. Which is just as well since this is a storybook with a simple, single thread and as such it’s not a huge read, even if there’s a second exchange between a tit and a beetle, running in parallel as the seasons change, in the bottom left-hand corner of the text pages. The main affair follows Sock Monkey and his friends as they discover – and quickly become transfixed by – the magic of a spectral light cast by a glass doorknob in the hall. But as summer approaches and the trees become thicker, the sunlight is obscured and the refracted rainbow disappears. The toys, unaware of how these things work, believe it is broken and, in a naive attempt to boost its power, they set about scavenging baubles and metal dishes, glass jars, bottles and necklaces, and tie them around the doorknob…
The “Inches” Incident
More chaos and catastrophe on the high seas as Sock Monkey, Mr. Crow and indeed their very house come under fire from an Inches turned evil.
Inches is the doll, and they’re horrible at the best of times but this one seriously creeps me out. She’s like a vampiric version of Playschool’s hideous Hamble, glaring implacably down from the mansion’s gable. It’s as if she’s possessed! Oh wait, she is! But by what?
Tony’s got a thing about insect infestation/animation, and I like it no more than I like hideous dollies. Brrrr.
Sock Monkey volumes 3 & 4
Quite the evolution going on. Previously you could sit back safe in the knowledge that Tony’s MAAKIES was a sick little puppy whilst SOCK MONKEY would remain a child-friendly Bagpuss gone wrong. But any child encountering these tales of woe is going to have some sinister dreams ahead of them.
It starts out ominously enough when Uncle Gabby, the titular toy, decides to go a-hunting. Tigers and foxes and even herons seem a little overambitious, so they plump for salamanders instead.
“Salamanders! I believe I could “take” a salamander! Just show me the salamander that could get the better of me!”
But over this smile-inducing, child-like silliness the skies quickly darken, as Gabby grows increasingly aware of the fragility of life, and the dark and naughty humour finally bursts wide open in a downpour of despair once Gabby carelessly breaks the neck of a nestling. The pages of silence – cold and bleak – are thoroughly arresting, and the self-mutilation as Gabby shears himself open is no less shocking for him being stuffed full of fluff.
“The tragedy is that it once had life, and now I have taken it away… I only wish I were alive, that I might have the ability to run to the comfort of death.”
And if you think that’s morbid, wait till you read the final chapter in which Mr. Crow is persuaded to dump the love of the Sock Monkey’s life into the rag-man’s truck, sending Uncle Gabby into a homicidal spree of mass immolation worthy of underground cartoonist S. Clay Wilson.
Finally, Sock Monkey: Uncle Gabby
Feels like the SOCK MONKEY swansong, in the last Winnie The Pooh tale fashion. Was this ever for children, or did I read it all wrong? Externally it’s so very inviting; internally it’s still very pretty. Going to read the words now…? Please remove all razor blades from your domicile.
Uncle Gabby has studied “un-naming” in order to free objects of their constrictions. He embarks on a journey with fellow stuffed animal Mr. Crow and the hideous doll called Inches to visit Ann-Louise who originally made him. But the house they find is completely deserted with a stone monument in the back garden, and all of Uncle Gabby’s memories unravel as the fantasies they were, and then someone smashes the house in anyway.
It’s almost funny, it’s so unremittingly harsh.
Silk Road To Ruin (£14-99, NBM) by Ted Rall.
Time to dust off the old world atlas!
“Central Asia is the new Middle East: thrilling, terrifying, simultaneously hopeful and bleak, a battleground for a proxy war and endless chaos. It is the ultimate tectonic, cultural and political collision zone. Far away from television cameras and Western reporters, Central Asia is poised to spawn some of the new century’s worst nightmares.”
Yet Ted’s fallen in love with it in all its crazy anarchy and its various dictatorships, through travelling. Or attempting to travel. Geography and History were never my strong suits at school, and it’s only in the past ten years or so that I’ve become addicted to news programmes and interested enough to crave an education through the likes of Marjane Satrapi, Guy Delisle and, of course Ted Rall.
Like TO AFGHANISTAN AND BACK, this is three-quarters prose with some searing strips slotted in, not for comic relief (because Ted’s as ruefully entertaining in prose as he is in comics), but for added illustration of just how fucked up these countries are. Orphans of the Soviet Union, they were never going to grow up to be well-adjusted, but some of these places are bonkers. So first a quick bit of background: when the Soviet Union collapsed, it deliberately jettisoned some of its constituent countries whose inhabitants stopped being Russian employees overnight (teachers, doctors, nurses, police etc. were all paid by the central Communist State), and so found themselves unemployed and broke. Yet in spite of sitting on some of the world’s largest oil reserves, they’ve ended up poorer than ever on account of bungled negotiations for pipe lines (they’re not exactly coastal) and their leaders being avaricious and vainglorious old toe-rags. The results included 2,520% inflation during the first year, death rates rocketing, birth rates plummeting, schools disappearing altogether, and police forces subsisting on bribes (those bribes being extracted at random checkpoints if you want to get anywhere by “road”, at stations if you want to buy a train ticket… in fact anywhere their individual imaginations take them).
Seriously, Turkmenistan, for example, would be hilarious if it wasn’t so dangerous/tragic (fact: not a single river runs through it). Its dictator, Turkmenbashi (translation: “Leader of all Turkmens”), is mind-boggling: ”Not only has the Central Asian dictator created the most elaborate and grotesquely comical personality cult since Ptolemy put the pharaohs out of business, his unique blending of naked greed and breathtakingly obvious stupidity has elevated autocracy to an art form.” His egotism rivals that of North Korea’s father-and-son despot dynasty. His picture is everywhere – absolutely everywhere. Can you imagine seeing Blair’s face on a cereal packet, or Thatcher with her own brand of perfume? (Maggie Musk: Smells Like Mean Spirit.) That’s the state of play in Turkmenistan whose ubiquitous, Nazi-inspired motto (dreamt up by Turkmenbashi, natch) is “One Nation, One People, One Leader” (One Choice). He built a gilt statue of himself, high above a column, which rotates 360 degrees a day so that he’s always facing the sun; he renamed January after himself, April after his mother, September after his book (compulsory rather than compulsive reading, and I seem to recall that you have to take an exam on it even to get a driving licence!); and yes, he did build a hospital with state-of-the-art operating theatre, swimming pool and air conditioning — but it’s for horses!
Rall takes you with him on rail trips from hell (70°C, no windows, no air conditioning; Rall and friend spent the trip shirtless in the corridor, their lips sucking in what air they could through an inch-wide vent 6 feet above the floor), fending off muggers, bargaining with militia and being asked to marry the ex-wife of a mobster who’d kidnapped her son.
Prepare yourself for a whole different world in a region you’ll be hearing a whole lot more about, and sooner than you think.
Young Avengers vol 3: Mic-Drop At The Edge Of Time And Space s/c (£11-99, Marvel) by Kieron Gillen & Jamie McKelvie with Emma Vieceli, Becky Cloonan, Jordie Bellaire, Ming Doyle, Maris Wicks, Joe Quninones, Christian Ward.
“Happy families. Now there’s a contradiction in terms.”
“Don’t be cynical. It takes practice. Doesn’t suit you, princess.”
“I really wish you’d knock it off with the “princess”.”
“I’m trying to be nice.”
“Don’t be. It takes practice. Doesn’t suit you, princess.”
In which one of the freshest, funniest and most inventive series – in any genre of comics in recent years – comes to a perfect close.
Oh, you have wailed and wailed, for you wanted so much more and who can bloody well blame you?
Meanwhile Al Ewing and Lee Garbett’s LOKI, AGENT OF ASGARD continues Loki’s journey with delicious mischief and Marvel have just reissued Kieron Gillen and Dougie Braithwaite’s JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY which is full of the young tyke’s tall tales and manipulative gameplay.
I wrote about YOUNG AVENGERS VOL 1 and YOUNG AVENGERS VOL 2 at considerable length, so please check out those reviews. I’ve little more to add than that McKelvie delivers more of his eye-frazzling innovation and spectacle and that all of the carefully selected guest artists will have you squealing. Emma Vieceli’s spotlight on Wiccan and Hulking is particularly sexy, stylish and as glittery as all get-out without being for one second saccharine or effete.
Now, if you’re anything like me you’re going to get your money’s worth by starting again at the beginning to see just how cleverly Gillen – and thereby some of his protagonists – have played you.
If you’re anything like Gillen, then you are probably going to want breakfast first.
Marvel Encyclopedia h/c (£30-00, Marvel) by various.
It weighs more than my brain! Actually, helium weighs more than my brain.
This weighs more than my skull and possibly even my ever-expanding belly.
It is horribly laid out and illustrated which is shocking given how many exceptionally talented artists have worked on these characters in the past. Still.
UQ Holder vol 1 (£8-50, Kodansha) by Ken Akamatsu…
Nominally set in the same universe as NEGIMA, one of Ken’s previous mega-selling works, but several decades later, this is a world where magic and technology are almost indistinguishable. Our hero Touta has designs on being an adventurer, handily enough, and so the fun begins. The basic premise underpinning it all is that there are a number of people who are UQ holders, or immortals. The wrinkle? Well, I will let Touta’s teacher, who has revealed herself to be a vampire and in the process of saving Touta’s life conveniently turned him into one, thus ensuring this manga can run for several thousand volumes, explain all…
“So you’re saying all these guys are completely immortal too?”
“Not quite. Everyone here is a few cards shy of a full immortal deck. They’re not the real thing.”
“So, what is the real thing?”
“Hmm, let me see… vampires, like you and I. Specifically the nobility.
“There are also… people who use items to gain immortality – nectar of the gods, miracle drugs, philosopher’s stones, etc.
“Other supernatural beings, with a similar immortal nature to that of vampires, like Stan Lee.
“Those who gain immortality through electronic means, like robotics.
“And there are some I haven’t figured out yet… people cursed with immortality through a twist of fate, people who are built with multiple lives, people with an incarnation that brings them back when they die.
“Etcetera, etcetera. And there are those who have been genetically altered.”
“SOUNDS LIKE FUN! I WANNA BE FRIENDS WITH ALL OF ‘EM!”
It does sound like fun, actually. I rather enjoyed this first volume. Yes, it’s frothy and light, but it is well written. He is a consummate pro, our Ken. Also, I might have made that bit up about Stan Lee being like a vampire. Or not… pretty sure he is immortal, though.
Gangsta vol 1 (£8-99, Viz) by Kohske…
I mainly read this because it is on Viz’s Signature Imprint which is usually reserved for stuff of decent quality. It appears to be weird crime capers with a few laughs, involving Nic and Worick, the ‘Handymen’ who you call when you need to make someone disappear permanently.
So far, though, it’s the cops who want a new gang in town taken out, so it seems our duo are playing both ways, and it’s not even a yaoi!
With that said, Nic does work weekends as a gigolo, whilst Worick has some sort of strange condition that means he rarely talks, but when he does his speech bubble is rendered in inverse…
Art is nice enough, kind of reminded me of Natusme Ono a little bit, which is probably the link in that this, I think, is supposed to be a sort of contemporary HOUSE OF FIVE LEAVES. I.e. no good guys, but nobody is that bad either, getting into scrapes, with some gentle comedy of manners thrown in for good measure. I’m probably not going to bother reading the second volume, to be honest.
Arrived, Online & Ready To Buy
Reviews already online if they’re new formats of previous books. Otherwise the most interesting will come under the microscope next week, while the rest will remain with their Diamond previews acting in lieu of reviews.
Uber vol 1 s/c (£14-99, Avatar) by Kieron Gillen & Caanan White
Pope: Monsters & Titans s/c (£18-99, Image) by Paul Pope
Kids Are Weird And Other Observations From Parenthood (£9-99, Chronicle) by Jeffrey Brown
To Afghanistan And Back (£7-50, NBM) by Ted Rall
Daredevil: End Of Days s/c (£22-50, Marvel) by Brian Michael Bendis, David Mack & Klaus Janson, Bill Sienkiewicz, Alex Maleev, David Mack
Jan’s Atomic Heart And Other Stories s/c (£10-99, Image) by Simon Roy
Chew vol 8: Family Recipes (£9-99, Image) by John Layman & Rob Guillory
American Vampire vol 5 s/c (£12-99, DC) by Scott Snyder & Rafael Albuquerque, Dustin Nguyen
American Vampire vol 6 h/c (£16-99, DC) by Scott Snyder, various & Rafael Albuquerque, various
World’s Greatest Superheroes s/c (£22-50, DC) by Paul Dini & Alex Ross
Superman: Earth One vol 2 s/c (£10-99, DC) by J. Michael Straczynski & Shane Davis
Catwoman vol 3: Under Pressure s/c (£18-99, DC) by Ed Brubaker & Paul Gulacy, Sean Phillips, Diego Olmos
Batwoman vol 3: World’s Finest s/c (£10-99, DC) by J. H. Williams III, Haden Blackman & Trevor McCarthy, J. H. Williams III
Batwoman vol 4: This Blood Is Thick h/c (£10-99, DC) by J. H. Williams III, Haden Blackman & Trevor McCarthy, J. H. Williams III
Mobile Suit Gundam Origin vol 5: Char & Sayla (£22-50, Random House / Vertical) by Yoshikazu Yasuhiko
The Seven Deadly Sins vol 1 (£8-50, Kodansha) by Nakaba Suzuki
Magi vol 4 (£6-99, Viz) by Shinobu Ohtaka
Fairy Tail vol 36 (£8-50, Kodansha) by Hiro Mashima
The Secret Service: Kingsman (UK Edition) s/c (£9-99, Titan) by Mark Millar, Matthew Vaughn & Dave Gibbons
Dragon Ball 3-in-1 Edition vols 10-12 (£9-99, Viz) by Akira Toriyama
Blue Exorcist vol 11 (£6-99, Viz) by Kazue Kato
Avengers: The Enemy Within s/c (£11-99, Marvel) by Kelly Sue DeConnick & Scott Hepburn, Matteo Buffagni, Filipe Andrade
Avengers Assemble: Science Bros s/c (£12-99, Marvel) by Kelly Sue DeConnick, Christos Gage & Pete Woods, Stefano Caselli, Tomm Coker
Cradlegrave (£13-99, Rebellion) by John Smith & Edmund Bagwell
Marvel Knights Spider-Man: 99 Problems (UK Edition) s/c (£10-99, Marvel) by Matt Kindt & Marco Rudy
Thor God Of Thunder vol 3: The Accursed (UK Edition) s/c (£14-99, Marvel) by Jason Aaron & Nic Klein, Ron Garney, Das Pastoras
Guardians Of The Galaxy vol 2: Angela (UK Edition) s/c (£14-99, Marvel) by Brian Michael Bendis & Sara Pichelli, Oliver Coipel
ITEM! Topical! Exceptional short comic by Richard Swan called ‘Wallpaper’ but about so much more besides.
ITEM! Adrian Tomine postcards coming soon! They’re not on our website yet because only comics and books go up in advance, but if you want to pre-order all you have to do for anything not on our website is phone 01159508045 or email firstname.lastname@example.org and we will make sure you get whatever it is you want, even if you live in China.
ITEM! Comicbook creators, current and future, Nobrow has released its submissions guideline for graphic novels. Invaluable.
ITEM! Preview of THE WICKED + THE DIVINE by Kieron Gillen & Jamie McKelvie. I would add this to your Page 45 Standing Order right now! Phone 0115 9508045 or email email@example.com! Thank yooooooo!
ITEM! Tories ban prisoners from receiving books. Oh, brilliant! If there is one thing which those in prison should have unfettered access to, it is books. Because literacy. Because learning. Because inspiration. Because books, basically. Oh wait, sorry, education: we don’t actually do that any more, do we?