Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Everything Picture - Round Up #4: Picture Book

And finally the graphic novel bits and pieces.

Vampire State is the final chapter of Paul Cornell's fine run on Captain Britain and MI13. It opens rather wonderfully with two of the finest and most melodramatic villains of the past century meeting on the moon to agree a non-aggression pact and proceeds to chronicle Dracula's attempted invasion of the UK. As you'd expect from Cornell it's a wonderfully twisting plot with several sleights of hand, but with the story having lasting emotional consequences for those who survive. It's immeasurably enhanced by clever kinetic artwork cour testy of Leonard Kirk and Michael Collins, bringing a neglected icon (well, neglected for those of us who hanker for the work the two Alans, Moore and Davis, did with the character).

Another writer I know via Doctor Who fandom is Javier Grillo-Marxauch, responsible for some fine early episodes of Lost, some Charmed episodes which I've never seen and above all, the magnificent but shortlived The Middleman TV series. A mutual friend, the rather wonderful Tara O'Shea pimped us some DVDs of the show whilst on a trip to the UK and dammit, hooked me and my wife immediately. It's a clever conceit, placing Steed and Mrs Peel into a landscape derived from the Silver Age of comics and lacing that with healthy pop culture references and a sly wit. The TV show was cut off after half a season, never having a chance to make it overseas, but the comic managed to tell a full story in three volumes. It opens up in the same way as the TV show, immediately juxtaposing the mad and the mundane, before settling for simply jetting off for wondrous realms of insanity. Postmodernism's a tapped out concept but it works here as the square jawed old fashoined heroism of the Middleman is offst by Wendy's modern wisecracks. It's quite a feat to have the jokes flow naturally in the conversation, and it contrasts nicely with some knowing narration. The clean line, cartoonish artwork from Les McClaine enhances the story, fitting the larger than life nature of the story well.

Brian Talbot's The Tale of One Bad Rat' is a different case altogehter. It's one of those moments where comics step away from the superhero genre with which they're become inextricably associated, and tell a very human story instead. The central character is Helen, who starts the story as a Beatrix Potter loving homeless vagrant with a pet rat on the London underground. The story gradually unfolds to tell us exactly why and how she ran away from home and, eventually how she comes to terms with it. Tabot deals skilfully with the central issue of child abuse, importantly never cheapening or sensationalising it whilst using it to tell a heartbreaking and eventually uplifting story. It's also about how we often use fiction as a refuge from the the horrors of reality, and using Potter's works as a metaphor for innocence is startlingly effective. It's one of those rare moments where comics achieve a real beauty and depth.

Everything Picture #3 - Round Up

And as for everything non-Doctor Who...

First up, an exceptionally cheap acquisition, Phoenix's massively abridged 60 page extract from Jostein Gardner's Sophie's World, The Greek Philosophers. I could see how Gardner's book was a massive success from this, it's a concise and engaging run through an important section of Greek Philosophy and includes the Sophists, Socrates and Plato. It manages the difficult feat of informing and educating at the same time, the writing teaching without ever condescending. It's made me hanker for the unabridged version, which I'd guess is the point. And no I don't feel guilty about buying such a short book, on the same trip to Hay I picked up Proust's A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu. Yep, I admit it, I'm a literary ponce - what the hell, I never know when I might have a year or two spare!

Which makes for a contrived but neat segue on to Alain De Botton's How Proust Can Change Your Life. I hadn't read any of de Botton's output before, but followed him on Twitter. Like all thinkers he can be profound, but occasionally banal when striving for depth, but hey, that's what you get for trying for wisdom in 140 characters. He's much better at book length, where his ideas have room to breathe and roam unconfined. It's essentially a series of essays based around concepts from Proust's epic, demonstrating how each aspect shown can be used to improve your life. And while it's doing that it explains the point of what Proust was trying to achieve - no mean feat when he's doing it in over a thousand less pages of larger print. It's not as pretentious as I've made it sound there, rather it's a thought provoking read that threw my brain some interesting tangents. Again, it's something that's fascinating enough to make me want to read more by the author and Proust.

Giles Smith's Lost In Music is an object lesson that pop music is rarely as life changing as we'd like it. It intersperses Smith's youthful attempts to make it big musically with a series of reminiscences sparked by certain artists and/or records. As such it hits upon the point of music in exactly the way Nick Hornby's abysmal 31 Songs doesn't. Music tends to mark time and places for us (in much the same way Proust used sensory experiences such as the taste of a madelaine cake) - cultural markers of sound replacing tastes and sights in evoking memories. Hornby initially tried to separate music from experience but, as the essays in his book demonstrate, that rarely works. Smith's book is livelier, funnier and more enjoyable than that and is better on the essence of why we end up loving music, why we remember the good and bad times with a soundtrack. I find Smith smug in his normal newspaper columns but here he makes for an engaging narrator, hindsight grating him the wisdom to laugh at his daft mistakes and faults.

The Infernal Desire Machines of DOctor Hoffman is a thin looking book, but that's a massive deception. As I expected from Angela Carter, it's a wild and strange book, full of seensuous prose and concepts beyond the ken of almost every other writer. The first chapter is a mere 24 pages, but it packs more into those than other peic fantasies pack into ten volumes - it's the tale of an assault on the city, but it's equally an assault on the reader's imagination, asking them to engage with mad, wild and almost random ideas and happenings. It's unsurprisingly full of Carter's usual preoccupation with carnal desire and its consequences, broaching some areas still largely taboo. At times it's like running through mid-Wales - gruelling, but you'll be marvelling at the beauty around you.

Timeleon Vieta Come Home is Dan Rhodes' first novel, but sensibly as an experienced short story writer he ensures it comprises a patchwork of stories, the first a novella length story of a dog and his master and what happens when their life is disurbed by the arrival of 'the Bosnian'. The second half is a procession of short stories of the people Timeleon Vieta meets on his way home. It's touching and funny, and while 'the Bosnian' is an irredemable villain (particularly given the ending) the rest of the characters are vivid and engaging. Even Cockroft, who could've been deeply unlikeable in lesser hands is sympathetic and engaging. It's a beautiful, light read that brings rural Italy vividly to life. Oh, and I defy any dog owners not to shed a tear at the ending.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Everything Picture - Round Up #2 (Time Lord Remix)

And things just got a lot busier round here, but more of that at some point in the future. In the meantime, clearing a little headspace...

First up are the three new Doctor Who novels from BBC Books. You might've guessed from previous entries that I'm an absolute junkie for Doctor Who novels. Can't help myself, I've been collecting the damn things for over thirty years now and I just can't kick the habit - suppose it's more stimulating and cheaper than a drug habit. The latest batch are Matt Smith's print debut, Apollo 23 from Justin Richards, Night of the Humans by David Llewellyn and Brian Minchin's The Forgotten Army. Of the three my favourite was easily Minchin's book, primarily as it takes an absolutely ridiculous looking premise and has an absolute blast with it - it involves a New York, woolly mammoth and an invading army straight from one of Douglas Adams' throwaway Hitchhiker gags. It's also got that very Doctor Who thing of knowing how ridiculous the premise is but keeping a straight face long enough to get away with it, letting the humour arise naturally from absurdity. He's also got a very good handle on the Doctor and particularly Amy, who's the de facto lead in this one. Sarky, fiery, slightly insane yet kindhearted it's the perfect print Amy.

Apollo 23 is fairly standard fare from Justin Richards - it takes an intriguing image as a starting point (an astronaut materialising in a shopping centre) and unravels a well-plotted adventure out of it. There's nothing wrong with the book particularly, all the right elements of a good Doctor Who book are in place, but it just seems to lack a certain spark - Richards is exceptional on plot, but none of his characters linger in the memory long enough to survive the turning of the final page. It somehow sums up the current Doctor Who novels - there's no real room for surprises, and they're simply merchandise to be flogged on the back of the TV show. Whilst the TV show should be the focal point for Doctor Who, it feels somehow cheapening to have the novels so lacking in adventure, flair and surprises. They've not been so unambitious since the early 80s and the infamous days of Uncle Tewwy churning out a book a month.

I rather enjoyed David Llewellyn's mainstream debut Eleven, a blacker than George W Bush's heart character study comedy, and his Torchwood work's shown flair and humour. His The Taking of Chelsea 426 wasn't particularly distinguished, having plenty of good moments but never quite coming together into a satisfying whole. Night of the Humans is very much in the latter camp. It's got plenty of clever moments - the way the 'Humans' are named, and their whole society, the Nanobomb device and the nature of the planet for three - but I've come to the conclusion I'm not overly keen on the way Llewellyn sees Doctor Who. From his two stories so far Llewellyn seems to view Doctor Who as a British Star Trek - campy, old fashioned SF with cultural nods and winks dropped in. I'm not quite sure I'd agree with that, it can tell those stories but it can be so much more than that. I might be being unfair, Llewellyn might simply have been stuck with the offworld SF book of the three, but if there is a next time I'd love to see him stretch himself with an Earthbound or oddball story. The old cultural references mean it feels like an RTD era story rather than a Moffat era one too, which jars a little. Again, it's far from bad, but it lacks the spark and sheer exuberance that makes The Forgotten Army the standout of this bunch.

On the non-fiction side I've also been reading Graeme Burk and Robert Smith?'s collection of fanzine writings, the unsnappily titles Time Unincorporated 2: Writings on the Classic Series. As a disclaimer I know both Robert and Graeme, and can thoroughly recommend them as charming company for an evening. TU2, as I shall space savingly refer to it from here on, is a spiritual sequel to Paul Cornell's Licence Denied (also the inspiration behind Shooty Dog Thing). Both are well qualified to edit such a volume - Graeme spent more than ten years editing the Doctor Who Information Network's highly professional magazine Enlightenment, and Robert runs the Doctor Who Ratings Guide, the largest collection of Doctor Who reviews online (certainly since Outpost Gallifrey went offline). It's a huge collection of musings on the Doctor Who produced between 1963 and 2004, and does draw extensively on both Graeme's magazine and Robert's website. There's nothing wrong with that when the material from both tends to be of such a high quality, not when such a breadth of other fanzines are represented. It might lack the scabrous edge of Licence Denied, but it's generally smarter. I'm possibly a touch disappointed that Tat Wood's The Frame essay on the scientifically worked through consequences of Axonite on the frog from The Claws of Axos isn't present (hey, it's funnier than it sounds), but it's a minor quibble, if you've read enough fanzines you're going to be disappointed by one or two of your favourite articles being omitted.

For me the highlights tended to be Graeme's own articles (if it wasn't such a worn down and useless descriptive cliche I'd use the word 'seminal' for his The Talons of Stereotyping) but I'd be remiss to not mention Paul Magrs lovely grab bag that leads off, Scott Clarke's 'Keys to A Time Lord' or Ben Hakala's 'The Re-Awakening of Mediocre Who', which implores us to treasure even the unmemorable stories. OR there's Dave Owen's 'Johnny Come Home', Deborah Standish's 'Classing Shipping' or the entire 'The Ones Who Made us' section... Even if an essay doesn't engage you, there'll be another smart, funny one along in a minute. A bit like Doctor Who itself really.