The Brown Wedge

Mar 04

Andrew Vachss – Safe House

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Andrew Vachss – Safe House

One of the things I like about Richard Stark’s Parker novels is the sense of a man taking care, an expert in his craft; also the sense of a world more or less coexisting with the one I know of which I am completely unaware – the criminal underground. Vachss’s Burke (two characters, one name each, both surnames of other crime writers!) makes Parker look fancy-free and slapdash, and his world is as far beneath, as largely invisible to, Parker’s as his is to me.

It’s also a very appealing mix of the real and the fantastic. The grounding in this novel is what’s still termed ‘domestic violence’, and he shows a deep understanding of this – his usual territory, abused children, is not dissimilar, so this doesn’t surprise me. His targets are always child abusers, rapists, Nazis, never ordinary killers let alone routine criminals – since Burke is a professional criminal himself. Vachss is a lawyer, in his other life, specialising in the area of child abuse, and he plainly knows and feels very deeply about it.

On the other hand, Burke’s ‘family of choice’, i.e. the people he gives a damn about, are about as extravagant a cast as Batman’s foes (sadly I’ve not got around to reading any of Vachss’s Batman stories – he might do him superbly), and the climaxes of these stories tend to be very explosive. This would put some off, but for an old comic fan who also likes serious fiction, I find the combination of colourful characters and tough action with deep understanding of psychology, and the engagement with a kind of evil that I understand (unlike that of most fictional murderers and serial killers, say) and that most crime writers don’t touch, completely irresistible.

He writes with sparse and controlled prose, getting into his memorable characters (though his women do follow a bit of a template and convince less than the men) and their thoughts in a compelling way. But the heart is Burke himself: a paranoid with good cause surviving in New York City, as invisible and protected as possible, guarding his identity almost like a Batman. There is a pattern to his novels, and when I read three or four quickly after first reading him, they lost some force, but read less frequently they are a major thrill.

Mar 04

Zaha Hadid Rules !

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Zaha Hadid Rules !

The thing with Zaha Hadid is that she does not do much theory, or the theory she does is a bout buildings and not cities. Her buildings are about the logical extensions of material and form–so radical in many ways that she is considered dangerous if she is considered at all. From her early work with Rem Koolhas, who taught her about joy, fun and sex to the debacle with the Cardiff Opera House to the triumph of Cincinnati’s Contemporary art Centre, she has come out as one of the most interesting and epic workers.

The opera house in Cardiff was a jangle of broken glass and shattered concrete, a deconstruction of modernist forms i the middle of the welsh countryside, looking at it from the crevice of green hills, it should not have fit at all. It did though, it rolled along with the landscape, and shot out like fountains of glass when an obstruction occurred. It offended Charles so much, that he banned it and she lost her commission.

There was the swooping, penetrating fire station in Germany
, which resembled nothing more then a monastery or bunker for the 22nd century. It was safe and projected this protectionist instinct. It would never fall, for wind or rain or flood or fire, it was the object that would protect the rest of the village, because it was so protected itself.

There was the ski jump in Innsbruck, here which was a virtuoso reduction. There was nothing there, but a hill–no chalet, no steps, nothing but a thrusting spire that resembled the mountain it was in. Radical because of its sculptural tendencies were not extraneous but nessecary to the function of the work. It was Le Corbusier’s machines for living, and Van De Rohes Form following function but there was nothing but the machine, nothing but function.

Then there was the museum in Cincinnati, herecubist and brutal on the outside, and entirely about making sure that the works are shown, there is a theatre and a cafe, but these are foreplay to exhibition spaces that are wide, and welcoming, womb like and retreating. This is no civil improvement project intended for the bragging rights of small minded burghers, this is the just a place to see the best art we could find.

There were other projects she lost, that were not understood and were cancelled. And now she has won the Pritzker, the first woman to do so, which means that she can do what she wants. There is the new museum in rome that is black and shiny, like a matrix of coaxial cable, and the BMW factory, also in Germany, which is a paraphrase of the first Bauhaus temples to industry.

Mar 04

The Magic Flute, English National Opera, London

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I was blown away by this last night. It was stunning in so many ways.

The ENO production pushed the humour to the front and the comic foil; Papageno hammed it up to the crowd. There is a lot of character and location movement in The Magic Flute and the set was cleverly orchestrated. A crescent stage, backdropped with spotlights, all trapdoors and shadowplay.

Pamina spent most of the night on the floor. A push from Monostatos or a shove from Tamino and down she went. Audience sympathy swayed between aggrieved heroine and get up, love. Her most powerful singing came from a horizontal position. Her wicked mother literally towered over her and sang two of all opera’s most difficult arias with glass shattering passion.

The second act is where the Mason imagery takes over. The symbolism is drummed home. Pyramids with eyes and effigies lying everywhere. When more than two people came on stage it required choreography to avoid cats, dogs and funny handshake memorabilia. Mozart was a recent convert to the secret society and his cast sing it from the rafters.

In the end sub-plots were reconciled, evil disappeared through the trapdoor and true love never sparkled brighter. An amazing production.

Mar 04

Literary Gems

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Literary Gems

Journey to the Alcarria ‘ Camilo Jose Cela

In an age before travel writing imposed self-made obstacles and it was possible to explore the world without strapping a fridge to your leg or unicycling blindfolded across the Andes, there lived little classics like this one.

Cela (real name an incredible Don Camilo Jose Manuel Juan Ramon Francisco de Jeronimo Cela-Trulock) was a native of Galicia and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1989. He fought for the Nationalists in the Civil War and, in old age, seemed intent on offending every liberal mind in Spain. He died in 2002, an unlikeable man with likeable stories.

Journey to the Alcarria is a book that is always described with the word picaresque. The book and phrase were made for each other. Cela preferred writing novels and rarely dipped his toe into non-fiction. When he did, the results were striking. It’s a slim read, almost novella length, but there isn’t a loose word. Set in 1946, the author walks his way through the Alcarria, a rural district, northeast of Madrid. Spain was limping from the civil war, the tourist explosion was years away and the country was swimming in poverty.

Cela visits villages unchanged in centuries and meets a people stunned by the war and frightened of the dictatorship. This is the Spain of long ago, of isolated communities, of sowing and tilling in the baking sun.

Nothing of note happens, set pieces are rare and the tone is detached and even, written in the third person. Yet after the last page is turned, the impression of the Alcarria smoulders away. The appeal is partly because the descriptions of life do not tally anymore. This region has been encroached by the expanding urbanisation of the capital, its rusticity swallowed up and paved over.

It’s a story without a storyline and it shouldn’t work. I read it about once a year and it dazzles every time.

Mar 04

When Titans Clash: Kirby vs Tezuka

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When Titans Clash: Kirby vs Tezuka

Jack Kirby is known as the King among fans of American comics, and it’s fair enough. He was there at the start of superheroes (creating Captain America), he created the first romance comics, the first mystical horror comics, he created virtually the whole Marvel Universe, he was in the frontline of the independent boom of the early ’80s, and he produced many of the greatest American comic books ever.

But if you’re a fan of Japanese comics, there is another strong candidate for the throne. Osamu Tezuka produced over 150,000 pages of comics in 40 years – I’d guess that’s about three times as much as in Kirby’s longer career, though I’m unsure how much of Tezuka’s work was done by assistants. He also produced vast amounts of animation, including Japan’s first cartoon series, exported to the West as Astro Boy, a few prose books, and was seen as enough of a major cultural treasure to have addressed the UN.

In quality, I think they are closely comparable. The Astro Boy strips of the ’50s are brilliant stories, full of wit, humanity and energy. What I’ve read of his series of Phoenix tales is even better, among the most powerful and moving comics ever. I really think this is in the same league as Kirby’s greatest work, say the FF and the Fourth World titles. But on the one hand I’ve read maybe ten times as much Kirby as Tezuka, and as proportions of their careers that’s a thirtyfold difference. Is there anyone out there with a really extensive knowledge of both of these creative giants who can better compare them?

What happened to Doomlord’s mask?

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What happened to Doomlord’s mask?

(Dez Skinn is too harsh on photo-stories here I feel. If anyone wants to see a full-on feature on the 80s Eagle revival with its photo-strips, just let me know… or it might happen anyway…)

Read Misty online!!

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Read Misty online!! – lovingly detailed site dedicated to Misty including reproductions of the original issues! Even if you don’t have time to look at the reprints at least check out the cover gallery.

Girls’ Comics

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Girls’ Comics: Dragged screaming from the K-Punk comments box, this link leads to an excellent essay by Miriam Hurst on the British girls’ comics of the 1970s. Hurst makes intelligent points though you can’t go far wrong in this territory just by describing the material, viz:

However, at least serial stories such as these usually ended happily. Shorter stories often didn’t. In one, a vain girl who has won many beauty contests stumbles across a secret contest. When she sneaks in, she discovers that it is an ugliness contest. She is detected by assorted monsters, who crowd around her and explain that being ugly is just as valid as being beautiful; in exchange, she announces that she now realises that people who are ugly on the outside can be beautiful on the inside.

The story could have ended there. Instead, one of the monsters speaks up. The girl is correct, it says, but not in this case. All of these monsters are just as ugly on the inside as they are on the outside; as her face changes in shock, they move in on her, mouths open.

Mar 04

New every Tuesday

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New every Tuesday and this week’s is esp. hilarious. Don’t read the archived strips at work or the boss will ask you what all the howling’s about.

K-Punk on Marvel UK

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K-Punk on Marvel UK: K-Punk’s had quite a bit of comics content lately – good stuff; it’s nice to find someone else who thinks that the mid-80s British Invasion wasn’t an unambiguous Good Thing. Anyway now he’s onto UK comics, the Marvel stuff at least. I totally feel his invocation of hen’s-teeth issues of Marvel as windows onto another world. In fact – may I indulge myself for a minute here? (READER’S VOICE: Uh-oh!) Thanks –

This situation went on well into the 80s. There was a big network of comic shops by that time but if you were 11 or 12 and your shopping opportunities were dependent on parental goodwill there was NO CHANCE of your being taken to one. So it was a matter of tracking down the newsagents or chain stores which did semi-randomly get US comics in. WH Smiths in Guildford was one of those, Mum would only let me put four titles on reserve though. I looked at the range available – full of stuff I’d never even heard of – and decided to choose three superhero team comics on the sensible mathematical basis that these would let me read about more characters. And my fourth choice was THOR because he rocked.

Then – unparalleled joy! – the newsagent next to Shapes in Ashtead, where I got taken to get my hair cut, started stocking US comics out of the blue. 60p each and no restrictions on what I could buy – it was heaven. Of course what I bought was ANY OLD SHITE – West Coast Avengers, Web Of Spider-Man, etc etc. In my memories this golden era went on for a year or so but I worked out once that it was a month or two tops before I finally got my parents to take me to Forbidden Planet instead of Hamleys on a trip to London.

This was in the days when FP was on Denmark Street, over the road from where Helter Skelter is now. I have never, ever, seen a shop so magical and exciting. These days FP is a clean and shiny ‘cult megastore’ or some such tosh, back then it was a half-step up from a Head Shop (my mother was rightly horrified and would stand at the door, occasionally communing in sympathy with other parents who shared her plight). Denmark Street was a dirty, higgledy-piggledy place, crawling with geeks and rock musicians, and Planet was separated from the street by a big iron fence. When you rounded that you could get a close look through the grimey windows at unimaginable rarities, but once you were through the little door even greater treasure could be found – import comics at a 20p mark-up, two or three months ahead of the newsagent. The distro deal Marvel US had in the UK meant that comics reached the newsagents here months after they’d come out in the States – presumably to mollify specialist shop owners. Getting them early – even if you had to pay more – was a miracle. I felt initiated, expert, in the loop – a ‘proper’ comics fan at last.