The Brown Wedge
(Caution: contains spoilers)
Out of long habit I will read any comic which cover-features the magic words “N-No! It can’t be…YOU“. The shock revelation (be it ever so bogus) is meat and drink to my somewhat jaded brain.
This time the Cantbeyou is indeed a shocker. If you’re not a comics reader you may remember a bit of press back in the late 80s when DC decided to kill Robin, then set up a premium rate phone line to allow readers a vote to let the lad live – or confirm his fate. They voted for death, causing much outcry and hand-wringing, not so much over the death of Robin but over the corruption implied in encouraging people to waste their money on frivolous phone votes (how little we knew). The Robin in question wasn’t the Robin who is currently – comics time – hanging around with Batman, or the Robin who you may remember from the films, though he looked broadly the same. He was Jason Todd, a snotty 80s street-kid Robin, created and written as an irritating caricature who the fans never took to.
Because of his semi-democratic fate Jason Todd has always been regarded as one of the untouchable comics dead, immune to shock return. Until now, when he’s back, in a thoroughly entertaining story – violent, slick, promising much convoluted explanation in the future (if you like that sort of thing – I tend to thrill on the shocks and try to ignore their doughy justifications). He’s posing as tuff new hoodlum the Red Hood, whose exchanges in this comic with Gotham City kingpin the Black Mask are a lot more entertaining than Batman’s dialogue with Robin. The other Robin. Todd comes across as a likeable, if nasty, type, much more so than he did in his first life.
At the same time though I have to laugh. The Todd story was big hot news a few years after I started reading comics: it was the hype, the buzz, the change-everything storyline. It makes me feel a little bit old – seventeen years ago? In 1988 I didn’t care about them killing Jason Todd – a sophisticated 15-year old I had decided to give up superhero comics – but a lot of people cared a great deal. I’m not sure what the moral for fans is: don’t be upset about anything, or be upset about everything.
Hearts And Minds: US Army to produce free comic books for Middle Eastern kids.
Unfortunately I imagine most of this stuff has been removed now. However the piece in the Museum Of Natural History, despite its predictable war theme, is just remarkably cute.
i was working on some theology of grace for the book when i heard robert creely died, and also thinking about hollywood blondes and 50s movies, for an essay i may right, and then i click over to metafilter and i hear about it.
the thing with creeley–is it looks so fucking easy and conversational, so you sit down and say i can do this (and every poet in the last 20 yrs says to themselves i can do that)–i dont even have to know the allusions, i can write about talking or having a coke or going to the movies or that movie star i like…
but grace is so hard, its difficult to gain, it is given after living, and living hard.
the other thing is that he had this all new, all american, all wonderful, propulsive, and human working through of grace, as a series of happy aand not so happy accidents that laid out a compicated kind of intuitive heremeutics.
but w/o all the fancy words.
I have never really liked Howard Jacobson as a journalist or pundit, but I always quite like his books: in an undemanding comic way (which is very high praise). I have not read many, though one of my strongest geographical prejudices is straight of of Redback which I read when I was 17. In it the lead comes from Warrington, and describes the place as being equidistant between Manchester and Liverpool and all the worst attributes of both. Not knowing Liverpool or Manchester should have rendered this description meaningless to me. Nevertheless the context seemed to get across all that is self-critical about our home towns. They are never as good as the nearest big town, they are always second best. As a Borehamwood boy I had London-envy and Elstree hatred, so loved this piece of writing.
The youthful scenes are what remain of Redback in my head. The Mighty Walzer, a Mancunian ping-pong coming of age comedy, sticks resolutely to this period. Which initially was strange as it seemed that this was to be the story of a life. Instead the book suggests that life is over by eighteen: the period up to this age getting three hundred pages whilst after gets eighty (mainly reminiscing). It shows the growth of a shy boy into a demon table-tennis player and sexual predator: whilst also telling the story of post-war Jews in Manchester. It almost seems entirely closed to the non-Jewish audience, except it stems from the grand tradition of Jewish comic literature that invites you in to laugh and sympathise. And here are all the stereotypes, the tiny matrichal grandmother, the strong women, the sexually perverse son. But talking stereotypes, I have never seen this story, this kind of comic unravelling, set in the UK. Its an American stereotype, and so while many of the tropes are familiar, the setting (and the ping-pong) isn’t. So perhaps it was a story I could have constructed in my head, two parts Woody Allen, one part Coronation Street. But its better that a decent writer did it for me.
The collected edition of Mick Farren’s DNA Cowboys trilogy is a fascinating social document. You can tell a lot about a time from its bobbins gonzo fantasy novels. And here we have a trilogy, steam written fuelled by drugs, coffee and an urge to write a modern fantasy for its day. It makes very little sense, is narratively uninspiring, and has a shockingly casual misogeny and yet seems much more imaginative and rewarding than 95% of current fantasy fiction. Farren himself is quite unclear why it deserves a reprinting, but I reckon if I had stumbled on it aged fourteen I would have loved it.
The story. Um: after some unspecified disaster the world is split into small communities separated by impenetrable (almost) “nothings”. All of humanities needs are supplied by “stuff central” so the communities are self sustaining. Our heroes (never referred to in the text as the DNA Cowboys) get bored and seek adventure. And find some. And then end up with a sadistic thirteen year old girl looking despot for sex and world taking over.
The whole thing mutates wildly book to book, and its morality is never really clear. And yet the prose and brevity of each of the books (with names like Synamptic Manhunt and The Neural Atrocity someone was reading JG Ballard) makes them a quick read. As does the death toll, incidences of weird sex and attempts at grafting some sort of rationale on it after the fact. It is almost disappointing that it ends with so many loose ends. Almost: as you know any continuation would be in the same vein, but you do get oddly sympathetic to these doofus?s wandering the world and trying to save it. A toking Tolkein then?
Lame Secret Identities in Superhero Comics
There are plenty of unlikely villainous names – “You mean the Riddler is really Mr E. Nigma? Holy stupid fucking contrivances, Batman!” – but since a lot of them were probably created as a small joke with no necessary expectation of regular returns, I guess we can just about tolerate those. There are some less forgiveable ones…
#3: J’onn J’onnz, The Martian Manhunter. For those who don’t know, this is an actual Martian, not a human who hunts Martian men. His name, which when a child I tried to pronounce something like Juh-on Juh-ons, apparently actually sounds just like John Jones. To conceal his identity, he hid behind a human identity, and took the name John Jones. Since he could change shape and it is a very common name, he makes only #3.
#2: I’m reading the Essential Doctor Strange vol.2 now, and it was that that inspired this little item. Top surgeon Dr Strange is injured, and in an attempt to regain use of his hands finds the mystical Ancient Cliche in Tibet, and learns magic instead. Oddly, despite needing to throw strange hand shapes all the time to cast spells, he never gets around to repairing his hands. Instead he takes up mystical superheroics, with a maskless costume, hiding his identity behind HIS OWN NAME. My assumption was that he didn’t care about people identifying him, but there is later an “Oh no! I may have given away my secret identity!” moment. Really, Doc? How do you think anyone guessed? Fortunately the cosmic embodiment of the unending flow of time, Eternity, changes his name for him (probably got it notarised by Infinity), but the writers kind of forget about that a few issues later.
#1: Black Bolt is one of my absolute favourite superhero characters, someone much underused on the largest scale, which is where his insanely huge powers belong. It seemed a perfectly good superhero name, if not terribly descriptive – until his real name was revealed. If I ever acquire superpowers (I’ve not given up hope), I shall go by the superhero name Mart Skid, in tribute to Black Bolt, whose real name, it was eventually revealed, is Blackagar Boltagon.
(other nominations welcomed – I must have forgotten some good ones)
a born bystander’s deliberate legacy:
Ransome played chess with Lenin (and beat him). As a young geezaesthete in bohemian Chelsea, Ransome hung out with G. K. Chesterton’s brother, as well as future war-poet Edward Thomas. Ransome’s second wife had been Trotsky’s secretary: her father was one of the Tsar’s gardeners. Ransome’s mentor was W. G. Collingwood, heir to Ruskin’s intellectual domain. Ransome’s at the time well-regarded book on Wilde’s critical theories got him sued by notorious vexatious litigant Lord Alfred Douglas (Douglas lost); it also contained ideas developed by pioneeering “New Critic” IA Richards. As a child Ransome had been shy lieutenant in pranksterdom to the cheekier and wilier Ric Eddison, later – as E. R. Eddison – author of one-of-a-kind fantasy The Worm Ouroboros. “Missee Lee” was based on the personal character (but not the biography) of Soong Ching Ling, wife of founding Chinese revolutionary Dr Sun Yat Sen, and one of the three remarkable Soong sisters. In 1895, during the ‘great freeze” which inspired Winter Holiday, AR was taught to skate, on Windermere, by saintly anarchist Prince Kropotkin…
Only two of Ransome’s run of 12 children’s books – Peter Duck and Missee Lee – are full-on Stevensonian adventures, where children engage with pirates and win. In all the rest, the adventure on offer is conspicuously less romantically implausible: they may invest their holiday activities with the imagined language of Treasure Island, but the perils they face, and their dilemmas of honour and honesty, are “realistic” in a way which seems almost mannered when compared to the scrapes and issues of Ransome’s own life. Which is not to say that the perils aren’t serious – most often drowning, obv, but also being buried alive in an abandoned mine or caught in a fell fire. In the somewhat feebly titled Coot Club, the twins Nell and Bess (known as Port and Starboard) accept a series of riverboat lifts from complete strangers across the Norfolk Broads to catch up with their friends in another boat: Ransome as ever keeps the sense of parental worry at such risk-alden behaviour turned right down, but it’s never turned OFF.
In a curious way, i think the complaints that his work is class-bound and parochial, bland cosy fun for the middleclasses, is a sign of his achievement: his will to create a non-magic space where children could look after themselves and learn to cope with problems without heavy-handed adult intrusion. His relationship with his own daughter, Tabitha, was fraught at best, and ended sadly – largely as a result of his own inability to trust her, or see her as a person in her own right (as distinct from his besotted but slightly mad first wife Ivy). He deals with family tensions almost subliminally: the parents he gives his child heroes are mostly the BEST OF ALL NATIVES, and yet – and this is surely the point – there really are still problems of trust and fear to be negotiated (I haven’t reread We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea yet, cz it was shelved in the wrong place at my parents’ house and I didn’t find it till the last day: this most attractively titled of the series is the one where these elements are most toughly tested, I suspect). And of course, though the Walker father is merely off somewhere with the Royal Navy, the story of fatherless children having somewhat to bring themselves up is central to the larger tale of the 1920s, in the lee of the Great War.
i read these books when small without evolving any yen at all to take up boating or mountain-rambling, or to move to the Lakelands or the Broads: what i liked then and what i like now is the exploration of the principle of relative autonomy — its possibilities and its difficulties — and its settings are just pretexts. It’s silly not to admit these books are indeed dated – the far-from-well-off Blackett family has both a maid and a cook – but complaining that Ransome decided to make his subject what he DID make his subject is surely a bit like complaining that the main problem with Treasure Island is that it isn’t set in a future where a ghetto child flies to the moon.
This is a tremendously enjoyable show. There’s lots of work to see, and it’s very varied. Album sleeves painted over, a tuba and trumpet joined at the mouthpiece, photos of things to do with sound, a ludicrously extended accordion with about 15′ of pleats snaking in an ‘S’ shape, tape unspooling silently from an old reel-to-reel into a huge pile on the floor, album covers collaged or just collated together. Loads of fun stuff about sound on every scale. There’s the famous video piece, Guitar Drag, which is what it says, an electric guitar plugged in and dragged behind a pick-up truck across roads and fields. Another terrific video is countless clips from movies of people using telephones.
But there were two things I really loved, one of them not by Marclay. We were just buying our tickets when a classful of kids trooped in, each carrying, like a waiter, a vinyl album that they had altered, by cutting, painting, collage or whatever. These were then all laid out on the floor along one wall (the teacher asking the punters not to step on them), while the kids swarmed off to be told about the connection, the reason they were doing this, Marclay’s own altered records. These were tremendously enjoyable pieces, and I felt very fortunate to have synchronised with this brief bonus show (they were gone within an hour).
But the highlight was Marclay’s Video Quartet. This comprises four adjoining screens, each maybe 8′ square, and for ten or fifteen minutes we get different musical film clips in each screen, apparently 700 in total, mostly of people playing or singing: classical, rock, jazz, much more. We hear whatever is on the four clips at any one time. This may sound intolerable, but it’s magnificently blended and edited so that it actually works as a single musical piece, albeit an unconventional one, and it’s really thrilling to watch.
(Also included in the admission (’8, ’6 concessions) is the Tina Barney show upstairs: fine if you like looking at large and classy portraitish photos of the aristocracy, but not for me at all.)
3: In The Midst Of Death
Like many a regular Freakytrigger feature, my chronological, collecting reviews of Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder novels has recently dried a touch. Not completely due to my own crapness: for the more basic problem that the third book In The Midst Of Death was impossible to find. Remember my own rules restricted me to the Orion editions that I came across ina shop. London failed me. So as this project floundered I broke my own rules and went to the Amazon marketplace and for the princely sum of ’0.72 + postage I got myself a copy.
It was the wrong edition (and different tothat pictured). A not inconsiderable part of this project was to have a shelf full of books that all look like they should live together. Anal, but this was me trying on collecting for size. I had turned down the gift of a couple of Block’s from Tim for this very reason. So now I have this dilemma. If I find In The Midst Of Death in teh right edition do I buy it? And what do I do with my perfectly readable, perfectly serviceable older copy. Well what I do in the short term is review the blasted thing.
Still hard drinking, not seeing his family and tithing to churches, the Matt of In The Midst Of Death is probably the point at which all the later character developments are a reaction against. It is clear that the drinking, the tithing are just convenient tics for character colour – though Block is starting to realise that extrapolating some of these might lead to more interesting writing. He is not there yet, and this is a slim novel because of it. Elaine does turn up briefly, as a source on prostitution, and as a contrast between Scudder and his bent cop client. The book is still, for better or worse, the mystery.
A plot which muses on celebrity (much as his big New York novel “Small Town” does) and corruption. Matt’s past as a cop is always presented as principled but pragmatic. He took the odd bribe where it greased wheels. Block examines this with a cop who takes sexual bribes, and is trying to expose corruption. But clearly nothing is what it seems, and in this case Block is still playing the game by the classic rules. Therefore if you apply the rule of the least likely, you will almost certainly guess who did it. I did. (4/10)