Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Heroes and the Everyday: Why “Dirty Laundry” is the Best On-Screen “Punisher” Story Yet!



Frank Castle, The Punisher, is one of my favourite superheroes thanks in no small part to Garth Ennis’ defining series on the character, specifically “Punisher MAX” and “Welcome Back, Frank”. My other favourite heroes are Batman, Superman, and Wolverine, all of whom have enjoyed big screen success with excellent films, but despite 3 attempts to turn the Punisher into a popular film franchise, all 3 attempts have failed as audiences have been largely ambivalent to the difficult-to-like character of a former soldier seeking vengeance against the mob. That and the films have all been shit.

But last summer a 10 minute short was released featuring Thomas Jane (the second actor to portray Frank, in the 2004 John Travolta flop film) returning to the role of Frank Castle, called “Dirty Laundry”. And it was AMAZING!

So why was this significantly better than the previous 3 feature films? It certainly wasn’t length – the quality being what it was, I would’ve enjoyed seeing a 90-120 minute movie in the same vein. It was because this was the first time a film-maker understood exactly what makes Frank Castle, the Punisher, and what makes his stories work. You go small before you go big and you throw in nuance. Let me explain.

“Dirty Laundry” opens with Frank waking up in his ratty old van, driving to a crummy laundrette in a run- down neighbourhood to do his laundry, ostensibly black t-shirts with the famous skull logo on. He sits and waits for the load to wash. He looks weary.



We’re then introduced to the characters in this dingy neighbourhood – a prostitute who gets beaten up and raped by her pimp, and a young boy walking home from school being harassed by the same pimp, and his gang, to run drugs for him. The pimp and his gang push the kid around, the kid shaking his head that he won’t run drugs, clutching his books desperately – the books being the lifeline for him escaping his dismal surroundings rather than becoming yet another tale of human waste like the gang surrounding him.

This harassment takes place outside the laundrette Frank is sat in and he watches as the kid is increasingly shoved around – but he does nothing. He must see this kind of behaviour all of them time in the working class neighbourhoods he lives in and so learns to ignore it – at least so we think. Restless and clearly agitated by the bullying behaviour, he heads next door to the off-licence where he meets an elderly man in a wheelchair, played by Hellboy himself, Ron Perlman.



Perlman plays grizzled, fed up, and deeply saddened as he relates to Frank, in a brilliant monologue, how he came to be in a wheelchair after he stood up to the pimp out there who’s now pushed the young child to the floor and begun to kick and punch him with his cohorts. Perlman says, hoping to make a few bucks, “we’ve got a sale on for whiskey”. Frank at first declines before seeing the escalation in violence outside then decides to buy a bottle of Jack Daniels.

And up ‘til now, for everyone watching who knows this is a Punisher story, we’ve been seeing these injustices and hoping he will bring down punishment on the pimp and his goons. The tab has been raised quite high: the rape/beating of the prostitute, the beating of the young boy, the crippling of Ron Perlman; it will be a pleasure to see this despicable character made to pay by Frank Castle. That’s why this short works so well: the story gets you on the side of the wronged and, unlike real life, there is a hero waiting in the wings to swoop in and remove the danger, much like the way Garth Ennis structured his Punisher books.

That’s why it’s so satisfying seeing Frank walk out of the off-licence with a big bottle of Jack Daniels (I’m beginning to see how this short got financed) and beats the gang and the leader/pimp viciously with the bottle (without it breaking! I know Jack bottles are heavy, but really?). The prostitute looks on in the background, the boy watches in surprise to see his saviour bringing righteous bottle justice to a part of the world where justice rarely appears. Once Frank has punished the evil, he dowses the pimp in the whiskey and brings out a lighter – ah! Vicious and horrific yes, but this is the nature of the Punisher, especially as the short seems to be channelling Ennis’ Punisher MAX.

But rather than flicking the flame on and dropping it on the newly crippled and severely beaten pimp, he places it near the pimp, out of his reach (whose arms and legs are broken anyway and can’t move), and with a final, disgusted look, walks away back to the laundrette to check on his washing. The young boy looks at the lighter’s flame and as an audience we’re hoping he doesn’t succumb to the temptation – this boy will grow up and escape the horrors of the slums but if he takes a life as a child, that fate might evaporate. No, best to give revenge to someone whose whose fate is more ambiguous – the prostitute from the start.

She marches up with fury writ large upon his face and kicks the flame onto the pimp’s whiskey drenched body and FWOOM! up he goes in a plume of digital flame, screaming as he is burnt to death. Vengeance is hers – today.

Frank walks out of the laundrette with his stuff and hands the kid one of his t-shirts. He drives off in the van, like the cowboys of old Westerns riding off into the sunset. The T-shirt is black and as the child unfolds it we see the first – and last – visual that this mysterious man was Frank Castle the Punisher; upon the shirt is the famous Punisher skull logo. The end.



“Dirty Laundry” contains more thoughtful storytelling choices than all of the Punisher movies put together (even though I’ve only seen part of the 2004 and 2008 movies and none of the Dolph Lundgren movie). But it’s these choices coupled with perfectly paced storytelling, pitch perfect characterisation (Frank doesn’t speak much but there’s a lot of dialogue in the short – the focus is on the characters’ stories) and a dark energy to it that captures the spirit of the comic, that makes it the most fully realised screen representation of the Punisher yet. And it kicks ass.

Seriously, if this version of the character was filmed, minus scenery chewing hacks like Travolta being cast as the bad guy? You’ve got a hit. C’mon Marvel, I know you’ve tried 3 times with this character but you’ve entered the golden age of movies. Punisher won’t make $1 billion like the Avengers but a strong vision of the character, with a minimal budget like this short, proves that a brilliant movie can be made that will make the investment worthwhile and would see a boost in comics, merchandise, etc. “Thor”’s alright but let’s not forget the Marvel Knights amid the Avengers-themed movies being put out.

Even filming these shorts to be added to DVD/Blu Ray packages or to be played before the feature is worth a look. I mean, Frank Castle doing laundry? It’s brilliant and think of the possibilities: Blade ordering lunch; Ghost Rider buying a new jacket; Elektra taking a nap. I’d watch all of those! I’m waiting for the follow-up: “Spare Tire” where Frank changes one of his van’s tires… and injustice rears its ugly head again.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Drowning in Mediocrity: Batwoman Volume 2, or How a Good Title Was Scuppered by Bad Writing

This is going to have a lot of spoilers so avoid this review if you're planning on reading it.


I read the first issue of “Batwoman, Volume 2: To Drown the World”, put down the book, and re-read the first volume because I had no idea what was going on. Having re-read it, I’m still not sure I know what’s going on in this book. 

In “Hydrology”, the first book, we find out that Batwoman/Kate Kane’s dad, retired General Jacob Kane, got up to some questionable activity while in the service and with that information soon to be made public, it seemed that the General would spend the rest of his retirement behind bars. That is until a talking skeleton, Mr Bones, showed up offering protection to her dad if Kate would work for his organisation, the Department of Extranormal Operations (DEO), which she readily accepts. 

In the past, the DEO have been charged with regulating superhero activities so it was interesting - and baffling - to see them recruiting a superhero to their ranks. Interesting because, as Batman warns at the end of “Hydrology”, that puts her against him and Batman Inc. So I expected this book to see Kate maybe tussling with, if not the Dark Knight, then any of the Bat family crowding the streets of Gotham, Nightwing maybe, Batgirl, or the Birds of Prey. But instead, that possible, far more interesting storyline is completely ignored to have Batwoman go up against a new criminal organisation called Medusa and some new, supernatural villains all of whom are bland and uninteresting.

Batwoman is now officially the spooky book in the Bat-line of DC titles. Her remit is to fight ghosts, vengeful spirits, and all manner of things that go bump in the night - maybe because she looks kinda vampiric? but more on that later - indefinitely for the DEO. Does she have a plan to somehow escape this obligation? Will she be able to protect her dad if she could? If she turned to Batman, would he use his considerable resources to offer the same protection the DEO offer without the need to be a masked ghostbuster? None of these questions are even considered, all we know is Batwoman seems quite happy in fighting the supernatural baddies. 

Her dad meanwhile is sat by the bed of Bette aka Flamebird who’s in a coma. That’s her dad’s and Flamebird’s entire storyline for this book. His behaviour towards her is odd too, she’s just his niece but he acts like she’s his daughter. I know they’re family but I thought his attitude to her condition in this book was way over the top. 

And here’s where the plot really breaks down. Batwoman is trying to save some kids from a bad guy called Falchion and that’s her motivation for the entire book. Fair enough, but who is Falchion and why does he want these kids? It’s nothing sexual by the way, it seems to involve magic, but Falchion’s “character” is barely written in this book, he just pops up out of nowhere and acts as a de facto villain, kids in chains being visual shorthand for “bad guy”. And there’s a lot of character underwriting in this book. The other bad guy is an Asian sorceror called Maro whose magic feeds on the belief of fear, conjuring up “Bloody Mary” - that thing from school where you say “Bloody Mary” into the mirror 3 times and an evil spirit shows up? it’s real in this book! - among others, and who he is, what his motivations are, are also never revealed. Then there’s this new evil organisation called Medusa - what they are, where they came from, what they’re about, it’s all ignored. Suddenly the Religion of Crime from the last 2 books (I count “Elegy” as the first book and “Hydrology” as the second) is marginalised for some reason but they’re still about. 

My point about motivation and character development is twofold; if we don’t know who these characters are, we don’t care about them, and if we don’t know why they’re behaving like they do, then we care even less. This book is essentially about Batwoman trying to stop an unknown group of spooky villains from doing something, somehow, somewhere, for some reason. It’s makes for a very uninvolving and completely confusing book.

It’s not helped either by the worst plot device I’ve seen used in comics for a long while. Williams/Blackman structure the story so that it jumps about in time every couple of pages, centring on a different character each time. So we get: Batwoman’s story Now; Chase’s story 1 week ago; Kate’s story 28 hours ago; Jacob’s story 3 weeks ago; Maro’s story 1 month ago; Maggie’s story 15 minutes from now - aargh, it’s so damn choppy! The story is convoluted enough - read through the prism of this narrative structure, it’s becomes doubly confusing and frustrating to read as the events supersede and overlap. I’m all for innovative narrative tricks in comics, I’m not looking for just linear stories, but this plot structure is so clumsily written, it derails the book rather than streamlining it. 

“Hydrology” was rightly lauded as the best looking “New 52” title but in “To Drown the World” Williams has handed over art duties to Amy Reeder, choosing to draw the covers only, while colourist Dave Stewart has been replaced by Guy Major. Reeders’ art is fine but it seems that she’s been instructed to draw like Williams, which she does quite competently, even down to the creative splash pages he’s famous for, but the difference between the two creative teams is noticeable and I’ve a feeling this second book won’t be as celebrated for its visuals as the first book. 

Speaking of visuals, Batwoman sure is white isn’t she? I mean, REALLY white. Her skin is so white she makes albinos look tanned. Does she take her baths at Ace Chemicals? Is there going to be a reveal in a future book that she’s the Joker’s daughter? It’s one thing to draw someone pale but when you do it to this extreme, and no-one questions it, it draws even more attention to it and looks very peculiar. 

Also, I think DC have overplayed the gay card too much. I know there aren’t many LGBT characters out there and it’s great that Batwoman is gay and so popular, but do we need reminding in literally every issue? At almost every major plot juncture in the book, Kate’s sexuality plays a part in it and I don’t know why. I haven’t got a problem with hers, or anyone’s, sexual orientation but to write about it this often is a bit much. I think the writers should write fewer scenes highlighting Kate’s sexuality and focus instead on creating meaningful characters and plot, both of which were missing in this book. 

“Batwoman Vol 2” fails to deliver a well written and entertaining story, or even decent villains for Kate to battle, an issue that’s plagued this title for three books now. But even by Batwoman standards the villains in this book are massively underwritten (the one familiar face being Killer Croc who gets his New 52 makeover here - though why he’s working for Medusa is never explained, he just is) especially as motivations and backstory are eschewed for scenes of laughable villainy - “I will eat your corpse, Batwoman!” “Eat her body!” “This blade has bathed in Amazonian blood... now it will bathe in yours!”, etc. Great, so, uh, why are you obsessed with Batwoman again? What’s so special about Gotham? Who are you? What are you doing here? What the hell is going on in this book?! 

There wasn’t a single moment in the book that stood out for me that I can point to and say “that was memorable” or “that was good”. It was all just one big jumbled mess of scenes flashing backwards and forwards in time between two dimensional characters all moving in some plot that’s never explained. I find this series requires too much mental legwork for very little payoff so I’m abandoning it now. Maybe Batwoman will be a great title one day but I don’t think Williams and Blackman are the writers who’re going to do that.

Batwoman Volume 2: To Drown the World

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Kingdom Dumb - Why Mark Waid and Alex Ross' "Kingdom Come" is Over-rated, Stupid, and Coldly Conservative


This is going to have lots of spoilers in the article, so even though it's a 17 year-old comic at this point, just so you're aware going in. Enjoy!

"Kingdom Come" is one of the most boring, overrated, and simply bad "event" books from DC I've read. It lacks a coherent narrative, competent writing, strong characterisation, and, maybe most basic of all, an interesting story. Mark Waid's writing on this book is truly abysmal. The saving grace of this book is Alex Ross' artwork which may be the reason so many people think it's a "classic" of the superhero genre. But even Ross' photo-realistic art can't save it from the literary quagmire it drives itself into and fails to leave for the entirety of this book.

The story setup is most baffling of all. Superman has "retired" for 10 years because he lost his parents and Lois. He just felt he couldn't be Superman anymore. Uh... ok. But then everyone else in the Justice League, except Batman, decide to call it a day too! Green Lantern builds himself a giant green space station and sits on his throne, Hawkman flies about the Pacific North-West, Wonder Woman disappears back to her island, Flash runs endlessly in circles. Why?! Just because Superman hung up his blue and red costume? It doesn't make sense and it's never explained. So in the vacuum the JLA left, a new, younger generation of superhero arrives. These guys aren't really superheroes, they don't care about honour or protecting the innocent, they just fly about the place, smashing things up, firing off lasers, doing all kindsa nutty things - for no reason. It's never explained just why these new superheroes have no conscience - except that that's what Mark Waid wrote in his script, so that's it. Great. Arbitrary nonsense.

So after Magog - who is now the superhero the world deserves, I suppose? - makes a mess by accidentally killing the Atom, thus triggering an atomic explosion that destroys Kansas, Superman finally returns. Why? Because it's his "home state"? There have been other terrible incidents in the 10 years he's been away but this causes him to return, which consequently brings the rest of the JLA back at the same time! They basically do whatever Superman tells them to do, I suppose, they're not individuals, at least not in the hands of Mark Waid.

Now it's Superman and the JLA, the "classic" superheroes who stand for truth, honour, justice, etc. against the arbitrarily stupid, evil, ignorant, and conscience-free "new" superheroes. For some reason, their fighting will bring about Armageddon. But not really because it's humanity who will do this because they don't much like superheroes anymore. The humans, led by Lex Luthor, have had enough of superheroes or "meta-humans" and have decided to build an army to fight them so that humanity will be left alone to make their own decisions (and mistakes). An old and battered Bruce Wayne, held together by an exo-skeleton, joins Luthor and promises to build an army of Bat-robots like the kind he uses to police Gotham. But it doesn't matter because the United Nations decide to fire a nuke into the heart of America at the superheroes who are gathered at the site of Superman's gulag to fight, thus bringing about Armageddon. So it's the humans' fault, not the superheroes'.

But before going into how utterly stupid this scenario is, let's talk about the unnerving undercurrent of right wing politics appearing in this book. Superman and co. are "old" therefore "good" while everything "new" is instantly portrayed as "bad". Superman reiterates that "all life is sacred", he destroys a bar's alcohol because "it doesn't help", and he builds a gulag - yes, it's called a gulag in the book! - to house the rebels! Their stance on crime is extreme. There's a scene where some kids mug a man and run off only to be cornered by not one, not two, but four giant Bat-robots! Police state = good. And throughout the book are quotes from the Bible. So, in this book at least, we have pro-life, prohibitionist, security obsessed Christians as the heroes. Sounds pretty conservative and damned repulsive to me. I don't know Waid's political views but judging from this book I'd say he's an ardent Republican.

If Superman's characterisation is disturbing, it's nothing compared to Wonder Woman who pushes for military action right from the start, urging Superman to build a prison as an answer to any kind of theological opposition. Democracy's bad I guess, Stalin had the right idea! Two of DC's flagship characters behaving like fascists is very disturbing to read but at least they got to speak - Green Lantern, Flash, Hawkman? They never say a word. They silently stand about, helping Superman, like colourful goons and then disappear when he doesn't need them. They are simply ciphers. And the book is filled with weird character moments that were so out of place they took me out of the story like, why does Superman need an oxygen mask to breathe in space, or why is Red Robin piloting the UN's nuke?

Batman is maybe the one character I thought Waid did justice to. Despite being some kind of Transformers-obsessed creator, his personality was right even if his Batman outfit was basically a robot suit and, besides one scene, he's never in costume but he's still called Batman, not Bruce Wayne, which is kinda weird.

There's also the framing device of the Spectre taking an elderly preacher called Norman McCay on a ghostly trip through the book, so they're constantly in the background witnessing events unfold. This is because we're told by Spectre that Norman is to decide the fate of everything - are the superheroes to be saved or damned? It's up to Norman. Who? Why? But in the end this premise proves completely redundant as it's actually Billy Batson who decides. Shazam! Yup, another narrative dead end.

Alex Ross' artwork is great and I always enjoy it. He employs real people wearing real superhero costumes to pose as models and then paints them onto the page, giving his work that photo-realistic look that's much lauded. And it's great, except when you have people pose for each panel, you don't get a good sense of motion in the book. Every pose is static because it has to be in order for Ross to paint it. He doesn't do movement very well - and this book is full of movement! Not once does it seem like the characters are actually moving. Also, as great as his art is, I feel like there can be too much of a good thing, like eating a ton of lobster and garlic butter and making yourself feel sick. I like seeing Ross' work on covers and maybe the occasional short, but a 212 page book? The "wow" factor really diminishes by the end.

The story made no sense. Superman's story arc from retired superhero to returning hero to fascist leader to saviour again made no sense and was horrible to witness. Luthor's plan made no sense. The UN's behaviour made no sense - nuking Superman does not work, yet they do it anyway. And of course afterwards he shows up and trashes the place (it was this scene in particular that made me see where Waid got his inspiration for his "Irredeemable" character, Plutonian, from) and could easily have killed them all if he wasn't stopped and reminded of who he is. Yeah, there's one of those scenes included here. The story of the old and new superheroes fighting one another made no sense and the whole point of Armageddon was really forced. Nothing that happens in this book has any relevancy in later, or earlier, story arcs. It stands alone as an empty, pointless, uninspired and directionless disaster. Everything about this book is flawed beyond belief and beneath it all beats the cold dead heart of conservatism and a fear and hatred of modernity and changing attitudes.

It's another example of the kind of superhero book that tries to be relevant by being as "real" as possible. But the biggest problem for me was the basic requirement I have for any piece of fiction: entertainment. This book is SO BORING! Once you get past the nonsensical plot, there is nothing here that is of any interest. The characters are bland and despicable, the tone is joyless and morbid, and the plodding "story" is utterly bland and uninteresting. If nothing else, this book should be avoided due to it being so purely dull.

For comics fans who've read and enjoyed the wide range of superhero comics DC offer, coming to "Kingdom Come" is a jarring and unpleasant experience that throws up too many questions, offering no answers, and manages to create a miserable, soggy piece of storytelling with some of the most interesting characters ever created. It's bad on every level and serves as one of the nadirs of crap comics - "Kingdom Come" is to be avoided by any and all readers.


Kingdom Come TP New Edition

Best Books of 2012 Part 3


I was given a Kindle for my birthday in 2012 and as a result I keep an eye out for books that are super cheap that Amazon occasionally decrease significantly, seemingly at random, so they end up costing around 20p. “An Idiot Abroad” is one such book but I have read Karl’s other books  in the past and enjoyed them enormously.

Karl Pilkington is a Mancunian former radio producer who worked on Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s XFM radio show in 2001/02 and Ricky got so taken with him and his appearance, coupled with his somewhat uneducated, somewhat simplistic, almost childlike worldview, that he became part of his close circle of friends. Since the radio show ended, Karl has become the focus of a series of podcasts which have been incredibly successful, and launched his career in front of the camera with cameos in Ricky’s projects and a TV show for Sky, “An Idiot Abroad”.

The comedy stems from the fact that Karl doesn’t enjoy leaving his comfort zone, that is, his flat in London. Sending him into the big wide world and some truly astonishing locations, far from the food and routines he’s used to, make for some pretty enjoyable television, and the accompanying book is also very funny too. It’s easy to read, includes some excellent jokes, and readers will fall for this grouchy everyman as he grumbles his way across the globe.



“It's been a few years since I checked in with Karl. I used to love the Ricky Gervais show on XFM and even the podcasts/audiobooks that followed have been good (but not as good as the radio shows) and I loved the subsequent books "Happyslapped by a jellyfish" and "Karlology" and would recommend anyone who enjoyed "An Idiot Abroad" to check those out. So it was interesting to check back in with Karl after a break of years to see what he's been up to. Thankfully, he hasn't changed. At all.

The moaning Manc is still talking about his various body parts as if they're individual to him: "me legs get tired before the rest of me body does" and "me brain was stressing me out - it knows I don't like it so why does it do that?". And of course he's still being picked on by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, this time from afar, as they send him into the world to see the Seven Wonders and throw obstacles in his path. When he goes to Israel he's kidnapped and held captive except Karl doesn't know it's not for real, it's training. When he goes to China he's made to fight trained Shaolin experts and when he visits Mexico he's put in the ring with other Lucha Libre wrestlers. And of course wherever he goes he's challenged to eat the local delicacies involving animal parts like eyes, brains, as well as various bugs.

Karl handles it as best he can but as a reader you're always rooting for him, he's just too likeable. His no-nonsense approach to life coupled with his strange outlook and way of seeing the world are what has made him so famous, and if you're a fan (a KP nut) of his previous books and recordings, you'll enjoy seeing Karl deal with these odd situations and places in his own unique way. "An Idiot Abroad" is a great read and had me laughing throughout, the only thing missing was Monkey News. Karl really is a national treasure and should be titled the Eighth Wonder of the World.”

An Idiot Abroad: The Travel Diaries of Karl Pilkington

*

Nick Hornby wrote a column in “The Believer” magazine from McSweeney’s called “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” which was a monthly column that talked solely about books he’d been reading. He also included, at the start, two columns: “Books I’ve Read” and “Books I’ve Bought”, ingeniously showing what every bibliophile already knew, that they bought far more than they read. Hornby’s first book of collected columns was fantastically entertaining, especially as reading reviews (and writing them!) is something I enjoy and reading reviews by famous writers? That’s the jackpot, for me anyway. Also I discovered a number of excellent books from his recommendations. Which is why the second book, “Shakespeare Wrote For Money”, disappointed me so much as it felt like Hornby had tired of the format and begun to lose interest in writing the column. His picks were dull, his reviews unfunny, and it was no surprise when he packed up the column.

For a year and a half anyway, and it turns out the break did him good because “More Baths, Less Talking” came out this year and it was gravy. Full of the kind of energy and wit that has made Hornby such a popular writer, this collection reminded me why I’d enjoyed this column so much the first time around. For people who enjoy reading about people reading – yes I know it’s weird – this is a must-read.



“I was surprised to hear Nick Hornby had another book of "Stuff I've Been Reading" columns as he said the previous one, "Shakespeare Wrote for Money", would be the last of them (not a bad decision as I felt it was tired and unenthusiastic). More surprising was that when I decided to buy it, I really enjoyed reading it. It's like running into an old friend after a few years apart and it turns out you both have a lot to talk about - or in this case, one person has a lot to say and the other wants to read it.

After a nearly 1 and a half year break, the book picks up the first column in May 2010 to the last in December 2011. Hornby's humour is as sharp and effervescent as ever but more importantly his enthusiasm for reading and the books he's read is infectious. I think what made me like the book more was that this time around he picked books that weren't necessarily well known in the mainstream and consequently I wound up picking up some excellent titles from the columns, one of which I'm two thirds of the way through and enjoying the heck out of - "The Driver's Seat" by Muriel Spark.

Recommendations like "Book of Days" by Emily Fox Gordon, "Whoops!" by John Lanchester, and "Charles Dickens" by Claire Tomalin, are all books I wouldn't have heard of without him (maybe not the Tomalin) nor would I have felt the urgent need to read them. It's also enjoyable to read Hornby's reviews of books I've already read. Books like "The Anthologist" by Nicholson Baker, "The Psychopath Test" by Jon Ronson, and "Huckleberry Finn" are all reviewed well (except "Finn" which is just one word - "meh". The Believer, which publishes these columns, doesn't believe in negative reviews so Hornby has to keep the pages bile-free).

One of my favourite things to do after reading a book I liked/disliked is to go online and read what others felt about it. Sometimes it's cathartic if I hated it and sometimes I learn something about it I missed when reading it; but reading others' reviews is always enjoyable and when it's someone famous for their writing doing it, so much the better.

Hornby's ingenious format of putting two lists at the start of the column "Books I've Bought" and "Books I've Read" is still fascinating to look at from the perspective of someone who loves books as much as Hornby and buys far more than he reads.

Well, I'm glad he's back doing it. This is a fantastic read which I flew through in two sittings writing down titles to pick up and laughing at Hornby's assessments of some books as well as digs at his publishers, and I really had a great time with this book. For bibliophiles everywhere, this is a must-have.”

More Baths Less Talking: Notes from the Reading Life of a Celebrated Author Locked in Battle with Football, Family, and Time Itself

*

Christopher Hitchens’ final book is a collection of brief essays he wrote while dying from throat cancer. “Mortality” contains some excellent essays and some lesser ones, but it’s remarkable that he was able to write at all when taking into account his condition. His strength to keep going every day, doing as much as he was able that he had done in all the years past, is nothing short of admirable and his integrity in remaining his own person, meeting death with dignity, shows the enormous will of the man. It is a brief but sobering book but well worth your time.



“Most of us have had contact with cancer in our lives - we've either experienced it firsthand or know (or known) a family member or friend who has had it - and in each instance it's been horrible, an experience unlikely to provide you with much and likely to take a lot from you, if not everything. But most of us aren't Christopher Hitchens - if fact none of us are, and that's why we know who was. He was a unique voice whose essays, columns, articles, and books made the person reading them much more enriched having read them.

"Mortality" is his last book (though I'm sure further anthologies of unpublished material will appear in the years ahead) detailing his fatal encounter with esophageal cancer, from discovering it while on a book tour promoting his memoir "Hitch 22", to the final pages which are scraps of notes for future (and now forever unwritten) writings.

But it's not a sad book. Hitchens was ruthless in his approach to subjects and he is no less so when dealing with himself and "the alien" (which is how he characterises his cancer) - no sentimentality or feeling sorry for himself is allowed on the page.

He is informative, funny, and stubborn all at once when writing on the reaction among religious groups when news of his cancer was reported with some Christians instigating a "Pray for Hitch" day - a day he encourages everyone to ignore. He also reinforces his atheist position, almost aggressively, writing "What if I pulled through and the pious faction contentedly claimed that their prayers had been answered? That would somehow be irritating." As if he wanted to die to once more further his argument that there is no God! If this book shows anything it is that death and the prospect of death does not change the person, and that Hitchens remained dignified and his own person right to the end.

There are essays on coping with the cancer treatment which is almost as bad as the cancer, and a fantastic piece on Nietzsche and the etymology of the phrase "whatever doesn't kill me makes me stronger". The book is full of rich writing displaying a luminous and inquisitive mind, questioning death, the mundanity of illness, and moving from issues of existence to anecdotes of past columns such as the time he underwent waterboarding to experience how bad a torture it is (very bad as it turns out, traumatising in fact).

Also included is a foreword by Hitchen's editor at Vanity Fair Graydon Carter and a moving afterword by his wife Carol Blue. Our culture lost a brilliant mind on December 15, 2011, and "Mortality" is a fine coda to a man who lived life fearlessly and wrote some of the best reportage of the last 50 years. Christopher Hitchens remains an essential writer to read.”

Mortality

*

This book came out last year but I only got around to reading it this year. Grant Morrison, comics writer extraordinaire, writes down all he knows about superhero comics, their history, and throws in a kind of potted autobiography as well. Morrison is an amazing writer with a 30 year career in the field and an enviable list of titles under his belt, notably “All Star Superman”, “WE3”, and his current work on Batman. His writing in this book is lively, chatty, enjoyable, and informative. For a comics fan like myself, it is an excellent book to read when you want something more substantial than graphic novels to sink your reading teeth (?!) into.



 “One of the most interesting and best comics writers, Grant Morrison, has produced a chronicle of comics from their inception in the late 30s to the present day, along the way talking about superheroes and their effect on our culture as well as providing a look into his own turbulent life from quiet teen to superstar writer. "Supergods" is throughout a fascinating look at this wondrous creation, the superhero.

For me, a huge fan of comics and superhero comics, the book was great fun to look at the inauspicious beginnings of the genre, the creators Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel and Bob Kane and the oft forgotten Bill Finger, through its various incarnations through the years. Morrison goes through the book chronologically and devotes the first chapter to an extensive look at the front covers of "Action Comics #1" and "Detective Comics #27", the first appearances of Superman and Batman respectively, setting the tone of the book as an in-depth look at Morrison's two favourite characters in comics.

He divides the evolution of comics into different "ages" from the Golden Age, Silver Age, Dark Age, and Renaissance Age (which we're currently in), and I won't go into detail as to every age but suffice it to say for those who believe Morrison wasn't detailed enough, I found him more than adequately explaining the relevant heroes and writers of the time in the context of the era and its effect down the line on future writers, innovators and characters.

Morrison could quite easily have written a memoir of his own life in this book but chooses to occasionally throw in tidbits of his autobiography amidst the intricate pontificating upon superheroes. We find out about his modest childhood and his journey into comics through endless writing and drawing and sheer persistence before landing a job with 2000AD and from there to DC's "Animal Man". There are some gossipy bits thrown in like an anecdote of Glenn Fabry biting Karen Berger's ass during a party welcoming the British Invasion of writers and artists to America, as well as a glimpse into why Morrison's relationship with Marvel soured following the dissolution of "New X-Men" (it also might explain why Marvel didn't allow Morrison to use any of the covers of their comics for reproduction in this book, unlike DC who did) though Morrison's breakup with protégé Mark Millar is ignored (unlike in the documentary about Morrison "Talking with Gods" where he says if he was in a car and saw Millar on the street, he'd change course and accelerate).

Then there's the vast wealth of information scattered throughout the text like a shotgun that fires genius like buckshot onto the blank page. Morrison stayed up writing for 50 hours straight before ransacking his teenage dream diaries to get into the mindset and create the nightmarish imagery to write "Arkham Asylum", a book he wrote in 1 month. He gave to Neil Gaiman a book with a story called "The New Mother" by Lucy Lane Clifford that set him onto the path of creating "Coraline". Jim Lee is a Princeton Physics graduate. He also provides an explanation for Warren Ellis' series "Planetary" which I'd read recently, baffled - it's an abstract reckoning between "good" imagination and "bad" imagination. He also explains the even more baffling "Final Crisis" book he wrote a few years ago - it was a story of a bad story devouring a good one. Who knew?

One of the best chapters in the book is "Hollywood Smells Blood" which goes into great detail about Batman's on-screen adaptations which for me began with the Adam West TV show but Morrison goes back to 1943 when Batman had his own TV serial. This part of the book was utter hilarity and showed Morrison's strengths as a comedic writer in the description of these early serials. One of my favourite passages describing Robert Lowery's Batman of 1943: "This wrinkled costume he wore would be unable to stop a lit cigarette let alone a slug from a .45. With his pitiful fighting skills, which relied on clumsy haymaker punches and off-balance lunges, Lowery's Batman could expect a crime-fighting life span of three weeks, with a career ending abruptly the moment any half-trained yellow belt tae kwon do novice punched him in the head." (p.333)

And his teardown of Joel Schumacher's Batman films is equally hilarious.

Morrison occasionally lost me such as when he described in painstaking detail his journey to Alpha Centauri where he saw beings of another dimension and spoke with what we call Gods. He really does believe this happened and I totally respect him for it, but I feel the story loses some of its impact when he begins it by telling you he swallowed a ton of hash before the aliens stepped from the walls. Some might also criticise his views on comics such as his excellent interpretation of Alan Moore's "Watchmen" which he does not hold in the same high regard as many of his peers do - he felt it was too self-referential and knowing.

As long as this review's been, I haven't tapped the surface of the content of this book. I'll just say that any comics fan would love this book as it's written by one comics fan for others. It's full of knowledge and views on comics that are well worth reading, it feels like you're eavesdropping on the most interesting conversationalist you'll ever meet. And his writing style too is of such shockingly high quality, you'll be astonished of his vocabulary and descriptive abilities.

I was glad also to know that my favourite of Morrison's books - "All Star Superman" - is also his favourite and his anecdote of meeting the real-life Superman is also included here. He finishes the book with a powerfully inspiring message of hope and optimism that I dare anyone to feel cynical about, it's so purely expressed and beautiful. So I'll end it here, urging you the reader to pick up this book and see the superhero through Grant Morrison's eyes.

In Morrison's own words that end this book "There's only one way to find out what happens next..."”

Supergods: Our World in the Age of the Superhero

*

That’s it for my favourite non-comic books of 2012. They’re all fantastic reads and I hope I helped inform you make some interesting picks. Next blog post, and future blogs, will turn back to comics and pop culture in general. Meanwhile, pleasant reading!

Best Books of 2012 Part 2


I read my first Agatha Christie (just looking at that name surprises me) in 2012, “And Then There Were None…” which, in the ancient paperback I read, was titled something else…

But I was really surprised. It’s a whodunit that works really well, it reads very freshly and I was genuinely invested in the story of this isolated house and people getting knocked off one at a time. It had this inevitability that drove the story forward relentlessly. Anyway, I loved it and found that going back to the 40s or 50s when it was written was an exhilarating experience.



“The setup is delicious: ten strangers are lured to an island on the promise of various things, employment, fun, etc. only to find that the hosts are not there and that the large, empty house only contains the guests and a couple of servants. After dinner on the first night, a recorded voice on a record player proclaims each one of them a murderer who has escaped their crimes - but no more! And then people start dying, one by one...

I've never read an Agatha Christie novel before, thinking that they would be corny or somehow like another popular writer whose work I disliked, Ellis Peters, but I was very, very wrong. This book was published in 1939 and is labelled "thriller" and yet 80+ years later I can attest to it remaining a thrilling read.

The elements of the story: that the guests have no way of leaving the island; that they slowly realise that one of them is the deranged killer with a warped sense of justice; the nursery rhyme which tells them how they're going to die but not the order - it's all so masterfully plotted by Christie, I was barrelling through the book, devouring the chapters eager to see who would survive, who was the killer, and why.

What's also surprising is the overarching sense of dread you have when reading. I read it at night, alone, with the rain pounding the windows and I found myself more terrified reading this than I'd been in years. This isn't just an amazing thriller, it's a truly scary horror novel too. As the number of guests dwindle, the claustrophobic atmosphere is palpable and the paranoia ramped up to such an extent that you can't help but keep reading at a ever-increasing pace until the final page.

The only real critique I have is the way the final guest snuffs it, before the big reveal. It seemed a bit contrived. But I suppose it was possible for it to happen that way... a long shot, but possible.

This is one of the finest mystery thrillers I've ever read which still manages to have an enormous pull on the reader decades after being published, an astonishing feat in itself. I wish I hadn't waited so long to read a Christie novel, this one was so good. I'll definitely read more and highly recommend this to all fans of great fiction.”

And Then There Were None

*

Jumping forward a few decades and I read my second Muriel Spark novel (after “Jean Brodie”, the one everyone reads) after reading a glowing review from Nick Hornby in his third “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” column for “The Believer” (post about that book to follow shortly). Spark’s book had this dark energy to it that felt very much like the 70s but crossed over quickly into this murky netherworld where the increasingly mysterious protagonist wanders about an unnamed country, her intentions becoming more and more interesting as I read. It turned out she was looking for someone to kill her and, well, that’s a story I have to read. And it turned out to be amazing! “The Driver’s Seat” is literary horror for those who enjoyed Shirley Jackson’s brand of unsettling macabre.



“I read my only Muriel Spark book a few years ago, "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie", and while I enjoyed it, it didn't make me want to read more Spark. Then before reading this I read Nick Hornby's latest collection of "Stuff I've Been Reading" columns from The Believer magazine where he highly recommends Spark's "The Driver's Seat" and it was his one-line summation of the book that made me excited to read it - which I did in a sitting. It may be considered a spoiler but I think if more people knew what this book was about, they'd seek it out because it's such a strange and creepy novel. Here it is: an office worker called Lise loses her mind and goes on holiday abroad to be murdered. WHAT?!?!

I can honestly say I've never read a book where that was the main story. I mean, just imagine the state of mind someone must be in where they set up their own death, will it into existence and choose such a horrific way to die. Why? is the question that drives the reader's motivation through this book but it's not a book that willingly gives you answers. You have to try and understand a deeply troubled person through their erratic actions and try to come up with a solution yourself.

The tone of the book is immediately unnerving with Lise arguing with a shop assistant in a clothes store about a stainless fabric to her holiday dress; she doesn't want to hide the stains! Then you see her spotless flat and her mundane work life - 16 years in an accountant's office - and you begin to see why she desperately wants to be messy, both physically and spiritually.

From there, every encounter with a character is tinged with an aura of desperation, sadness and despair as the reader finds out Lise's fate and wonders if each character she meets - and she meets a series of odd men - is the one who kills her. The mounting unease of the novel is matched by Lise's increasingly bizarre behaviour as she wanders about the foreign city in a daze speaking in four different languages.

This novel is as unsettling as Shirley Jackson's short story "The Lottery" which has all the elements of an ordinary life until the horrific finale which completely forces you to re-examine everything that went before it. There are so many great artists which I felt this book had elements of - Hitchcock, Kafka, Shirley Jackson, Daphne Du Maurier, Patricia Highsmith. "The Driver's Seat" could be classified as horror because it's such a weird, unpleasant yet compulsively readable book that I couldn't put down - I had to know who kills her in the end and why. And having read the novel now I only have more questions rather than answers.

Most people, myself included, tend to read a writer's best known book and move on to the next great writer and their best work, and so on. I did this with Spark and "Jean Brodie" but this writer has far more to offer than a girl's grammar school, complex relationships and secrets - "The Driver's Seat" proves that Spark is a formidable talent whose nightmarish novel is a must-read for people looking for a thrilling book that still has the power to shock more than 40 years since it was published. I was disturbed by this book and I can't remember the last book that genuinely made me feel this way. "The Driver's Seat" shows a fearless writer journeying deep into the darkness of the human psyche and showing the rest of us the mysterious horror that lurks beneath. Highly recommended.”

The Driver's Seat

*

Continuing the theme of death and women novelists leads me to Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games”, specifically the first book in the trilogy. Set in a dystopian future where children fight to death for survival in an annual televised death match, Katniss Everdeen is one of these contestants and we see her overcome the barbaric futuristic society’s sick rules to become victor of her games… and perhaps something more.

The first book is definitely the best of the three books. The second is slow with some good points and the third is a rushed mess, so if you’re embarking on this series, I’d strongly suggest leaving it at book one as the story never regains the momentum it starts with. It is a surprisingly good read though, I was expecting a novel written simplistically as it was labelled “Young Adult” but it overcomes its condescending label to prove itself the equal of any adult thrillers available. I wonder if “Lord of the Flies” or “Catcher in the Rye” were published today whether it would have been marketed to the “YA” audience.




“In a dystopian future world, a plentiful society exists in a place called the Capitol which oversees 12 poverty-stricken Districts to produce specific products to maintain their charmed lives. As a way of re-affirming their dominance over the Districts (as well as provide a sadistic entertainment to the twisted rulers), they demand 2 "tributes" in the form of one boy and one girl between the ages of 12-18 to travel to the Capitol and be placed in a vast arena to survive and fight to the death. These televised trials are called "The Hunger Games". This is the story of a 16 year old girl called Katniss Everdeen from District 12 who is one of the chosen.

I heard about this book a few years ago in Stephen King's Entertainment Weekly column but I decided not to read it as it was labelled "Young Adult" (YA) (I'm not a teenager) and because it seemed like a knockoff "Battle Royale", a superb Japanese film I'd seen in 2000 which has a very similar premise. Having read the book, in hindsight both of these reasons were ridiculous. The YA label is arbitrary at best and, reading it, I couldn't understand why this book is considered to be a teen book and not one for adults. Maybe the lack of swearing, sex, and overly descriptive violent scenes?

And the "Battle Royale" argument (which seems to bother a number of reviewers), well was that the first book to feature kids on an island killing each other? Has no-one read "Lord of the Flies"? Shirley Jackson wrote maybe the best haunted house novel with "The Haunting of Hill House" - does that mean Richard Matheson's "Hell House" or Stephen King's "The Shining" are invalid because they followed in her wake? Or Yevgeny Zamyatin's "We" preceded both Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" and George Orwell's "Nineteen Eighty-Four", so do we discount Huxley and Orwell entirely? Just because a concept has been done before, doesn't mean it can't be done again - and done better at that.

"The Hunger Games" is an exceptionally thrilling read. Suzanne Collins has crafted a compelling portrait of a world unrecognisable to our own, both futuristic and historic at varying times, but the best part of the book is, as it should be, the Games itself. Once Katniss enters the arena with the 23 other teens, I couldn't stop reading and finished the book on my second sitting, it was that exhilarating to read. Her battle to survive both on the basic level of eating and drinking what she could find, while escaping her would-be murderers, was a unique reading experience that I've never come across before and Collins does a fantastic writing job throughout. The survival part of the book echoed another excellent series of YA books I read when I was a teenager, Gary Paulsen's "Hatchet" books (highly recommended by the way), while the many Roman references made it seem like an extended teen "Gladiator".

I won't give away anything about the story here but suffice it to say that there are betrayals and killings that you don't see coming, and constant suspense throughout (even though you know Katniss makes it). Like I say, I don't know why this isn't considered an adult book but any adults reading this review should give this novel a go, ignore the YA label, it's very well written, very well-conceived, and an amazing action-thriller with elements of sci-fi thrown in. Excellent fun, I bought the other two books immediately after finishing this and can't wait to find out how this series continues.”

The Hunger Games

*

The third and final part of my books of the year is to follow. It’ll focus on the best non-fiction of 2012.