Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Dark Horizons #53

Dark Horizons 53, produced by us for the British Fantasy Society, contains nine short stories of fantasy, horror and a smidgen of science fiction, arranged very roughly in chronological order; from days of yore to near-future apocalypses:

  • In a Shining Hall, by Ian Hunter
  • Sir Cai, the Shining Knight, by Andrew Knighton
  • The Eagle and Child, by Alison J. Littlewood
  • The Tyranny of Thangrind the Cruel, by David Tallerman
  • The Boy in the Andersens’ House, by Peter Van Belle
  • Timeless, by Paul Campbell
  • Fleet, by Rafe McGregor
  • Beholders, by Allen Ashley
  • A Jar of Pickled Nightmares, by Richard Hudson

Interspersed among the stories are eight poems:

  • November Dusk, Star Streams, Savage Spires and The Sunken City by Michael Fantina
  • Shapechanger, by J.S.Watts
  • Kali’s Kiss, by Karl Bell
  • The Inhabited Man, by Douglas Thompson
  • A Little Piece of Your Life, by Ian Hunter

Then there's an article taken from a forthcoming book on Terry Pratchett, plus an interview with the book’s author, Lawrence Watt-Evans. Later in the issue, the BFSQ&A section makes its first appearance, covering various burning questions of the day, such as: Is the BFS biased towards horror? Who reads Margit Sandemo? Why join the BFS? And why make a fan film? The issue comes to a triumphant close with our updated submission guidelines, the advertising prices, and a list of BFS email addresses!

Jim Fuess provides the cover art for this issue, while six other wonderful and generous artists allowed the use of their work to illustrate the issue’s fiction: Lara Bandilla, Dominic Harman, Steve Cartwright, Michelle Blessemaille, Paul Campion and Alfred R. Klosterman.

Monday, 4 August 2008

Star Wars Omnibus: X-Wing Rogue Squadron Vol. 1, Haden Blackman et al

Star Wars Omnibus: X-Wing Rogue Squadron, Vol. 1The first two stories here, “Rogue Leader” and “The Rebel Opposition”, are a bit average. It was a bit of a struggle to get through them. The third, though, “The Phantom Affair”, is a huge improvement in every regard – plot, script, art, lettering, the works! All those things combine to leave it looking more like a French album than a mid-nineties Dark Horse comic.

One of the things for which I was most grateful in the third story was that it finally became possible to distinguish between the human members of the team, by both their dialogue and their looks.

If I was reviewing “The Phantom Affair” alone I would have given it four stars out of five, while “Rogue Leader” and “The Rebel Opposition” would have got two.

Finally, a curse on whoever decided to include the Rogue Squadron Handbook at the back of this volume. If it had contained spoilers for this book, that would have been bad enough, but it’s full of spoilers for future volumes too (e.g. an ally from this book is included in the villains section). So watch out for that – or rather don’t watch out for it, keep your eyes averted!

Star Wars Omnibus: X-Wing Rogue Squadron Vol. 1, Haden Blackman et al, Dark Horse, tpb, 296pp.

Modesty Blaise: Mister Sun, Peter O’Donnell et al

Modesty Blaise: Mister Sun (Modesty Blaise (Graphic Novels))This book collects three stories: “Mister Sun”, “The Mind of Mrs Drake” and “Uncle Happy”. All three are highly enjoyable action thrillers, though for me “The Mind of Mrs Drake” was compromised somewhat by the title character being an actual psychic. (Moments like that always make me think of Magnum meeting a ghost, or of the JAG lawyer who had premonitions.) But there was a lot of it about in the 1960s, and the character is treated seriously. I suppose it’s not much of a departure from Willie Garvin’s tingling ears of trouble. Mister Sun is a drug lord with whom Modesty tangles; the trail takes her to wartime Vietnam. Uncle Happy is a philanthropist who raises Modesty’s suspicions by staring at her current lover in a Vegas bar.

What’s most striking about these stories is how easily they flow from one strip to the next. Looking at each strip in isolation, you can see how a first-time reader could follow them, but there’s none of the stop-start repetition that makes, say, the old Dan Dare comics so painful to read in bulk.

Now if only I could read one of these books without “Modesty Blaise, Modesty plays, Modesty Blaise, Modesty plays!” going round and round in my head… Thank you Sparks!

Modesty Blaise: Mister Sun, Peter O’Donnell et al, Titan Books, tpb, 112pp.

DC Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore

DC Universe: The Stories of Alan MooreAny book that contains “Whatever Happened to the Man of Steel?” has to get five stars, straight off the bat. It’s one of the greatest comics ever written, and the finest send-off a character could have (it relates the final story of the original Superman, prior to the John Byrne reboot). Since this also includes “For the Man Who Has Everything” and The Killing Joke, this is one of those times when five stars aren’t nearly enough.

The rest of the contents may not reach those high standards, but still, any fan of Alan Moore’s work will count themselves lucky to find them so conveniently gathered together. The Green Lantern and Omega Men short stories are DC-branded Futureshocks. The Green Arrow and Vigilante stories won’t change your life, but better to find that out here rather than after paying over the odds for the back issues.

DC Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore, Alan Moore, DC Comics, tpb, 304pp.

Battle of the Planets: Trial By Fire, Alex Ross et al

Battle of the Planets: Trial by FireIt says a lot about this book that while the artists of each poster page and alternative cover are carefully noted, nowhere is anyone credited as the writer. Five names are listed on the cover, including Alex Ross (only credited for covers inside), Munier Sharrieff and Dreamer Design (neither credited at all inside). Inside each issue is credited to Wilson Tortosa, Rhyse Yorke and Shane Law, with Edwin David also credited for issue one, though there’s no sign what precise role any of them played.

Basically, it’s a bit of a pudding.

To be honest, I only started to read this because it was hanging around the house and I was trying to whip through a few books quickly to get my number of unread books down a bit. But within a few short pages I was forcefully reminded just how much I loved this cartoon when it was first on. I don’t think we ever got Speed Racer in the UK, or Robotech, or Astro Boy, but we got Battle of the Planets, and it was the most exciting thing I’d ever seen. Even now I find the concept of the fiery Phoenix illogically thrilling.

This was an reasonably enjoyable start to a series. Three-issue trade paperbacks are so short as to be rather pointless, but it got things off to a decent start. The figure work isn’t always perfect, but the unnamed writers seem to have a good handle on the characters. No sign of 7-Zark-7 yet, but I hope he’ll turn up eventually.

Battle of the Planets: Trial By Fire, Alex Ross et al, Titan, tpb, 80pp.

Aliens Omnibus, Vol. 1, Mark Verheiden et al

Aliens Omnibus, Vol. 1These stories follow on from the second film, Aliens. The first two stories, Outbreak and Nightmare Asylum, tell the ongoing adventures of Newt and Hicks, while Ripley turns up for the third main story, Female War.

Unfortunately, once Alien 3 was released further adventures for Newt and Hicks were obviously out of the question. So Dark Horse decided to “fix” the problem by rereleasing the books and changing the names of the protagonists to Billie and Wilks, who just happened to have had all the same adventures as Newt and Hicks – unfortunately this volume collects those edited versions.

It’s a very clumsy solution, and it creates a feeling of unreality throughout the book, because it’s always at the back of your mind that the characters are not really who they say they are – not least when they meet up with Ripley and she talks about their special bond! I realise that Dark Horse have to go with the wishes of the licensors, but as a reader I can’t help thinking it wasn’t really worth all that trouble just to keep Alien 3 in continuity.

The stories themselves are good, giving us what we always expected from the Aliens sequels and only just about got at the end of the fourth – the aliens arriving on Earth. The results are as devastating as might be expected.

One strange thing about the aliens in the comics is that they are demonstrated to commmunicate telepathically, even across interstellar distances. I don’t think that’s something you can see in the movies, but it does give the writers the opportunity to develop plotlines more complex than “man finds bug, bug stomps man”.

Lastly, one caption in the book may be of interest to some critics of AVP2: “We didn’t see the underlying pattern behind their evolutionary process – the way every facet of their existence was geared toward propagation. The queens matured at whatever rate their survival dictated.” That’s why the aliens in AVP2 don’t hang about inside their hosts – there isn’t time.

Aliens Omnibus Volume 1, Mark Verheiden et al, Dark Horse, tpb, 384pp.

Thorns, Robert Silverberg

ThornsNew bands, stuck on a promotional treadmill after the release of their first album, often look back to the way the Beatles would release a couple of albums a year in the 1960s. (I admire the Arctic Monkeys for getting their second album out so quickly, where other bands have been prevented from doing so.) How much more stunning is it to look at the examples of these science fiction writers of the same period, who would often release four or five books a year, a remarkable achievement, even allowing for some of them being reprints of earlier magazine work? In 1967 (according to Science Fiction: the Illustrated Encyclopedia), as well as Thorns (my copy is a later reprint), Silverberg put out The Gate of Worlds, Those Who Watch, To Open the Sky, The Time-Hoppers and Planet of Death. I don’t know if current-day authors, working away at huge trilogies (and receiving much better payment than their predecessors did, to be fair to their masters), chafe at the bit as much as bands do, but it’s interesting to think of what might have resulted from some of them writing twelve different short novels, instead of just the one trilogy. One thing’s for sure, lazy readers like me would have read more of their work.

So, another review of an old book from me – this might be the way of the immediate future, since I’ve vowed to buy no new books as long as I own more than 1,000 unread books! (I have about 160 to go.)

As with Brian Aldiss and J.G. Ballard, I found Robert Silverberg’s books a bit of a struggle as a teenager. I’m not disappointed about that, because if I’d read virtually all their books by the time I was 25, as happened with Asimov, Heinlein, Moorcook, Jack Vance and so on, I would have nothing left to read now: I might even have to read new books! What made the books difficult back then was mainly their seriousness: Moorcock is as experimental as Silverberg, Aldiss or Ballard, often more so, but there are always gags in there. The closest Silverberg’s 1960s and 1970s novels (or at least the ones I’ve read so far) come to being funny is when they evoke a wry half-smile at the awfulness of having to be a human and live among other humans – as symbolised in this book by a surgically-altered human living among us. This book is grim, serious, and reminds you of the worst things about yourself – and, yet, in spite of that, it has a sweet, romantic centre. It hardly needs to be said that, as a book by Robert Silverberg from 1967, at a time when, as far as I can see, you could make a serious argument that he was one of the best novelists working in the English language, this is a brilliant book, but I will say it anyway.

Thorns, Robert Silverberg, NEL, pb, 160pp (1977).

The Cosmic Ordering Service, Barbel Mohr

Possibly the most gleefully stupid book I’ve ever read in my life. Full of the utmost idiocy, the book’s entire content simply adds up to this: good things will happen if you hope for them. It’s really just a book on praying adapted for tastes of new age readers. Instead of praying to some god when you’re sad, you should just pray to the universe. Because, you know, the universe cares about you. Forget that on a universal scale you are indistinguishable from the bacteria that live inside your gut: the universe cares about what you want and will help you get it.

The chapter on how this works is very imprecise. Apparently it’s like going down the stairs instead of taking the lift and meeting a delivery man you would otherwise have missed. How that relates to the universe getting you the boyfriend you want is not clear. Who sent you the cosmic boyfriend parcel? Who received your boyfriend order? It’s clear that it’s just a god in disguise.

At least this god has the benefit of not wanting anything in return: no need for following any of those silly rules other religions have, like not working on Saturdays, or not eating pork, or not eating cows, or not coveting your neighbour’s wife. All this great mail order god requires is that you order more, more, more! Who can’t dig a religion like that? Why should religion be a chore? After all, there’s a lot of competition out there – if you’re going to go to all the trouble of believing in one of these fellows, the least they can do is give you everything you want!

Hilariously, towards the end the author can’t even be bothered to finish writing the book, and just prints her notes in bullet form!

The sources are laughable – for example entire pages of those notes are reproduced from three books by someone who wrote a letter to his god asking lots of questions and then found that – oooh! – his pen didn’t stop writing at the end of the letter and wrote all the answers…

Her mention of Uri Geller is also delectably stupid. She begins by saying that she thought his spoon-bending was an optical illusion, then says that her friends corrected her. Aha, I thought, finally a bit of sense in this most daft of books, but no: her friends informed her that he simply persuades the atoms of the spoon to disperse with the power of his mind. Good grief! There’s nothing mystical about spoon-bending. It’s a magic trick: instructions on how to do it were published in an Israeli journal of magic in the 1960s!

You would think that having written a book about one crazy idea, the author would stick to that one thing, rather than chucking in more foolishness, but of course not: cosmic ordering can also help you to contact the dead. She tells us sagely that there is “increasing evidence” for the existence of a spirit world – oddly she neglects to provide any footnotes pointing us in the direction of this evidence.

Here’s the real evidence: James Randi has offered a million dollars for anyone demonstrating any supernatural abilities, such as contacting the dead. No one has claimed that money. So we must conclude that anyone who openly claims to be a psychic, medium etc is a fraud. Even if they don’t need the money themselves, there are many deserving charities to which they could donate it. (If there are actual psychics in the world, they must be keeping themselves a secret. That would be quite understandable!)

If you’ve read Michael Shermer’s Why People Believe Weird Things, you’ll be pleased to see gathered together in one book almost every problem identified in his chapter How Thinking Goes Wrong. In particular, scientific language does not make a science; bold statements do not make claims true; rumours do not equal reality; and, especially, after-the-fact reasoning and coincidence.

This book will appeal to the slow-witted, the extremely gullible, and anyone who wants to be told, you will get everything you want, all you have to do is hope – and buy this ridiculous book.

With the Office of Fair Trading taking long-overdue action against so-called psychics, hopefully it’ll only be a matter of time until books like this are prevented from having “self-help” printed on the back, and are removed to a supernatural shelf, where their pernicious influence will only affect those who actively search them out, rather than preying on vulnerable people looking for help.

The Cosmic Ordering Service, Barbel Mohr, Hodder & Stoughton, pb, 112pp.

The Paladin Mandates, Mike Chinn

Damian Paladin is something of a cross between Blackhawk and John Constantine, and the six stories in this book detail some of his adventures in 1930s New York and LA.

As a Biggles fan, I was rather disappointed by how little flying there is in the book, but that’s not to say the stories aren’t entertaining regardless. The supernatural elements are handled well, though the surprising developments in the final tale seem to come out of left field. Talking of odd developments, the way that Leigh decides at the end of the first story to set this flyboy and ghost hunter up as a restauranteur also seemed quite peculiar. But that’s incidental to the main thrust of the stories, which are exciting, suspenseful and atmospheric.

The illustrations by Bob Covington are exceptionally good, but unfortunately each seems to be slightly misplaced, with the result that they often give away unexpected developments in the stories.

The Paladin Mandates, Mike Chinn, Alchemy, pb, 96pp (1998).

Showcase Presents Teen Titans, Vol. 1, Bob Haney et al

Showcase Presents: Teen Titans, Vol. 1I’m tempted to say that these were the most diabolically bad comics I’ve ever read, but I’ve a feeling that in a different mood, or maybe just in smaller quantities, I might have thought that they were the best! In context they make sense: this is a teenage version of the Batman tv show, with all the corny dialogue and goofy villains that that would make you expect. Out of context it’s appalling stuff: the dialogue is excruciating, the villains idiotic, and the whole thing intensely embarrassing.

Unless you’re in the mood for a comic written by Austin Powers, I’d give this a miss. There’s a change of writers with issue 18, the last in the book. It’s a rather mundane issue, but it’s a relief after the previous 500 pages of hipness and grooviness. The book does have one redeeming feature: the Santa minidress that “Wonder Chick” wears in issue 13, “A Christmas Happening”. In fact, having said that, Nick Cardy’s art throughout is rather lovely.

Showcase Presents Teen Titans, Volume 1, Bob Haney et al, DC, tpb, 528pp.

McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern #13, ed. Chris Ware

McSweeney's Issue 13 (Mcsweeney's Quarterly Concern)A stunning book, created and produced with immense skill and care. If, towards the end, I started to get a bit tired of reading about failed and struggling relationships, that’s probably just because I read the book out of order and left those ones till the end. The book only deals with one narrow area of comics – independents created by writer/artists – but since that’s an area that’s often hard to notice behind the glare and pizazz of mainstream comics that’s easy to forgive.

McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern #13, ed. Chris Ware, McSweeney’s, hb, 264pp.

Southland Tales

Southland TalesThis is a hard film to review, because I can’t be sure whether I actually saw it. Surely something so strange and out of the ordinary must have been a dream? But then I felt the same way about Donnie Darko, by the same director, and I’ve heard other people talking about that movie, so I think that there’s a good chance that these films really do exist – however unlikely that seems.

Released in the cinema this was a colossal flop. Watching it, it’s easy to see why. It’s weird, confusing and sprawling. The funny thing is, it could easily have been a huge success. The Fifth Element and Total Recall show that you can get away with a lot of weirdness if you include a bit of fighting. And strange as Southland Tales is, with its psychics and porn stars and roller skates, there’s nothing here as weird as Chris Tucker in The Fifth Element!

In this movie The Rock is almost as brave in his performance as Tucker was in The Fifth Element (though not quite as successful), but if he’d been given the opportunity to fight his way through a handful of enemies in every other scene this film might well have sneaked its way into being a hit.

A lot of people have been totally dumbfounded by the tone of Southland Tales, but as you can see from the other reviews in this issue, I read a lot of comics, and so I was well set up to “get” it. So would anyone who’s read a bit of Howard Chaykin: the sex, the media, the rebels, the caricatures and the oppression – it’s all here. If you’ve ever wondered what an American Flagg! movie might look like, this is a good place to start.

Some consider the film to be badly cast, but I don’t agree. For starters, anything with Sarah Michelle Gellar in is well cast, as far as I’m concerned. She’s a very underrated actor, and I’m baffled by the fact that she doesn’t get cast in romantic comedies, when she seems perfectly suited to them. You just have to look at how people invested in Buffy’s relationships with Angel and Spike. Anyway, gushing aside…

As for the rest of the cast, I’ll get at least halfway through any Christopher Lambert film without giving up, so that carried me far enough into this movie to find my feet. Nice also to see some of my SNL favourites in the movie: Cheri Oteri and the brilliant Amy Poehler. Justin Timberlake brings the uncanny focus of the former child star to his performance as a traumatised soldier, and Seann William Scott leaves American Pie far, far behind. On the basis of this he could be well placed in a few years to fill the shoes of Bruce Willis. He wears a shaved head very well.

I haven’t said much about the plot, because I don’t want to give anything away. So I’ll end the review by saying this: everyone says it’s an appalling mess. If you watch the movie with that in mind, you might be surprised by much you enjoy it.

Southland Tales, Richard Kelly (dir.), US, 145 mins.