Wednesday 7 August 2019

BFA Shadow Juror: Comics and Graphic Novels

I've finished reading the items nominated for the British Fantasy Award 2019 for comics and graphic novels, and thought about how I would rate and rank them, if I were on the jury for this category.

The usual disclaimer: this is entirely unofficial and purely for fun. I have no involvement in the real awards this year, other than as a member of the society and thus a voter. I have no insight into what the current juries are saying, the criteria they will apply or the methods by which they will come to their decisions.

Also worth saying that if I were actually on the jury, I'd be talking to people who had also read the books and so I would go into more detail with regard to specific events, but here I want to avoid spoilers.

That said, here are my thoughts:

100 Demon Dialogues, by Lucy Bellwood. Enjoyable, for the ten minutes it takes to read it: rather than a comic or graphic novel, it's a book of single-panel cartoons, with no sequential storytelling, other than that each individual cartoon takes place on a different day. And it only barely counts as fantasy: it's an apparently autobiographical book where the demons are a metaphor for the author's more downbeat thoughts. There's nothing to suggest that they are actually real, that the protagonist is living in a fantastical world any different from ours. So although I thought it was good, perspicacious and wise, it's a bit surprising that it made the shortlist. Plus, it was first published in November 2017, according to its copyright page, so that makes it ineligible. My rating: three stars. To-win rating: 0/10

The Prisoner, by Robert Malan, illustrations by John Cockshaw. A guard interrogates an odd prisoner over thirty thousand words of miserable prose. Art is used to illustrate a few of his dreams. It would be ludicrous to call this a comic or a graphic novel, and downright offensive to vote for it as the best one of the year. From the suggestions list, it looks as if the publisher (or a supporter) submitted this for both the novella category and the comics category at the same time. It didn't make the novella shortlist, and it definitely shouldn't have made this one. It's not a comic, it's not very fantastical (what few fantasy elements there are could be explained away by the influence of drugs), and it's not terribly good. My rating: two stars. To-win rating: 0/10

Widdershins, Vol. 7: Curtain Call, by Kate Ashwin. Seems to begin in the middle of a story, with a large cast of rather too similar-looking characters dashing about the town of Widdershins, trying to catch the deadly sins. Inoffensive and pleasant, but a bit out of its depth here. Quite odd to see a book on the shortlist which is only available to buy from the author's own website. Probably much more enjoyable for people who have read the previous six volumes. To a new reader it feels like a lot of running around, all busy work without a lot of depth. My rating: three stars. To-win rating: 3/10

Saga, Vol. 9, by Fiona Staples and Brian K. Vaughan. About a family of people from both sides of an interplanetary war. It's usually hard to say much about this comic without giving away lots of spoilers for previous volumes, but in this one, basically, everyone waits for a news story to be published. I loved this comic when it began. Now it's not so much like it's gone off the boil, it's more like someone switched off the kettle. Art is still terrific, but I can only imagine that inertia is what's kept it on the shortlist for another year. My rating: three stars. To-win rating: 4/10

B.P.R.D. Hell on Earth, Vol. 1, by Mike Mignola and chums. After Hellboy got fed up of working with the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Development, he went on his way alone while his former colleagues (Abe Sapien, Roger the homunculus, firestarter Liz Sherman and ectoplasmic spiritualist Johann Kraus) spun off into their own comic, which rather like Xena ended up being even more epic than the original. This book sees them dealing with the aftermath of the Plague of Frogs storyline, and a proliferation of new monsters. Guy Davis's artwork is especially great. As with Hellboy, there were several more volumes of this out last year, all of them eligible and equally good. My rating: five stars. To-win rating: 9/10

Hellboy: The Complete Short Stories, Vol. 1, by Mike Mignola and chums. The collected work of one of comics' greatest geniuses. I considered, for a very brief moment, whether to rate this lower because of its contents having been previously published in other books, but that seemed unfair when the British Fantasy Awards didn't have a comics award at all when most of these stories were first published, or even when they were first published in books. In any case, new collections of previously published material are eligible for this award, and at least some of the other nominated works in this category could have been nominated for previous publications too. So although it's an omnibus, it's not a second bite of the cherry. Artistically, creatively, this and B.P.R.D. tower over the other nominees. It'll be a surprise if I read anything better in any of the categories. What's more, there were I think five more omnibus volumes of Hellboy out in 2018, all of them fantastic, all of them better than the rest of this shortlist. My rating: five stars. To-win rating: 10/10

Will that book win the award? It'll be a massive shock if Mike Mignola doesn't win the award for one book or the other. My bet is on HellboySaga is the only other serious contender, but it would be a surprise to see something so far off its peak win against the definitive editions of two of the greatest fantasy comics of all time. And Mike Mignola is due a win in this category: his combination of fantasy, horror and science fiction is as BFS-orientated as it is possible to be! But surprises do happen. After all, two of these books were added as egregious omissions (unless there was a draw after the members voted and more than four books went through): fair enough if they were Hellboy or B.P.R.D., but a jury that picked any of the others as egregious omissions might well choose an unexpected winner.

Next: Not sure which will be the next shortlist I finish. I'm currently reading one of the collections and one of the horror novels, both good so far.

Monday 5 August 2019

Crawl | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Quarter-sized brains and close quarters: gator flick swamped with suspense

Monster films sometimes suffer from several maladies: a too-large cast of players, lack of character depth, bad acting, horrible dialogue, and an attempt to mask these shortcomings with elaborate settings.

Crawl, directed by Alexandre Aja, deviates from each of these to hatch a creature feature that not only keeps the viewer on edge, but also goes beneath the surface by exploring a strained father/daughter relationship.

Hurricane Wendy intensifies its attack along the Florida coast. Collegiate competitive swimmer Haley (Kaya Scodelario) and her father Dave (Barry Pepper) get trapped in the crawl space beneath their family’s former home. Massive alligators wait to tear them limb from limb. Attempts to escape get thwarted. Jump scares mount. Protagonists take a major beating. Water rises. Tension mounts. No matter what your bladder tells you, you can’t walk away.

The film’s strengths lie in its minimal cast (i.e. two main characters) and its confined setting, which, during breaks in the action, enable exploration of Haley’s childhood—perhaps Dave pushed too hard to advance his daughter’s swimming career. Both Scodelario and Pepper convincingly convey the emotional and physical pain they confront . . . and there’s no shortage of physical pain in this one.

Dave points out that Haley is an “apex predator” and that her swimming limitations stem not from physical inadequacies, but rather from mental blocks. The calamity in which they find themselves will repeatedly put to the test Haley’s ability to swim past her fears—it’s no coincidence that she’s a member of the University of Florida’s Gators swim team.

Forget that the alligators in this film are way too big. Ignore that creatures with quarter-sized brains make coordinated attacks. Crawl delivers enough conflict and suspense to make it a satisfying monster movie.—Douglas J. Ogurek ****

BFA Shadow Juror: Novellas

I thought it might be fun this summer to read as many of the British Fantasy Award nominees as I could, as a kind of one-man shadow jury. That is, reading the nominees that the actual jurors do and applying the same criteria to them that I would if I were on the jury, but posting my (spoiler-free) thoughts here for people to read instead of keeping them secret.

Last time I did something similar was with the best novel category back in 2009, and the surprise then was how few of the nominees featured any fantasy at all, let alone being what anyone would call fantasy novels. One was a London detective novel, and another was a historical novel about Vincent Van Gogh, both by authors with strong ties to the BFS and FantasyCon.

BFA juries use a lot of different methods to come to their decisions: the awards constitution doesn't set out a specific way. Here I'll use one that consistently seems to work well, where each member (after a group discussion of the nominees) rates each out of ten for how much they want it to win the award, taking everything into account.

"Everything" would include how good the item is, of course, but also whether the nominee fits the category (e.g. is an item nominated for best magazine actually a magazine? is a publisher nominated for indie press actually independent?) and whether it is fantasy, given that these are fantasy awards.

The BFS takes a wide view of fantasy, taking in science fantasy, weird fantasy, dark fantasy, literary fantasy, and so on. Fantasy, science fiction and horror get specific mentions in the society's constitution, which explains why the latter two show up in the nominees more often than you might expect for a fantasy award.

For me, certain types of horror count as fantasy, but others don't. Friday the 13th (last few minutes aside): not fantasy, because the killer is human. Halloween: fantasy, because Michael Myers is said to have no soul (and hence also I guess lives in a world where souls are real). I would regard aliens, ghosts, demons, elves, gods etc as fantastical elements.

Just in case a disclaimer is needed: this is entirely unofficial and purely for fun. I have no involvement in the real awards this year, other than as a member of the society and hence a voter. I have no insight into what the current juries are saying, the criteria they will apply or the way that they will come to their decisions.

Anyway, I've started off by reading the nominees for best novella. Here are my thoughts on how I would vote if I were on that jury:

The Last Temptation of Dr Valentine, by John Llewellyn Probert. The highly entertaining story of a serial killer with a flair for the cinematic, and the people trying to catch him. I loved its wit and its structure: a chapter will often act as a macabre short story focused on a particular victim. I enjoyed this as much as any of the other books on the shortlist: it was a pure, over-the-top audience pleaser. And I'll definitely be going back to read the first two Dr Valentine stories. But this is a fantasy award and this isn't a fantasy story. It's about a serial killer who adopts unusual methods; there are no fantastical elements at all. So for me this wouldn't be in the running. Also, the ebook version seems to be about 45,000 words long, and this category is for stories up to 40,000 words, so unless the initial print version was much shorter I don't think it's eligible. My rating: three stars. To-win rating: 0/10

Binti: The Night Masquerade, by Nnedi Okorafor. Third adventure of the girl who leaves her home in Africa to attend a university on another planet, and then comes back again with an alien friend. It's just as good as the others. I'll keep reading these as long as the author keeps writing them. I would have given this quite a high rating, because although it might be a bit impenetrable for new readers it's full of ideas and very good. But by my reckoning it's over 47,000 words long, so it's ineligible for this category. Blame people like me who voted for it in the wrong category without checking the word count. My rating: four stars. To-win rating: 0/10

Breakwater, by Simon Bestwick. Kind of an unofficial sequel to The Kraken Wakes, this very short novella scrapes into this category by a couple of hundred words, and feels very slight compared to the rest. Two women try to escape an undersea base following the latest attack by an unseen ocean species, while taking the time to comment on each other's bottoms, e.g. "Move that sexy bum of yours, Doc." It's an old-fashioned way of writing about women given a pseudo-progressive spin by having another woman say it. This isn't really good enough to be on an awards shortlist, but at least it's eligible. My rating: two stars. To-win rating: 1/10

The Only Harmless Great Thing, by Brooke Bolander. Elephants are more intelligent than in our world, and were made to work with radioactive materials. This was the second novella I've read this year that presents terrorists attacking a civilian target as righteous and justified. The idea of more intelligent elephants is interesting (and can also be found in Binti: The Night Masquerade), and the prose is good, but there's very little distance between where the story begins and where it ends, and a big part of it is driven by an idea that makes very little sense: to make elephants glow when they are near radiation, to warn future generations of humans to stay away. My rating: two stars. To-win rating: 3/10

The Tea Master and the Detective, by Aliette de Bodard. Sherlock Holmes and Watson recast in the far future as Long Chau and The Shadow's Child (the mind of a spaceship), team up for the first time to investigate a corpse found in the deep spaces. It's very good, though the mystery takes a back seat to the origin story of the partnership. I hadn't realised that the same author's In the Vanishers' Palace was also from 2018 when voting. This is good, and I'd be very happy to see it win, but that would have been an even stronger contender, being much more fantastical. My rating: three stars. To-win rating: 6/10

The Land of Somewhere Safe, by Hal Duncan. On a shortlist with four science fiction books and one horror novel, it's good that there is at least one outright fantasy novella. A boy and girl shipped out from London during World War II get involved in the adventures of a gang of eternal, archetypal urchins, mashing up Peter Pan, Narnia, the slippery slide from the Magic Faraway Tree and lots of other bits and bobs from children's literature. This author's Susurrus on Mars was my absolute favourite of all the novellas I read in the course of judging this category for real last year, but it didn't make the final shortlist. I'm glad this one did. But while the story is full of adventure and scrapes, derring-do and ideas, it's not an easy read, thanks to being told by one of the urchins, with a plethora of slang, phonetic spellings and neologisms. I thought it was worth the effort. I also thought it was the best of the novellas, and the one I would most want to win. My rating: four stars. To-win rating: 8/10

Will that book win the award? I don't know - bear in mind that even if I were on the jury, I would be just one person among five, and to win a book needs some degree of support from all or most of the jurors, and the narrative style of that one might put some people off. A previous Dr Valentine book won the award so that would clearly be in with a shout if it were eligible. I think my bet would be on The Tea Master and the Detective, but since two of the books on the shortlist seem to be ineligible we might well see two new novellas thrown into the mix before the jury makes its final decision.

Next up: comics and graphic novels!

Saturday 3 August 2019

The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture by Glen Weldon | review by Stephen Theaker

Glen Weldon is a respected writer on books and comic books for NPR, the American equivalent of Radio 4, and a panellist on their excellent weekly podcast, Pop Culture Happy Hour, where his enthusiastically lugubrious voice, ad hoc taxonomies, and ever-readiness with an overarching theory make his contributions always entertaining. Though this sadly isn't a review of the audiobook edition, his distinctive voice can still be heard in every sentence, making this book (Simon & Schuster, hb 336pp, £16.99) a real pleasure from start to finish. Literally to the finish, since the bibliography is annotated with comments from him, and because he's a very interesting chap those comments are very interesting too.

The book is dedicated to Bill Finger, the original Batman writer, and it does a great deal to show how important his contributions to the character were. Even those who have read Batman books by the dozen may be surprised to learn that Bob Kane, “creator” of the Bat-Man, did so by tracing an Alex Raymond drawing of Flash Gordon on a rope swing, colouring his outfit red and blue, and giving him a domino mask. Milton “Bill” Finger was a quiet kid who wrote the scripts, and none of Bob Kane's editors even knew he existed, but Weldon tells us that Finger suggested the ears, the cape, the gloves and the colour scheme.

The dark knight's lack of regard for human life in his latest cinematic outing, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – the result, perhaps, of a death in the family – has provoked much controversy, but it's worth remembering that this is a guy who even at his jolliest still punches and kicks a number of people very hard in the face every night. Chances are, that would be enough to rack up quite the body count even without guns mounted on the Batmobile.

From Weldon we learn how little that violence conflicts with the character's early days: in his first year he killed twenty-four men, two vampires, a pack of werewolves and several giant mutants. Weldon argues that it's to this “grim, violent proto-Batman” that Denny O'Neil returned in 1970, establishing that as the “real” Batman once the swinging sixties were over: making the loner, badass Batman the default inspiration for later retellings by Frank Miller, Tim Burton, Christopher Nolan and Grant Morrison.

This isn't a book that trundles along with the critical orthodoxy; it has its own ideas at every turn. Apparently the Batman tv series was not well-liked among American fans, despised even, which may be a surprise to those of us brought up to think of it as a bona fide television classic. But this book sticks up for it, and identifies the neverending (and not so positive) effects of the ensuing backlash, which even now has barely petered out. When Weldon talks about Dr Fredric Wertham and his crusade against comics, readers may be shocked to see him say that, at least with regard to Batman, “The guy had a point.”

Being gay, the young Glen Weldon didn't just notice the “subtle atmosphere of homoeroticism” in the comic, he rather enjoyed it. Of course he notes how Wertham manipulated and misrepresented the evidence (for example deleting statements that the young men were much more strongly aroused by Tarzan in his loincloth and Marvel's Sub-Mariner in his skimpy swim trunks), but also praises how passionate and progressive he was in calling out racist and sexist stereotypes.

What Weldon really tries to get at is why Batman works. Why he appeals to nerds and why he is popular with normals (to use his words for those groups), why virtually all his films are huge financial successes, why so many of the comics, games and cartoons work so well, whatever the mood, whatever the style, from the sublime Batman: the Animated Series, which Weldon adores, to the technicolour team-up Batman: The Brave and the Bold, the finale of which he describes as a tour de force.

Partly, of course, this is because the character is owned by a huge multimedia company which can invest in paying the best talent to work on him. Put all that talent to work on Bouncing Boy and you'd still end up with some great comics, games and movies. For Weldon, though, what sets Batman apart, what creates the bond between Batman and Batfans, is a very specific thing: “the oath”, Bruce Wayne's candlelight vow to spend the rest of his life warring on all criminals to avenge the deaths of his parents. That is to say, he is just as obsessed as his fans. ****

This review originally appeared in Interzone #264.