Archive for January, 2012

The Warlord

January 30, 2012

Comic of the Month

For anyone who wants to catch up quickly and cheaply on the history of American comics, there can hardly be a better way to do it than DC’s Showcase and Marvel’s Essential series. Over 500 pages of comic for a little over a tenner is not only a bargain, but allows for the reprinting of entire runs of a title rather than a few select issues. (Okay, so it’s black and white, but colour wasn’t up to much in the seventies, and the cheap paper is a nostalgic reminder of the originals). Of course, some comics benefit more from this format than others, and Mike Grell’s The Warlord is the perfect example of this: for a number of years it has been in my top three hoped-for reprints (the others being All Star Squadron, out later this year, and Master of Kung Fu).

The Warlord is ideal for Showcase as it’s written and drawn entirely by Grell (with Vince Colletta providing inks from issue 16) and it’s entirely self-contained: no background knowledge is needed of the character or the DC universe. It’s also great fun. The Warlord is Travis Morgan, an air force pilot (as Grell was) who, when his plane crashes, finds himself in a strange underground land known as Skartaris. Within a few pages he has wrestled a dinosaur, fallen in love with a warrior princess, and made a mortal enemy of the high priest Deimos. In fact, what is most astonishing about the series now is the pace with which it moves. Whereas today comics writers tend to take one idea and stretch it over many issues (often of more than one title), Grell seems to come up with a new idea every few panels. The fact that Skartaris is entirely imaginary is in his favour: it does, at times, feel as if literally anything could happen.

By the end of the first issue proper (The Warlord was first introduced in 1st Issue Special #8, also reprinted here) he has been captured by slavers; in issue 2 he is a gladiator who is soon leading a gladiator army in rebellion; in issue 3 he is attacked by lizard men and we get the first hint of science fiction undertones as the final panel reveals a very modern control room in a ruined city. Issue 6 sees him return briefly to earth; returning to Skartaris only a few days later he discovers he has been gone for far longer. Grell is clearly having fun plundering his favourite writers (Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jules Verne, H. G. Wells) to create something entirely new. He even manages a story with aliens.

Of course, it doesn’t always make sense. He tells his Russian travelling companion, Mariah Romanova (picked up when he briefly surfaced to allow some Cold War banter), to melt her rifle down for the steel as “your ammo is almost gone and there aren’t any sporting goods stores round here,” but his pistol is still firing away twenty issues later. (Female readers may also object to the fact that when she is asked to wear something less conspicuous than her earth clothes she opts simply for something less that looks to be mostly made out of ink.) However, you don’t read sword ‘n’ sorcery for its impeccable logic – what sensible man would walk around in a loin cloth in a land of perpetual sunlight? The stories are driven along by Grell’s love of the genre and the increasing dynamism of his art, with figures forever bursting out of panels, where the pages contain panels at all.

An enjoyable reminder of the less serious seventies for those with a tolerance for muscled men wielding swords at improbable angles. And with The Warlord lasting for 133 issues, with Grell writing and drawing the first 52, there’s plenty of opportunity for a second volume.


January 20, 2012

After reading Pricksongs and Descants last year, I made an immediate decision to acquaint myself more thoroughly with Robert Coover’s work, a resolution I was quick to keep in the new year with the purchase of his most recent novel, Noir. As the title suggests, Noir is Coover’s playful pastiche of the hard-boiled detective genre. (Coover has spoken about “the linguistic and structural fun it offers”). Written in the second person, it casts the reader as Philip M Noir, a private investigator hired by a beautiful but mysterious woman (of course) to track down her husband’s killer (if indeed he was killed).

As you might expect from a writer who has spent years experimenting with language, the novel is pitch perfect in echoing the language of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, with Coover also keen to remind us of his fascination with story-telling itself. The opening scene is set in a morgue, one of a number of locations lifted from a by-the-numbers police procedural, where the body of Noir’s client (the widow) has gone missing. Of the ‘stiffs’ he says:

“Their stories have not ended, only their own readings of them.”

This disconnect between stories and the ability to read them (that is, to follow them, to know what’s true and what isn’t, or understand how they connect) is central to the novel, as it is to any mystery:

“She reached under her black veil…and dabbed at her eyes with a white lace handkerchief. Until she did that, you believed her story because you had no reason not to. Now, it seemed as full of holes as her black veil.”

To add to this sense of disorientation (which is, of course, emphasised by the use of the second person), the story is not told in chronological order, with the murdered widow whose body Noir is hunting appearing more than once in his office.

As well as the beautiful damsel in distress, Coover offers us his version of as number of stock noir characters: the police chief, Captain Blue, who naturally dislikes Noir intensely, the night club singer, Flame, the corrupt cop, Snark, the mad homeless woman, Mad Meg, and various criminals with monikers such as Rats, Fingers, the Hammer and Mr Big. Noir also has his dependable but largely taken for granted secretary, Blanche. One of the most amusing recurring scenes in the novel is when Noir turns up at his office after a sustained beating (in an alley, down at the docks…) and Blanche has to remove and wash his clothes. All she can offer him to hide his embarrassment is her underwear:

“…a pair of pink silk panties with little flowers stitched on them. The glossy silk felt good but they were a tight fit and some of your unmentionables hung out…
If anyone asks, I’ll say I’m airing out my haemorrhoids.”

That he also manages to get a tattoo on his rear and bleached pubic hair in the course of the story all adds to the fun (and provides a way of sorting out the chronology).

And just when you think the humour and nudge-nudge wink-wink approach to genre is wearing a little thin, Coover provides an elegant solution (which I will not reveal here):

“It’s funny. While you’re working on a case every outcome seems possible. When it’s over, it’s like nothing could have happened otherwise.”

It is certainly true of Coover’s work that “every outcome seems possible”: that is exactly what makes him such a vibrant and fascinating writer.

Lost Books – House of Lies

January 15, 2012

In the late 1980s (when I read a great deal of Scottish literature) I particularly enjoyed two novels by a Scottish writer called Colin Mackay, although I knew almost nothing about him. The first, The Song of the Forest, was a set in Scotland’s distant past in a remote rural community; it was noticeable for its mythic, poetic style (I have since discovered it began life as a poem). The second, The Sound of the Sea, had a more contemporary background in the Falklands War, but also drew on the experiences of his father in the Second World War and his grandfather in the First. I was aware he had written a third novel, House of Lies, but had not bought it at the time of publication (1995) and as it soon fell out of print, it almost fell out of mind. Nevertheless, every so often I remembered this ‘lost book’, even retaining a picture of its stark black and white cover with its rather lurid use of red in the aforementioned house’s door and the word ‘Lies’.

It was only after reading it, when I decided to research a little into Mackay’s background (now so easily done online), that I discovered that House of Lies was his last published novel (though not the last he wrote), and that he committed suicide in 2003. (You can find out more about his work and read an interview here, and read his obituary in the Scotsman here). His autobiography, Jacob’s Ladder, written after he had decided to take his own life (It’s first sentence is, “Soon I will be dead”), is available online here.

Not only was the sad end to Mackay’s life something of a shock, so was House of Lies itself. it was quite different in tone form Mackay’s previous novels, a savage satire aimed at British Communists in the form of a horror story. Here is Mackay’s own summary:

“It’s set in a communist newspaper office in London at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Newspaper workers who have spent decades sanitising and distorting what was really going on in the Soviet Union are faced with a general public which now knows more of the truth. They start being visited by the ghosts of people who were tortured and lost their loves in Russia.”

This description seems a more focused idea than its execution. We begin, for example, with a brief prologue set in Moscow a few years later. Perhaps this is meant to offer a little balance – while Mackay attacks the blinkered nature of communism he does not seem to be suggesting unrestrained capitalism in its place:

“Were strip clubs really the sort of benefit we had wished to confer upon people longing for the joys of freedom?”

It may also be intended as a way of grounding the supernatural story which follows in contemporary reality, but, never returned to, it seems a misleading introduction.

The story itself begins with Tam Burns, an unemployed dock worker with literary aspirations, who gains employment as the night watchman on the premises of a communist newspaper in London via a meeting with its editor, Finlay McRath, at a creative writing class. Tam at first seems our introduction to the world of the newspaper, an everyman we can identify with. In one scene, when a statue is delivered to the offices, the various journalists are quite happy to leave it to the ‘workers’ like Tam to bring the statue inside, thus highlighting a more general hypocrisy. The statue, a symbolic representation of a member of the secret police, has been sent anonymously from Russia, and it is soon suggested that it has come to life and intends to repay the newspaper’s staff for their wilful blindness to persecution in the Soviet Union:

“I do the work of historical necessity here. That’s what I was told. I’m the liquidator.”

This fits well with Mackay’s satirical intent, but too many other elements muddy the waters. Burns, we discover, is not representative of the working man, but a union leader who neglected his daughter after his wife’s death because of the ‘big strike’. Coming half way through the novel, this leaves the reader slightly unanchored in the narrative. The other characters are caricatures of unpleasantness and self-absorption which can make the satire seem rather heavy-handed. Even the haunting of the house is not dependant on the fall of the Berlin Wall or the arrival of the statue, but has been going on for many years. Not only did it lead to the suicide of the previous caretaker after he had murdered his own daughter, they now seem to do most of the haunting. In other words, there is rather an excess of the supernatural in the novel, and with so many people being haunted, there is no other explanation than that the house is riddled with ghosts.

One might also question the target of the satire: exactly how many people in the UK, ten years after Margaret Thatcher came to power, still believed whole-heartedly in the Soviet Union? And were they really so powerful and dangerous that they needed bludgeoned (literally as well as metaphorically in this novel) by such a talented writer? Because talented Mackay certainly was, and the risk-taking of this novel alone (a horror / political satire cross-over) proves that he still had an enormous amount to offer.