November Bookbag

With all the films I watch and games I play, do I even get around to that most old-school of activities, i.e. reading? I do, definitely – although I have to admit that I miss having a job where I could just spend an entire day (or even week, when I was lucky!) reading, whether it’s novels, plays, poems, articles or reviews. Them were good days!

That’s one of the things I enjoy most about holidays, and where I sometimes think that expensive travel is wasted on me: I often get most of a kick out of the travelling done in my head. During a recent vacation I got to finish not one but several books, so here are some thoughts on them for my first ever Bookbag!

Lights Out for the Territories (Iain Sinclair)

Sinclair first popped up on my cultural radar when his character Andrew Norton, the Prisoner of London, appeared in Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century. Then, when I recently started a teaching assignment at university, I found Sinclair’s Lights Out for the Territories lying on a shelf. Conditioning through repetition working as well on me as it does, I made Amazon happy by ordering the book.

Is it a good holiday read? I’m not sure I’m the best person to answer that, as I’m the kind of reader who might go for War and Peace for the poolside in Sharm El Sheikh. Sinclair’s book is not the sort of thing to read in one go, tough; for one thing, it is a collection of essays originally published separately and as such doesn’t benefit from being read as one coherent work, for another it’s insanely dense. Sinclair’s approach is basically to ‘read’ London as a great, multiform text, approaching it from different angles, from sifting through the detritus of (sub)urban  culture while walking the city to scrying the signs at Ron Kray’s funeral. Is this psychogeography? Shamanism? The rants of a smart, although at times rather tiring poet/essayist? Most likely it’s all three at the same time. I can definitely see why Alan Moore would find him interesting – some of Lights Out feels like the punk offspring of Moore’s From Hell and Peter Ackroyd’s London: A Biography. Sinclair’s writing is fascinating to experience, but I’d definitely recommend him as an occasional snack rather than as a meal, lest you come away with a major case of literary indigestion.

Wildlife (Richard Ford)

Every now and then I come across a book or a film that makes me feel I’m not old enough for this. Richard Ford’s Wildlife definitely had that effect – which is strange, as the novel’s narrator is a 16-year old. There is something about the novel’s pace and demeanour, though, that makes it feel old – past middle age and past its mid-life crisis. (Okay, it is likely that the narrator is actually considerably older and looking back at his 16-year old self, but it’s not just the telling of the story, it’s also the young man’s words and actions that feel like the young version of the narrator wasn’t all that different from his older, narrating self.)

Which is not to put down the novel (or rather novella, at a slim 160 pages). Wildlife is one of those books where no word seems out of place. This story of an early ’60s marriage falling apart is sparse (though not to the point of Carver’s short stories), very far removed from Sinclair’s anarcho-shamanism, and methodical in a way that becomes strangely hypnotic. The theme is as shopworn as they come, but in Ford’s style it takes an uncanny, destabilising quality that makes the story work as something very different from your usual domestic drama.

I’m not sure the narrator (or his younger self) works for me, though – he is either the oldest 16-year old there has ever been or he’s on some of that groovy, early-’60s Valium. There’s internalised and there’s somnambulant, and the character crosses that line… very slowly.

The times, they are a-changin’…

… and the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is changing with them – but it seems that time is catching up with the League.

When I first read it I wasn’t terribly fond of Alan Moore’s Black Dossier, a source book-cum-smorgasboard of literary pastiche continuing the ongoing tales of some of literature’s strangest, least likely heroes. What I liked best about the first two volumes of the League’s adventures was how Moore combined exciting tales with fascinating characterisation, bringing to the fore the undercurrents of Victorian genre fiction in smart ways: the sexism, the racism, the sense that an Empire was slowly rotting from the inside. I enjoyed how Moore could bring out humanity in his monsters and vice versa. While I appreciated the achievement of Black Dossier a lot more when re-reading it, it’s still mainly a show of Moore’s considerable skills at parody and pastiche. What it isn’t is a strong story.

The first issue of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Volume III: Century was a lot more centred on telling a story, but it was clearly a first part. Having been a Moore fan since my first trip into his mindscape (From Hell was my starting point, and what a wild ride it was) I trusted that the grand old man of Northampton knew what he was doing, but it was difficult to discern where this was going: the issue was self-contained, but in terms of story it was relatively thin, being more interested in doing a retelling of Brecht and Weill’s Three Penny Opera in the world of the League than in giving us a plot to care about – which was most likely exactly that Moore had intended, in homage to Brecht’s literary politics (or should that be political literariness?).

Moore and his League artist Kevin O’Neill are notoriously late with their work; the second issue, 1969 (AKA “Paint It Black”, although I haven’t actually seen that title anywhere in the comic itself) was originally scheduled for spring 2010 but finally came out in August 2011. And while it’s as much of a middle part as 1910 (or “What Keeps Mankind Alive”) was a beginning, it’s easier to discern where the writer is taking this storyline. Arguably, this is the Empire Strikes Back of Century, and it ends with Moore’s dark equivalent (darker even if you take in the appendix) of Han frozen in Carbonite. It’s quite surprising how an artist who in an interview boiled down his Lost Girls to “Make love, not war!” (I’m sure Moore was fully aware this was an oversimplification) presents such an ominous version of the Age of Aquarius. This is not the Summer of Love so much as a wicked, clever Nicolas Roeg-inspired romp that spirals out of control and ends in madness, mayhem – and a certain unexpected character vanishing into a wall at Kings Cross Station. That’s right, Moore brings a certain someone from a much beloved franchise into his storyline and gives him a prominence that proves surprisingly effective.

What’s next for the League? 1969‘s epilogue, set in a punk club in the ’70s, with Mina out of sight and literally out of mind, Alan Quatermain back on the drugs that almost killed him and Orlando (female once again, although far from feminine) giving up on his erstwhile friend and lover, suggests that the third issue – to come out next year, if Moore, O’Neill and the gods of publishing prove kind – won’t start in a happy place. The issue’s title, “Let It Come Down”, doesn’t exactly sound optimistic, does it?

And now, guys and gals, make sure to pray to your 2nd century imaginary sock-puppet hoax of a snake god that the book comes out while we still remember what happened before, okay?

Fool me once…

Yup, I know… For one thing, it’s been ages since I last posted an entry. Shame on me. For another, April 1 has been and gone, so this is pretty late. Still, it bears reposting for the sheer geeky awesomeness: comic book publisher Top Shelf posted the following update on Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen last Thursday. Shame it’s a joke.

Here’s the blurb they came up with:

When war-hero-turned-handyman Kesuke Miyagi is found drained of blood, it becomes clear that the occult gang known as the Lost Boys are targeting the only individuals that can stop them from complete domination of America. It’s the perfect case for the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen–except that their government contact, Oscar Goldman, disbanded the team in 1979 after they defeated Mr. Han’s army of the living dead.

Now, disgraced scientist Emmet Brown has to put together a new team to combat the growing threat of the Lost Boys and their leader, a newly resurrected vampire kingpin Tony Montana: Transportation specialist Jack Burton, ex-commando B.A. Baracus, tech wizard Angus MacGyver and the mysteriously powerful femme fatale known only as “Lisa.” But will Brown be able to stop the Lost Boys before time runs out?

On a somewhat less fun note, apparently the next real chapter of LOEG has been delayed until 2011. Bother.

Who watches the Watchmen? – We do, we do!

Okay, 95% of the people reading this will already know, and the other 5% are probably not interested – but for the remaining 0% (yes, that means you!), here’s the Watchmen trailer that came out recently:

Now, part of me looks at this trailer and thinks, “Wow… that is almost picture perfect!” Another part thinks that the last thing Watchmen is about are pretty pictures. This is a trailer, yes, which has one purpose: to get people excited and put asses in seats. But Zack Snyder strikes me as a director enamoured with glossy, stylised images – and that sort of thing tends to detract from the humanity of the characters. And one of the major points of Watchmen is that the superheroes in it (excepting Dr Manhattan, although that would make for a longer discussion) are utterly human. And the book is about ideas, not about wowing the audience with cool visuals.

Having said that, I like much of the casting. I like that Snyder didn’t go for the superstars (although I do think that Adrian Veidt could easily have been played by a good-looking star, since he is pretty much one of the biggest celebrities in the world he inhabits). I like the visual metaphor of the clockwork in the trailer. And I find the CGI representation of Doc Manhattan strangely affecting, especially in that shot where you’ve got three of them.

What worries me, though, is what I’ve heard about the ending. If it’s true… well, there’s one way of pretty much ruining Watchmen, and that’s by screwing with one or two elements of the ending. I just hope that they will be able to resist killing the ‘bad guy’.

Oh, and one last thing…

Heh...
Heh...

Mais le chat, elle ne reviendra jamais…

I don’t particularly like superhero comics.

I treasure my copies of Batman: The Killing Joke, Watchmen, Top Ten, Promethea (notice something?), Arkham Asylum, Superman: Red Son.

And now the complete Joss Whedon run of Astonishing X-Men.

Contradiction? No. What I like is that those books and those writers do something interesting, memorable, sometimes subversive and often just plain cool with the superhero template.

While I’ll always consider Watchmen one of the masterpieces of comics (and, if pressed on the matter, literature altogether), I’ve got a special soft spot for Whedon’s X-Men. Moore is a fantastic writer but he’s mainly an ideas man. Almost no one beats my man Whedon (check out this male white nerd and his command of embarrassing language!) at characters. Firefly and Buffy wouldn’t be a tenth as good if you didn’t want to spend time with the characters. Whedon is adept at making you fall in love with the characters…

… and then breaking your heart.

I’m over what he did to Wash. No, really, I am. I know why he did it and I appreciate it. I want fictional characters to generate feelings in me, and I’m the kind of morbid git who takes the death of a character as final proof of these feelings. Thing is, unless I can believe that a character may die, I will not develop any deep feelings towards that character because, well, they’re not real. In a way, what makes characters real for me (apart from good writing and acting, of course) is that they have a life, and that life may end. If I know that a character can’t and won’t die (because the writers, producers or fans won’t allow it), then they’re no more real to me than my avatar in a computer game, with an unlimited supply of credits.

The flipside of that is, of course, that it allows writers like Joss Whedon, again and again, to break my heart. And, morbid Whedon-bitch that I am, I like the way it hurts.

But if I ever meet him in real life, I’ll have to kick the man’s shin until it drops off.

P.S.: I don’t care whether you’re into superhero comics or not. If you’ve liked any of Joss Whedon’s writing, if you enjoyed Firefly (in spite of not being a sci-fi fan), if you got into Buffy (in spite of the bad make up and silly special effects and, worse, the whole high school vibe) – read Astonishing X-Men. For some silly reason, I started with vol. 2, definitely the weakest of the run, yet I was still hooked on his character writing.

P.P.S.: Another thing that Whedon does very well is sexual attraction. And there’s some of that in Astonishing X-Men, in the last place where you might expect it. Hee.

P.P.P.S.: Yes, today’s blog entry has a title à clef. I’m allowed to be pretentious every now and then.

Whys and wherefores: hot monkey love for Brian K. Vaughan

I’ve been re-reading Brian K. Vaughan’s Y: The Last Man over the last week or two, in preparation for the last volume to come out. (It shouldn’t be much longer than another month or so.) In the last few years, Vaughan has become one of my favourite comic writers. He’s no Alan Moore and he’s no Neil Gaiman (then again, these days Gaiman himself is no Neil Gaiman, it would seem), but his appeal is entirely different from those. In style, and in quality, he’s much closer to Joss Whedon – Vaughan knows how to tell a good story with wit and people it with characters you care about.

Like most of the Vaughan comics I’ve read, Y: The Last Man is a great example of high concept: the story’s premise is that every male mammal on Earth dies under mysterious circumstances, except for one Yorick Brown, ex-literature major and hobby escape artist, and his monkey Ampersand. However, it isn’t the premise that makes this a fun, exciting, witty ride. The world of Y takes a sketchy starting point and fills it with credible detail. (Well, mostly – I’m still not sure I buy the S/M intervention staged for Yorick in volume 4…) And, just like Whedon at his best, it’s just great fun to listen to his characters. This is one of the comics where much of the action is in the talking – but when there is action, it means something more than the nth installment of Super Guy vs. Evil Dude.

There\'s a monkey on your back, dude...

There’s perhaps one thing that I dislike a bit about Y, and it’s no coincidence perhaps that Vaughan also writes for the TV series Lost: at times the narrative meanders, goes zig zag. Most detours are fun enough to follow, but like Lost this is a series that at least pretends to have a plan, and just like Lost this pretense isn’t always very convincing. Without a plan, it feels like the story is arbitrary, which weakens the central mysteries and unanswered questions, such as, “What killed all the dudes?”, arguably a bigger question than “What exactly is that Smoke Monster?”. At times, if it wasn’t for the writing and characters, you’d be tempted to say, “So? Where exactly is this going?” I don’t mind some element of making it up as you go along, but arbitrariness is poison for a plot-heavy narrative.

And this might out me as the biggest closet case in history (which would come as a surprise to myself, really), but… Why is it that 90% of the women in Y are hot, slim, curvy babes? For once, we can’t blame the comic artist – Pia Guerra, the series’ co-creator and lead penciller, is very much a woman. So, for once, don’t blame us XY types!

P.S.: Other Brian K. Vaughan comics that come with the Goofy Beast Seal of Approval: Runaways, Ex Machina and the one-shot Pride of Baghdad.

Pride of Baghdad

League of Extraordinary Literary Self-Indulgence, part III

Alan Moore’s latest, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier (formerly Dark Dossier) has been in the making for a while. It was delayed a number of times, but there was enough information to get any self-respecting Alan Moore fan salivating. Here’s what the Hairy One himself said about the project: it’s

not my best comic ever, not the best comic ever, but the best thing ever. Better than the Roman civilisation, penicillin, […] the human nervous system. Better than creation. Better than the big bang. It’s quite good.

(Gotta love the understatement in that quote…)

Black Dossier

Now, as I wrote before, what I liked most about the previous League books was that beyond the cleverness and the erudition, Moore told a good tale and he gave us fascinating, ambivalent characters. Those qualities are much less prominent in Black Dossier, which is perhaps less a new League adventure than a companion piece to the other books. (This is probably also the reason why the book isn’t Volume 3 – that one is coming out this or next year, in three installments.) Much of the book is rather an exercise in literary pastiche: there are a number of texts telling of earlier incarnations of the League: for instance the first two scenes of Faerie’s Fortunes Founded, purporting to be a lost history play by Shakespeare  and a prequel to The Tempest, describing the creation of the very first League; the quite hilarious “What Ho, Gods of the Abyss!”, a memoir conflating the Wooster & Jeeves stories by P.G. Wodehouse and the Cthulhu mythos (with the League saving the day); or The Crazy Wild Forever by Sal Paradyse, in the style of Kerouac’s On the Road. There’s also a cutaway drawing of the Nautilus, an illustrated erotic history of a previous League written by none other than Fanny Hill, and Sexjane, a “Tijuana Bible” insert published by Pornsec, the pornography division of Big Brother’s government.

All of this is very witty and very well executed, but without a strong story to connect the pieces, it feels unsatisfying, at least to me. Moore is good at pastiche, but he’s shown this before; and frankly, sometimes reading Black Dossier felt more like hard work. Faerie’s Fortunes Founded especially isn’t one of Shakespeare’s more gripping pieces, and I managed perhaps three or four lines of the Kerouac parody before giving up. Again, if I’d given a damn about the story connecting these pieces (or if I had known not to expect much story at all), I might have enjoyed these pieces more – but it felt at times like Moore added the story without caring that much about it.

Faerie’s Fortunes Founded

What grated more than that, though, was Moore’s tendency to preach towards the end. In many ways, the last section of Black Dossier (a magnificently executed 3D sequence – tinted glasses are included in the book) is a retread of the last volume of Promethea. Moore’s credo seems to have become something like this: Language equals magic or godhood, because via language we create, out of thin air, things, beings and whole worlds that didn’t exist before. Fiction and imagination, via signs (such as language and images – hence the comic genre being Moore’s chosen form of expression in the League and Promethea), signify freedom from narrow material reality and from those who purport to define what is real. Via language and fiction we ourselves become Creators, challenging those who define reality for us as a means of exercising power.

All of this is nice and good, and I agree with it to some extent. (I think Moore himself is aware of the limitations of this sort of ‘magic’,  where the magic we wield with words can still be vanquished, at least in the present, by the ‘magic’ of those in power, such as force, laws and norms.) What I don’t like is being preached to – especially if I basically agree in many ways with the one doing the preaching. Moore’s writing and his works may be technical tours de force, but increasingly my reaction goes along the following lines: “Yes, I know. And yes, you’re very clever. Can we get on with it now?”

Perhaps it’s also that I think storytelling is a more convincingly, more successfully form of “magic” if it doesn’t preach. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is a case in point: in the second and third book of the trilogy, the story takes a backseat to Pullman’s soapbox proselytising for atheism. I agree with so much of his criticism of organised religion, and he shows time and again that he is a good writer – but even the best writers are brought down by polemics, above all if they’re the writers’ own polemics.

Volume III

For the third volume of the League’s adventures, I do hope that Moore lays off the heavy-handed preaching for a while. I don’t want to read a third version of Promethea‘s apocalyptic finale. I don’t need to be more convinced of Moore’s beliefs and ideologies. I want him to show that he can still tell a good, clever story with fascinating characters and depth that needn’t be signaled in big flashing letters.

Or otherwise I’ll send Mister Hyde to break his writing pen. (Ouch!)

P.S.: I’ll be travelling for work during the next two weeks, so I can’t guarantee regular updates. I’ll see what I can do, though.

P.P.S.: Miami Vice has now garnered me more than twice as many hits as the next highest search term. What is it with all those people Googling  “miami vice”? Pastel has a lot to answer for…