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.

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…

League of Extraordinary Literary Self-Indulgence, part II

While I think that From Hell and Watchmen (and, to a lesser extent, V for Vendetta – it’s rougher around the edges in terms of tone and style, and its inconsistencies can be a bit jarring) are amazing, rich and exciting works, I have a lot of fondness for some of the comics that are sometimes considered ‘minor Moore’. In many ways, the Moore titles that I’ve enjoyed most are Top 10 and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

On paper, Top 10 especially didn’t sound like my cup of tea. I’m not that much into superheroes, so the idea of a whole city of superheroes didn’t exactly appeal to me. Except, of course, if everyone has superpowers, they’re no longer variations on the Nietzschean übermensch. There’s something very humane to the shlubs of Neopolis, where every Joe Shmoe wears a cape and blue-collar shapeshifters rub shoulders with telepaths heading for a boring day at the office.

Top 10

It’s the characters of Top 10, together with its Where’s Waldo? appeal (there’s riches of funny little allusions and throwaway gags on every single page, the little iMac-bot building a snowman being one of my favourites), that make the series come to life. And while much of it is ‘just good fun’ (as if that were in some way less important than deep, large volumes about serial killers and our fascination with evil), there are vignettes in there that are surprisingly touching, such as the aftermath of a teleporter accident in volume 2.

I also enjoyed Promethea, although less so. In it, Moore started to go off on his post-structuralist New Age tangent. And he started to become too infatuated with his cleverness and wealth of erudition, I sometimes feel. The effect is, at least to me, that some of Promethea reads less like a good story with fascinating themes and hidden depths (which it starts out as) and more like an educational comic on magic, tarot, religion and myth with a lot of input from Peter “Prospero’s Books” Greenaway.

Promethea

League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was more in the vein of Top 10, and accordingly I enjoyed it more than Promethea. Again, the characters made it into more than it seemed to be at first (which was a witty, exciting pastiche of Victorian ‘superheroes’ and monsters, deconstructing the cultural politics of the era) – especially the Invisible Man and Mr Hyde turned out to be quite disturbing and brilliantly ambivalent in their depiction.

More than that, though, Moore told a rollicking tale in his League books, perfectly complemented by Kevin O’Neill’s art: the mock-Victorian counterpart to the ’50s sci-fi world of Top 10. It’s ironic that the god-awful League of Extraordinary Gentlemen film is so much less cinematic and exciting than the book… In the first two volumes of the League’s adventures, Moore managed an almost perfect balance between cleverness and erudition on the one side and fun on the other.

Next: League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier.

’s all true!

League of Extraordinary Literary Self-Indulgence, part I

I came to comics fairly late. Of course I read the odd Asterix, Tintin and Disney comicbook when I was a kid, but I never really read those adolescent fantasies with guys in tights and big-breasted caped beauties fighting dastardly villains when not moping about their lovelives.

When I was 26, I went to Glasgow for a few months. Being a literature nerd, one of my favourite pastimes was to go to Waterstone’s (or, on my most nerdy days, Forbidden Planet), grab a book or five, sit down on one of the couches and read. That’s when I came across Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. I’d heard of it before, and I’d read Gaiman’s Smoke & Mirrors and Good Omens, the novel he’d written with Terry Pratchett. I’d always wanted to check out Sandman, but since I wasn’t into comics… I didn’t. Until Glasgow.

Smoke & Mirrors

And there, within the space of one or two days, I got hooked on Gaiman’s mythopoetic world. (Yes, I’ve always wanted to use the word “mythopoetic”. Now I have. Life suddenly feels empty.) And I started to think, “Hmm. Maybe there’s something about them there comics after all.”

Shortly after I started looking for other comic book authors of similar renown as Gaiman. Names like Mike Mignola came up, or Daniel Clowes, or (of course) Will Eisner. But the name that came up most insistently was Alan Moore. And the titles that were mentioned were Swamp Thing, From Hell, V for Vendetta and Watchmen. So I got started on From Hell, not knowing what to expect – and got hooked. Yup, the book grabbed me pretty much like a sharp hook to my belly, pulling my insides out. But metaphorically. And in a good way.

Ahem. Anyway, after reading V for Vendetta and then Watchmen (rather unsettling, as I read it just after 9/11), I knew that Moore was my kind of writer.

From Hell

 Next: Top 10, Promethea… and the League.

P.S.: Here’s a little bonus, at no additional charge, for the Neil Gaiman fans among you:

Blue, extraordinary and oh so pulpy

Sorry, guys… Not enough sleep and no coffee make this guy uncreative. I could write something about today’s episode of Six Feet Under (“The Silence”), but then, something about its ending made me feel all blue.

Nate and Maggie

Or should I write about League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier today? Well, considering that the annotations file on that one is more than 50’000 words long, I think that my review should wait until I’ve had more sleep.

The Black Dossier

So… should I write about Pulp Fiction, which I watched again yesterday, for the first time after years? Thing is, so much has already been written about Pulp Fiction, so I think I’ll just leave it at saying that the film is as fresh and as cool as it was back then (has Samuel L. Jackson ever been cooler?). And here’s a little something to keep you happy ’till the next blog entry: