Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Energy Realms #1


Noah Brown Energy Realms #1 (2018)
Some will doubtless pick this up and declare it the worst comic they've ever read, but they will be wrong. It may even be the greatest. The cover promises powerful action and that's what happens once you look inside. Raised on 2000AD and pulp, fueled by (I'm guessing here) cane alcohol and firearms, Noah Brown's art falls somewhere between the less-publishable excesses of Johnny Ryan and that kid from school who used to spend the technical drawing lesson giving himself tattoos using a compass and a pot of ink, and mostly the logos of metal bands - but in a good way. It may not be pretty but somehow you just can't fucking keep yourself from looking, and from wanting more. This first issue features three strips of unusual violence - Pat Lord, Whiskey Weasel and Stabber Duck, and, my particular favourite, Power Squad. It's difficult to work out what the point of Power Squad could be, but their purpose is at least clear. They travel the galaxy in search of power - capitalised with numerous exclamation marks - and they obtain power mainly by crushing the weak and defenceless. In this episode they encounter a sort of weird vaginal mountain monster thing, but luckily they have the Shitbox on their side. The Shitbox is a creature which devours powerful things and shits them out as the weak and defenceless, in this case tiny babies. As a rule I dislike the word awesome, but occasionally it's warranted, and Energy Realms is fucking awesome. Buy this magazine and see how long you can keep reading before it sucks your eyes right out of your head.



Buy as many copies as you can reasonably afford here.

Monday, 16 April 2018

Trans*


Rachel Redhead Trans* (2017)
For what little it may be worth, I remain conflicted on the subject of trans identity, referring here to trans persons being specifically identified as trans persons. On some level - or at least in a perfect world - I feel it shouldn't be necessary, and that if - for example - a woman wishes to dress as one of the Mario brothers and identify as Jimmy, then she's a dude in all senses that matter, should be regarded as such, and the contents of those bright red plumber's dungarees are no more my business than anything to be found within either the underwear or sexual proclivities of any other random stranger. I also wonder if meticulously labeling all points on the sexual spectrum is useful, or whether it's actually divisive, perhaps even helping to isolate and define particular communities and so making them easier targets for those disposed towards witch hunts. I've known persons of many variant sexual persuasions and gender identities and have always found it difficult to truly square anyone with the existing labels, or to think of such persons as significantly different to myself in any meaningful way; unless they're into ELO, obviously.

On the other hand, I'm not going to pretend my views, as stated above, amount to anything, given that I'm referring to issues which affect me only in so much as that they affect the kind of society I inhabit. Also, sometimes you just have to stand up and be counted because, it might be argued, the above position can easily be mistaken for trans erasure from a certain angle, this being the notion that trans people don't exist - an idea which doubtless serves witch hunting types just as well. Trans* responds to an unnamed article suggesting that there are no trans characters within genre fiction. Having written innumerable such characters, Rachel Redhead assembled this collection as a refutation - excerpts and scenes from her four million previous novels, mostly just character sketches, and some new material too. Much of what we have are segments of much larger, more complicated stories, but I've always felt Rachel Redhead's strengths to be in the details and the people more than the bigger picture, so the reduced context doesn't actually seem to matter.

As a writer, she almost seems to be evolving towards her own genre, something touching on fantasy, although that's never entirely what it's about - Twilight rewritten by van Vogt on one of his weirder days, punk rock soundtrack, that sort of thing. It has the manic quality of a particularly gossipy telenovela, some pulp elements, and the intensity of a story having a conversation with itself. Sometimes it's a little hard to follow quite what's happening, but there's a kind and generous spirit here, one which manages to shine through even the occasional - and not unjustifiable - revenge fantasy, and that's what makes this stuff so readable. I gather there's a fair bit of autobiographical detail informing these accounts of transition, and clearly there's a lot which serves as metaphor to the horror of feeling trapped within the wrong body or gender. So even with the most wonderfully surreal twists - the robot who always knew she wanted to be a washing machine being a personal favourite, although that one didn't make this collection - everything is nailed down to a solid emotional core grounded in Redhead's experience.

I can't tell whether what I've just written is actually a massive pile of bollocks, but it feels about right, and hopefully I've communicated that there's something worthwhile going on here. I sometimes think she needs an agent or possibly an editor, but Rachel Redhead really has something which is actually worth editing or er… agenting, or whatever it is they do so, you know - one to watch.

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

America's Best Comics Primer


Alan Moore etc. America's Best Comics Primer (2008)
I pretty much already reviewed this back here when it was published as just America's Best Comics, but this version was only a couple of bucks when I happened upon a copy and noticed a few bits and pieces which hadn't been in the other collection. This one reprints first issues of Tom Strong, Tom Strong's Terrific Tales, Tomorrow Stories, Promethea and Top 10, and it all started to make more sense once I noticed an imprint of DC Comics in the small print of the title pages. America's Best Comics ceased to be a thing when Moore pulled the plug in 2006, or thereabouts, and each reprinted issue is here followed by a page shunting us towards the gift shop from which we might purchase collected editions of Promethea and the rest; so beyond the words and pictures, this Primer is also a message from the sponsor, a few words about some fine entertainment products in which we might like to invest and which will be sure to give value for money and bring pleasure to all of the family for many years to come. In other words, it's DC Comics milking the Alan Moore cow as bleeding usual.

Of course, it's mostly good stuff, and the new stuff - meaning new to me, obviously - is decent, even the Cobweb story, and Top 10 is possibly the greatest thing Moore ever wrote; but you probably already knew that.

He should have changed his name to Alan Moo - you know, sort of like when Prince went around with slave written on his face.

Monday, 9 April 2018

Cryptozoic!


Brian Aldiss Cryptozoic! (1967)
The subject of Brian Aldiss came up recently on facebook, some friend of a friend's conversation about an unrelated topic in which one Ashley Davies observed, I did a building job at a house next door to Aldiss in the eighties and I can't unsee him whinging and grumpily watering his garden in a very un-sci-fi way! The observation seems concordant with my having noticed how life, the universe, and everything in it seems to have succumbed to a process of simplification of late. Maybe a world in which some random friend of a friend once stood watching Brian Aldiss over a fence doesn't have so many people in it as once seemed to be the case. This is also the point of Cryptozoic!, or one of them, and having dutifully shoehorned the above anecdote into the review, I'll get to that in a minute.

Aldiss left us recently, which was sad if probably not a huge surprise given his being ninety-two, and was undeniably one of the all-time greats. Personally, I've mostly found his greatness to be concentrated in the novels, having had occasion to loathe many of his short stories with such passion as to give me cause to wonder how they could have been written by the same guy. Cryptozoic! is an odd one in being a novel which does a lot of the things I never liked in his short stories. It starts well, then suddenly takes to swerving off at seemingly arbitrary tangents as though the writer is trying to keep himself interested, then invoking an explanatory dollop of exposition which resembles science but isn't - the kind of ludicrous stretching of credibility which works if you're Michael Moorcock, but apparently not if you're anyone else.

To start at the beginning, the people of Cryptozoic! have developed a sort of telepathic time travel and are able to project themselves back - although not forward - and so visit various prehistoric ages in incorporeal form, which is something to do with entropy. This projection is effected by means of a drug called CSD, an acronym of seemingly sufficient proximity to that of LSD as to qualify this as one of those novels about the great leap forward in terms of human consciousness, evolution, and all that good stuff. After all, it was the sixties.

She snuggled against him. 'I need someone to mind-travel with. I'd be frightened to let go on my own. My mother wouldn't mind-travel to save her life! People of that generation will never take to it, I suppose. Wow, I wish we could mind back just a little way—you know, one generation—because I'd so like to see my old man courting my mother and making love to her. I bet they made a proper muck-up of it, just as they did of anything else!'

Aside from the slightly peculiar allusion to incest, to which the book returns from time to time without ever quite saying anything, this is essentially the same challenge to the establishment to which sixties youth culture aspired.

They're getting hold of bootleg CSD; it comes in from abroad. They're disaffected elements, and they represent a threat to the regime—to you and me, Bush.

Mind-travel and CSD usage is tied into the arts and freedom of expression in a general sense, and Bush - our main character - is a painter who travels back to the Mesozoic so as to paint it. This is the point at which both message and narrative get a bit lost - something about the sixties obsession with Victoriana, modernism, maybe even the dead end of post-modernism.

The greatest novelist of our age, Marston Orston, created in Fullbright a deliberately unfinished novel of over four million words that solely concerns the actions of a young girl rising to open her bedroom window.

No idea, mate, although the title refers to the Cryptozoic or Precambrian era constituting the first seven eighths of the Earth's history, the period about which little is known through being largely unrepresented in the fossil record. The mind-travellers of the novel have trouble getting so far back as the Cryptozoic, and the era comes to stand for everything we don't know, possibly including ourselves.

Unfortunately, one of the things we didn't know but which we find out is that time travels backwards towards a simpler, more ordered cosmos, and we're only able to go forward to the age of dinosaurs because memories of the same have been recorded in the collective unconsciousness of earlier - or possibly later - mind-travellers; which is a bit of a dog's dinner in terms of narrative cohesion, and Philip K. Dick did it better in Counter Clock World a couple of years before; and did it better with a sense of humour, and without time's reverse trajectory explained in two or three chapter's worth of unrelenting exposition which read like some rambling acid freakout.

However, once past the seemingly endless explanatory monologue, we get our story back with a revelation which almost saves the day, or at least enough so as to keep the book from feeling as though it's all been a massive waste of the reader's time. It's a close thing, admittedly, but it just about gets there with a final chapter seeming to suggest the possibility of this being Brian Aldiss writing something you could loosely call a Philip K. Dick novel, and it's really only the lack of humour which stifles its full potential as such.

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Queer


William S. Burroughs Queer (1953)
This was originally the second half of Junky owing to a hunch that the first half probably wasn't long enough to count as a novel; so I gather someone changed their mind on that score and this material fell down the back of the sofa, there to remain until the eighties, at which point it was published long after the fact. It's been a while since I read Junky, but there seems to be less arm candy in this one and a bit more man-on-man action, so I suppose Queer is as good a title as any, although homosexuality is part of the furniture rather than an object of specific focus. The narrative is a presumably mostly autobiographical account of Burrough's time in Mexico City, then off to the Amazon in search of ayahuasca, a drug to which he attributes telepathic properties.

Interestingly, Queer reads quite strongly as though occupying an intermediary stage between Junky and Naked Lunch, which of course it does. The cut-up text is still a little way down the road, but here we have rambling conversational asides, anecdotes and routines intruding upon the narrative in a way which prefigures the jarring edits and swerves of later books. Burroughs accounts for some of what the novel is about, or at least what it was intended to do, in his introduction.

While it was I who wrote Junky, I feel that I was being written in Queer. I was also taking pains to ensure further writing, so as to set the record straight: writing as inoculation. As soon as something is written, it loses the power of surprise, just as a virus loses its advantage when a weakened virus has created alerted antibodies. So I achieved some immunity from further perilous adventures along these lines by writing my experience down.

The irony here is that he writes everything but his experience down, meaning that, as he himself acknowledges, Queer jabbers away, touching every subject except for the one at the heart of the book, and which surfaces only briefly in the final chapter.

He was standing in front of the Ship Ahoy. The place looked deserted. He could hear someone crying. He saw his little son, and knelt down and took the child in his arms. The sound of crying came closer, a wave of sadness, and now he was crying, his body shaking with sobs.

He held little Willy close against his chest. A group of people were standing there in convict suits. Lee wondered what they were doing there and why he was crying.

When Lee woke up, he still felt the deep sadness of his dream. He stretched out a hand towards Allerton, then pulled it back. He turned around to face the wall.

Willy would of course have been his son, William Burroughs Jr., recently deprived of a mother when Bill shot her in the head. Queer was written as Burroughs awaited trial for the shooting - accidental by Burroughs' account, and conceivably so if Queer is any indication. Excepting the example given above, no names are mentioned and nor does it offer any coherent statement, but the sense of longing, regret, disassociation, and flight from something fearful are quite tangible. The worst of it is that, given the short, unhappy life of Burroughs Jr., it seems fair to say that nothing was learned, despite which Queer is a great book.

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Zardoz


John Boorman & Bill Stair Zardoz (1974)
I wasn't even aware of there having been a Zardoz novelisation until my friend Steve mentioned it on facebook as something which had become difficult to find, which was a week or so prior to my happening upon a copy in the Mansfield branch of Half Price Books - which was all pretty fucking weird, if not actually as weird as Zardoz itself.

I first encountered Zardoz as a trailer seen in the cinema in Leamington Spa when my grandmother took me to see The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. I would have been eight, so the spectacle of a giant stone head flying through the sky and delivering edicts in a booming voice made an enormous impression on me, as you can probably appreciate. Strangely, it's only in the last couple of years that I actually saw the film, having found it on Netflix or Hulu or one of those. I'm still not sure what I think of it. I cautiously veer towards regarding it as a work of genius, although I'm undecided as to whether I'm confusing genius with just not like anything else ever.

Zardoz is the manufactured God of a future, roughly post-apocalyptic society divided into Brutals and Eternals. The Brutals are the survivors reduced to a medieval existence in the wasteland, while the Eternals are the cultured and isolated upper class elite - like that Charlotte Rampling, persons who drink their tea with the little finger pointing outwards at an angle. The film is mostly related as experienced by Sean Connery's Zed, a horny, grunting man with a gun and a red codpiece. His job is to hunt Brutals and to keep any awkward questions to himself. It's a roughly familiar scenario with a subtle twist, namely that Eternal society seems to be a comment upon the more progressive youth movements of the sixties, specifically commenting upon how alternatives and subcultures become the status quo, given time and opportunity. Were it not for this detail, Zardoz would otherwise be a fairly straightforward critique of class and elitism; straightforward but for the fact that it's Zardoz.

The novel is short and sufficiently literate to keep it from reading like a cinematic moneyspinning tie-in, and some labour of love is suggested by it having been written by Boorman, writer and director, and Bill Stair who was also something to do with the film. That said, the novel makes about as much sense as the film, being so closely related. The story of Zardoz is told on the big screen by means of acting, rudimentary lighting effects, and quite a lot of what looks like expressive dance, and it's mostly told from the viewpoint of Zed, essentially a primitive who tries to understand unfamiliar things. The novel does its best, but there's probably a limit to what it could have done without veering off into some other narrative place, which clearly Boorman didn't want to do. So there's not much in the way of dialogue and instead we focus on descriptions of Zed trying to work out what the hell is going on, phrased in terms consistent with his innocence - not quite yellow orb come up from hill and make crops grow good, but something in that direction. Additionally, as the film attempted to express certain abstract, vaguely philosophical ideas with weird flashing lights, dance, and other psychedelic effects, the novel takes a similar approach by simply describing what we saw on the screen.

Turning, he saw that the Apathetics had advanced like animate deadly plants, somehow inhuman but manlike still. In the forefront was the girl he had embraced, fondled, and then thrown down in disgust. She opened her mouth and tried to speak. Horrifyingly they were all trying to touch him in a spidery, floating way, their arms like seaweed undulating in a deep sea current.

So it evokes the film, perhaps a little too well, and if slim in terms of page count, the book has a tendency to confuse just as it did on the screen. It's good but the film probably worked better, although I did enjoy this particular bit of exposition:

Fearful gullible people had been cowed by shabby but extraordinary tricks. In awe they had worked for a charlatan, a jackanapes in God's clothing. He had bullied them and in exchange had given them cheap advice dressed up as religion, the while stealing from them, forcing them to live in uncertainty, using them to maintain his high position over all.

Strangely, more than anything, Zardoz reminds me of Robert Graves' neoclassical science-fiction novel, Seven Days in New Crete, and so much so that it's hard not to wonder if Graves' book might have been an inspiration on some level, at least in terms of atmosphere. I couldn't quite settle on what Seven Days in New Crete was really about, so it's probably worth mentioning that Zardoz is at least unambiguous on that score.

Monday, 26 March 2018

Slabs from Paradise


Jason Williamson Slabs from Paradise (2017)
This is the third I've read from Amphetamine Sulphate - arguably the star turn in so much as that it's the work of himself of international hitmakers, the Sleaford Mods, but feeling strangely mainstream after Captagon and Creepshots. Both books felt as though there was a lot going on just behind the narrative, whereas Paradise is very much up front and direct by comparison. In fact, these five short tales - although I'm not sure tales is quite the word given its invocation of something cosy experienced whilst drinking cocoa - these five short tales would be kitchen sink drama in the tradition of Sillitoe were it not for the coke and dogging.

It probably won't come as much of a surprise that these stories exude the same gleeful desperation as you hear on any Sleaford Mods record, and only the emphasis is slightly different. There's a lot more sex, a bit more violence - at least spiritually - and roughly the same quota of slate grey romance. Williamson expertly captures those aspects of working class existence which resist shoehorning into tastefully distressed high definition television shows - the stench, the endless disappointment, and having to get on with it despite daily punches in the face. Not for the first time, his writing reminds me of several decades spent working for Royal Mail and Parcel Force - which wasn't so much fun as you might think - minus the coke and dogging in my case. Slabs from Paradise speeds up all the misery and the futile wanking to breakneck pace, which isn't pretty, but probably needs to be recorded for the sake of posterity so that future generations looking back don't end up with the impression that it was all probably a bit like one of those shows which tries too hard on Channel 4. It's painful and intense, and very much in your face, which is probably why it's a good thing that these Amphetamine Sulphate books are all so short. Any more would be too much.