Nut Ink. Mini reviews of texts old and new. No fuss. No plot spoilers. No adverts. Occasional competency.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch (1994)

Author: Neil Gaiman | Illustrator: Dave McKean | Page Count: 96

"I had an Aunt who claimed she had a tail, beneath her dress.
I sneered at her, made sure she knew I knew she was lying; but secretly, I could not stop myself from wondering."

I've read a large percentage of Gaiman's published works but I'd never encountered anything from him quite like this before.  It’s a loss of innocence tale presented as a first person memoir from a boy, now grown.  He recalls the Punch and Judy show that he encountered one dark summer, and which paralleled an aspect of his own life.  Intertwined within that recollection are a group of people that came briefly into his life, people who carried a sickness, a darkness that he was unable to make sense of.  Two things trouble him still, the sinister, violent Punch, and the family secrets.

It explores the nature of memory, and whether recollections can be relied upon considering they are often influenced by fear and perception.  It’s gloomy and saddening at times, offering little respite from the wickedness of the mind and the corruption that settles in the heart of the guilty.

The work is fully painted by Artist Dave McKean.  He doesn’t just use inks and paint to create his world, he throws in photographs of real people, blurred, painted over, time-lapsed moments, cut out seemingly slipshod but placed meticulously within the frame, or stuck onto models in abstract ways.  He also sculpts from driftwood, foliage, mechanical parts, cogs and clock faces, adding deep shadows and rust, giving the image a sinister, aged quality.  There is one picture in particular that gave me serious wiggins, yet I couldn’t look away.  His working method has been copied by many people over the years but McKean remains the master of it.

3½ adolescent fears out of 5

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death (1969)

Author: Kurt Vonnegut  |  Page Count: 192

'Like so many Americans, she was trying to construct a life that made sense from things she found in gift shops.'

Slaughterhouse-Five is all things to all people.  It’s a short novel but it squeezes in historical fact, fiction, autobiography, sci-fi, romance, comedy, tragedy and satire.
The book begins with Vonnegut as narrator telling us why he'll write the novel, giving his intentions and hopes for how it'll eventually turn out, which has already either happened according to plan or hasn't.

It then switches to the third person to tell Billy Pilgrim’s story.  Does the ‘story’ begin in chapter two?  Or is the introduction fictitious, making the narrator a part of the story?  Take nothing for granted.  It’s a metafiction that exposes the fictional illusion and throws doubt on the validity of history as it's written.  Trying to comprehend that is less confusing than it sounds when reading.

Billy has come "unstuck in time", creating a situation that plays havoc with his social life.  He’s forced to randomly experience events from various eras in which he's lived, often triggered by some kind of tragic or comical occurrence.  He's a fatalistic character.  Fatalism is a trait that is almost impossible to do properly in literature without leaving the reader bored, because characters should have opinions and act to change their destiny.  Vonnegut not only does it well, he excels at it.  You'll laugh, cry and even learn something along the way.

There are two primary narrative threads.  Firstly Billy’s life, the one that has him whizzing through time, is presented in a non-linear fashion.  The second is his War days that, although broken up repeatedly by the first thread, are more or less linear in nature.  The book flicks back and forth between the two states of being seamlessly.  Mostly because the language is a very matter-of-fact conversational tone; it tells you what you need to know in as few words as possible.  It’s packed with metaphors but spends little time setting them up.

Vonnegut is full of confidence and it shows.  Post-modern metafiction can be daunting to the newcomer but Slaughterhouse-Five makes it wholly accessible, while still retaining the depth and subtext if we want to look for it.

5 boxes of Trout and a teapot out of 5

Monday, August 20, 2012

Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962)

Author: Ray Bradbury | Page Count: 272

'He knew what the wind was doing to them, where it was taking them, to all the secret places that were never so secret again in life.'

Green Town, Illinois, a quiet Midwestern town, is home to best friends William Halloway and Jim Nightshade, both aged thirteen; one was born as the day ended, the other born as the day begins. They've much in common but also reflect each other, thriving on the mirror image differences. You'll recognise them. They’re you and me. They’re everyone that ever lived or ever will. Tapping into the archetypal and imbuing it with magic is one of Bradbury's many talents. His currency is emotion and he spends it without reservation.

SWTWC is a timeless study of childhood and loss of innocence, wrapped up in a dark fantasy that will excite or terrify depending on the age of the reader.

In truth, the story is a vehicle for the subtext to cling to. Characters are invaded and appear to paradoxically invite the things that terrify them the most. If you’re young you'll identify with the boys and share their sense of adventure. If you're an adult, if you understand the duality of change and the pangs of nostalgia, you’ll discover a truer, more poignant aspect. The further removed you are from the boys’ age the more poignant that subtext will feel and its affect on you will become intimately personal because optimism is a fragile thing.

It’s Bradbury at max level.  It’s much darker than his other works and he doesn't try to hide it. The wonderfully named Mr. Dark is painted in shadow colours for a reason. His prose style, that word association game he plays, is evocative of so many things all at once that it left me dizzy with joy. There's a lengthy scene in a library that had me literally wide-eyed with awe.

The ending is a little cheesy but doesn't diminish the journey, the pace of which is your own heartbeat.  Novels are rarely this close to perfection.

5 spins on the creepy carousel out of 5

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Neil Gaiman's Midnight Days (1999)

Author: Neil Gaiman | Illustrators: Stephen R. Bissette / John Totleben / Dave McKean / Teddy Kristiansen / Sergio Aragones / Mike Mignola / Richard Piers Rayner / Mike Hoffman / Kim DeMulder | Page Count: 176

'In her dreams her fingers had become tiny snakes.
When she awoke she could not feel her hands; but she could hear her fingers, slithering over the sheets and away from her in the darkness.'

Midnight Days collects together some of Gaiman’s earliest works for DC.  It’s not of his usual high standard, and it’s certainly not the place to start if you’ve not read any of his works before.
He admits in the introduction that he was still finding his feet.
It’s not all bad news.  There are parts of it worthy of praise.  A short piece featuring the wonderful John Constantine is creepy and unnerving, and without a doubt the highlight of the whole endeavour.  Plus, it has art by Dave McKean.

The collection contains six stories in all, one of which came from an unused Swamp Thing script; it was illustrated specifically for the book.  It’s interesting.
Each story has its own full page introduction detailing the creation, or the inspiration behind it.  I enjoyed those, sometimes more than the story itself.

Perhaps the biggest draw, from a completist point of view, is the lengthy noirish Sandman Midnight Theatre, which has the first and only meeting between The Golden Age Sandman (Wesley Dodds) and Gaiman’s Sandman of the Endless.

After being hard to find for many years, it has recently been reprinted as a ‘Deluxe Edition’ (August 2012) with an embossed hardcover, which means they can charge more for the same product.  It’s much too expensive for the small amount of content given; even the most ardent fan will feel a little empty in the pocket.
If it gets a softcover edition, or if you see it on sale, it could be worth picking up.

The book collects together Swamp Thing Annual 5, Sandman Midnight Theatre, Hellblazer issue 27, and Welcome Back to the House of Mystery issue 1.

3 leaves on the hotel carpet out of 5

Friday, August 17, 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man: Kraven's Last Hunt (1987)

Author: J. M. DeMatteis | Illustrator: Mike Zeck | Page Count: 168

Don’t fear me.  Love me.  For I intend to bless you.  With pain.
And blood.  And Sorrow.  Tonight.”

I didn’t expect this to be very good because Kraven hasn't held much of an allure for me in the past.  It turned out to be one of the finest Spider-Man stories I’ve ever read.  Hell, it’s one of the finest comics I've ever read.  J. M. DeMatteis has crafted a dark tale of personal suffering, full of symbolism and primal longings that puts many other writers to shame.

One of the reasons it works so well is because there’s very little dialogue.  Often writers use dialogue to bridge the gaps between small parts, or to lengthen action scenes.  There is no such trickery here.  Instead, there are inner monologues to tell the story; they really get inside the head of each of the three main players: Spider-Man (obviously) and two very different antagonists.
Reading Kraven's Last Hunt feels like reading a Noir text but not any Noir I’ve ever encountered before.  Neither Spade nor Marlowe could climb walls for a start.

Quite often whole pages go by with no text at all, because it’s not needed.  The imagery, from Illustrator Mike Zeck, is able to deliver everything we need to follow the drama.  His work oozes dynamic movement and pace.  The colouring paints everything with a shadowy, other-worldly brush.  The colours act like a kind of curtain, or a veil, that gets pushed aside just enough to let the person behind it act out their role.  It’s a truly collaborative effort between writer, inker and colorists, and no one part would be as powerful on its own.

With a little help from William Blake and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, DeMatteis presented us with an enduring tale of men fighting for their sanity in a world that seems destined to take it away from them, piece by piece.  It deserves a place on every comic fan's shelf.

The book collects together Web of Spider-Man issues 31 - 32, The Amazing Spider-Man issues 293 - 294, and Spectacular Spider-Man issues 131 - 132

5 symbolic risings from the depths out of 5

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Astonishing X-Men Vol 1: Gifted (2006)

Author: Joss Whedon | Illustrator: John Cassaday | Page Count: 152

"Maybe Scott and Logan could fight on the lawn again.  The kids love that."

Astonishing X-Men is a continuation of Grant Morrison's New X-Men title although it makes some big changes, not least in the costume dept.  Joss Whedon assumes writing duties.  He’s a bit of a comic nerd.  He probably earned his 100 metre nerd dash badge in high school.  Nerds write the best comics because they care about the material; it’s not just a job, it’s a passion.

For me, Joss' trademark clever puns actually work better in written form.  When Wolverine delivers a Whedon put-down it makes me grin insanely.

Joss’ greatest strength as a writer is the group dynamic.  He strips away all the unnecessary action scenes that can plague a title like this and finds the real heart of the story by focussing almost completely on the character relationships.
Scott has assumed leadership of the team but is struggling to make his authority felt.  With Jean gone he is lost in a kind of limbo.  He tries not to show it for both personal and professional reasons.  He needs the support of his friends but they are busy squabbling amongst themselves.
Furthermore, the discovery of a mutant “cure” puts the team on alert.  The story studies the effect it has on the mutant population as a whole, and the tightly knit X-Men team as individuals.  Yes, it’s the story they took the idea from for the third film but don’t hold that against it; it shits all over the film from a very great height.

There is a purity and a focus evident here that team-based comics often lack.  It's not bogged-down by a convoluted continuity or filled with excessive characters that have no real agenda.  I need book 2 in my life as soon as possible.

The book collects together Astonishing X-Men vol 3 issues 1 – 6

4 snide remarks out of 5

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Captain Britain (2002)

Author: Alan Moore | Illustrator: Alan Davis | Page Count: 208

I hit one of you and ten of you get nose-bleeds!  What are you people?

Alan Moore’s only work for Marvel was for the Marvel UK imprint.  For too short a time he took over author duties of the unimaginatively named Capt. Britain.

The bearded-one plays it safe for the first few issues, but Moore being Moore means he can’t contain himself for very long.  Early in his run he chucked the manual out the window, rewrote the character’s origin story in a convincing manner, making the manipulative Merlyn and his daughter Roma much more instrumental in decision making, and turned the Captain into a fully fledged Moore-esque character.  It was exactly what was needed to revive the series.  At times it feels like an episode of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.  He even slips in a quick vision of a dystopian England, much like his V for Vendetta.

It’s very British; The Captain gets deeply frustrated when things don't turn out as expected, and characters display the quirks that define the quintessential Englishman.  However, rather than reinforce stereotypes, it succeeds in turning them into comical strengths.  More than once I found myself in hysterics at the behavioural traits of the group.  The villains are equally ridiculous, with names to match: The Omniversal Majestrix Saturnyne; the Special Executive; the Avant Guard; and Jim Jaspers—with a name like that it sounds like he should be teaching high school Chemistry, not destroying entire worlds.

As the scripts got more insane so too did Alan Davis’ panels grow more adventurous.  Some of the expressions he uses are fantastic.  It’s refreshing to see someone break from a regular routine and admirably rise to a challenge.

The book is noteworthy for also featuring the first purple-haired appearance of the Captain’s twin sister, Betsy Braddock, who works for the British version of S.H.I.E.L.D, called S.T.R.I.K.E.  You may know Betsy better as Psylocke of the X-Men.

The book collects together stories from Marvel Super-Heroes (UK) issues 387 - 388, Daredevils issues 1 - 11, and Mighty World of Marvel V2 7 - 13.

4 superhero pip pips out of 5

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Sláine: The Horned God (1998)

Author: Pat Mills | Illustrator: Simon Bisley | Page Count: 192

'From the south came the Drune Lords and their Skull Sword soldiers … led by the Old Horned God – The Lord Weird Slough Feg.'

Sláine gave Pat Mills the opportunity to write the traditional axe-wielding barbarian but to tinker with the stereotype a little.  He took the muscle-bound Conan type and gave him a sensitive side.  The dwarf, Ukko, narrates the story of Slaine’s ascent to power, his love of the Goddess and his quest to acquire four sacred weapons.  It contrasts the reflective quiet moments in the warrior's life with the bloody and violent necessity of war, providing ample opportunity to bury his trusty axe (Brainbiter) in some thick enemy skulls.

This book is often cited as the quintessential Sláine epic but in truth it’s not the best work Mills has produced; it never really excites as much as it should or as much as Mills was capable of.

I suspect the real reason The Horned God endures is due to Simon Bisley’s magnificent art.  2000 AD gave Bisley his start and its right that he should have given them his finest work to date, on both Sláine and ABC warriors (also written by Mills).  His influences are easy to spot.  He’s heavily inspired by Frank Frazetta and Gustav Klimt, and even throws in some HR Giger from time to time.
It’s fully-painted throughout.  Fully-painted work is so rare these days that it’s a joy to revisit a time when it received the love it deserves.  For me, it's Bisley’s masterpiece.  There are a number of full-page pieces which are simply stunning.

If the quality of the story matched the quality of the art, The Horned God would get a resounding 5 out of 5 but unfortunately it falls a little short of perfection.

3½ reasons to kiss my axe out of 5

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Lucifer: Vol 11: Evensong (2007)

Author: Mike Carey | Illustrators: Peter Gross / Ryan Kelly / Dean Ormston / John J. Muth / Zander Cannon / Aaron Alexovich | Page Count: 216

If mercy’s your aim, be relentless in your mercy.  Be absolute. 
Be yourself, until you bleed.

The final volume.  It’s time for Lucifer to put his affairs in order before taking what he feels is the best course of action.  Carey wraps up the series with some single issue stories that pick up the pieces and suggest potential futures of many of the main characters and a few of the more memorable secondary ones.

The women of the series made the toughest choices and underwent the greatest change.  Their growth is explored beautifully.  In a perfect world that story would never end.  It’s a bitter-sweet experience; particularly for my favourite character.
It surprised me to find that I will miss the Lucifer cast just as much (and in some cases even more) than I miss the Sandman cast.

More than any other volume, Evensong feels like it’s firmly in the Sandman universe.  The structure of certain events and the interactions of the players are on a par with it.  Carey states in his afterword that Lucifer was never his character, he was just lucky enough to be able to journey with him, to guide him through adventures and growth.  While that is certainly true, in my mind Lucifer was an underdeveloped catalyst until Carey wrote him firmly into Sandman lore.  He deserves credit for taking a piece of clay and crafting an exquisite piece of art.

The book collects together Lucifer issues 70 - 75, and Lucifer: Nirvana one-shot.

5 farewell gifts out of 5

Friday, August 10, 2012

Lucifer: Vol 10: Morningstar (2006)

Author: Mike Carey | Illustrators: Peter Gross / Ryan Kelly / Colleen Doran / Michael Kaluta | Page Count: 192

Fight.  Win, or be defeated.  Die.  Make your own arrangements.
I'm not your keeper.”

Book 10 of 11 in the Lucifer series.  After a deeply emotional opening, picking up a thread that you may have thought done and dusted from one of the earlier books, the apocalyptic conclusion to the shit-storm that has built around the Lightbringer for the past few books gets quickly underway.  What follows is conflict on a grand scale.  It’s chaos unleashed in a place unprepared for it.  Again.

While some fight for victory, some for honour, and some for the joy of fighting, Lucifer knows that to craft the New he must first destroy the Old, and not just in the physical sense.  The victor may win the battle but it’s not just Above and Below any longer; the whole of Creation itself is at stake.  So what if the collateral damage is a few billion souls?  His rules are the only rules that matter.

It could’ve turned into preachy theologizing but Carey avoids that, cleverly balancing the personal with the practical, the individual aspect with the mob mentality.  It makes sense that it ends this way.  Lucifer was never God’s opposite; he was the thing that God could never be, grounded as he was by his own stagnant rules.  Lucifer fights against predestination.  He fights for freedom; not the human militant concept of freedom, but the freedom of the individual will.

This penultimate volume is the focal end of the series.  Vol 11 is the coda.  That gives Carey the opportunity to concentrate on the story at hand and leave the loose end gathering for another time.

The book collects together Lucifer issues 62 – 69.

4½ family feuds out of 5

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

2010: Odyssey Two (1982)

Author: Arthur C. Clarke | Page Count: 297

Moods and emotions were leaking into his own consciousness, though he could not identify any specific concepts or ideas.  It was as if he were listening, outside a closed door, to a debate in progress, and in a language he could not understand.”

2010: Odyssey Two is a direct sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) but it’s not that simple.  Stanley Kubrick’s filmed version of 2001 had some minor but significant differences from the novel.  The second book mostly follows on from the film, not the novel, so we’re returning to Jupiter and Io, not to Saturn and Iapetus.  If you bypass the film and come direct from the first book you’ll be confused and perhaps angry at the discrepancies and apparent lack of continuity.

Dr. Heywood Floyd, a scientist mentioned previously in 2001, is determined to understand the fate of the Spaceship Discovery and its crew, so a second mission is launched in order to intercept the Discovery, which has remained dead in Jupiter's orbit for the past nine years.  Along for the ride is Dr. Chandra, the creator of the H.A.L 9000 computer.  In Kubrick’s film he was called Mr. Langley.

Clarke isn't very good at characterisation.  When he breaks from hard sci-fi in an attempt to offer some insight into the crew it feels forced, and there’s a lot more crew aboard this time.  They offer ample opportunity for tension and drama but he never fully avails of it.  Most of the time he uses an expositive cold narrative in place of proper dialogue that keeps the characters two dimensional.  Some of the lesser characters have no function other than to fill a necessary scientific role so that Clarke can extrapolate about scientific principles that may or may not be wholly relevant to the plot.  In retrospect, the absence of dialogue is what helped make the first half of the 2001 novel so successful.

While critical of his ability to develop characters, I can’t fault his passion for detailing new worlds and forms of life.  His brain seemed more attuned to receiving creative input from a scientific perspective than from a dramatic one.  If you accept that and embrace the science-head aspect of it, at the expense of a satisfactory human element, you can get sucked into Clarke's vision more easily.

Personally, I didn't want to know what became of Dave, I liked the uncertainty, but I was eager for more of H.A.L.

3 problematic epilogues out of 5

Monday, August 6, 2012

Lucifer: Vol 9: Crux (2006)

Author: Mike Carey | Illustrators: Peter Gross / Ryan Kelly / Marc Hempel / Ronald Wimberly | Page Count: 168

I walked on into chaos, and the earth beat like a heart beneath my feet.”

Book 9 of 11 in the Lucifer series.  The dictionary defines a CRUX as “…a vital or decisive stage, point, etc. / a baffling problem or difficulty.”  The book embodies both of those things.

The first story kicks off with the politics of Hell once again in disarray.  The current Duke of Gly plays a pivotal role in what direction it’ll take.  I didn't think Marc Hempel’s art on this piece a good match for Mike Carey’s words.  His cartoon styling lessens the severity of the situation.  I liked his version of Gaudium but I’d like Gaudium even if he was drawn by a 5 year old in a blindfold.

After that single issue the regular team of Gross and Kelly take over for the titular tale.  Carey’s ability to drop little things into the plot, things that through causality will escalate into giant things if left unchecked, makes this volume more than exciting.  While it’s true that characters should be left to grow at their own pace, sometimes they need a little push.

A short interlude follows, full of contrasts and hard choices for a series regular.  It runs concurrent with the Crux storyline.  Guest artist Ronald Wimberly takes pen duties.  His style is perfect for depicting what unfolds.  I loved every purposeful line of it.  From that point on, Crux kicks ass all the way to the very end.  Lucifer is back to being essential reading again.

The book collects together Lucifer issues 55 – 61.

4½ happenings in Vegas out of 5

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Lucifer: Vol 8: The Wolf Beneath the Tree (2005)

Author: Mike Carey | Illustrators: Peter Gross / Ryan Kelly / P. Craig Russell / Ted Naifeh | Page Count: 160

To read aloud from the book makes the book an element in the story it tells.”

Book 8 of 11 in the Lucifer series. This one opens with the 50th issue, pencilled by P. Craig Russell. He did The Sandman 50th issue so it makes sense he’d also do this one. Russell’s art is of his usual high standard, full of open splendour or intimate moments when needed. It’s titled Lilith. If you've been following the series from the beginning you’ll be able to guess how that ties in with events thus far, and what it means for one or more of the supporting characters. What you may not know is how large a part it played in other events. It’s an eye-opener.

A gathering puts the Lightbringer face to face with the embodiment of the thing he despises the most; if you've been paying attention to what you've been reading up to now you’ll notice it’s the thing that he’s spent the previous seven books trying to escape. Carey lets the character’s arrogance come to the fore as a defence mechanism. Strength gained from vulnerability is a theme we've seen before but is handled differently this time. I enjoyed that part.

The consequence of Lucifer's actions has caused all sorts of vile things to surface from their lairs. Similarly, Fenris, the Asgardian wolf of Norse mythology, feels the time is right for him to bring on Ragnarok, as was foretold. If that happens it could put a giant Yggdrasil sized splinter in Lucifer’s plans.

Make sure you have book 9 because there is another cliff-hanger ending.

The book collects together Lucifer issues 45, and 50 – 54.

3 guests at the table out of 5

Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Boozy Bard: Shakespeare on Drinking (2006)

Author: William Shakespeare | Page Count: 208

"I am weary; yea, my memory is tired.
Have we no wine here?"
Coriolanus.  Act I. Scene 9.

Boozy Bard is one of those books that leave you in no doubt as to the content, as the title tells you all you need to know. It's Shakespeare on drinking. Someone, the editor(s) name is mysteriously absent, has collected together all the instances that the bard had his characters tanked or used alcohol as a metaphor for something else. It's no surprise that Falstaff features more than once.

There's no good reason for it to exist as a physical book. A webpage could offer the same content and be equally as irreverent. Save yourself money by going to the library, borrow The Norton Shakespeare and then hit the bar to toast his good name until you see the underside of the table. Job done.

Naught but a waste of paper and ink out of 5