Reviews



Tuesday, September 14th, 2009

 

Peter Bebergal
Reviews Dave McKean’s Cages


When Dave McKean’s comic Cages was originally released from 1990 to 1996 (and collected in hardcover in 1998), there was very little discussion of comics as literature. A genre that is now regularly featured in The New York Times Sunday Book Review would rarely, if ever, make an appearance. When comics books became serious, they were only taken serious to a point. Readers of Art Spiegleman's Maus were either people who already read comic books, or people who did but didn’t read any other comics afterward. But it was good evidence that under the right conditions, the comic book could be seen as serious literature. 
                                                                                                             
Today, even some superhero comics can merit being called serious as well, though it often takes a feature film to generate interest in a new generation of comic readers that have long been exposed to books like Blankets, Epileptic, and Fun Home. In its day Cages was sadly overlooked by McKean fans and all but the most serious comic reader. Only now, after the cognoscenti has decided comics can be taken seriously, is it getting a much deserved, and affordable, paperback release from Dark Horse Comics in September.

Cages was originally released somewhat irregularly as a ten issue magazine-sized comic book entirely written and drawn by McKean. McKean is well known for his cover paintings of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, which was a mix of mythology, horror and even cultural criticism that had a huge following up until its seventy-fifth and final issue. McKean’s covers are remarkable mixed media paintings, utilizing photographs, shadowboxes, and a myriad of other mediums. One of the first noticeable elements of Cages is that other than the original covers and a few pages here and there, the work is almost entirely done in pen and ink. It is, like most other comic book, done in panels with word balloons for the dialogue. And it is, for lack of any better term, literature.

The story is simple enough. A struggling artist named Leo Sabarsky moves into a rooming house in a shadowy part of London so he can paint without distraction. But the house is not simple at all, and contains an odd assortment of other characters, each with their own history, neurosis and mystery. The landlady, for example, is at one moment stubborn and argumentative and then suddenly almost overly intimate in her gestures and language. Other characters include a cat that walks the alley way behind the house (and serves as a particularly removed third person narrator insofar as we get to see everything he sees); an old woman abandoned by her husband who still waits for him while her parrot mocks her; a cynical writer who has an dark tense relationship with his wife; and a jazz musician who speaks in riddles.

Leo himself is struggling to paint and behind everything he sees and everyone he meets there is the strange shadow of malevolence. Leo watches everything almost without judgment except to judge himself against it. In one chapter, he meets the writer and upon learning that he has read many of the reclusive man’s books, offers him a sketch. The writer hangs it in empty space on the wall where there appears to have been another picture at one time. The next day Leo comes back and the writer is less inviting and keeps Leo in the doorway. Looking over the writer’s shoulder Leo notices the sketch has been taken off the wall. We see what Leo sees, and it is through the actual literal point of view that we are given access to his emotions as well.
  
The narrative is carefully constructed by McKean by intense, yet simple, pen and ink drawings that at times suddenly break away from the traditional comic book form. Simple panels become multi-layered with photographs and other times the panels themselves are opened up so much that whole pages turn into sweeping black ink strokes. The dialogue is rich and at times baffling, but the facial expressions of every character are perfectly matched to their words.

The story is at times frustrating and enigmatic, and if it is guilty of anything it's a bit of self-consciousness, but the narrative as a whole is a meditation on art and perception, and so this works to its advantage. It’s only real flaw is that of all comics: it reads very quickly.

Cages is an example, coming late when it was one of the first, of the wonder of comics, the sheer joy of reading by panels, and how the medium can be used for real characterization, plot, and narrative in a way that only a series of little pictures can. It is difficult to not take it seriously.

 

*****


Tuesday, January 26th, 2010

 

Ginger Danto Reviews

Gint Aras' novel Finding The Moon In Sugar


My first impression on reading the opening pages of Gint Aras’ novel, Finding the Moon in Sugar, was one of sadness. Not so much for the subject – though it may be worthy – but for its author. That a teacher of college English and humanities should sacrifice his necessary knowledge and appreciation of language for the sake of a stylistically impoverished prose. When every other word is ‘dude’ or ‘frickin’ or some choice expletive, one begins to tire of whatever context may tie these various terms together, no matter the premise.

But such is the voice attributed to Andrew, the novel’s sorry young protagonist, whose meandering, ill-spelled musings make for a kind of contemporary coming of age story (that I suspect closely mimics Aras’ own experience.) Andrew is severely adverse to syntax - because is ‘cauze’, going to is ‘gonna’ etc.  – except when it comes to brand names, as if this is the stuff that in modern life is truly sacred – Squeegee and Motrin and all manner of impeccably spelled commercial products that have so far informed his existence. Many fictional narrators have skewed language to great success, but Aras alias Andrew is not in their league. Nothing leaps off the page so much as the ennui Andrew is himself attempting to escape, whether by logistical or pharmaceutical means. And it altogether makes this short novel very, very lengthy.

All of twenty but already a seasoned drug dealer and doer  - ‘shrooms, acid, weed, hash – Andrew starts out by warning that aspects of his life story, aside from making him ‘shit out’ to tell, get ‘kinda wigged.’ As in wigged out on ‘shrooms? As a reader one struggles to trace the logic of Andrew’s lingo back to his slim CV, which consists essentially of sex and drugs, drugs and sex, with a little time in between to otherwise ‘frickin’ fuck up, such as bashing in someone else’s car in. For kicks.

Then again, there is not a lot going on in his native Berwyn, Il., one of those bland towns in the collective suburb known as Chicagoland, where the city’s glitter fails to reach, and where the look of the place and the look of the people betray a deep sense of neglect. Beer is the beverage of choice in Berwyn, though that does not stop residents, including Andrew’s disgruntled mother and solicitous grandmother, from drinking the harder stuff. Whether the lifelessness or the liquor, Berwyn being an ugly place, it has spawned in Andrew a fitting son, as low and clueless as they come.

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*****


Monday, November 30, 2009


James Miller Reviews

NIGHTJAR PRESS
What Happens When You Wake Up In The Night – Michael Marshall Smith
The Safe Children
– Tom Fletcher


Nightjar is a new small press dedicated to publishing individual short stories in chapbook format. It’s no surprise that Nicholas Royle is behind the enterprise. Ever since he published the ground-breaking Darklands anthologies back in the early 90s, Royle has been at the forefront of challenging new writing, frequently testing the boundaries of conventional ‘genre’ fiction in his work both as a writer and editor. The acclaimed author of five novels and hundreds of short stories, Royle’s work is always original, frequently dark and very disturbing. Nightjar’s first two titles certainly fit these categories: What Happens When You Wake Up In the Night by bestselling sci-fi and thriller stalwart Michael Marshall Smith and The Safe Children by newcomer Tom Fletcher.

Best known for his hugely successful genre fiction, Smith is also a fine short story writer. What Happens When You Wake Up In The Night turns a child’s fear of the dark into reality. A girl wakes up, cold and alone in her bedroom. Her nightlight doesn’t seem to be working, despite her mother’s promises to leave it on, “Mummy had broken the deal.” Written in the deceptively naive tone of a small child, it’s a subtly terrifying tale of disorientation and discovery.

Taken from a very different perspective, Fletcher’s story is also about children and the realisation of our worst fears. Set in a faintly distorted and dystopian near future, a night watchman starts a new job only to discover what really goes on behind the sealed factory doors. Fletcher’s doom-laden descriptions add to the ominous mood, a fusion of individual angst with perverse sexual desire, technology and the ultimate horror of an unregulated free market economy. Clearly a writer to watch out for, Fletcher’s debut novel, The Leaping will be published by Quercus next year, the first in a series of novels exploring alienation and fear in the Lake District. Follow his blog at www.fellhouse.wordpress.com

Nightjar hopes to publish more original short fiction in the future. Meanwhile, there are only three hundred signed, strictly limited, beautifully packaged editions of these disquieting tales available. Get them while you still can.


*****

Tuesday, November 24th, 2009

 

When I Was A Boy I Watched The Blood Wolves!”
Being an Inquiry into the Skywald Horror-Mood, the Genius of Archaic Al Hewetson and America as Inferno.

Ron Garmon Reviews

THE COMPLETE ILLUSTRATED HISTORY OF THE SKYWALD HORROR-MOOD
by Alan Hewetson. 256 pp. Headpress/Critical Vision, 2004.

If fortune should lead you to a cache of old comics magazines with titles like Psycho, Nightmare and Scream and leave you with intact memories of the Seventies, you already have a rare gift for serendipity. Once harpies, nighthags and marrow-worms come winding off the pages and up your eyestrings bearing fun and frisson in their broken teeth, you’ll know the source of a deadly knowledge that’s sustained you over the ever-worsening decades. Even if you’ve never picked up a single issue of these superb magazines, you’ll know all the same, since the era was the lesson and Skywald editor-in-chief Al Hewetson hammered it in with exquisite force and judgment. “What is horror?” jolly “Archaic” Al queried. “Horror is you.”

Founded in 1970 as competition for Warren Publications’ familiar big-circulation horror mags Creepy, Eerie and Vampirella, Manhattan-based Skywald had Psycho and Nightmare,gorier, more extreme versions of the pulpy mayhem their rivals had on offer. In late 1972, Hewetson (a comics-obsessed Canadian whose sardonic, off-kilter stories for both houses were making his reputation as a horror specialist) inherited the shop as editor with total creative control. He was twenty-five, wore business suits, chomped a fierce cigar and knew every hot-button neurosis of his teenage audience like thepitted topography of a treasured old skull.

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*****

 

D.M. Mitchell Reviews

“The Killer” by Colin Wilson (Savoy Books 2002)

In every facet of human culture we see the killer has an exalted status, irrespective of whether he/she upholds or undermines the existing ethical or religious code. In western culture, nominally or intrinsically Christian, the taking of human life has become increasingly abrogate. Life is viewed as sacred and the death penalty, even as retribution for the most hideous of unlawful taking of human life, has been abolished. Yet in our cultural expressions, popular and ‘highbrow’, the dealing of death still retains an almost fetishistic glamour. Death and sex are inextricably linked, both physically and psychologically. The killer is inescapably sexy.

Most cultures, whether they belong to the morally dualistic world-paradigm (Christianity, Islam, etc.) or otherwise, still retain the archetypal figures of the hero and villain (or anti-hero if you will). In many cultures the two figures are even interchangeable but whatever background they emerge from, even a cursory examination will reveal that they are inseparable.

People generally need these psychodramas, most openly in childhood. The child’s view of the hero and the villain are generally more pragmatic, concerned and connected with events and people in the story. The concepts of ultimate ‘good’ and ‘evil’ and forces or parties embodying these qualities are cultural overlays, learned as part of the moral education process. In adults the need for these dramas is more covert, more vicarious. Maybe because they are supposed to have ‘put aside childish things’, as the myth-fantasies find expression elsewhere, often projected (in the Freudian sense) into real life situations. Thus sportspeople become ‘heroes’ elevated to an iconic status often disproportionate to anything warranted by their achievements in mundane terms. There is currently a ‘cult of the celebrity’ which by its simple fervour and intensity suggests it is being used to fill some deep unnatural hunger on the part of the public.

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*****

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CONTRIBUTORS

Peter Bebergal Reviews
Dave McKean's Cages

 
Ginger Danto Reviews
Finding The Moon In Sugar

 
Ron Garmon Reviews
History of Skywalk Horror-Mood

 
James Miller Reviews
Nightjar Press

 
D.M. Mitchell Reviews
The Killer by Colin Wilson