Filler content with feral children

A review that originally appeared in Black Static #12:-

Marly Youmans’ novella Val/Orson (PS Publishing hardback/jacketed hardback, 125pp, £10/£25) is coming from a similar place to the Wexler, though its primary concerns are environmental rather than aesthetic, and the text harks back to both the French medieval romance of Valentine and Orson and Shakespeare’s romantic comedies with their sylvan setting.

Abandoned by her lover, Bella gives birth to twins while out in the forest, but the first born is taken away by a man. With partner Fergus she raises the second, and Valentine grows up to love the forests of California, making a life for himself among the trees, but he is always troubled by a feeling of incompleteness, the absence of the brother he has named Orson. Val is involved with a group of environmentalists protecting the trees from the inroads of the NAXXIN Corporation. When the girl Diamond arrives to tree sit in stately Thoor Ballylee, Val’s fascination with her leads to change in his own life and that of all around him.

This is a clever work of fiction, beautifully written and with the theme of the twin recurring throughout. Val’s love of nature comes over well, with the forest setting and his desire for a life in harmony with the environment portrayed strongly. Youman’s writing has a genuine feel for the landscape, so that the reader wants to wander beneath the forest canopy with Val, to follow in his footsteps as he leaves civilisation and all its troubles behind, and trees like Thoor Ballylee become every bit as much a part of the book’s dramatis personae as the human protagonists, given their own characteristics and distinct personalities. Infusing the work is an awareness of and respect for the trees as living beings, with every bit as much right to continue on into the future as the messy bipeds who stroll aimlessly among them.

These concerns underlie the story, but the conflict with NAXXIN, which at first looks set to give the book a more dynamic aspect, ideology in action, proves to be a side issue to more intimate and personal concerns. Love is the quality that animates this text, be it that of the various couples, of estranged brothers whose hearts cry out to each other or, on a grander scale, man’s love for the environment, his worship of the Gaian principle. After various misalliances and misunderstandings, alarums and excursions, Youmans brings the curtain down with happy ever afters all round and an ending reminiscent of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which it elegantly and joyfully pastiches.

Val/Orson is a quiet, perfectly judged account of love and loss, of the feral child and what comes after, and lucid with intelligence and a true feeling for what is being recounted.

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Song for a Saturday – We Didn’t Start the Fire

A month in the company of Billy Joel.

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Filler content with urban painting

A review that originally appeared in Black Static #12:-

Next up for consideration, a novel: The Painting and the City (PS Publishing hardback/slipcased hardback, 276pp, £20/£50) by Robert Freeman Wexler. Sculptor Jacob Lerner becomes obsessed with a painting owned by his friend Freed, a portrait of a beautiful woman by the nineteenth century artist Philip Schuyler, but with a strange and minatory figure in the background. Lerner investigates Schuyler and is shown a copy of his journal, in which the artist reveals the mysterious circumstances of his employment and, fantastic as the story seems, Lerner is taken with the implications, that art has the ability to affect reality, to act as a form of sympathetic magic, but can also be subverted to serve other, less idealistic ends. Undergoing time shifts in which he interacts with Schuyler, who he soon learns much more about, and guided by a bizarre figure he refers to as the dapper marionette, Lerner finds himself engaged in a war between art and commerce, one in which neither side must achieve total victory.

The Painting and the City brings to mind many previous literary works. The vast conspiracy that may or may not be at its core echoes Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, while the dapper mannequin is a close cousin of Ligotti’s The Clown Puppet, and the various architectural mysteries were foreshadowed by Leiber’s Our Lady of Darkness, while insinuated into parts of the text are Lovecraft’s tentacle adorned alien progeny. It’s fun to pick up on these resonances, but Wexler’s novel is uniquely his own, a slippery thing that, just when you think you’ve got a firm hold on it, is off somewhere else entirely.

Lerner is an engaging protagonist, his passion for art and willingness to throw himself into whatever piques his interest, to follow through on that obsession, endearing him to the reader. The individual characteristics and concerns of each member of his circle are artfully captured, so that the affluent Freed with his art investments and upper crust soirees, the chef and restaurateur Catherine Vanadis, with her air of mystery, and Lerner’s friend with benefits Tansy all come alive on the page. There is a feeling of truth about the various relationships, the suggestion of more depth than the book portrays, and Lerner takes strength from the support of this network, while still allowing that some of them may have been suborned by the allure of commerce, represented by two sisters who act as investment advisers. Lerner’s friends are both his greatest asset and Achilles’ heel for the paranoia they engender.

These aspects reinforce the necessary suspension of disbelief called for by the outré elements of the plot and help give a human face to the central premise, the conflict between eros and thanatos, a war for the soul of humankind in which art and commerce stand diametrically opposed. Magic is seen in the attempt to kill Madam Burgundy and shape the New York landscape through painting, but also in the liberation which Lerner attempts, a restoration of the natural balance. It is given a sinister face in the figure of the dapper mannequin, ostensibly altruistic, but with its own agenda, and in Schuyler’s vision of tentacled monstrosities worshipped by humans, which can be taken both literally and as a manifestation of the motives that drive those opposed to his aesthetic.

Wexler effortlessly weaves all these into a story spanning two centuries, one in which the concrete and steel of New York, the dark essence of the city, interacts with some greater history. Like a painter himself, he brings colour and verve to the story, using a palette of words to embody the burgeoning life force lurking beneath the city streets, waiting its moment to erupt in verdant splendour. He writes of events both ominous and marvellous, that capture something of the feel of surrealism, the quality of dreams, even as they use those things to tell us the things we need to know about the world in which we live.

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Trailer Trash – The Man Who Invented Christmas

The C word raises its festive head.

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2017 Graphic Miscellany #7

Back with the four colour adventures of…

Thor: Latverian Prometheus

Written by Kieron Gillen, illustrated by Billy Tan

This book collects together strips from The Mighty Thor 604 – 606 and is set in a time when the Asgardians have been exiled to Earth and are seeking sanctuary in Latveria. Balder is their king, while Thor is in exile, and Loki is playing each and every side for his own personal advantage. The main thrust of the story concerns their attempt to foil Dr. Doom’s evil scheme to drain Asgardian energy for his own use. It certainly looks the part, with sumptuous artwork that does full justice to the magnificent spectacle it is trying to portray, but I have to admit that from a plot perspective it all feels a bit old hat, with tropes of the strip that have been used so much they’ve become clichés – exiled Thor, treacherous Loki, evil Doom. And some of the dialogue, particularly from Doom, seems too strained for effect, almost parody. So, nice to look at, not quite as good to read, but passable I guess. There are three bonus strips. ‘I Am the Lady Sif’ has a certain goddess helping Beta Ray Bill retake control of his living spaceship, and is fun for as long as it lasts. The same can be said about ‘To Asgard! Forever!’, which has the distinction of being penned by Stan Lee, and in which our leading man gets to fight giant robots and trolls, while agonising over his true place in the universe. And finally there is ‘Welcome Back, Thor’, which as regards both plot and art is simply too naff for words, the kind of thing that is supposed to be amusing, but just makes you wonder why anyone bothered.

Postal Volume 1

Written by Matt Hawkins & Bryan Hill, illustrated by Isaac Goodhart & Betsy Gonia

Dana Shiffron is the Mayor of Eden, Wyoming. She’s also a lady with a criminal past, but as far as Eden goes that’s the norm; it’s a town where criminals come to settle down and live out their final years, or something like that (think El Rey in From Dusk Till Dawn). The FBI is aware of the place, but only seem to monitor its residents. When somebody is murdered it is up to Dan’s son, Mark, who works as the town’s postman and has Asperger’s Syndrome, to sort the matter out, an area in which he seems to have a special aptitude. All the signs are that Dana’s husband/ Mark’s father and the founder of Eden is back to pursue an agenda of his own. I have mixed feelings about this. Visually the book is a treat, moody and evocative artwork throughout, and stunning covers. Similarly the story holds the attention all the way, and the characters are well drawn and intriguing, while the idea of having Mark as the hero is a masterstroke of sorts. Where it falls short for me is in the idea of Eden itself, which simply isn’t given enough grounding to make it credible as an outlaw town in our modern world, and some of the major criminals it contains, well going from the outstanding warrants shown in the profiles we are given as bonus material, they seem like very small fry indeed. It’s early days yet, and there could well be more veracity conferred on the project by future revelations. Certainly I’m interested enough to check out further volumes if I see them on the shelves in the library.

American Vampire Volume Four

Written by Scott Snyder, illustrated by Rafael Albuquerque, Jordi Bernet & Others

Adventures in vampirism, USA style. In ‘The Beast in the Cave’ we travel back to 1863 and the rivalry between two boys, the dutiful Jim Book and rebellious Skinner Sweet. Eleven years later they both serve in the US cavalry fighting Indians who invoke a vampiric deity. ‘Death Race’ is the story of Travis Kidd, whose family was slaughtered by the vampire Skinner Sweet when he was a child and who as a teenager has become a feared vampire hunter. There are complications and betrayals laced throughout the story. Finally we have ‘The Nocturnes’ in which music and vampires and racism all collide in a southern town. These are three entertaining stories, many layered and with a rich backdrop in both American history and vampire lore. The artwork throughout is excellent, making the stories as much fun to look at as they are to read. Overall it’s a very worthy and original project, from conceit through to execution, and I’ll look out for other volumes in the series.

The Walking Dead Volume 9 – Here We Remain

Written by Robert Kirkman, illustrated by Charlie Adlard, & Cliff Rathburn

This is the comic book series on which the TV show is based. I’ve never seen the show and this was my introduction to the comic. Rick Grimes is travelling through the post zombie apocalypse landscape with his son, scavenging for food and shelter, killing those of the walking dead they encounter and cannot outrun. Taken ill Rick fears that he may turn against his son and is concerned to teach Carl the tricks of survival. They find what they think is a safe community, with people they know, but with the arrival of three newcomers everything changes, as these people claim to know how the zombie plague began and are heading to Washington in search of a cure. On this sampling, it all felt rather much like a tune with just the one note, and a familiar tune at that. There’s little here that zombie aficionados won’t have seen before. It’s done with verve certainly, with in particular Rick’s feelings of inadequacy and failure and confusion put over well, but all the same hardly original. The black and white artwork, rather like the story, is acceptable without being anything special. I’m hard pushed to account for the series’ success. Perhaps it was just the right moment for the zombie apocalypse to go big time, but regardless, I’m in no hurry to read any more. On this occasion, American or otherwise, vampires definitely trump zombies.

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Songs for a Saturday – Lough Erin Shore & Toss the Feathers

Can’t choose between these two instrumentals, so let’s have them both.

You like it slow:-

Or you want it fast:-

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2017 Graphic Miscellany #6

Now for something completely different, as it’s my birthday and horror is most definitely not on the menu.

Sunstone Volume 1

Written and illustrated by Stjepan Sejic

Fifty Shades of Grey for the graphic novel demographic. Ally is a born dominatrix, but her only experience in real life is with friend Alan, who was also of a domme persuasion, and so that didn’t work out. Financially independent and with a vivid imagination, she’s looking for someone to help take her dreams to the next level. Lisa is a complete ingénue, someone whose fantasies usually involve getting tied up, and who would like to see if that works for her in the real world. Two lonely people, they hook up online and after tentatively sounding each other out decide to meet in real life. The experience turns out to be a revelation and the start of something special. I enjoyed this book a lot more than I did E. L. James’ work. The artwork is superb, with echoes of Chris Achilleos in Sejic’s paintings, with a vibrancy, warmth, and colour that is all his own. The pages seem to glow, so that there is nothing sleazy here, no hint of the perverse. It is sexually explicit, up to a point, but at the same time the S&M stuff is only part of a fully rounded relationship. Ally and Lisa go through all the things that other couples experience – shyness attendant on that first encounter, getting to know each other, and the supporting cast in their lives, wondering if it is just lust or something more substantial taking root. These are engaging and appealing characters, women who know what they want and who are prepared to do whatever it takes to achieve happiness on their own terms, regardless of society’s expectations and judgements. And underpinning it all is a delicious sense of humour, the feeling that the creator is having every bit as much fun as his characters. This sense of fun is seen especially in the bonus material, which pokes fun at sexual stereotypes, but at the same time Sejic is aware of the potential for prurience and has his tongue firmly in cheek. When she thinks the story is getting a bit heavy Ally shouts at the readers ‘Wait! Don’t leave yet! This book has lots of hot lesbian bondage sex!’ And indeed it does, but that’s only the most obvious part of the package.

Sunstone Volume 2

Written and illustrated by Stjepan Sejic

Not as much nudity in this second volume, and that makes sense in a way as the relationship moves on and sexual gratification doesn’t loom quite as large. And Sejic’s art doesn’t seem as generous, with panels that feel a lot more restrained and cramped than in the previous book, with a little less invention going into the layout (in the previous volume there were sections where Ally and Lisa’s stories were told on facing pages, a mirroring effect that worked very well in showing their relationship develop). Here the emphasis is on Ally’s friends, with Lisa being accepted into the group and bonding, but at the same time in accepting this widening of their shared social circle Ally puts the relationship at risk through the exposure of her past misdemeanours. Once again it’s an engaging story, one that deepens the reader’s appreciation of S&M lifestyles, while at the same showing that, sexual tastes aside, Ally and Lisa need love, have trust issues, share confidences, want to be happy and secure in their lives – in short, go through all the stuff that other couples do.

Sunstone Volume 3

Written and illustrated by Stjepan Sejic

This volume takes the story further along, with our introduction to some more of Lisa and Ally’s friends and other people in their overlapping circles. We learn more about Alan’s talents as a designer of fetish wear. We meet Lisa’s brother, whose relationship is in trouble. Most significantly we hook up with tattoo artist Anne who is puzzled by all this BDSM stuff, though she has a piercing or two and so perhaps shouldn’t be quite as judgemental. Through her BDSM-curious eyes we learn more of the ins and outs of being ‘in the life’, both as regards physical needs and emotional issues. The book ends with our two leads deciding to move in together, Ally having plenty of room in her big old house, but simmering away in the background is the reluctance they both have to admit their feelings for each other, while Lisa’s fictionalisation of their relationship brings problems too. Woven into the story are the inevitable and engaging sexual interludes, all portrayed in the best possible taste (in fact probably a bit idealised – beautiful bodies, soft lighting, etc.) and accompanying everything else there is some witty and ribald dialogue. All in all this was a thoroughly enjoyable read.

Sunstone Volume 4

Written and illustrated by Stjepan Sejic

And this time around it all goes pear shaped for our heroines, as the reticence that has cursed their relationship comes bubbling to a head. Alan is around to raise doubts about Lisa in Ally’s mind, and Lisa’s incorporation of friend Anne into the BDSM fiction she posts online adds yet further complications. All of the virtues of the previous books are evident, with fully rounded characters, sparkling dialogue, and relationship problems that have the feel of authenticity to them. Sejic is especially canny in the way in which he merges fact and Lisa’s fiction to misdirect the reader. It ends on a cliffhanger note, one which makes it certain I’ll keep an eye out for Volume 5 next time I visit the library.

I’m not sure if these books qualify as erotica (probably), but they are a lot of fun and at the same time rather moving as you can’t help but relate to these women and care what happens to them. The Sunstone (it’s the couple’s safe word, if anyone was wondering) books offer a pleasant change from super heroics and horror, though I expect to soon get back to those staples of the graphic medium.

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