Uncompleted Stories: Mage

The Mage gang(s): l-r, Sean Knight, Edsel, Mirth, Kevin Matchstick, Wally Ut, Joe Phatt, Kirby Hero

If anything were to happen to him tonight, which we fervently hope it won’t, artist/writer Matt Wagner would undoubtedly be best known for his character Grendel: monster, crimelord, force of evil.
Indeed, Grendel was Wagner’s first creation, a very primitive and sloppy version of him appearing in black and white in an anthology published by the long-gone independent publishers, Comico. But this Grendel was poor and primitive, and Wagner turned to another character for his first series, Mage, a fifteen part colour series which began with art and story-telling that, whilst a cut above the Comico Primer was still that of an artist feeling his way, but which, over the full series, grew increasingly polished and attractive.
Partway through the series, Wagner reintroduced Grendel as a back-up: a gorgeous, stylish, art-deco influenced illustrated story as opposed to an orthodox comic, laying out Grendel – Hunter Rose, novelist, Olympic Fencing Champion, philanthropist, ruthless and implacable crime-lord – in his prime and until his death.
After Mage finished, Wagner returned to Grendel as a concept and a series, primarily as writer for other artists, occasionally drawing stories, as Grendel developed as a force, possessing others, destroying their lives with the attraction of its evil. By the end, Wagner had established a long continuity extending all the way to the fortieth century and the robotic Grendel Prime.
Yet Hunter Rose still exercised the greatest fascination, and Wagner has returned time and again to his prime Grendel, in stories that precede and sometimes foreshadow that too-early established death, including a memorable and excellent two-part team-up with Batman.
But thirty years ago, when Mage was eagerly awaited every other month, that would have seemed unlikely. Grendel was only its back-up, not even a comic as I’ve already said. It was Mage that would be the masterpiece of Matt Wagner’s career.
That series from Comico was subtitled The Hero Discovered, and it was published between 1984 and 1986. It was to be the first of three limited series, each of fifteen issues duration, set to tell the complete story of Kevin Matchstick – visually Wagner himself – and Mirth, the Worldmage. After its completion, it was republished in three Graphic Novels by Starblaze, the then book publisher of the collected Elfquest, in the same format.
If you want to read Mage –  The Hero Discovered now, you need to find those rare volumes.
Because the reason Mage is not going to be the primary work of Matt Wagner’s career is that thirty years later it remains Uncompleted.
In the beginning, the story seemed to be as crude as the artwork: Kevin Matchstick, an everyman, isolated figure, without ties or relationships, encounters a punky, perky street tramp who, we soon learn is a Mage: not just any Mage, but the Worldmage. Kevin resists believing, though he is quickly forced to accept that magic exists given Mirth’s display of it.
It also takes him some time to believe what Mirth has said about power being awoken in him: Kevin has great strength and is practically invulnerable, although this latter functions only when he is in serious danger. Indeed, despite the ever-increasing evidence, Kevin doesn’t merely have difficulties in believing that he now has a destiny, he actively resists believing, the more so the longer Mirth refuses to tell him all he needs to know.
There is, of course, an adversary, an incarnation of evil, the Umbra Sprite, with his five identical sons, the Grackleflints. They are in search of the Fisher King, which gave many people a great big stonking clue as to where exactly Wagner was going: that Kevin has started to come into his power gives them increasing problems and requires ever more serious menaces, drawn from Celtic myth, to try to overcome him.
But Kevin has servitors: the teenage girl, Edsel, who takes her own name from her favourite car, and who wields a mean baseball bat, and Sean Knight (another clue), the ghost of a Public Defender: they recognise Kevin for what he is and work for him, and sacrifice themselves when the time comes, for his defence.
At the end of issue 5, Wagner’s art took a leap in sophistication, and his control of the airbrush meant an increasing subtlety in colouring. Mage grew ever more complex and intriguing, until the final revelation that stuns Kevin into near inertia.
For Mirth is Myrthin, or Merlin, Edsel’s baseball bat is the current form of Excalibur and Kevin is the leader, the Pendragon, heir to the legend of Arthur.
Having accepted his role, Kevin mounts an attack on the home base of the Umbra Sprite, only to find him dead, killed by his son Emil, whose distinguishing characteristic among the Grackleflints is initiative. Kevin confronts the Wild Hunter, the horned God of the Pack, with antlered forehead, mounted on a motorbike and surrounded by dogs that bear the faces of those who have died for Kevin and the Pendragon. He brings down the house, literally, ending this phase of the menace.
The sequel was promised ‘soon’.
Apart from the Starblaze reprints, Wagner put Mage aside in favour of Grendel at that time. He did write and draw a short, four-part backup in Grendel 16-19 as a bridge to the second series, but plans along those lines were disrupted when the struggling Comico went into bankruptcy in 1990, leaving Wagner struggling for several years to regain the publishing rights to his two characters.
Because of this, it was 1997 before Wagner was able to publish Mage II – The Hero Defined, which appeared from Image Comics both as a fifteen part series and, subsequently, a four-part republication in Graphic Novel format, in comic book size.
Mage II was met by a mixed response from its audience, which flocked eagerly to the long-awaited sequel but recoiled from it when they found it radically different from The Hero Discovered. I admit to finding it hard to accept: thin, conventional, shallow in comparison to its predecessor. This was a purely emotional response, and an objective analysis counselled patience until Wagner had what he was doing. Which was giving his readers something different.
What disappointed people at the outset were changes in both art and story. Despite the evidence we had of Wagner’s range as an artist, his experimentation on giving the reader something unexpected, and intriguing, Mage II was drawn in a very straight, comicbook cartoon realistic style. Wagner used flat lines, black outlines, and a plain colour palette. The airbrush colours of The Hero Discovered were not to be seen. Stylistically, it was very conventional, and far from being in tune with contemporary approaches.
And it was fully in keeping with the story which seemed to offer no more than a more funky, less rigid form of superhero action. Kevin is teamed up with Joe Phatt (who can run incredibly fast) and soon meets Kirby Hero (now there’s a symbolic name for you) who is incredibly strong and invulnerable.
They, like him, are incarnations of mythic figures, Coyote and Hercules respectively. Kevin and Joe are on the ‘Nasty Hunt’, tracking down nasty predator creatures and despatching them, with no greater or ulterior purpose: Kirby is doing much the same in an interval from carrying out these Twelve Labours imposed on him by his Dad.
There;’s a certain amount of jostling for command between Kevin and Kirby: Kevin’s the Pendragon, by definition a leader, and he definitely sees it as his role to lead and others to follow (whether they agree or not). Kevin sets priorities, aims and goals and cannot understand why Kirby insists that his burden is more important to him than Kevin’s exploration of a growing menace that draws them and a whole host of other ‘superhero’s to a Canadian town where the Pale Enchanter is brewing up a plot.
There’s the Prester, the Hornblower, the Dragon Twins and more: they don’t wear costumes but they each have superhuman abilities and credentials: it’s like a more serious version of the Justice League International only with less team-work. Only the Hornblower (whose Horn, in a manner typical of this slightly loopy take on superheroes, is actually a kazoo) is seriously loyal to the Pendragon, and Kevin’s discomfiture at this, and his irritation, leads him to send his most supportive ally to his death.
Is there a Mage involved? Kevin hasn’t seen Mirth in god knows how long, but he knows he’s prophesied three Mages. It’s just that he cannot believe that street tramp Wally Ut is the second Mage. Wally’s a bit of a joke, like the Hornblower, which was again a characteristic of The Hero Defined, as if Wagner found this superhero stuff to be risible and couldn’t keep from taking a rise out of it.
Nevertheless, the danger is serious. The story leads to a long underground sequence of growing seriousness. The Pale Enchanter is ultimately revealed to be Emil Grackleflint, who is disposed of by the returning Umbra Sprite. It is he who draws off the evil, for now, not Kevin who forces it away.
Because this is a very bad ending for Kevin. His insistence on having his way takes over Kirby’s next Labour, destroying it and alienating both Kirby and Joe. Wally is revealed as being indeed the Worldmage: in fact he’s Mirth, in another incarnation, yet Kevin has resolutely refused to listen to anything Wally said. And in forcing himself in his arrogance into a conflict that was not properly his to begin with, Kevin has done the unthinkable: he has destroyed Excalibur.
An astonishingly dark ending and an extraordinary set up for Mage III – The Hero Denied.
Mage II appeared from 1997 to 1999, with the initial collections appearing at intervals from 1998 to 2001. Those of use who had undergone a ten year dealt to read it were prepared to deal with another decade for the final part of the Trilogy but it is now fifteen years and the most we have on the prospect of The Hero Denied is ‘soonish’, a publication interval that does not appear in anyone’s previews.
If Mage III were to miraculously appear on the schedules in 2015, that would be thirty-one years since the story began. Matt Wagner had in his mind a clearly-defined trilogy. How detailed that vision was in respect of book 3, no-one but he will ever know, but in 2014 he is not the same man, the same artist or writer he was in 1984, learning his trade, extending his skills. Whatever the third part will be, it will, by definition, not be what he originally intended.
It might very well be better. If Mage tells the story of Kevin Matchstick, might it not be very fitting and the best thing that could happen for him to be seen at three different times by an author who has grown older and more experienced? Maybe. Or maybe, as such things have gone before, the extended scale of time, the removal from the impulse that drive the story in the beginning leads to an inability to recapture what made the story so fascinating at the outset.
Because we readers have gotten thirty years older and thirty years more experienced, at the same time as has Wagner.
As thing stand, the story of Mage is like The Lord of the Rings as if The Return of the King had never been written or filmed. It is Uncompleted. Unlike the two Swamp Thing examples, it could be completed. But a long time has passed. We may yet find that, in Harlan Ellison’s superb phrase, The Wine has been left open too long and the Memory as gone flat.
We would need the story to be completed to know whether that is so and I have given up any expectations that that will ever be so.

P.S. I got that wrong, much to my delight. Come and witness my mea culpa.


Saturday Eurocrime: Crimes of Passion – Dangerous Dreams

This was the penultimate episode of this series, which I doubt will be renewed, but it at least showed some variation upon the formula that we’ve been seeing, and in more than just throwing about some melodrama in the form of a serious threat to Puck.

Not that it strayed too far from the tried and trusted: there’s the lake motif, right at the start, as a young and heavily pregnant lady received a brown paper parcel consisting of a hardback novel, ‘Disa’, by Nobel-prize winning Andreas Hallman, which upsets her so much that she walks out into a rainy, gloomy, truly Scandinavian lake and drowns herself. There’s Eje Bure being shuffled off not merely into the background but into another country, playing Guest Lecturer in Denmark. And there’s the Library scene of cliche, where the murderer confesses once accused by Christer. Familiar touchstones.

However, the story at least makes an effort to find a new perspective. For one thing, Puck and Eje aren’t off somewhere celebrating something: he’s away to Copenhagen and she’s turning up at the remote and snowbound home of the same Andreas Hallman, who needs a slumming lecturer in literature (you’d forgotten what Puck did when she wasn’t running around after Christer, solving killings? shame on you) to replace his daughter Ylva, who appears to have sprained her wrist, no doubt deliberately. Puck’s so excited, she turns up wearing a skirt! At least until dead bodies start dropping everywhere, then it’s back to skinny trousers like a shot.

Hallman, we quickly see, is a tyrant to all his family: wife Bjorg, adult son and daughter Kore and Ylva, house hysician Dr Isander and even darling Puck (the beast!). Everyone except son Jon by his first marriage, and his wife and former nurse, Cecilia. Jon has congenital heart disease and is mollycoddled to within an inch of his coddle, although Puck, wandering around as always and completely unable to suppress her urge to look through other people’s doors, sees him being laid on the bed by a black-underwear-and-stockings clad Cecilia without his heart going boom on the spot.

Which doesn’t stop him expiring the following night, crawling around the landing in front of who else but Puck? (this woman has a nose for when someone’s about to snuff it) And his last word was ‘Murder’.

No, insists Dr Isander, scooping the deceased off to instant interment without post-mortem, you must have misheard: Jon loved his late mummy and longed to be reunited with her: he must have said ‘Mother’. Puck’s unnerved enough to phone Eje to chat and someone listening to the conversation is concerned enough to try to smother her to death with a pillow that night, a fate Puck escapes by pretending to snuff it, causing the naive would-be-murderer to leave before completing the job.

Not that Puck mentions someone’s tried to shuffle her off this mortal coil. She wants out (in her trousers) but Hallman won’t let her, she has a contract, don’t mention the pillow. It’s handy that Eje’s phoned Christer and Christer has promptly dropped all his Stockholm duties again and driven up country to snatch Puck out, nothing suspicious about that (anyway, we know Christer’s going to wind up taking Ylva off somewhere to give her a right good seeing too: she may be neither as old, brassy or busty as his usual shags, but there’s really no-one else about in the story with whom our doughty Head of Murder can gets his rocks off).

Without a legal leg to stand on, there’s nothing Christer can do about the late Jon, that is, until Professor Hallman pauses in the act of slagging off his wife’s cooking yet again to keel over dead with strychnine poisoning, thus opening the door for Christer to investigate. It’s another of those mysteries where it would be quicker to list those who didn’t have a motive to off the horrible Prof, except that this turns out to consist only of Cecilia and Puck.

So investigations proceed with their usual caution, whilst Christer, having nowhere to sleep thanks to a convention having take up every room in the hotel, ends up sharing with Puck: he gets the couch. Here the programme teases us, as Puck wakes to find Christer all over her and starts helping him get out of his vest toot-de-sweetie, only for her to wake up for real and find she was only dreaming and he’s very chivalrously snoring his head off on that uncomfortable looking couch.

Eventually Jon’s autopsy reveals all, via a red herring starring Kore, and Christer solves the case, arresting Doctor Isander for killing Halman out of love for the serial suicide risk Bjorg, and Jon by getting it wrong. It’s all very conventional, but it’s over ten minutes before the end of the film, which is where the series injects some pace for the first time: first Eje turns up, the press having insinuating that Christer’s been boffing Puck, then Christer has one of those Ellery Queen moments where he pulls another suspect out of his ass by discovering a brand new piece of evidence that changes everything. Because Puck’s at the house, typing up the manuscript, alone with the other suspect: Cecilia.

Cecilia, who is the sister of Ann-Louise, the young woman that Kore loved but Hallman had made pregnant, whose life he stole for ‘Disa’, who walked into the lake causing Cecilia to decide to exert vengeance. And, since Puck has worked it out, the house has got to be burned down with Puck in it, helpless in the face of one mother of a morphine overdose, plunged into her neck even as the dashing through the snow Eje and Christer arrive in the nick of time…

I’ve hammed the description up a bit because, when you analyse this objectively, it’s so easy to spoof in this manner. But this is a better episode that any since the first, and it would not be difficult to give it the praise it was due for being willing to inject both pace and a degree of tension into the series. Though Crimes of Passion cannot ultimately escape the degree of cliche with which it is invested, presumably from the original Maria Lang novels, whose prolificity suggest a certain formulaic approach, it is a cut above and I’ll certainly acknowledge that, whilst not being prepared to entertain too high hopes for next week’s finale.

Travelling with Tinniswood: Uncle Mort’s North Country

Uncle Mort

Uncle Mort looked at his empty pint pot and sighed deeply.
“What’s wrong these days in the North is that nothing interesting ever happens,” he said. “In the old days, life was full of interest. There was always something to get your teeth into, something to laugh at – mining disasters, epidemics, mob violence on the streets, mass unemployment, Henry Hall on the wireless. It’s not like that now, Carter. Life’s no interest whatsoever.”
“Mm,” said Carter Brandon.
He finished his pint of beer and looked out of the window. A lick of fire ran along the ridge of the roof of the barn. Smoke tumbled and surged out of the doors and wrapped itself round the breeze.
“That’s not a bad fire there,” said Carter Brandon.
“No,” said Uncle Mort. “It’s not a patch on the fires we had in the old days. I remember the day we had a chimney fire at Number 47. It went up like a tinder box. They all copped it bar the lodger. Mind you, he were a tram conductor, so he knew what to do in an emergency.”
“What was that?” said Carter Brandon.
“Save your own skin and run like buggery,” said Uncle Mort.
There’s a world of difference between reading a writer’s output throughout his career, devouring each new book as it is published, and doing the same in an unbroken stream, one after another, in order to write about them.
In the one case, each book is approached in isolation, a freshness allowed by the intervening year since the writer last committed themselves to print. Each book is an event, a new work, irrespective of whether it forms part of a series or not.
In the other, it is merely the development of a pattern, the extension of threads all too visible from the accumulation of words. Sometimes that only enriches the experience, deepens it in the complex understanding of the writer as his concerns travel from book to book.
The title of this latest book invites us to see it as a new Brandon family book. But it isn’t. There’s no Mr and Mrs Brandon, no Pat. There’s Carter Brandon, but he’s a cypher, a device to keep things from being an unrelieved monologue by Uncle Mort. He’s a prop, basically. Because this isn’t really a book. It’s another prose version of a Radio 4 series of shorts, ten minute reads. No stories, no extended themes.
It’s the Brigadier again, only not with the Brigadier, but with Uncle Mort, without cricket and with the North as its theme. Only, as with the Brigadier, it’s not the real North but rather a fantasy of it, a fantastically-drawn exaggeration of the stereotype of the North of back streets, gloom, bad weather, drabness, cold, misery, deprivation, all of it wallowed it by hard-headed, true born northerners who have a deep, instinctive distrust of enjoyment, entertainment and happiness.
It’s always been an underlying element of Tinniswood’s comedy, something that made it so rich a comedy of recognition for those of us old enough to have known, for ourselves as well as via parents and grandparents, the essential reality beneath the beautifully judged comic gloom.
Looking back to Call it a Canary, where the relish in conditions none of us would ever want to return to began to approach pantomime, it’s easy to see the effect of the Brigadier books: the exaggeration beyond parody, the increasingly florid language, the wallowing in things to create a cumulative effect.
But where the Northern ethos was wobbling in that novel, away from its foundation in firm and real soil, Uncle Mort’s North Country sends it spinning into freefall, leading to a flat, face-down fall.
The concept is that Carter Brandon has a week off work, which he intends to spend on days out, on which his Uncle Mort joins him. Already, the former tightness of the Brandon books is abandoned. Where’s Mr Brandon? Where’s Pat? Where is the family, which has always been a family?
Where is the blood red Mini Cooper S? It’s acknowledged within the stories that these vignettes are taking place in a contemporary future (the final episode is titled 2084, making explicit that this is taking place almost two decades after Call it a Canary, in which case Carter’s in his late forties and Uncle Mort over ninety!). Instead, Carter Brandon drives an old, rusty, tired Ford Zodiac, a nostalgic recollection of the middle Sixties – my uncle owned one between 1964-66 – that is wholly unrealistic.
But we shouldn’t be looking for any form of realism here. These two remaining members of the Brandons have been cut loose from both narrative and reality, even the magic reality established in A Touch of Daniel. There is no real relation between the Uncle Mort and Carter of the novels and this pair here (played on Radio 4 by Stephen Thorne and Peter Skellern respectively).
Unfortunately, I can’t separate myself that way. And it is Uncle Mort’s North Country that is badly diminished by the experience. Ten short exercises in wallowing, at least three of which take place at home, without the excuse of the drive to allow Uncle Mort to glumly excoriate what he sees.
Ironically, it is the first of these three piece, Dog Days, which gave me the most pleasure out of the book. It takes place in the evening, on Uncle Mort’s allotment, over beers and beer-crate seats, and it’s a tribute to the long-lost, entirely fictional dogs of the North, and their characteristics and qualities. It’s the litany of names that draws me in: Lancashire setters and Bolton otterhounds, Cumberland whippets and Congleton pointers, Morecambe Bay shrimphounds and Runcorn retrievers.
Though I’m a cat person by inclination and experience, names such as that open a door into a kingdom of varieties peculiar to my own part of the world and, in a manner rare for this book, conjure up a false past that I find myself unaccountably nostalgic for.
Given that one episode is given over to a particularly mean-minded attack on Arthur Scargill, via the medium of his aesthetic twin brother Dornford, it’s a rare gentle and lovely moment.
Seen in the pattern of the plethora of books Tinniswood had published in the Eighties, Uncle Mort’s North Country – the tenth of eleven published between 1981-87 – now stands out as the moment when Peter Tinniswood’s career as one of the finest comic writers of his era came to an end. So much had been spent on the Brigadier, and the form that suited his dyspeptic and deluded ramblings down to a tea, that Tinniswood’s ability to write more concentrated work had begun to atrophy.
As long as he could confine this to the Brigadier and his increasingly potty world, there was a hope  that he could concentrate his mind upon better things in his other work. Instead, the wall broke inwards and not outwards.

A Universe in One Comic Book: Astro City (Vol. 3) #15

Last month, I excoriated issue 14 of Astro City as being well below the standard of invention and innovation Kurt Busiek has displayed in the two decades it has existed. I also accused the issue of making its second part, issue 15, entirely predictable.

These were my exact words with regard to that:

“Yeesh, it’s an awful story, and so is issue 15, which anyone who has read more than half a dozen mainstream comics already knows will go like this: Fred and Ellie will be betrayed by whoever’s pulling Fred’s strings: Ellie’s ‘Friends’ will break her out of jail: they will release her from her conditioning that has concealed from her that she actually used to be a genius-type super-villain (almost certainly the ‘Vivi Viktor’ who, in the Seventies, was taken out by Mirage and The Point Man) and her robots actually buried those memories: that Ellie and her now potentially lethal ‘friends’ will wreak vengeance upon the manipulator, saving Fred into the bargain: and that Ellie’s conscience and her love for her mis-treated friends will win out, and she will not go back to her villainous past.”

So here’s the crunch: was I right or have I made a complete fool of myself?

And the answer is that I wasn’t right, not on every single point, and not on the major one, but then again I called so much of what appears in issue 15 that I think I’m entitled to call it a high-scoring draw.

What I definitely missed out on was that Ellie was never a supervillain, and wasn’t Vivi Viktor. No, Ellie was a scientific genius and every bit as much an idyllist as her modern persona suggests, but it’s her genius that has gone into all these robots, and it’s her robots what do break her out of jail so she can escape the programming she’s suffered under for decades, programming instilled in her by the aforementioned Vivi Viktor (a real name), who is the villain behind all this.

And once Ellie allows her memories to return – in a manner that suggests she could have let them return any time she wanted, which of itself raises moral complications that simply do not get considered in this story – she quickly and easily exposes Vivi because, as Ellie has been pointing out since the beginning, the Robots – ALL of them – are her friends (I may barf).

So where does Vivi Viktor come in to all of these? Why, she’s Ellie’s old room-mate, friend and scientific partner, except that where Ellie is open hearted and sunny and believes in everything being good and nice, and all fluffy bunnies, Vivi was insecure, defensive, self-directed and badly traumatised due to an horrific childhood incident. Which is why she nicked all Ellie’s designs, and Ellie’s brain.

So, I missed out on the major point, but got everything else right as filtered through the fact of Busiek having displaced the culprit into a rather thin and cliched technological villain, complete with cardboard dialogue. It’s still not good enough to live with Astro City‘s past. The whole point of Astro is and always has been that you don’t know how it’s going to work out, that you’re presented with the outline of a familiar scenario and then Busiek opens it up to show you glorious alternatives that you’d never imagined for yourself. That’s not what happened here.

There’s not much else in the story, and what there is is mostly echoes of existing stories. Ellie’s brainwashing into a dumber person has Identity Crisis and why-Dr-Light-became-a-moron smeared all over it, whilst the final scene, of heroes coming out of the woodwork to praise the genius Eleanor Jennerson and bring her into their world with a vengeance is a replay of Samaritan and Sully the ‘Sideliner’ in issue 4. The only original of itself element is Ellie telling nephew Fred not to be such a weak, easy way out nebbish any more.

And that really is it. As you may be able to tell, I can and do enjoy ripping the piss out of certain things that are crap dressed in tinfoil (like 24 – Live Another Day), but I don’t like doing it to something I respect and like, and which I desperately want to see doing well. So in future I’m going to keep my opinion of Astro City to myself. I’d like to think that at some point I’ll find the series restored to its proper glories and that I can honestly praise it in the way I want but, having regard to the preview of issue 16, I don’t think that will be happening in October of this year.

Thanks to to Astrozac, for his comments in recent months, which have enlivened this increasingly burdensome series of blogs: hope you stay enjoying this more than I do, buddy.

George R R Martin’s The Armageddon Rag

I’ve never ever watched Game of Thrones.
I did start reading the books, working my way through the first two in quick succession, but by the time I got to the end of the third – which was so long, it had to be divided into two volumes for the paperback edition – I just ground to a halt, unable to summon enough interest to continue trying to follow this sprawling story.
But I was something of a George R R Martin fan at an earlier time, for most of the Eighties and into the early Nineties, and had a solid collection of his short stories and novels. Back then he was a primarily SF writer with a leavening of Fantasy, who was also straying across the border into Horror.
I still have one of his books to this day, my favourite of all his work. It was a departure in that it was neither SF nor Fantasy nor yet Horror, though there is a substratum of the latter that playing a growing part in the second half of the book. But it’s primarily a realistic work, albeit with some unusual dimensions.
And it wasn’t until last year that I discovered that this book was Martin’s commercial nadir, that it performed so badly that it almost ended his career!
The Armageddon Rag (1983) is set in the mid-Eighties and centres upon Sandy Blair, a failing novellist living in New York with a realtor (i.e., estate agent). Sandy’s first, very Sixties-journey oriented novel was very successful but his second and third sold in decreasing quantities and his fourth, which is just edging over the border into being overdue, is terminally stuck on p37.
Which is when Sandy gets a call from Jared Patterson, owner and editor of the Groundhog, which he and Jared co-founded as a more radical Rolling Stone back in the late Sixties when Sandy was an optimistic radical and proponent of the counter-culture. Before Jared swindled him out of his co-ownership. A once prominent rock group manager has been murdered violently, the manager of Sandy’s favourite band, the counter-culture’s most famous, successful and revolutionary group, The Nazgul. The Nazgul came to an abrupt end in 1971, playing a free festival at West Mesa, when an unknown sniper shot the band’s lead singer, Patrick Henry (‘Hobbit’) Hobbins on stage.
Will Sandy write an article on the killing, and the band’s surviving members? It’s a diversion, for a relative pittance, and both his partner Sharon and his Agent think of it as irresponsible, immature and an excuse to go back to his adolescence. But Sandy jumps at it, and almost immediatey starts reverting to his disreputable past. It turns out that the killing had a decidedly ritual aspect to it, a ritual relating to the Nazgul, West Mesa and the band’s last album, Music to Wake the Dead. When Hobbit was shot, the band were playing the long track that took up side two of the album: ‘The Armageddon/Resurrection Rag’.
One thing that must be accepted before reading this novel is that George R R Martin’s musical tastes are fixed upon the Sixties, by which I mean the late Sixties, a period that extends into the early Seventies. His Nazgul are the voice of a generation, and their West Mesa festival is the end of the Sixties: Woodstock, Altamont, West Mesa, the great trilogy. And because the Nazgul were cut off at their prime, the promise of the Sixties, the prospect of betterment, the hope, the peace, the change, was cut off and left to wither.
Martin makes no bones about it throughout The Armageddon Rag that any music from after that period is shit, commercial dross, tasteless, boneless pablum (and that doesn’t even count disco!). Like it or not, for the duration of this book, you have to accept that anything you like is below contempt. Because the Sixties ended, because the new world, of peace and love, was prevented from being born. Because its potential was snuffed out.
Because Sandy’s investigation doesn’t only take in the three remaining Nazgul members: guitarist Rick Maggio, bloated, confused, stillfull of unrealisable belief, drummer Gopher John, slimmed down, club-owner, ruined when a fire burns out his club, killing half a trapped audience, and bassist/writer Peter Faxon, pale, cool, still prolific, but hollowed out.
But as he travels, Sandy takes the chance to drop in on all the old gang, all his old friends, widely dispersed and living lives that are in some way broken by their pasts: Maggie, Lark Ellyn, Bambi Lassiter, Froggy Cohen and Slum, all misfits, either trying to fit in, running, hiding or, in Slum’s case, tortured by both past and an evil present.
Even though the article vanishes out from underneath him, even though his relationship with Sharon dries up and blows away, even as he is filled with a growing despair at what happened to his generation, Sandy keeps digging. Certain patterns are beginning to form. There’s somebody out there, someone who used to be part of the Underground, with a mission to put the Nazgul back together, and with a startling approach to replacing Hobbit.
And there’s the growing realisation on Sandy’s part that something, be it deep intelligence or else something with an entirely less rational basis, is shaping events around Music to Wake the Dead. Simultaneously afraid and unable to avoid what’s happening, Sandy accepts the post of the Nazgul’s publicist, on a tour that’s a growing disaster until something – let’s not be too dogmatic about what – starts to come to the band’s aid.
Only on certain songs, mind you. Certainly not the new ones, the one’s Faxon insists on playing, fervently opposed to being a nostalgia act. But something creeps in, into the ever increasing number of Music to Wake the Dead songs that have to be played. And with the tour coming to an end in a re-staging of West Mesa, where the band will play the album in its entirety, including rthe complete, never-played ‘Armageddon/Resurrection Rag’, Sandy knows that whatever is being planned will come to fruition that night.
He has two things to do. He has to find out who ‘Charlie’ is, the one missing element, the ‘Joker in the Deck’ from Side One. And he has to decide whether to let the Armageddon Rag last loing enough to cross the musical bridge into the Resurrection Rag.
To read this book, you have to check in at the door any belief that there was any worthwhile music after the end of the Sixties. That may sound to be a somewhat trivial point, but it is an intrinsic part of the story that Martin is portraying. Music is both a symbol and at the centre of what Martin wants to get over: this is a book whose thesis harks back to those few years or hope, freedom and change, that sees them as something unequivocally good, that was forced back and broken. That the world that ensued is cruel and hollow, a world full of chains, seen and unseen.
That if only something can be done to reverse it, to restore the path things were on, then lives could once again begin to grow towards an ideal that we are far from realising.
It’s an ideal that many will see as naïve, but it’s a powerful one, especially to those of us that were, however peripherally, part of that time when things were possible, and who have seen possibility shut down in the most horriying fashion over long decades until a rich and greedy few have fenced it off for their private pleasure.
It was an ideal that was naïve at the time the book was written, on the eve of Yuppiedom and red braces, though it’s late enough to be directly contemptuous of the forerunners of that age.
And it’s a bloody good book, which handles its growing revelations and implications with skill and care, and it certainly does not deserve the obscurity it suffers. I can only think that it sold so badly because so many of its audience were scared of its message, or were too personally close to the Sixties and feared being swallowed up into something larger than their own times offered.

Back with a Bang!

I am an unashamed fan of The Big Bang Theory and I have been since seeing what was probably no later than its second episode, on Channel 4, many years ago. I have belly-laughed at its jokes and its characters more often than any other comedy series I have seen, and such is the beauty of this series that there are episodes I have seen literally a half dozen times over, and still I find myself exploding in delighted roars every time I see them again.

Honestly, there is no other series about which I could say that.

So, does that make TBBT some sort of uber-comedy, perfect in every respect, an ideal never to be bettered? No, of course it doesn’t. One other thing that distinguishes TBBT from everything else I have seen is that it is a massive success in America, the top TV show on that side of the Atlantic, a series that, after completing seven seasons, was renewed for another three! I really am not used to finding myself in the middle of a mass audience for anything (except Manchester United, and that’s something completely different).

All I can say is that The Big Bang Theory is the comedy that is most perfectly attuned to my sense of humour and my experiences in life.

For those who, strange though it may be, have no idea what TBBT is about, it centres upon four highly intelligent but deeply geeky and socially inept scientists, and the beautiful, blonde, mid-western would-be actress who moves in across the landing. Penny may be considerably less smart than Leonard and Sheldon, indeed be not that clever at all, but she possesses all the street smarts and more, enough for all the geeks with plenty left over to spare.

From there, the show has expanded its cast and range,and in recent series has taken on a Friends-like aspect. Howard, the short, Jewish, sex-obsessed, mother-dominated nerd has married the short, waspish Bernadette, Sheldon, who occupies a place on the autism spectrum, who is wholly self-obsessed, has found a girlfriend in the perpetually frustrated Amy, who took nearly four seasons just to get him to kiss her.

What makes it work so spectacularly well with me is that I understand these characters. I may not be up on the latest developments in fantasy and SF in comics, TV, games, films etc., but they speak my language, and it’s a language I’m fluent at. I know the jokes, I know the references, I’ve stood in their shoes. And when it comes to the social ineptness, yearning towards but clumsiness with women, the lack of confidence, the lack of success that they all collectively and individually suffer, I’ve stood in those shoes too,and I’e currently got a pair that, in a dim light, look pretty much the same.

Penny is, of course, both a fantasy and a joy. Kaley Cuoco is gorgeous, but more important than that, she’s a superb natural comedian, with brilliant timing on pauses and double-takes. That after seven seasons she’s gotten engaged to Leonard is highly improbable, but within the characters these two have played since 2007, is entirely believable within the series (and doubtless enhanced by the fact that Cuoco and Johnny Galecki, who plays Leonard, were involved in a secret relationship in the early years of the show.

I will be honest and say that I found season seven to be patchy, unlike its predecessors. Sheldon, played briliantly by Jim Parsons, has dominated the show since its early days, but Sheldon has progressed far less than the others: it is, after all, an integral part of his character that he is both impervious and ultra-resistant to change, but it does make him very wearing on occasions, and the humiliations he heaps on the ever-hopeful Amy do come close to infringing the Law of Comedy of Embarrassment at the best of times.

Anyway, the whole point of this post is to celebrate the return of the show for season eight: the by now traditional double-episode premiere, broadcast around midnight our time in America, and already streamed and eagerly devoured here. There are new themes: Sheldon has returned from the rail trip he set out on at the end of season 7, having criss-crossed the whole of America without once leaving the train station: he has finaly got his wish to stop studying the now-exploded String Theory and change his field to Dark Matter, but has been punished horribly: he had had to accept a promotion to Junior Professor and more salary, but now has to teach. Sionce every student thinks he’s obnoxious, nobody’s signed up for his class, except Howard who, after years of Sheldon belittling him over his not having a Ph.D, has finally decided to go for it.

Meanwhile, Penny – who has cut her hair surprisingly short, without compromising Kaley Cuoco’s looks – has lucked her way into a serious non-acting job as a pharmaceutical rep for the company where Bernadette works (she gets the job because her interviewer is every bit as afraid of the tiny, squeaky-voiced Bernadette as Penny is!).

It’s still taking small steps, but with three more years at least to run, The Big Bang Theory isn’t going to let things stagnate completeky, and it has my permission to develop in this manner for as long as it likes. I’m still as into it as ever, and life is naturally sunnier, even in stressful times, by the prospect of a new episode coming back.

Penny, Leonard, Sheldon, Howard, Raj, Bernadete, Amy, Stuart – welcome back buddies!

Travelling with Tinniswood: The Brigadier’s Brief Lives

I much enjoyed watching on the moving television her series, The History of Western Civilisation.
I confess, though, that when she started singing in her weak litle voice, I turned down the sound and started playing with the reamer on my pipe smoker’s compendium.
It has always been a great solace to me in times of stress and hardship.
Last week I broke my dibbler while watching Lulu.
A young man of sallow complexion, who appears to have the ambition to run faster than anyone else in the world.
With a personality like his I think he is very wise.
I do like women with gaps in their front teeth.
They are so damnably useful when it comes to scraping carrots.
The sixth Brigadier book can quickly be seen as a companion to The Brigadier’s Tour (indeed, Tour and Brief Lives would later be released in a combined hardback as The Brigadier’s Collection). It’s the same format, a series of ‘profiles’, of greater or lesser length, only this time not of cricketers but rather personalities: people well-known in 1985.
Of course, the Brigadier being the Brigadier, there are the odd cricketer or two herein, but in keeping with the tone of the book, they are not usually described in reference to their sporting achievements.
It’s a better, frequently funnier book than the last few Brigadier collections, simply because, by expanding the frame of reference, Tinniswood opens out the humour and, increasing the range of subjects, gives himself more room.
I have always cherished the comment above as to Sebastian Coe, and consider it to still be more than apt, notwithstanding the inevitable decline of his best racing speed.
Some of the Brigadier’s comments are delightfully scabrous, some demonstrate a twisted affection for characters, everything is seen through the peculiar, disoriented, not-a-prejudiced-man-but lens of the scion of Witney Scrotum.
Having said that, there’s little I can usefully add.
A very shuperior short of Shoshialisht.

Saturday Eurocrime: Crimes of Passion – Roses, Kisses and Death

The one that hangs around with Puck and Christer

With merely a pause to comment that, for a second successive week, the Crimes of Passions series offers us another clunky title, let us sweep ourselves back to early-fifties Sweden and the adventures of Christer, Puck and the one we don’t need for anything important. Though let us not ignore the character development of dear, stolid Eje: whilst Puck continues to be the only grown woman in Sweden who wears trousers, her husband now wears glasses.

We are well away from Stockholm again, though the base of operations isn’t named in this episode. That it’s once more in the country is quickly established by the total absence of electric lighting, not to mention the ubiquitous body of water: the animated opening credits feature a cartoon boat being rowed, so it’s not very observant of me to reach the fourth week before recognising that particular trope.

Once more we are at a special occasion, this time the engagement of Head of Murder Christer Wijk to the lovely, blonde Gabriella, and I am not being sarcastic when I call her lovely as the young lady – who is clearly several years younger than we’re used to from our star copper, whose penchant so far has been for the more voluptuous and experienced, thirty-to-fortysomething – is genuinely attractive in a way that, to date, the authentically fifties females of the series have not. Needless to say, Puck and Einar are on their way to celebrate, which should set Christer quaking, given that whenever that pair turn up to a party, bodies start dropping all over the place.

Indeed, they don’t even need to have arrived before the first skeleton is being dug out of the ground in which it’s been buried for twenty years. It belongs to good-time girl Gertrude, and it’s discovered by her orphaned son Bjorn, who is led direct to the whereabouts of his missing mother when Sofie the maid brings tell to him of Aunt Fanny’s ghost story about ‘Odd Gertrud’.

Nevertheless, our carrion crows are soon on the spot, though Puck is busy sneezing over everything, and not showing too much interest in corpses where the blood isn’t still oozing. And Christer’s still more concerned with his lovely fiancee than his professional responsibilities, which he’s really only exercising because the local constable is a bit self-confessedly wet behind the ears.

Where last week was a good old village mystery, this week is a family secrets affair. There are skeletons in more places than under the earth store, they are hanging in every cupboard. Grandfather Frederik has a heart attack, which leads to the finger of suspicion being pointed at him for guilt over Gertrud’s death, especially after he changes his will to benefit both the orphaned Bjorn (‘gypsy’, ‘riffraff’) and daughter-in-law Helene, aunt to the lovely Gabriella, and a bit of an incipient lush. In fact, if anyone’s Christer’s type…

Frederik’s heart attack is followed by death in the early hours, discovered – need I tell you? – by Puck, who can’t sleep after a good shag from Eje, and who’s just in time to alert Christer to the fact that it is not a follow-up heart attack, but rather poison.

All that remains is to set Puck up to be able to dog Christer’s heels without too much grumbling from Eje, which is done by sending him back to the city for a lecture, and we can settle into the now familiar process of gently stirring the waters until they’re sufficiently muddy that nobody has any idea as to what is going on.

It’s very much like last week. Everybody’s lying, the story develops very slowly, the stipulated third body turns up, and it’s all so low key that it’s difficult to assume any urge to solve it before the murderer is actually revealed. No, seriously, I wasn’t bothered about who it turned out to be, though when the final drawing-room revelation was made, the murderer was actually exposed by Christer on his own, with no interjections from Puck (I told you she was thick with a cold).

Long before then, enough suspicion has been stirred in to make it clear that Christer is not going to be marching down the aisle with the lovely Gabriella, and it’s probably a good job too since he’d only invite Puck and Eja to the wedding, and that would just mean even more murders. It seems that the lovely Gabriella has had a lifelong thing for gypsy riffraff Bjorn. Christer takes it manfully, chucking his ring in the all-important body of water and trying to make a half-hearted pass at Puck at the same time (they share the same interests, you see, as the catty Helene has already pointed out).

Fortunately for Christer, he and the catty Helene also share the same interest in shagging, and she’s exactly the type of voluptuous and experienced, thirty-to-fortysomething he usually gets off with, and despite the fact that she’s actually the wife of the murderer and not in the least traumatised by the end of her marriage, he’s more than happy to whisk her off: well, she’s got big tits and is obviously keen on putting it about a bit to make up for lost time.

There’s only two more left and I’ll tune in for both, but it’s fairly easy to see why the Swedes have not yet seen fit to broadcast these stories except to those who, for reasons of their own, have deliberately requested them. They’re neither offensively or expressy bad, just slow and a bit meandering: insubstantial airfill, to adaopt a recently coined phrase. We can but hope that BBC4 has something rather more serious planned for three weeks from tonight.

Uncollected Thoughts: Terry Pratchett – Dragon’s at Crumbling Castle


The first of two Pratchett books due for publication this year, Dragons at Crumbling Castle is a collection of fourteen children’s stories written by Pratchett when he was a young journalist, and published between 1966 and 1973 in the ‘Children’s Circle’ section of the Bucks Free Press. There’s been some minor tinkering with the originals, to make them less dated – references to the Lottery and the Council Tax – but otherwise these stories have not been interefered with since their original publication. This is very much ‘prentice work from Pratchett, and his introduction hints that he would have preferred to keep these buried and forgotten, and on the evidence of the first couple of pages of the title story, that would indeed have been the wisest course.

These are not children’s stories as Pratchett has written them during his professional career: Johnny Maxwell, the nomes, Nation. These are k children’s stories to be read by fathers and grandfathers to toddlers on their laps, until they reach the age of about seven. They lack even the merest scintilla of depth, the lines are only marginally less spaced out than in a board book, and even then are bulked out to 336 pp by applications of large, shouty letters in a fantastical variety of typography and a constant stream of sub-Quentin Blake illustrations.

When Pratchett agreed to have his debut novel, The Carpet People, (written during this period) reissued, he insisted first on a thorough re-write. Frankly, he should not have let these stories out without doing the same, though to be honest I doubt there’s enough in any of them to provide a basis for a better treatment. Not even the two ‘Carpet People’ tales reprinted here, which are the most substantial of the bunch, and the only ones to come anywhere near suggesting the foreshadow of the adult Pratchett peering through the fog.

I shalln’t be keeping this book: in fact, it was listed on e-Bay less than eighteen hours after I bought it. It’s for two classes of people only: Terry Pratchett completists, and the parents, grandparents and uncles of children aged seven and under who still think sitting on laps to have stories read to them is a cool way to spend their time.

Tarns – Sprinkling Tarn

How can you not love Sprinkling Tarn? If you were to take away its magnificent setting, beneath the cliffs of Great End, if you would discount its air of peace and remoteness even as it stands so close to one of the busiest thoroughfares in the whole Lake Ditrict, you would still have its picturesque shape, of a broad triangle made distinctive by a long projection across its northern waters that transforms the body of water by providing an idyllic, almost island concealing a near-secret adjunct.
This peninsula immediately invites exploration, the urge to cross its narrow neck and walk out into theTarn itself, on dry land by surrounded by its waters almost on all four sides.
It’s a place for refreshing the spirit, and reminding yourself that there are places where the world is a fine place to be and the heart can simultaneously be relaxed and excited.
Having said all that, it’s a shame to admit that whilst I’ve seen endless photos of Sprinkling Tarn, I’ve only seen it under the sun twice, although the first time was a diversion off the Esk Hause/Sty Head route, just for the sake of seeing it.
I came closer later on a sunny summer Sunday, out walking with a would-be girlfriend who lived and worked in Lancaster. We planned a day out, under my guidance, and my fell of choice was Seathwaite Fell, demonstrating a certain selfishness on my part given that it was on my list of emaining Wainwrights.
It was still a pleasant choice, given the restrictions we had on time, and it was a very enjoyable day. We started from Seathwaite, heading first for Stockley Bridge, then turning up Sty Head. Though I was familiar with the Pass from its Wasdale end, throughout many years and visits, this was the first – and indeed only – time I’d approached from Stockley Bridge. I knew that this end of Sty Head had been scarred tremendously by inconsiderate walkers, but it was an ironic pleasure to see that the National Trust had been at work, as they had at Sour Milk Gill, laying a single, well-graded route, sufficiently positive that the old and ugly short cuts had faded from view.
The walk was very simple. I studied the crags protecting Seathwaite Fell’s broad, flat summit, identifying the breach we’d need to use and, when beneath it, led us uphill the pathless fellside, through the gully and out onto the summit with little more effort needed to reach the top at 1,970′.
My companion was one of only three women I’ve taken to the tops of Lake District fells: it was the most strenuous of those walks, she being already an experienced walker, but the only one that didn’t culminate with a hug and kiss at the cairn.
I said that my pleasure at Sty Head’s intial firmness of path was ironic. This was because, standing on the summit, looking around and up at all the higher fells visible, the Scafell and Great Gable groups, I could not help but see paths in every direction. Famous paths: Esk Hause, Sty Head, Aaron Slack, Windy Gap to Gable, the Breast Route. Each of them visible for miles as painful, broad scratches and slashes, exposed undersoil and stone, blurred lines kicked into these astonishingly potent  fellsides.
It hurt to see these things, to see what our enthusiasm for these high and quiet places had done, our masses tramping and suffing along, destroying everything underfoot. I don’t like the National Trust’s spiral crazy-paving paths and their imposition of an equally disfiguring artificiality on the places we go to escape such things. They’re a lesser evil, that’s all.
Standing there, I wondered if we should be banned from these wilds, barred from kicking them yet further to death, if that was the only true solution.
Thankfully, no such scars affected Sprinkling Tarn and its shores. We passed it by, heading for home over the higher neck of land, higher than the summit, that connects the fell to Great End, but didn’t visit its shores, because we didn’t know each other well enough, because it was already starting to show that we were not on enough of a wavelength to sit or lie besides the cool, charming waters, or find a tuck in the shoreline where we could sprawl out and do nothing, or maybe engage in some enthusiastic lipwork.
Instead, we descended to Sty Head, and from there to Seathwaite, diverting along the Taylorgill Force variation, which was my first visit to that shattered ravine, which is the reason I’ve never approached Sty Head along the main route since.