Writing About It: The Unwritten


The_Unwritten_1

Over the past four years, since discovering the availability of whole series of comics on DVD, I’ve been having a great time collecting series I never imagined I’d get to read. There’s been at least three times when I’ve believed, sometimes for a couple of months or more, that I was nearing the limit of my interest, only to decide on fresh things to read. After all, there are and always have been many more comics that are bad than are good, and I really do have no more than minimal interest in Marvel.
But for the first time in this relentless pursuit of novelty I have gone back to a series I’ve read, and fairly recently at that, not because I’ve found a more comprehensive and complete collection, but simply because I want to read it again.
First, let me go back a bit.
In those already far-off-seeming days when Stockport Libraries used to have a Graphic Novel section, I’d scan their choices with interest, looking for things I didn’t buy. Some of it was just light reading, things that I never would, in a million years, consider buying, but some of it was stuff that looked interesting, that might actually be worth my time. And some of those were seriously worth my time, and I might have missed them if it hadn’t been for the Library.
The primary example of that was, naturally, 100 Bullets, but the same goes for The Authority and Planetary. It also goes for Mike Carey’s Lucifer, a spin-off of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, which would have caught my attention anyway but which, met via a library ticket, I wanted to read in full, and by God or the Prince of Lies, it was absolutely stunning.
So, because of Lucifer, I was biased towards other works by Mike Carey. This included a handful of his Felix Castor novels, written as M R Carey, which I wasn’t too enamoured of, but then I am not into horror. It also led to me reading the first collection of Carey’s Vertigo Comics, The Unwritten, under the title ‘Tommy Taylor and The Bogus Identity’. I wasn’t too impressed.
There were two main reasons for that. One was that the series seemed too dependent on Harry Potter: Tommy Taylor was a boy wizard with two close friends and companions who were as indelibly as Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley as they could be, attending a magical school that might have been called Hagworts for all the degree of difference it made. The other was that I had no idea what was going on, which was deliberate on Carey’s part. Had another Graphic Novel been available to read, it might have been different, especially as the Harry Potter stuff was really only protective colouring and Carey’s real starting point was Christopher Robin Milne, whose childhood was stolen from him and placed into the Winnie the Pooh books I once loved.
But though I never learned anything else about how the series progressed, it was still in my mind when it came to comics being acquirable on DVD-ROM. And once you’ve collected all the ones you want to read and write about, there is still room for simple curiosity. Was The Unwritten any good after all?
I bought it to read, not to write about, but now I have to. Because it is. Very good, in fact. In case you hadn’t heard and were going to not buy it. Because you should.

The_Unwritten

Mike Carey alone is not responsible. He writes the words, and Peter Gross draws the pages, all the way from beginning to end, but is never credited as the art but rather the co-creator, so let’s not diminish his role, automatic as it is for me to assume the ‘writer’ is the primary conceptualiser.
The Unwritten is about Thomas Taylor, who is both real and a fiction, Tom in one, Tommy in the other. Tommy is the boy wizard from the magic school, with the wise professor, the two alliterative companions, Sue Sparrow and Peter Price, and the magical pet, the flying cat, Mingus. Tommy is the star of a thirteen-book long fantasy series written by Wilson Taylor, a reclusive author who disappeared ten years ago. Tom is the son of Wilson, the word made flesh (in a rather more literal way than we assume at first). He’s a professional convention-attendant, having no skills or art of his own, making his living out of being Tommy for the series’ fanatic and over-literal fans (which gives him an ill-fitting Messiah-aspect), whilst hating the sheer lunacy of what he’s doing.
Until at his latest Q&A session, a young woman in the audience, Lizzie Hexam (Hex ’em) stands up and asks who he is. Tom thinks he’s Tom: he’s never been anything else. But Lizzie pulls the rug out from under his feet, showing that old birthday party photos are of another boy, that Tom’s National Insurance number has been stolen from a woman who died in 1998: that Tom is a fake.
As is the case with all such-pseudo-religions, with all fandoms that attract those who think their life is expressed by someone else, the world turns against Tom, he becomes a pariah, the Police start investigating his father’s disappearance for murder by Tom, and the vampire Count Ambrosio, Tommy’s Voldemort, tries to kill him, only for Tom to be rescued by Lizzie Hexam, and gassed unconscious by her.
Why this didn’t impress me as a beginning back then, I really now can’t understand.
From there, the story moves quickly in conventional manner. A ruthless enemy pursues. Lizzie leads Tom on towards a destiny he will not easily understand or accept. He is framed by the ruthless Pullman for half a dozen brutal murders of horror fiction writers.
It’s a four-issue sequence, the right length to begin with, and to warrant using the fifth issue for something that superficially has no connection to the story but which we automatically understand is deep background, enlarging the scope, the extent and the history of the thing we do not know yet. It is, in fact, a conspiracy theory (aren’t they all?) built upon and throughout the life of Rudyard Kipling, but taking in Oscar Wilde and Samuel Mark Twain Clemens, and introducing Leviathan, the great submerged whale.
Don’t get me wrong: I can identify the mechanics, but don’t let their visibility lead you to assume that this series is weak or cliched. It has it’s flaws, and I will point those out when I reach them. But this is a story of great depth, and wondrous imagination. I wouldn’t be re-reading it again so soon it is weren’t.
We rejoin the story with Tom in prison, in France, at Roncevaux – think Roland and Oliver – and banged up with Richie Storey. Storey’s supposed to be an armed robber but instead he’s a reporter, and guess the story? Storey’s also a pillar, like Lizzie Hexam, who has got herself sentenced to the women’s wing. She and Richie are the real-life Sue and Peter. The sequence also burrows deeper into the terrifying aspect of cults, the way that they brainwash their members, or more fearfully how their members brainwash themselves. The Governor’s children, Cosi and Leon, are a junior Sue and Peter, acting out Tommy Taylor’s books for real.
It gets them killed. Because they are not magic. Not in this world, that is.

The Unwritten war of words

The children’s death brings to the fore a running theme throughout the series for many issues to come, that Tom is being moved like a chess-piece along an essential path, for ends that he cannot see and that he can’t yet know about. It’s another, higher level of the manipulation he’s lived through all his life and his response is not just anger or defiance but the bloody-minded determination to kick over the whole apple-cart. It comes over as childish pique, but then what else could it be?
There’s a two-parter dealing with the taming of book turned film, Jüd Süss, a book perverted out of its natural form into rampant anti-semitism by Joseph Goebells (a real book and film and a story I’d never heard of), and another interlude in the form of a children’s story book with talking animals, one of who swore more than he talked and who was rude, violent and trying to kill the author because he’d been condemned there by Wilson Taylor, whose 14th Tommy Taylor book was just coming out in the ‘real’ world.
But this was just a prelude to a complex sequence of events, folded up inside each other like fractal dimensions, and spreading in a multitude of directions that started to demonstrate just how original Carey and Gross were being with their escalating fantasy. Yes, the unoriginal ingredients were essential to this: a hidden conspiracy that has directed history, the lone opponent, Wilson Taylor, who has created Tom/Thomas/Tommy in ways we have yet to see, Richie Savoy bitten by the great fictional adversary, Count Ambrosio, and becoming a vampire, Lizzie abandoned to confusion over Jane Waxman and her own birth inside Charles Dickens, and of course Wilson’s death.
It closed on an extra-length story in Choose-Your-Own-Adventure mode that outlined who and what Lizzie Hexam was before she asked that extraordinary question in issue 1.
The thing about The Unwritten is that every issue contains multiple strands that spread, that add yet more layers to the complexity. Issue 19 introduced an old woman, a puppet-maker, who is simultaneously threatened and bribed into joining the cabal after refusing their offer two hundred years earlier, introduced Herman Melville and Moby-Dick, introduced Tom and Lizzie to each other physically and introduced Richie Savoy to the inevitability of what happens when you’ve been bitten by a vampire. All in one issue, without strain or impossible brevity. To be contemplated.
And this is preparatory to Tom being sucked into the book about the Great Whale, to find that Ahab is his father, Wilson Taylor. The idea unfolds as Tom starts to pass through stories, into Sindbad and the Arabian Nights, followed by the arrival of Baron Munchhausen. And from there to realisation, of where the power Wilson Taylor had derived from, the power that has now been bequeathed to him, the power that is Leviathan, as defined by Thomas Hobbes. The Collective Unconscious, the Creative Unconscious.
But that’s only what it is. What it means is something else.
Again, the end of another arc of the main story led to an interlude, in this case another story of the rageful rabbit that was once Pauly Bruckner, whoever he was, invading and terrorising the underside of stories, talking animals who had left their natural habitats to climb an endless staircase, who all want him to ‘inspire’ them. The poor deluded fuckers.
Still it goes deeper, this time into the past, when Wilson worked for the cabal, for Pullman, and fell, so far as he was capable, in love with Miriam Waltzer, writer and artist, under another name, in the fledgling days of comic books, weaving myths into stories, making herself a target for elimination. And so she was eliminated, by a roundabout method that took on metafictional elements. Why not, in a story about stories? Why not cast the comic book industry’s determination that the characters mean more than the creators as one more facet of a cabal guiding the world along lines only they select?

The Unwritten lizzie

At issue 31, The Unwritten went twice-monthly for nearly half a year, five early month issues alternating with late-month issues distinguished by being numbered with a ‘.5’. I can’t find anything to suggest some sort of editorial mandate, which would be very unusual for Vertigo Comics, so it may just be as the website plugs, a story too big to be contained by one issue per month. All the whole-numbered issues dealt with Tom and his little cohort going to war against the cabal, and the half-numbered issues with the cabal’s secret history.
There was an artistic delight in issue 31.5, with chapters drawn by Mike Kaluta, Rick Geary and Bryan Talbot. But that was just a prelude, examples of the cabal’s actions in distant times, but not yet near enough the beginning. This came in no. 32.5, which led us to the time of Gilgamesh, King, hero and slayer of monsters, and Ushnapitim, the first immortal, cursed by his deeds, who seeks to slay Leviathan, beast of stories, so that he might be free, free to be forgotten. We know Ushnapitim as the lethal man, Pullman. The depths of that issue, the creation myth it established, was extraordinary. Neil Gaiman could not have done it better.
Because this went to the heart of the story, which was story itself. Like Gaiman, like Pratchett, Carey and Gross were spinning a story about Story, and how it shapes us. The cabal were, to all intents and purposes, defeated after long millennia of controlling, well, everything, by creating Story in shapes of their own choosing, the ultimate drug. But Leviathan, who held all stories within him, was wounded,
And like that, the story changed.
The four part arc ‘The Wound’, reset things. Lizzie is dead, and so is Pullman (we think). The cabal was been destroyed. Madame Rausch, an aged sorceress, summons Richie Savoy to tell him that something is widening Leviathan’s wound, and that if Leviathan dies, and humans are no longer able to construct or parse stories, it will die too. A new, Australian-based Church of Tommy adds an infiltrating member, a former Cabal-pawn named Dan Armitage. An Indigenous dyslexic Detective of Police.
In some manner, Tom and the wound are one and the same. Only he can heal. Once again, the enters Fiction, a much-changed realm, to do just this, but only after he rescues Lizzie. He is aided by Baron Munchausen, propositioned by Elizabeth Bennett, chased by angry rabbits and winds up in the Land of the Dead where he is saved from drowning by Cosi and Leon, the dead children from Roncevaux. He leads them to the King of the Dead to be asked to be let go, but the King of the Dead is one angry rabbit: yes, that’s right, Pauly Bruckner.
Yes, Carey and Gross are freewheeling with increasing speed, plucking elements from everywhere in their story, and once again I’m wishing I had followed this in instalments, to draw the pleasure out even longer, as serials should be.
It’s brilliant stuff, getting nearer to the heart of things, of what Leviathan is. It brings back Pullman as Satan, it reunites Tom and Lizzie, but not for long. Pullman wants Leviathan dead, to free not just himself but everybody from stories. It’s the same argument that Philip Pullman makes in His Dark Materials, transferred from God to Story (I knew the name wasn’t just a coincidence), the need of humanity to grow up and learn to take responsibility for itself at last, rather than just lie back and allow itself to be directed.
Then the series rammed itself into the biggest self-willed wall I can think of: a (non-) crossover with Fables.
This ran from issue 50 to 54 and was, naturally, co-written by Bill Willingham. At the end of issue 49, Tom has negotiated a way out of Hell for everyone, subject to an Orpheusesque curse, that if anyone at all turns to look back at him, he is condemned. But Tom wants this. He wants to get to the very bottom of things. And when Lizzie just can’t bring herself to do so, rabbit-Pauly willingly does. Causing Tom to fall, all the way down the endless stair… and into the coven of Fables witches, led by Frau Totenkinder, who have been trying to summon a Demon to aid them against Mr Dark.
Now strictly speaking there’s only one thing wrong with this, and that’s everything! Breaking it down a bit, there’s the fact that it’s not a crossover, because it never intersects with Fables, because the Mr Dark storyline was handled completely different in that book, without Tom or Tommy intervening (so that makes this at best a crossover with the Earth-2 Fables), that it brings Carey and Gross’s rapidly developing story to a massive disruption since none of this nonsense has anything to do with The Unwritten except Tom, and it ends the series. The Unwritten ceased after issue 54, leaving everything up in the air.
I don’t know if this was supposed to be some commercial boost, a link to a more profitable property, to stave off cancellation, but either way it was Tom, or rather Tommy, Sue and Peter in a cock-eyed, unalive version of Fables and nothing to do with Tom and his story whatsoever.
If it was meant to stave off cancellation, it failed. The contents of the final issue, cover-dated December 2013, saw everyone killed, including the world of Fables at least. If that were intended, then it was nihilistic in a way that didn’t fit with The Unwritten, nihilistic and also pretentious, a long way from the series’ ordinary level. It’s a cheat. It stinks of editorial intervention, but this was Vertigo, where such things didn’t take place, so I can only conclude that it was devised by Carey and Gross, and it’s a massive let-down.
One note of hope remained, a caption box reading Three Months Time: Apocalypse. And on schedule, cover-dated March 2014, The Unwritten: Apocalypse, number 1 of 12, appeared, to tell us a real ending.

The Unwritten series

Whether you believed it or not, and I resented even being asked to, existence had ended in The Unwritten and had to be brought back into being in Apocalypse, an imposed necessity but an intrusion and an imposition. It was Tom Taylor, slowly rising through different levels of stories until he could find his way back to Lizzie and Richie and the world he saw as real, only to be told the war was already lost.
Perhaps this was always the intention, that Tom be taken away for long enough that Leviathan’s wound reaches critical point, that stories die and mingle, enemies come out in the open and everything ends, turning to nothingness again. But nothingness is merely whiteness, and the white page can have anything at all written upon it. But it still needs a sacrifice, like Middle-earth needed Frodo Baggins, who didn’t get to go Back Again, not properly. All it takes is another story, to place people where they best should be. Except that instead of going to Aman to rest and be cleansed, Bilbo Baggins goes to bring back Frodo.
I’m sorry to go all mystical like this, but in the end the end of The Unwritten should be read, and not explained, so that’s how I choose to end this. Go, read it yourself. It will mean more that way.

Theatre Nights: A Repeat Performance


The second Deluxe Reprint Volume of DC/Vertigo’s Sandman Mystery Theatre arrived today, and I’m even more delighted to see that Volume 3 is already scheduled for July this year. It gives me hope that the entire series will be collected, including those later stories that missed out when the first Graphic Novel series was abandoned.

Volume 2 is thicker than the first, collecting as it does the four-part stories, ‘The Vamp’, ‘The Scorpion’ and ‘Dr Death’, and the never-before-reprinted Sandman Mystery Theatre Annual, an extra forty pages. This will be balanced out to some degree by Volume 2, which collates only two stories from the series, ‘Night of the Butcher’ and ‘The Hourman’ and completes itself with the one-off Sandman Midnight Theatre.

If a six-monthly schedule can be maintained, given that Volume 3 would take us to issue 34 of the seventy published, then we’re looking at six volumes for the complete run, finishing in early 2019. These Deluxe editions are brilliant: if I were independently wealthy, I’d be looking to translate my collections of Lucifer, Fables and Preacher into that format.

Of course, what would be completely and utterly ideal would be a new performance, a new play, the re-uniting of Matt Wagner, Steven T Seagle, Guy Davis, Wesley Dodds, Dian Belmont and all the other denizens of the Mystery Theatre, advancing out of the dust and neglect to fill our eyes beneath the prosenium arch for four more Acts.

But it won’t be. It’s already eighteen years since the final, abbreviated play. Guy Davis no longer draws comics. The Mystery Theatre years sometimes seem as distant and distancing as the Thirties do when we re-read those tales. But to be able to re-read those tales, and to introduce them to new eyes without committing them to penury-by-eBay, is delightful.

Welcome back, old friends.

Uncollected Thoughts: Preacher s1e01


Oh my God, this might just work.

Like Lucifer, the Vertigo Comics series, Preacher, by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon looks, sounds and feels impossible to translate to television. There are things in there you just can’t say and do on the Goggle-Box. Good comics stories tend to be like that. Lucifer the tv series was a perfect example of an abject waste of a subject.

Preacher the tv series is, on the evidence of the pilot episode, tons better than that. Of course, when Lucifer is your bar, any three-month old baby who can crawl over that is already tons better, so the praise that entails is so faint as to be non-existent.

But it worked. And it worked for one simple reason. It took its subject seriously, seriously enough to introduce its three primary characters as clear, recognisable, mainly intact versions of the ones in the comics, to create a setting that sticks closely to the initial set-up in the series, and to only mildly dial back on those aspects of Preacher that will offend the unwashed masses.

So, we have the Reverend Jesse Custer (Dominic Cooper playing downbeat, tired, drained and depressed, a complete contrast to his Howard Stark in Agent Carter), preacher in the West Texas town (?) of Annville. Custer’s following in his Daddy’s footsteps, fulfilling a promise to be one of the Good Guys, extracted by Custer Senior in the final seconds before being shot through the head. But he’s no damned good at it, and his heart’s not there.

And we have Cassidy (Joe Gilgun playing a gloriously OTT role to the hilt,  with a genial Irish accent you could grind knives upon), arriving by plane, out of which he jumps, from 3,000 feet, holding only an umbrella. Cassidy’s a vampire, you see, with an uncomplicated outlook on life, except when it comes to the folks hunting him down and trying to kill him.

And we have Tulip O’Hare (Ruth Negga, balancing tough girl slinkiness, independence and a clear need forher ex-Bad Boy boyfriend Jesse), introduced fighting two guys in a car driving heedlessly through a Kansas cornfield, and impressing a 12 year old girl for life by making a bazooka out of half and dozen coffee cans and a shitload of toy soldiers. Someone’s chasing Tulip too.

We also have Arseface (incredible make-up on Ian Colletti: you simply cannot take your eyes off his mouth), introduced out of place from the comics series, and treated with a greater degree of human sympathy here.

It’s a pilot episode, it’s set-up time, so things move slow, but confidently slow. No-one’s spinning wheels and sacrificing coherency for atmosphere. We are allowed the full hour to get ourselves into Jesse’s mind, to understand where he starts from, what Annville consists of.

Whilst we’re doing that, in fact before we even meet Jesse or get to Texas, something roars out of space, a comet, swinging in through the solar system. It penetrates an African church, a primitive place full of enthusiastic believes, Christianity at its most purposeful and joyful, invades the preacher, infuses him with the power of the Word of God. Until he explodes all over the congregation.

We see this recur a couple of times, with a brilliantly evil twist as the tv news brings reports of Tom Cruise exploding at a Church of Scientology meeting! Then it comes to Annville. And it merges with Jesse. And instead of him quitting, it fills him full of purpose and determination.

It also gives him the Word of God, which has an unexpected consequence which ends the episode with one great big black boom of humour. Throughout the pilot, Jesse is afflicted with Ted, constantly complaining of how his mother, in Florida, phones him up and denigrates him. Jesse patiently counsels him to speak to his mother, tell the truth, be brave, open his heart.

To no avail until the Reverend says it after merging with the comet/creature, Genesis. He has the Word of God. Ted does as he is told. He immediately sets off for Florida, incessantly repeating, “Tell the truth, be brave, open my heart.” He finds his mother in her retirement home. He tells her how he feels, with calm dignity. Then he opens his heart. With a butcher’s knife. And puts it on the table.

You know, I think this just might work.

Lucifer: this just got interesting…


Reconsidering. Maybe…

I’ve already commented a couple of times on the Lucifer TV series, and in uncomplimentary terms as well. My tendency to regard the series as a cheap, juvenile embarrassment unworthy of the character as established by Neil Gaiman and Mike Carey was only strengthened by re-reading the Lucifer series. I don’t recant a word of what I’ve said, and I’d say it all over again in respect of the first thirty-eight minutes of episode 6 this week.

But oh, the last two minutes. In that short space of time, the series changed out of all recognition, and Lucifer became something serious, deadly serious, and extremely dark as well. If this is what they propose for the second half of the series, people,  we – or at least I – have been seriously suckered.

Next week is going to be pretty crucial in terms of what direction they adopt, but if the showrunners intend to seriously follow up on this new development, then I’m going to be eating some serious crow.

To set the scene: as of last week, Lucifer had inveigled his way into the confidence of Detective Chloe’s Lieutenant, to the extent of being made an official civilian consultant to the LAPD, and pretty much partnered with the reluctant Detective. He did not make a great beginning of it, proclaiming himself bored with their first murder, a security guard strangled in a warehouse at the docks, a container stolen.

That was until Mazikeen pointed out that it was Lucifer’s container that had been stolen.

Things progressed as I expected them to progress, with Lucifer unable to contain his simpering, giggling and childish behaviour in the investigation. Since the warehouse in question turned out to be a known repository of contraband imports, Chloe decided Lucifer was a crook, but an investigation of Lux and its books proved to be supernaturally clean.

Eventually, Lucifer came clean on the contents of the container: Russian dolls. And when it was recovered (after the thief committed suicide before spilling to Lucifer who he was working for), he obligingly opened the container to show Chloe a wooden chest packed with Russian dolls.

Then, when she had gone, he opened a secret compartment at the end of the container, which proved to be empty. At that point, I had a flash of correct insight as to what had actually been taken.

Dial things back a moment to Lucifer’s dealings with his therapist, Doctor Linda. Just last week, the Angel Amenadiel, pretending to be a fellow therapist, moved into the office next door, all smiles and bonhomie and volunteering to assist with difficult patients. It appears that Doctor Linda has been gabbing outside the Oath of Confidentiality, for the good unDoctor is here suggesting she follow the line of dealing with Lucifer’s ‘delusion of identity’ by taking it wholly seriously, by talking to him as if he really were the lord of Hell.

Which is where we’re at when the episode clicked into its final two minutes. Linda’s new approach unsettled Lucifer badly, especially when she recites other names he bears. The most disturbing of these is his first name, Samael, the Lightbearer. Lucifer rejects it, doesn’t want to hear it. Linda presses the line that he was God’s favourite son, entrusted with the most difficult task, that of ruling Hell. Lucifer unleashes some very painful thoughts about Hell, using the very lines Neil Gaiman wrote for him during the Sandman story, ‘Season of Mists’. His discomfort is building by the second. It reaches a peak when Linda presses upon him that Angels can not merely Fall, but also rise. But Lucifer cannot, because they’re gone. He punches a hole in the wall and leaves.

Only back at Lux, in the final seconds, is what I suspected immediately made explicit. What has been stolen from Lucifer, stolen from the Devil, is his wings.

And we are now in a completely different story entirely. And I am really looking forward to episode seven.

Lucifer: the four episode test


This one.

Most of the regular TV I watch nowadays comes from American series that, with the still-enjoyable exception of The Big Bang Theory, are based on comics I have read and enjoyed at one time or another. To keep track of these, I use tv.com. When it comes to new series, the site operates on the principle of giving them four episodes before assessing them. By that time, you should know what the show’s about, how well the cast are performing, whether the writers have a clear idea of what they’re aiming for, and generally, whether it’s worth your time.
This week, Lucifer, based on the DC/Vertigo Comics version of the Morningstar as framed in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and gloriously realised by Mike Carey in his own series, broadcast its fourth episode. I am assessing it in the manner of tv.com. My instincts suggest that every foot of film shot so far should be digitally erased, every writer, producer, director and actor even peripherally involved with the project be sacked and then either do a radically different version of the show or, better yet, forget the whole thing completely. Use hypnotism if you have to.
The basic problem for me is that, from the moment the TV series was first announced, I have known that it would be impossible to translate the elements that made the comics series so great onto television. I’m not talking effects and budgets, I’m talking about the storylines, the essence of Lucifer Morningstar, first and proudest of Angels. I’m talking about themes that stretch deeply into religious areas, into issues of Free Will versus Predestination, and ultimately about a rejection of God so deep that no TV network in any at least nominally Christian country could ever broadcast.
Carey’s Lucifer is a genuine subversive figure. You couldn’t put him on the screen.
So I knew, from the outset, that the TV Lucifer couldn’t even remotely resemble the Lucifer that impressed me so, and even before I learned that the TV Lucifer was to be a Police Procedural, case-of-the-week, amateur-shows-up-the-cops of the kind that we have seen dozens of times over, no different in concept than, say, Castle, where the Police rely, week-in, week-out, on a crime fiction novelist.
Ho hum.
I did, at least, hope that they could capture something of Lucifer’s voice, something of his effortless arrogance, his disdain, his irony and his unbending superiority. At least that would have given us dialogue that cut, that would sharpen itself on other people’s pretensions and foibles. Alas, no.
The TV series does draw, very superficially, on the comics for its setting. Lucifer, though he already existed within DC continuity, was first used by Neil Gaiman in Sandman 4, when Dream, visiting Hell to retrieve his stolen helm of office, aroused Lucifer’s enmity, causing the Morningstar to swear to destroy him.
This set up the later ‘Season of Mists’ storyline, when Dream returns to Hell to free a prisoner he had unjustly condemned. He expects reprisals from Lucifer, but is stunned to learn that the Morningstar has used Dream’s visit as a pretext to close Hell, to send away the dead, the damned and the demons, and to end his reign. His revenge is to give the key to Hell to Dream, making him responsible for what next happens to it (what an unbelievably evil idea!). Lucifer has had enough.
Mike Carey would make even more of this, and it would be the underlying theme of his entire series. Lucifer had, after millennia of rule in Hell, long since recognised that even in rebellion, he was fulfilling the role created for him by his father, God. Dream’s approach was the catalyst for Lucifer rejecting the manipulation that had governed his entire existence.
Having renounced his part in the Divine plan, after Hell had passed under direct Angelic control that subtly altered the nature of the domain, making it worse, Lucifer retired to run a nightclub in LA, called Lux (Light). His series was set in motion by the visit of his brother, the Angel Amenadiel, bearing a commission from God, seeking Lucifer’s aid in a task. In return, Lucifer would be given a Gateway, out of creation.
This is the only thing Lucifer would accept. He itches under the fact that he has been created, that he is beholden to another. This time, he is seeking the ultimate rebellion, the complete escape beyond all reach of God, of his Father. Lucifer is self-willed, arrogant, puissant beyond belief, insistent upon his independence from all but his own will. He faces vast and powerful forces seeking to exploit a time of great change, forces that, in the end, will destroy all creation, Heaven, the Silver City and the Primum Mobile, despite all the efforts of Lucifer and his demiurgic brother Gabriel.
You can see why TV can not only do that justice, it can’t do it at all.
What has TV actually done with this idea?
The short answer is that it has cheapened and trivialised it out of all recognition. Lucifer has not closed Hell, he has not resigned his post, Hell has not been changed at all. He’s just taking a vacation. Lucifer simply got bored, that’s all.
He’s brought with him Mazikeen (who, until this week, has simply been referred to as Maze). In the comics, she is a complex character with a long history, who has a massive role to play both as an adherent to Lucifer and independently. On TV, she’s a demon with no apparent reason to have accompanied Lucifer, and who wants him to go back to his day job. That’s all Amenadiel wants, too.
And what does Lucifer want to Do On His Holidays? He wants to have sex. That’s all, basically. A quick shag here, a quick fuck there, the Prince of Hell can have any woman he wants, but in  the cheapest of nasty traditions, he doesn’t want more than sex. Once you’ve had someone, they cease to beat al interesting.
(The same goes for Maze, it appears, at least in the pilot, though she seems to prefer tongue to cock. Women, huh.)
Actually, episode 4 is a very good illustration of the hollowness of all this, in more ways than the showrunners intended. Crime of the week is the disappearance of shy, sweet, hayseed girl Lyndsay, probably murdered after attending a party thrown by Cameron Cruz, proponent of the lifestyle of a ‘Player’, the worst kind of arsehole male chauvinist shag-’em-and-leave-’em git (whilst watching, I had this insight: leaving out the pathetic aspect, is there any kind of life more boring?).
In an entirely foreseeable twist, it turns out that Cameron is in actual love with Lyndsay but she’s scamming him with a fake kidnap scheme. All to which is beside the point when the show has Lucifer stand up during Cameron’s presentation, querying the Rules and pointing out how pathetic he and everyone else is, since Lucifer doesn’t need these rules to be ever better at pulling birds than all of them put together. The lack of self-understanding is enormous, but the show drops itself badly in it in a little scene shorty before this.
Lucifer is trying to deflect a security guard from throwing out Lyndsay’s brother. He pulls the usual stunt of directing the man’s attention to all the gorgeous, scantily-clad women wandering around, and asks him what his desire is. The guard, who is gay, replies that it’s Lucifer. Oh boy does the show give itself away here. Lucifer, the sexual magnet, the one who can have anyone, visibly recoils. Sex, it appears, is only for heterosexuals, no gays need apply. Even though Tom Ellis plays the Morningstar as an absolute collection of outmoded gay stereotypes in his nervous, fluffy, innuendo-dripping, giggling manner.
But what of Ellis’s co-star, Lauren Graham, who plays Lucifer’s unwilling side-kick, Detective Chloe Decker, struggling to make her way in a Homicide Division which includes her ex-husband, the surprisingly sympathetic Dan. Chloe is an attractive woman, but suffers from the handicap that she is a) the daughter of a famous actress and b) has briefly acted herself, primarily in a cheap Hot-tub comedy in which she took her top off. Needless to say, Detective Chloe has credibility issues.
She is introduced in episode 4, musing about all the weird things that have happened around Lucifer since the pilot (Chloe, being an atheist as well as a cop) does not believe in the Devil, despite Lucifer’s openness about who he is, to everyone he meets.
Needless to say, Chloe is doing this musing, in slow motion, under the shower, where she is perforce naked. This is no hardship, given that Lauren Graham is, unsurprisingly, an attractive woman, nor do we see anything that Network Standards & Practice won’t allow (if you were to believe network TV, no woman, no matter how long married she has been, has ever removed her bra to have sex).
However, Chloe is disturbed by noises off, and goes to investigate in just a loosely-wrapped towel and a police revolver. Of course, it’s only Lucifer, breaking in to make breakfast, and no sooner does Chloe find him in her kitchen than the towel falls to the ground (like any good cop, she is far more concerned about keeping hold of her gun). Lucifer gets an eyeful, so cue comments about how she’s kept herself in shape since the Hot Tub film that a fourteen year old boy would find embarrassingly juvenile.
To Lucifer’s great surprise, Chloe wants him out (even before Dan and seven year old daughter Trixie unexpectedly return and Dan jumps to the obviously erroneous conclusion). So Lucifer nips off to his psychiatrist.
Yes, the Morningstar is seeing a psychiatrist. She’s a cuddly, peroxide-blonde, older woman with the hots for Lucifer, who is paying her with cock (the show skates around this, turning it into yet another cheap sex-gag, but lets be straight about things). And she’s being seriously analytical about ol’ Lucy here, suggesting that he is being defensive, displacing his issues with snappy patter, because he’s changing. That he’s turning good.
Lucifer, naturally runs away from this idea, fixating on his belief that he will learn to understand, and therefore promptly forget, the enigmatic Chloe by,what else, fucking her. That Chloe doesn’t want to fuck him, not now, not ever, is irrelevant to anything except the overall arc of the series.
The whole mish-mash winds up with a climactic scene in which Chloe, from offscreen, somehow shoots Cameron’s gun out of his hand without the special effect of the gunshot being added to the soundtrack. Lucifer then confronts her, inviting her to shoot him, since it won’t kill him, will just being a light tap. Pressured, she fires, hitting him in the thigh. It hurts. It actually hurts. In fact, Lucifer bleeds.
What the (small h)ell is happening?
There are nine more episodes to go. I shall probably watch them, even though I can’t separate the two Lucifers in my head, and Tom Ellis’s version is so painfully inadequate. But if I decided not to bother, as I did last year with Constantine, for roughly similar reasons (at least that wasn’t so adolescently sex-obsessed), I won’t lose any sleep over wondering what’s going on.

Sandman Overture # 6


By chance, a couple of days ago, I came across my review of Sandman Overture 1, which I read with a grim smile at its optimistic cheeriness and enthusiasm. In particular, I couldn’t help but seize on the assertion that Neil Gaiman had written this preface to the Sandman series of twenty-five years previously, which is certainly what we were all led to believe: six issues, published bi-monthly, starting in November 2013, ending in September 2014.

Today, I paid a fleeting visit to the centre of Manchester to purchase issue 6, which appears exactly twelve months behind schedule, having scraped in just under the wire to do so.

And though artist J.H.Williams is notorious as a slow artist, it is not he who has to take responsibility for this fiasco. As early as the interminable delay between issues 1 and 2, Gaiman accepted responsibility for failing to provide his artistic collaborator with scripted pages to be drawn. I have heard nothing since that suggests that the ongoing difficulty in producing this book was down to anyone else.

Now, should he choose to exercise it, Gaiman has a ready-made excuse for these delays, in the form of his previous defence of George R. R. Martin. I’d like to say that I agree with every word Gaiman says at the other end of that link. Wearing the hat I wear as a reader of comics for fifty years, bearing in mind that throughout that period, and even now, comics is a serial form of fiction that is heavily dependant on the even rhythm of its schedule, I don’t regard such an explanation as adequate.

I have already said, as much as a year ago, that had I known what would happen, I wouldn’t have even started the story. I would have waited for the Graphic Novel collection, and I don’t mean the hardback volume that is already treading on the heels of this comic with a haste that is indecent in the circumstances. The paperback is at least twelve more months away.

But what, we dare ask, is my impression of the Distinguished Thing now that it is present in its entirety? I have carried the comic home without opening its pages, have written the first half of this blog whilst it remains in the Forbidden Planet bag, and I shall now read the story in its entirety, and only then offer my opinion.

*******************************************************************************

And it is good.

It’s so very good, and so very wide, and it seeps into every part of a story begun twenty-seven years ago, and ended nineteen years ago, as if in every part of it it was in Gaiman’s head during the nights that followed the Great Storm, when the shape and the idea came about.

And Williams draws or paints or does both and neither as if he is shaping the stuff of dream instead of using pencil, paper, ink, or even pixels.

And it will need many more readings for me to appreciate the immensity of this story, including those readings that will be necessary to eradicate the thoughts and feelings that form the first part of this revue.

For it is very good indeed. But it carries within it a sense of completion that makes it very hard to imagine that Gaiman will ever return to The Dreaming again.

100 Bullets: As You Don’t Know


Your life is shit. You scramble through each day but tomorrow is the same and it will never get better.
One day you meet a man who names himself Agent Graves. You don’t know him but he knows you. Who you are, where you’re from, what you think. And who did it.
Your life is shit is because somebody did something that put you in this place from which you will never escape. Graves knows who.
He gives you an attaché case, containing three things. Irrefutable proof that what he’s told you is true. A gun. And 100 Bullets.
The gun and its accompanying bullets are clean. More than clean: should you choose to use them, to respond to this revelation, the moment any of them are recovered, no law enforcement agency will touch you. Indeed, any ‘crime’ that you may commit with these things will vanish completely. It never existed.
Justice. Revenge. Redress. Restoration of a balance. Whatever motivates you, you have now been placed above the Law. You can act without consequence.
What will you do?


The facts are thus: 100 Bullets was originally published in 100 issues between 1999 and 2009, by DC Comics’ adult imprint, Vertigo. It has been collected in a series of thirteen Graphic Novels.
DC have now reprinted the series again, this time in Deluxe Editions, available in hardback in a series of five collections, giving the new reader the considerable luxury of reading something like twenty issues in a sitting. Though perhaps that’s not the best approach to this story.
What, though, is the story? “A revenge-of-the-month anthology” was how creator Brian Azarello once described it, jokingly. There was a wider story to it, hinted at in oblique references and unexplained events, a wider story that, if an audience was prepared to absorb it, or let themselves become absorbed, would grow to dominate a series that, if it did not succeed, would still be a series of tales of ordinary people given extraordinary licence to answer the destruction of their lives: a wider story that, when seen in full, would reflect its basic theme in its final stages.
Success it was, in the hands of a creative team that underwent only two changes in its whole 100 issue run: an extraordinary feat. Original editor, Axel Alonso, gave way to Will Dennis after issue 19, colourist Grant Goleash replaced by Trish Mulvihill from issue 15. But letterer Clem Robbins and cover artist Dave Johnson ran the gauntlet from beginning to end, as did the man who was the other half of Azzarello’s brain, artist Eduardo Risso, who drew all but a handful of pages (in issue 27).
And given that Azzarello comes from Chicago and Risso from Buenos Aires, and that neither man speaks the other’s language, the seamlessness of their collaboration is more than a vehicle for some of the best comics ever produced, something akin to a miracle.

Agent Graves

There’s another fact to absorb: 100 Bullets is a bloody difficult series to review, for the fear of giving away information as to what you will find as you read: that Azzarello is a master of misdirection, constantly setting up a scene that the reader expects to play out a certain way, only to add a small, but essential piece of information that turns everything upon its head.
This is always an issue for reviewers of stories of suspense: how much of that suspense dare you blow? Perhaps an elaborate metaphor may explain: reading 100 Bullets is like doing a 5,000 piece jigsaw when every month for one hundred months you are given forty pieces. Each set of forty makes up a picture,or part of one. But you don’t have the box lid, and each month you try to fit these pictures together. Sometimes it’s obvious. But sometimes that obviousness is destroyed by a picture that breaks up the connection and sends scenes to opposite corners.
And, sooner or later, you add it up: 100 sets of 40 pieces totals 4,000 pieces. One fifth of the puzzle doesn’t even exist, and you will have to dream into being the pictures on the missing pieces, and where they fit into the puzzle.
All of which might suggest that the only appeal 100 Bullets has is on a first reading. Far from it: there are layers to discover, inferences to dissect, connections to trace. What the hell did he mean by that? Just who was at the other end of the phone? You might come to a different conclusion than I. Each of us is reading a subtly different story.

                                                       The Minutemen

As a mark of respect, let me describe the first year of issues – a taster that will, I hope, intrigue without spoiling.
It begins in the rain, at night, in a deserted industrial area. On the wall a shadow holds a gun to the head of a kneeling shadow. From off panel to the left someone says “Bang. You’re dead.” 100 Bullets – in red – runs across the middle of the page, supported by a line of credits that separates the first image from the second, an inset against the cobbles underfoot. A Latino woman, with a tear tattooed below her left eye, both eyes closed against the increasing rain, awaits… whatever will follow… from the equally wet hand holding the gun to her head. The first speaker asks a question – again off-panel, this time to the right, where in a moment the page will turn – “What’s it feel like to be a Ghost, Dizzy?”
The young woman gives no answer, but her words take over in a narration box, as if in response: It’s a long story. Two-fold in meaning: the second page turns the story back to its proximate beginning, to unwind until, 54 pages later, Isabel “Dizzy” Cordova steps out of a car into the rain, has the gun taken from the waistband of her jeans by an unknown person who, over a repeat of the panel of Dizzy kneeling in the rain, speaks the opening words.
But Azzarello has only begun this first part of Dizzy’s story at its proximate end. She is one of two characters who appear on the final page of the final issue of the whole 100 issue story. How long a story is she referring too?
In between we learn Dizzy’s story: a former girl gang-banger who fell in love, married, had a child; was thrown into jail for 16 years as the last one standing when an innocent lift from homies who were carrying out a drive-by dragged her down; was widowed and lost her child whilst inside when Hector and Baby Santiago were themselves gunned down in a drive-by, in retaliation; is paroled three years into her term, because of prison overcrowding but who, in her own mind, will always be guilty, always be inside, because she was responsible for getting her family killed in revenge.
And on the Elevated Railway, under the Chicago sun, going home to the barrio she comes from, an old man – sixties, maybe even seventies, lined face, cropped hair, immaculate suit, you’d think twice about him, no matter how old he is – gives her a photo of two white guys at a barbecue.
These are the men who killed her family. But it was a drive-by shooting, she protests. That’s right: he drove and he did the shooting. Then Agent Graves hands her an attaché case.
In swift, deft strokes, strokes of sharp, tangy and very real dialogue, in the lines and compositions of Risso, under whose hands there are no stock faces or body-shapes, the world Dizzy has come from, and the world it has become in the three years she’s been away, are drawn. Morgan and Swirski – two Police detectives – roust Dizzy and find the gun, but when they call it in, to put her straight back in the joint, they are told to let her go, and give her back the gun.
Dizzy’s mother hasn’t an ounce of mothering in her. Her homegirls are in different stages of sass and struggle. The O.Gs (Original Gangstas) still run things, frustrating up-and-coming players like Dizzy’s little brother Emilio. Her friends at least are glad to see her.
Then the O.G.s get dead. Dizzy accuses Morgan and Swirski, gets shipped off to jail, but is still outside: bail, instead of the wagon back to the hole. Another Anglo enters the picture, a trench-coated man called Mr Shepherd, who knows about the gun. He’s an… associate of Graves, there to push her to whatever decision she makes.
Which Morgan and Swirski make for her, picking her up from the church, taking her to the yard. They talk as if she already knows: oh yes, they killed Hector, though the baby was a shame, but Hector had still been dirty, a druglord who made the mistake of treating two bent cops offering him Heroin from the Evidence Room as just players.
But the cops have a player on their side too, who fingered Hector for the shooting. Dizzy knows him, she’s already in his confidence, that’s how she knows what she evidently knows. Their partner is waiting in the yard. He takes Dizzy’s gun, playfully holds it to his sister’s head, says “Bang. You’re Dead.”
But Morgan and Swirski down Emilio with shots to the knee. Dizzy didn’t know after all, she just kept quiet and let them talk. So now the cops gonna be heroes, breaking a major drug ring, run by this brother/sister pair that fell out and shot each other.
Except that, as Dizzy cradles Emilio in her arms, behind his back is her gun, her ‘magic gun’. Which she turns on Morgan and Swirski, first downing them then, as they try to do a deal with her, executing them. But Dizzy won’t use the gun on Emilio: she hasn’t the right. But she can still tear open the heroin sacks, pour the drugs over her baby brother and call it in, leaving him to be found…
Dizzy has nowhere to go. Mr Shepherd arrives in a limousine. For want of anything better, she gets into the car.
The next two issues told the story of Lee Dolan in LA. Once an up and coming restaurateur, with a beautiful wife, great kids and money in the Bank, Lee now serves bar at a downtown shitty little hole, his sex-life consisting of watching an exotic dancer in a booth. Graves offers Dolan an attaché case, and details of the woman who put the hardcore child pornography that the Police found onto his laptop in the first place.
Megan Dietrich is young, sexy, rich, and far too good a talker for Dolan in the end. As she negotiates her life out of his hands, a black-haired guy in a loud Hawaiian shirt commits a flamboyant robbery in an unrelated skyscraper office. And Megan rings an unknown party in Miami to give him some unwelcome news: Graves isn’t dead.
Chucky Spinks is a crap-shooter, running to keep up, to pay debts whilst the big games are closed off to him after seven years inside for vehicular manslaughter when drunk. It’s even worse when his lifelong friend Pony, who used that seven years to become a bookmaker, not a gambler, buys up Chucky’s debts and forgives them. But there’s Graves who wants to tell Chucky a story. About a guy who drove when drunk and killed two kids, and then put his even drunker friend behind the wheel. The friend who can’t get into the big games because this guy, Pony, is spreading the word that he’s a cheat.
The next issue broke the mould. There were cases involved, two of them, but neither of them attachés, and neither contained guns or bullets. Graves delivered one to a Jamaican drugs baron in an industrial complex, took another away and delivered it in a beachfront café in Miami. One contained an experimental nicotine-marijuana hybrid, stolen to order for the Jamaican (though once the transaction was complete, Graves authorised the Police to go in with all guns blazing).
The other case contained $2,000,000.00. In cash. Which Graves handed over to the black-haired man in another loud Hawaiian shirt. The Hawaiian’s name is Lono. He and Graves have worked together before although, like someone else in Miami, he had thought Graves to be dead, after Atlantic City. Does Graves know why the Trust did it? And are he and Graves really the last of the Minutemen?
The ending is… intriguing. Lono isn’t coming back to work for Graves again, and leaves. Entirely out of nothing, Graves tells the waitress what Lono is carrying in that suitcase. She tells her boyfriend. There is a microphone attached to the base of the table that Graves selected. As Lono walks down the road, a car with three young men follows him. Sitting inside, out of the sun, Mr Shepherd listens in at the other end of the wire.
Atlantic City. The Trust. The Minutemen. Who? What? Why? And WTF?
Because this was the heart of what Azzarello would do throughout the whole series. When Lono raised Atlantic City, Graves knew what he was talking about. When Graves mentioned the Trust, Lono knew who he meant. The audience knew the significance of neither, nor were they given any hints to help them along. Neither man started explaining to the other about the Minutemen, and that’s the way it would be. No-one would ever tell anyone what they already knew so as to clue the reader in. The reader was just going to have to work it out for themselves as they went along.
That first year still isn’t over. We were next introduced to Cole Burns, in New York, driving an ice cream truck that also sold cigarettes. Working for racketeer Goldy Petrovic, Cole was hemmed in. He had Sasha: she loved him, he loved her, but there wasn’t the money to marry, and Cole was prickly enough in his pride. And quick to look for an angle too: an old man left him an attaché, claimed Goldy was behind a nursing home fire last year in which 40 old folk were burned to death. Cole’s grandmother was one of them.
Cole thought Petrovic would pay to know someone wanted him dead, but the Cossack wasn’t concerned. There were men in that room who wanted him dead, yet there he stood. Fuck them. But Goldy did burn the nursing home down: the Government wouldn’t let him turn it into Condos, he wasn’t getting any money off his own building. His men draw guns on Cole. A hippy whose left hand has been power-sanded for not paying his debts uses a word, a word of some significance to those who know something of American history and its mysteries: Croatoa. Cole, who is about to die, is frozen at the word.
Yet, at the start of the second episode, he isn’t dead. Wounded, lightly, in one shoulder, yes, but not dead. Everyone else is, though. And things are coming back to him, things he doesn’t know. That he knows the sandy-haired trench-coated man in the bar, who orders Cuervo Gold and limes for him. That the man with the attaché case is named Graves.
And an explosion as a rival driver overturns Cole’s truck sends a big chunk of memory into the air. A deserted pier by a restless sea. Six men in black suits and ties, one of them Cole. The hooded man, dragged out of the boot of a limo. Make him kneel down, pour gasoline over him. One man lights a match for the cigarette in the mouth of Cole, who doesn’t smoke. Then drops it.
Cole Burns knows who he is again, and is happy to come back to work for Graves: Cole Burns is a Minuteman.
Last among these stories, though it only completes eleven, not twelve issues, is the story of Lilly Dale, a fortyish, still attractive waitress in a diner in a small town. Lilly’s married to Phil, a garage owner/mechanic about a decade older than her, whose day ends as she starts her shift. She’s left him dinner to heat up, though he’d rather not bother.
Before she goes to work, Lilly walks into another room, a bedroom, a child’s bedroom, only far too neat and pristine to be the bedroom of any child living there. She spends some time just sitting there before going to work.
At the diner, there’s Lilly and Monica, another attractive woman her generation, and Tomas, a short order cook aged 17. Tomas is going on to College, going to leave his girlfriend behind. He’s a player, flirting with Lilly and Monica, not that either take him seriously. Tomas is about to receive a phone-call and a shock: Jenny, the girl he’s on the point of leaving, is pregnant: Tomas faces a choice.
So too does Lilly. She serves coffee to a new customer, a man in an immaculate black suit, close-cropped grey hair, a lined face. He knows her name. And he knows her daughter. The daughter who, four years ago, ran away from home to New York. Lilly sits and cries as Graves relates a story unsparing in its dispassionate degradation: a pimp, prostitution, drugs, HIV, mutilation, and death in a cinema a week ago, her shoes stolen from her body. Today would have been her sixteenth birthday.
Graves produces an attaché case. Lilly can’t understand why until she sees the photo within. Graves asks for more coffee, disappears whilst she goes to the counter for a refill. Tomas admits his dilemma, but Lilly holds no sympathy for the pregnant Jenny.
She goes home. Phil is sitting up watching TV, hasn’t heated up his food, hasn’t eaten. He’s in a quiet, comfortable mood. His wife is home from her shift, he doesn’t like going to bed alone. She takes the gun from the attaché case and empties it into his chest, screaming at him that his daughter was only twelve, only twelve.
Outside, Graves listens to the sound of the gunshots. Lilly reloads, empties another clip into Phil’s long-dead body. Graves lowers his head and walks away.
The next issue, the end of that year, returned to Dizzy Cordova, took the story outside America, to Paris, an American in Paris, a self-exile from such things as The Trust, Minutemen, and his own gun that could not be traced. And the first signs of light began to shine into hidden corners of which we were not then aware, save that we suspected there was more to things than tales of revenge, of the choices people make when they are freed from consequence.

                                                              It is.

That’s all you’re getting from me. Read some of 100 Bullets for yourself. The softback collections are still available, with their coded titles that (with one exception) refer to their own number in the series. That’s why they start with First Shot, Last Call and go on to Split-Second Chance, and why the third collection would have been called The Charm if it weren’t for the story arc ‘Hang up on the Hang Low’ winning an Eisner Award and DC/Vertigo deciding to plug it as a book on its own and a direct title.
Read the first, absorb Dizzy and Lee Dolan’s stories, not to mention a short, anthology tale that was the very first intimation of this weird, wonderful, fucked-up tale of power and honour and death and morality. Learn from the books what is meant by the Trust and the Minutemen, discover what happened in Atlantic City, understand the significance of the Vermeer painting.
Complete the jigsaw for yourself, with its 4,000 pieces, and find out just what is contained on your missing pieces.
Be careful, though. No-one’s going to hold your hand. No-one’s going to tell you easy facts. You’ll need eyes and ears and a brain for this. And if someone approaches you, an old man in a sharp suit who carries an attaché case, think very, very hard about what you want to do with your choice. No-one can touch you if you act on what you will learn.
Only you.

There are thirteen people in this room. They are all equals. Ostensibly.

A Universe in One Comic Book: Astro City Vol. 3, #23


A year ago, I swore off blogging the new volume of Astro City. I was sick of writing blogs that amounted, in different ways, to saying that there’s nothing wrong with this, but it doesn’t do for me what it used to and I don’t know why. And I really didn’t like writing blogs that said ‘this one is shite’.

That didn’t mean I was giving Messrs Busiek, Anderson and Ross up. I’ve continued to enjoy the series, even if it still hasn’t given me any highs to compare with those of earlier years. It’s by far and away the best superhero series I’m following, and I’m not saying that just because it’s the only superhero series I’m following. Even with both eyes shut, I can still see that there isn’t anything at DC, or Marvel, that I want to share house space with.

But I couldn’t resist blogging this issue, for one very simple reason that absolutely deserves celebration, and that is that although we are only months away from Astro‘s twentieth anniversary, this is the very first issue 23 the series has ever had!

And this is definitely one for the deep fans here, the veterans who can go back to John Broome issues of The Flash in the early to mid-Sixties, the ones who hide inside the kid they once were but who still respond to the sheer goofy glee of a talking gorilla!

This is Busiek’s affectionate tribute to The Flash of the Silver Age, to Barry Allen and his battles with Gorilla Grodd, and hidden Gorilla City and wise King Solovar. It’s a subject that’s pure comic books in a way Astro City never has been so far before. It’s a bouncy, absurd, fun idea that will be kicking back and refusing to lend itself to any kind of co-option into a world where such things can believably exist.

For Gorilla City, see Gorilla Mountain. For hidden in deepest Africa, see a cloud-covered Savage Land type zone in Antarctica. For discovery by The Flash see discovery by the elder generation of the First Family (the only false note in my mind, a Marvel archetype discovering a DC trope). But whilst Gorilla Mountain remains defiantly insular, a military society, highly trained, there’s the one outsider: for Grodd, see Steek. But Steek doesn’t want to take over the world with the force of his mind, he’s just a kid who’s into the music, a cool cat… er, silverback ape who wants to throw down with the kids and beat the hell out of a drumkit. That’s why he wants to be called Sticks.

(I should just mention that at this point I am energetically suppressing any thought of any previous passionately drumming gorillas because, like all right-minded folk, I cannot stand Ph*l C*ll*ns.)

But there’s a problem. Even in Astro City, a talking gorilla can’t just go around minding his own business, People assume he’s a superhero. The Press want to interview him as a superhero. Villains want to kidnap him for his superheroic powers. Even Reflex 6, who are currently down to five members, want him to tryout to bring their numbers up to scratch.

But Sticks doesn’t want to audition to join a superhero team, he wants to audition to join a band and play music. Can he do that if nobody will leave him alone?

This is the first part of an as-yet undefined multiparter, so we’re a long way from whatever answer Busiek has in mind, but I had fun with it, and I’d love for one of those good old-fashioned completely unexpected but unexpectedly obvious solutions to hit this one out of the park. But it’s the best issue 23 Astro City has ever had, and it gives you a good feeling that issue 24 won’t let the standard lapse.

Sandman Overture – no 5


sandman_overture_5_b

Forget what I said last time (it was so long ago, I have). Let’s have the rant again, in a resigned, dispassionate, purely factual manner. Sandman Overture, the story that immediately preceded Neil Gaiman’s ongoing Sandman series almost thirty years ago, was announced as a six-issue mini-series, appearing bi-monthly from November 2013. That means its final issue was due to come out in September 2014. This is still only the fifth issue which, according to the original schedule, is almost eleven months late. Good going DC/Vertigo. Good going Mr Gaiman.

And I suspect that I may not be the only one who does not find funny the indicia note that Sandman Overture is published “monthly”. If there is one thing I will not be doing during the month of June, it is reviewing issue no. 6.

So, what have we here? Funnily, I didn’t need to re-read the story to date to check where we were starting, because I could remember. Last issue, Dream visited his father, Time, before confronting the Mad Star, as a result of which he was condemned to a Black Hole, whilst the Mad Star started burning the Universe down.

This issue, Dream visits his mother, Night, the whole Black Hole thing being just the quickest way to reach her realm. Unfortunately, his master plan has been the fallible and naive one of getting Mummy and Daddy back together again, so that everything will be right again (I am not misrepresenting this plan in any way), and when Mummy won’t play, Dream has no plan B.

Fortunately, though he pretends the whole thing was unnecessary, he is rescued by a summons from brother Destiny, who has found a sailing ship in his garden that doesn’t belong there (it isn’t in his Book!) but does belong to Dream, who he requires to take it away. Dream doesn’t recognise it, but that’s because it’s been built by the Dream of Cats, who has been saving the odd person here and there as the Universe burns. Now it’s up to Dream to explain why they’ve been saved…

So, once again we have a fragment of activity, insufficient of itself to create a satisfying comic book, taking up a few more indeterminate steps towards the end. It is, naturally, superbly written and brilliantly drawn, but it is also not worth it on its own. If ever the final part is published, and the story can be read at once, the whole thing will probably be brilliant, but I have long since wished I never started reading this series issue by issue because, when the Distinguished Thing is finally here at last, I suspect it will be several years yet before I can read it without being reminded of this ghastly farce.

And if Gaiman ever agrees to do this again, with any other outstanding Sandman story he may discover the urge to tell, I will avoid the fucker like the plague until I hold the Graphic Novel in my hands, and even then I might wait for the paperback, because all the credit at the bank’s been used up, and I’m not doing this again for anyone.

 

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.