Monday, 5 December 2016

Philosophers, Ghosts and the Dreams of Madmen.

I've built up quite a stack of books and comics that I'd intended to write about, a stack that is getting taller than shorter.  Only thing for it is to knock as many off the list as I can with some short comments.  I'll start with books that have been in print for a while,

Monster Truck, by Shaky Kane, is a unique book.  Fifty panels, one to a page, the back of each page left blank.  Each panel part of a single continuous image.  A Bayeux Tapestry of your nightmares broken up and published as an oversized post card book.  It’s a road movie through a world of popular culture, Dinosaurs and clowns, Giant Insects and Robots, Zombies and Barbi Dolls.   It’s like some mad drug-fuelled dream, or is it?

All the clues are here, the protagonist who is nothing more than a truck, the creatures escaping from childhood drawings, the mad mismatches of size.   Are we seeing the effects of a hallucinogen or is this simply the memory of a child’s game, a dream without limits.  It’s almost as if there is no difference.

The text is sparse and sets a type of rhythm that forces you to tackle the book quickly.   That seems to be the way to experience this book, quickly.   You can go back later and go over each page and savour the images, but first time round you should rush through it and allow the madness to blur, experience the book at the speed of imagination.

Perhaps drugs do nothing more than remind us, however imperfectly, of what it was like to be a child.
Great wee book available from Amazon here.

Self-Made Hero are a publishing company from London, they produce comics as slightly oversized paperbacks with quality printing and paper.   At some stage I'll do a post about their adaptations of H P Lovecraft stories, but this time I want to talk about a couple of their books that I'd missed until quite recently.  The first, Nevermore, is an anthology of comic adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe stories that came out nearly ten years ago in 2007.

At 128 pages in black and white it has contributions from a few names that are probably better know now.  The cover is less than inspiring and the paper quality different from the later, much more attractive books.

The contents are almost universally excellent.  Nevermore delivers nine adaptations of poems or stories from Poe, a touch of biography from Laura Howell and an introduction by film director Roger Corman.   If, like me, the stories are like old friends, either through Mr Corman's, often loose, adaptations or by reading the originals then you will have seen these stories many times and in many forms.  The old Warren Comic, Creepy, produced some excellent adaptations of Poe back in the seventies but they were usually fairly faithful to the original story.  There was little or nothing new added.

D'Israeli art form Murder on the Rue Morgue
In the Self Made Hero volume the creators have been allowed to use the Poe originals as the starting point for their stories, adding new ideas and their own touches.  For old hacks like me that adds some interest and almost all of the tales strike me as being successful. 

There is some superb artwork on show.  Steve Pugh's work on the Pit and Pendulum along with D'Israeli's "Murder on the Rue Morgue” and John McCrea's atmospheric use of blacks and shadows in "The Facts in the Case of Mr Valdemar" stand out  among excellent company.

There really isn't a dud in this collection, but then these are the stories of a master.  This is one of the earliest books from Self Made Hero, the cover is uninspired and the paper, although good quality, is coated and glossy.  Their later books use a more pleasing matt paper and have that pleasant book smell that makes them a pleasure to read.  Still, some great artwork and adaptations worthy of old Edgar. 

A more recent volume from Self Made Hero, which came out earlier this year, is in similar territory.  This time a collection of stories by the master of the English Ghost Story M. R James.   Adapted by writers Leah Moore and John Reppion, artists in this volume are Anake, who worked with Moore and Reppion on Damsels for Dynamite,  Alisdair Wood, a games designer with a track record of working on M. R. James related stories and newcomers (to me anyway) Kit Buss from London and Fouad Mezher, a popular comics artist from the Lebanon.

Montague Rhodes James, born 1862, was an English scholar, Provost of King's College, Cambridge and until his death in 1936 of Eton School.

He was an historian, specialising in the medieval period.  Although his academic work continues to be well-regarded, it was his hobby, the writing of Ghost Stories, which has become his more public legacy.   

Alisdair Wood art from The Ash-Tree
James more or less reinvented the Ghost Story.  He abandoned the Gothic form, with its melodrama and clichés and wrote stories that were more modern, in some way more mundane.  His protagonists were often ordinary, slightly dull, academics and his settings realistic and familiar to his readers.  
The horrors came from cursed manuscripts and creatures that live in the shadows.  James allowed his readers to fill in gaps in his narrative, inevitably creating something much more horrible than anything he could have written.  Working by implication and suggestion, James' more or less created the 'less is more' technique for horror and influenced a whole generation of writers from H. P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith to Stephen King and Ramsey Campbell.

The adaptations in this book, while well told and beautifully illustrated add little to the original stories.  They are heavy in text and I'm afraid add little to the stories other than the illustrations.   For someone familiar with the original stories the book is pleasant reminder, but for a newcomer to M. R. James I do not think it will give the full flavour of his writings and a quick purchase of one of the many editions of his complete Ghost stories would be a better purchase.

Finally for this catch-up is Logicomix.  A thick graphic biography of the philosopher Bertram Russell and the search, in the first half of the twentieth-century, for the fundamental principles of maths.  Not a very promising premise for a Graphic Novel perhaps, but this is one of the most enthralling books I've read for quite some time.

Russell was born in 1872 and died in 1970.  He made huge contributions in the fields of Maths, Philosophy and History and was a prominent social campaigner and activist.  While a member of a prominent aristocratic family, he was at times a liberal, a socialist and a pacifist, going to jail at one time over his anti-war activities during the first World War.    He taught Ludwig Wittgenstein, among the most influential philosopher of the 20th century. 

This book focuses on Russell's work as a Logician, and his search for the basic principles on which mathematics is based.  It covers the family drama, and perhaps trauma of his early life, his college years and his vigorous challenge to intellectual orthodoxy along with his equally vigorous and enthusiastic love life.  It features most of the major figures of Philosophy in the twentieth century and their interaction with Russell.  In summary it’s about stuff I didn't know I was I was interested in and yet I was.  A perfect demonstration of the power of comics to communicate complex and important topics and at the same time a dramatic and enthralling story of one of the most interesting men of our times.

At a time when our national life is becoming less and less rational and truth is becoming less and less important, it's useful to look back at a time where there were people who were attempting to bring rationality and truth to all aspects of life.    

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