Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Marvel Guardians of the Galaxy: The Ultimate Guide to the Cosmic Outlaws and Ultimate Sticker Collection by... Me!

Well, me and a bunch of editors and designers and picture researchers at DK and Amazing15, not to mention the writers, artists and editors at Marvel – among them Arnold Drake, Gene Colan, Jim Starlin, Bill Mantlo, Steve Englehart, Keith Giffen, Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning, Paul Pelletier, Andy Schmidt, Bill Rosemann and Brian Michael Bendis – who had a hand in creating and expanding upon the Guardians of the Galaxy in comics. But anyway; Guardians of the Galaxy: The Ultimate Guide to the Cosmic Outlaws and Guardians of the Galaxy: Ultimate Sticker Collection have now been published by DK in the UK and US, and since I wrote both of them, and copies turned up in the post yesterday, I figured they deserved a blog post.

Of the two, I guess I'm proudest of The Ultimate Guide, if only because I put so much into it – a period of five or six months over summer of last year establishing the structure and running order, doing the research (which essentially entailed reading or in some cases rereading a bunch of old comics), selecting images (which again essentially entailed reading or in some cases rereading a bunch of old comics) and writing. (My abiding memory of this period is of pacing round the garden trying to get my brain cells sparking in between feverish bouts at the keyboard.) But it's also the thing of having written a book – not cowritten, as in The Mysterious World of Doctor Strange, or written a bit of, as in my essays in the first volume of Dan Dare: Pilot of the Future and last year's Murder in the Closet or an entry or two in The DC Comics Encyclopaedia, or edited, as in the countless books and graphic novels I've, well, edited; but written. Actually written.

Obviously it's not a peerless work of literary genius or owt, but it's a pretty good read, I think, with hopefully a compelling structure which I strived to make not only chronological – as is traditional in these DK comics guides – but narrative as well, tracing the wider Marvel cosmic events that brought the disparate Guardians of the Galaxy together (about a quarter of the book concentrates on matters to do with Annihilation and Annihilation: Conquest, which took place before Star-Lord, Rocket, Gamora, Groot and Drax were even a team), buffeted them and then blew them apart, and taking care on each character spread to only detail those events that had happened to that character up to the point they entered the wider narrative (if that makes sense). Whether anyone will notice or even care about my efforts to make the book something you can satisfyingly read front to back almost as a story as well as dip in and out of – especially the kids the book is aimed at – is open to debate, but I'm pleased my structure made it through the process intact.

As for the Ultimate Sticker Collection, that for me was an exercise in brevity (not something that comes naturally to me, as anyone who's read Existential Ennui can attest), as I tried to squeeze info about the Guardians and their allies, enemies and worlds into 25-word captions in an entertaining fashion. I didn't get as involved in choosing images as I did on The Ultimate Guide – not least because The Ultimate Guide was taking up so much of my time (I was writing both books concurrently) – but I gave what directions I was able to, and the end result is a lot of fun (my three-year-old daughter can't wait to get sticking).

So there you have it. The books exist. You can buy them right now (for instance here and here). And if you're unfamiliar with the Guardians of the comics – not just the Star-Lord-led team but the original 31st-century Vance Astro-led team too – and fancy finding out about them ahead of the second Guardians of the Galaxy movie (which opens in a few weeks), perhaps you'll consider doing just that.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman: A First Edition from the Lewes Book Fair

Last Saturday's Lewes Book Fair proved something of a books bonanza, both for me and for my three- (nearly four- by gum) year-old daughter. For Edie I bought a stack of vintage 1970s/80s/90s picture books by, among others, Brian Wildsmith, Shirley Hughes, Spike Milligan and W. Somerset Maugham (I might do a separate post on those at some point), while I came away with a signed first of Posy Simmonds' Gemma Bovery (Cape, 1999), a Ron Goulart-edited anthology of pulp crime fiction, The Hardboiled Dicks (Boardman, 1967) and paperback firsts of Peter George's Dr. Strangelove novelisation (Corgi, 1963) and Samuel R. Delaney's The Einstein Intersection (Ace, 1967, with terrific cover art by Jack Gaugham). Best of all, just as I was leaving after a couple of hours browsing I spied this on the shelves belonging to the fair's organiser John Beck (himself a book dealer):

A British first edition of Joe Haldeman's The Forever War, published in hardback by Weidenfeld & Nicholson in 1975 (the year after the US St. Martin's first) with a spectacular dust jacket design by Nick Sutton (much better, I reckon, than the American one). It's a book I've wanted to get my hands on for a while – indeed I saw this very copy on John's shelves at the Lewes Book Fair a good four or five years ago. At the time it was priced a little too prohibitively for me, but for this return outing John had reduced the price to a fraction of what a British first in this condition (near-fine) usually fetches (at least £100), and since it's my birthday this coming Saturday I figured fuck it, I'm gonna treat myself.

I'm halfway through reading it and thus far I love it. Originally serialised in Analog and widely acclaimed as the best science fiction war novel ever written, it's narrated by William Mandella, a conscript in the United Nations Exploratory Force who undergoes military training and conditioning before being dispatched to deep space to fight the alien Taurans from the distant Aldebaran system. The human characters are barely sketched in – still less the aliens, although in their case its obviously intentional, their obfuscation serving the narrative – but that doesn't matter: where the novel comes into its own is in its depiction of the methods and tactics of space warfare, and how relativity plays havoc with the combatants. For example, in their second encounter with the Taurans, Mandella and his compatriots learn that while for them only eight months have passed since the first battle, for the Taurans, almost a decade has elapsed – the effect of time dilation, the humans having lost nine years manoeuvring between collapsars (black holes) in their ship, the Anniversary. As a consequence, Tauran weapons systems have advanced dramatically, putting the humans at a distinct tactical disadvantage. In effect, the Tauran vessel the crew of the Anniversary encounters comes from their future.

This "future shock" becomes more pronounced when Mandella returns to Earth, where twenty-six years have passed to his two and society has changed beyond recognition – even more so seeing as the Earth he started out on was already markedly different to our own. I've peeked ahead in the book and the years stated at the start of each section advance from 2024 to 2389 to 2458 to 3143, so I suspect there's wilder stuff to come. If the second half of the novel lives up to the first, I may well investigate the sequel, Forever Free (1999), and maybe some of the other thematically linked novels and stories in the Forever War series, or perhaps later editions of the original novel, which apparently include material that was left out of the first edition. Either way, it's reignited a long-dormant desire for some more science fiction, a hankering that could perhaps be sated by some of the other SF books on my shelves (which I recently rearranged slightly following an office move... from the front of the house to the back).

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

The Terrorists, alias Double, Double: a Calder and Behrens Story by Michael Gilbert

Among the 185 short stories that British crime and mystery author Michael Gilbert wrote over the course of his 50-year career are 24 spy stories starring Daniel Calder and Samuel Behrens, malevolent late middle-aged operatives of the External Branch of the Joint Services Standing Intelligence Committee. Originally published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine in the US and Argosy in the UK, almost all of the Calder and Behrens stories were collected in two Gilbert anthologies – the sublime Game Without Rules (1967) and the almost as brilliant Mr. Calder & Mr. Behrens (1982). (Gilbert also wrote 16 radio plays featuring his ageing secret agents, which I discussed last month.) But there is one Calder and Behrens story which doesn't feature in either of those books. It first appeared in 1967 under the title "The Terrorists" in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and "Double, Double" in Argosy, before being collected in this anthology:

Ellery Queen's Mystery Parade, published by Gollancz in 1969 under one of that publisher's iconic yellow typographic dust jackets. Being a UK edition of a US collection – the book was originally published by New American Library in the States in 1968 – the title of "The Terrorists" was retained; it wasn't until 2007 that the story was published in book form under its British title of "Double, Double", when it was included in the posthumous Michael Gilbert collection Even Murderers Take Holidays.

I'm not sure why it wasn't collected in the 1982 Calder and Behrens anthology (it appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and Argosy too late to have been included in Game Without Rules) but I can hazard a guess or two. In Argosy, it was published under the overarching series title of "Agents in Action" in the April 1967 issue. Part one of that series, "Upon the King", was published in the March issue and collected in Game Without Rules, while part three, "Twilight of the Gods", was published in the May issue and collected in Mr. Calder & Mr. Behrens, so perhaps "The Terrorists" fell between two stools. Or it could be that it was simply overlooked; on first inspection, Calder and Behrens barely seem to feature at all in the story, merely getting a couple of mentions towards the end.

In fact for the unsuspecting Calder/Behrens enthusiast only a passing reference to Fortescue – Calder and Behrens' boss – at the start of the tale gives the game (without rules) away that "The Terrorists" is a part of their canon. The pair do appear throughout, but under assumed names and identities, both of them operating undercover as a means of unpicking a plot by a middle-eastern terrorist cell to set off a bomb in London (there's a nice, explicitly acknowledged, bit of misdirection as to which of the terrorists Calder and/or Behrens is). It's a good story, well worth the effort, I would say – at least for those aforementioned Calder/Behrens enthusiasts – of tracking it down – something that shouldn't prove too difficult for anyone so inclined; while the Gollancz edition is pretty scarce and the New American Library edition not much more common, there are at least half a dozen copies of the 1969 Signet paperback edition available online as I type, and fairly cheaply too.

For my part, having now collected and read "The Terrorists", Game Without Rules and Mr. Calder & Mr. Behrens (and the two published radio plays in The Murder of Diana Devon), I'm left in the sorry situation of having no more Calder and Behrens stories to track down. At least, that I'm aware of...

Linked in Friday's Forgotten Books, 10/4/17.

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Iris Murdoch, Graham Greene, Alan Hunter, The Walking Dead and More on eBay

I've got a bunch of eBay auctions running at the minute, right here:

Existential Ennui eBay auctions

Up for grabs are four scarce early issues of The Walking Dead comic (#3–6, December 2003–March 2004) along with first editions of Iris Murdoch's The Sea, The Sea, Graham Greene's The Quiet American, Harry Carmichael's A Question of Time, Alan Hunter's Vivienne: Gently Where She Lay, Michael Dibdin's Ratking and Thomas Harris' The Silence of the Lambs. If any of those float your boat, go take a gander.

Feel free to ask any questions – in the comments here, via the email in my profile, or on eBay – and if you do decide to bid, best of luck.

Thursday, 16 February 2017

David Mazzucchelli Comics: Short Stories in Various Anthologies, 1991–2013

At the apex of his relatively brief career in superhero comics – he drew his first comic for Marvel, Master of Kung Fu #121, in 1983 and had all but left the genre by 1987 – David Mazzucchelli helped redefine and reshape superhero storytelling with two acknowledged classics, both in collaboration with Frank Miller: Daredevil: Born Again (originally serialized in 1986 in Daredevil #227–233) and Batman: Year One (originally serialized in 1987 in Batman #404–407). (I read both on original publication and still consider the latter in particular among the best comics I've ever read.) When Mazzucchelli spoke to The Comics Journal in 1997 he told interviewer Christopher Brayshaw that he left superhero comics for three reasons: that he was not a violent person, and so had no connection to the fisticuffs aspect of superhero comics (quite a big component of the genre); that the schedule of doing a monthly comic "was starting to drive me nuts"; and that the kind of work he liked in other media – film, literature, the performing arts – was very different to the kind of work he himself was doing, in terms of "Subject matter, approach, attitude, everything."

His final work for Marvel (officially; in 1992 he inked a single page of Evan Dorkin's Bill & Ted's Excellent Comic Book, uncredited) appeared in issue #40 of the anthology Marvel Fanfare (October 1998), a story written by Ann Nocenti titled "Chiaroscuro". In many ways it pointed the way forward for the cartoonist, displaying a looser, more expressionistic line and featuring almost no superheroics (there's a four-panel silhouetted fight sequence on the first page, and the X-Man Angel is the ostensible lead, but otherwise the story is grounded in a suburban milieu).

Mazzucchelli worked from a plot rather than a full script, but he wanted to go further – to write as well as draw his own stories. Set free from the confines of the superhero genre he embarked on a succession of formally challenging, exciting, intriguing, sometimes moving, sometimes perplexing art-comix projects. He's since understandably become best known for the more substantial of these – his three-issue anthology Rubber Blanket; his and Paul Karasik's 1994 graphic novel adaptation of Paul Auster's City of Glass; his 2009 masterwork Asterios Polyp. But in amongst those longer projects he contributed numerous shorter pieces to various anthologies. Characterized by a restless inventiveness, some of these stories are possessed of an extraordinary depth and sophistication; others are more fun and light-hearted; but all are considered, thoughtful, and well worth seeking out.

I already had in my comics collection a good number of the anthologies in which Mazzucchelli's work appears, and I recently got hold of a few more; and having just written a profile of Mazzucchelli for the Marvel Fact Files – concentrating naturally on his superhero work – I figured I might write a blog post on some of those smaller and in some cases lesser known works. This blog post, in fact.

One of Mazzucchelli's earliest post-superhero pieces can be found in the third issue of Nicholas Blechman's anthology Nozone, published in 1991 (the same year as the first issue of Rubber Blanket). The theme of the issue – Nozone has a different one each issue – is "Destruction", which in Mazzucchelli's hands becomes "Cold Truth", a wordless two-page story about the tension between the pleasures of making and, well, unmaking.

Mazzucchelli contributed to Nozone twice more, in issues #5 and 6. Copies of Nozone are quite hard to come by, especially in the UK, but as well as finding #3 on eBay I was fortunate enough to come across a copy of #6, the "Crime" issue (1995), in one of my local comic shops, Dave's Books in Brighton. There's no Mazzucchelli short story inside Nozone #6; instead the cartoonist contributes the terrific front and back covers, which tell their own fleeting tale of crime and punishment.

A little easier to get hold of than Nozone are the two issues of Drawn and Quarterly Mazzucchelli contributed to. In Vol. 1 #9 (July 1992) he drew two very short stories: a meditative one-pager on the inside front cover, "Hear the Atoms Splitting", and a jarringly sardonic, aptly angular two-pager, "A Brief History of Civilisation".

Two years later, he contributed the much longer, much-admired "Rates of Exchange" to Vol. 2 #2. Done after he finished City of Glass, Mazzucchelli said of the story (in the aforementioned Comics Journal interview), "I think it's one of my best stories. I think the writing in particular, and by writing I mean the narration and the dialogue and the structuring of it as a story visually is... it was definitely a step for me."

In 1993 Mazzucchelli contributed a story to the third issue of Fantagraphics anthology Snake Eyes (another recent eBay acquisition of mine; I believe he also contributed to the first issue, but I haven't got hold of a copy of that yet; perhaps if – when – I do I'll update this post). In some ways "Phobia" can be considered a precursor to City of Glass; Mazzucchelli told Christopher Brayshaw that he showed the story to Art Spiegelman at the same Angouleme convention where Spiegelman later asked if Mazzucchelli would like to be involved with the City of Glass project (of which Spiegelman was one of the instigators), and it has similar noir trappings, although in the case of "Phobia", these are put to the purpose of satirising the luridly violent stories Mazzucchelli was seeing at the time in mainstream comics. Handily, The whole of "Phobia" can be read on Brian Michael Bendis' tumblr.

Mazzucchelli contributed to another Fantagraphics anthology, Zero Zero, three times during its 27-issue run. The first time was in the second issue, dated May/June 1995, with "Stop the Hair Nude", an uncomfortable and clammy but stylistically virtuoso story about a Japanese censor's obsession with female pubic hair. (A year later he contributed another Japanese-themed story, "Midori", to the first issue of Kodansha anthology Manga Surprise!, but I haven't seen hide nor hair of that – so to speak.) His next contribution, "Stubs" in #11 (August 1996), is in a much lighter vein, although even here there is depth in Mazzucchelli's examination of the folly of youth personified in a pencil. But Mazzucchelli's best Zero Zero story is the final one he contributed, to the anthology's final issue (Summer 2000): the quiet, reflective, drifting, abstract "Still Life" (another Japan-influenced tale which I understand originally appeared in Manga Surprise! #2).

Speaking of Fantagraphics publications, there's a lovely two-page Mazzucchelli comic in The Comics Journal Special Edition Volume One (Winter 2002) – "The Boy Who Loved Comics". Making the most of the oversized 12" square format, with deft lifework and bold use of CMYK colour, stylistically it has a fair bit in common with the later Asterios Polyp, as this blog post by Chris McCarthy points out.

Mazzucchelli contributed to two fairy tale-themed anthologies published over a decade apart. In 2000 his bittersweet take on the Japanese legend "The Fisherman and the Sea Princess" appeared in Little Lit: Folklore & Fairy Tale Funnies (RAW Junior/HarperCollins), while in 2013 the more comedic "Give Me the Shudders", based on a Brothers Grimm story, appeared in Fairy Tale Comics (First Second). At ten pages, "Give Me the Shudders" is one of the longer Mazzucchelli anthology short stories I've come across (beaten only by "Rates of Exchange"), and is also, I believe, his most recent work.

A few other short Mazzucchelli pieces I have in my collection are, I think, worthy of note in this context. Negative Burn #17 (Vol. 1, 1994 – again another recent eBay acquisition) reproduces pages from Mazzucchelli's sketchbook – not a must-have, by any means, but still, I'd say, of interest to the Mazzucchelli enthusiast (speaking as one myself). His contribution to Evan Dorkin's Superman and Batman: World's Funnest (DC, 2000), on the other hand, is well worth a look – a four page homage to Jack Kirby's Fourth World which Mazzucchelli spent months perfecting. Lastly, the 2005 edition of Batman: Year One boasts not only copious extras – samples, roughs, marked-up script pages, even Mazzucchelli's first comic page, drawn at age six – but an afterword(s) taking the form of four one-page comics about the artist's personal history with, and feelings about, Batman and superheroes.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Michael Gilbert's Calder & Behrens: a Signed Book and Some Radio Plays

Today is Existential Ennui's tenth birthday. I celebrated Existential Ennui's fifth birthday with a post on Michael Gilbert's malevolent middle-aged spies Calder and Behrens (and their handler, Fortescue) and their first collection of stories, the brilliant Game Without Rules (1967), and in an entirely fortuitous turn of events – I can only stress how unintentional this is, making its serendipity actually slightly unnerving – I'm celebrating Existential Ennui's tenth birthday with a return to those self-same Calder and Behrens (and their handler, Fortescue) in the shape of this:

An American first edition of the second and final Calder and Behrens collection, Mr. Calder & Mr. Behrens, published by Harper & Row in 1982 (under a dust jacket designed by One + One Studio). I wrote about the British first edition of the collection a few years ago, but I couldn't resist this copy of the US first when I came across it for the reason that it's been signed and inscribed ("With best wishes from the author") on the half-title page.

Signed Michael Gilbert books are in relatively plentiful supply – there are around a hundred such items on AbeBooks alone – but signed Michael Gilbert books starring Calder and Behrens are somewhat less so – just three on AbeBooks at present, an American and two British firsts of Mr. Calder & Mr. Behrens – and still less, I'd wager, signed and inscribed ones. Which for a Calder and Behrens fan and collector of signed and especially inscribed books like myself, makes this copy quite a splendid thing to own.

Something else a Calder and Behrens fan might wish to own is this:

The Murder of Diana Devon and Other Mysteries, a collection of Michael Gilbert stories published posthumously by Robert Hale in 2009 (dust jacket artwork by Hale mainstay Derek Colligan). Besides the Calder and Behrens short stories collected in Game Without Rules and Mr. Calder & Mr. Behrens, Gilbert wrote 16 radio plays starring his secret agents which were broadcast under the overarching title Game Without Rules on BBC Radio 2 in autumn/winter 1968/9 across 20 episodes (some of the plays were split over two nights). Most of them were either based on or have similarities with the stories in the two Calder and Behrens collections, but two of them – "Churchill's Men" and "St Ethelburga and the Angel of Death" – only ever appeared as plays, and it's these that are included in The Murder of Diana Devon.

Of the two, "St Ethelburga..." is the better story, seeing Calder inserted into a boarding school in the guise of a teacher in order to determine which of the other teachers might be Dr. Konrad Fleischmann, alias the Nazi Angel of Death, director of Hitler's extermination programme, who has supposedly been in hiding in Britan since the end of the war. In traditional Calder and Behrens fashion, while Calder works away at the problem from his end, probing each staff member whilst trying to maintain his cover (with the assistance of two willing pupils), Behrens attacks the opposite end, working to unearth details of Fleischmann's life before he became a Nazi. There's a nice twist in the tale, one which seems to have its basis in the anecdote which follows the story, "The Great German Spy Hunt", in which Gilbert relates an episode from his own boyhood boarding school days. As for "Churchill's Men", that concerns Calder and Behrens' attempts to prevent a number of active overseas agents being exposed via a civil libel action in court – a setting Gilbert, as a lawyer, knew a fair bit about.

While most of the Calder and Behrens tales can be found in Game Without Rules and Mr. Calder & Mr. Behrens – and the two available radio plays in The Murder of Diana Devon – there is one other Calder and Behrens story that doesn't appear in any of those books. I shall take a look at that story in a separate post.

Linked in Friday's Forgotten Books, 3/2/17.