Friday 7 May 2010

New Arrivals, Oh Yes

A couple of new acquisitions turned up today, both on a slightly different tack to my usual obsessions. First up, this:

A first edition of Peter Rabe's Blood on the Desert, published by Gold Medal in the US in paperback in 1958. Rabe was an interesting character, a toiler in the fields of pulpy American paperbacks alongside the likes of Jim Thompson and, yes, Donald 'Richard Stark' Westlake. In fact Rabe was an influence on Westlake, who followed in his wake. Blood on the Desert is a mid-period Rabe, and I'm looking forward to finding out what he's all about (there's an interview with him and a list of his books here).

The other new arrival was this:

A first UK edition of Richard Price's debut novel The Wanderers, published in hardback by Chatto & Windus in 1975, the year after the US edition (my crappy photo on the left, a better scan of someone else's edition on the right). I don't know much about Price other than he wrote for The Wire and has been an influence on the likes of George Pelecanos and Dennis Lehane, but it's the Wire connection that piqued my curiosity. The Wanderers focuses on street gangs in New York in the 1970s, which sounds good to me, and when I saw the cover online – jacket by Graham Palfrey-Rogers – I had to get meself a copy. There are only a few copies listed on AbeBooks from the UK, so it's nice to have one, and in splendid condition too (and at a reasonable price).

Thursday 6 May 2010

Stark and Westlake Shelf Porn

I like the idea of shelf porn. I'm actually surprised there isn't a blog devoted to it (maybe I should start one...). It's a simple idea that's spread across the internet the last year or two: basically it's photos of people's bookshelves, usually comics- or graphic novels-based, a kind of 'gaze in awe at all my luverly books' thing. So I thought I'd post some of my own shelf porn, starting, naturally enough, with my Donald Westlake/Richard Stark collection:

Niiiice. Lots of Allison & Busby editions of the Parker novels there, plus Coronet paperbacks on top, some Random House (Plunder Squad and Butcher's Moon)/Mysterious Press/Robert Hale editions on the near side, and a Hodder & Stoughton edition of the first Grofield novel, The Damsel, on the end there. (Amusingly, these days, if you google something like 'Richard Stark The Damsel' or 'Richard Stark Plunder Squad', Existential Ennui pops up in the top ten hits.)

And a slightly wider view, with the first Modesty Blaise novel and the first three Fletch novels on the near end, Kingsley Amis firsts down the other end, and assorted graphic novels underneath.

Again: niiiiiiice.

To be continued...

This blog is probably one of the few places on the web that hasn't mentioned the British general election today.

Er... until now.

This Week's Listless List

After last week's cavalcade of new comics, this week's looking somewhat sparser (as well as it being another late delivery, due to the bank holiday; the new comics are in tomorrow). There's only one comic I'll definitely be getting, which is this:

Batman and Robin
#12, with a luverly high-kicking cover courtesy of Frank Quitely. I might also try this:

Brightest Day
#1, which is DC's new fortnightly year-long series about the heroes who were resurrected at the end of Blackest Night. Which I didn't read. Which begs the question, why would I wish to read a series that follows up a series I didn't read, and whose issue #0 I thought was, by and large, cack? Well, fuck knows. But it's out every two weeks, and what I love about mainstream comics is their serialized nature, and... and... No, let's stick with 'fuck knows'.

And I might give this a go too:

It's got Mike Allred of Madman fame on art, and it'll be less than a quid (DC/Vertigo tend to launch new series these days with cheapo $1 issue #1s). Worth a look, eh?

Oh, and I managed to nab issues 2 and 3 of Greg Rucka's crime comic Stumptown on eBay, so I'll be blogging about those (and issue #1) once I've read 'em, as the series fits into the general crime fiction 'bent' of this blog, so there might be an interested reader or, er, one. Brillo.

Punisher to the Max: Punisher Max by Garth Ennis

Comic Book Resources has just published a top ten of the best Punisher stories ever told, voted for by CBR readers. What's interesting is that nine of those ten stories were written by Garth Ennis. Ennis is without a doubt one of the greatest comics writers ever, a truly gifted character writer with a flair for naturalistic dialogue, and with a body of work that includes at least three absolute classic runs of comic books: Hellblazer (issues #41-83), Preacher (the whole series), and Punisher Max (#1-60, plus the Born miniseries and a few one-shots).

That last one was, alongside Lucifer, one of my favourite ongoing comics throughout the 2000s, and indeed eight of the CBR top ten stories are from the Max series. It was a remarkable run of comics, and that top ten reminded me of a blog post I wrote a while back. So I went looking for it... and realised it's not on this blog. It's on my old blog, which is still out there, unloved and un-updated. But I was quite pleased with that post at the time, so here it is again for anyone (which is to say everyone, if there is an 'everyone') who missed it:

Why The Punisher is The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine



I can still vividly recall the first Punisher story I ever read. It was his first appearance, in Amazing Spider-Man #129, although I wouldn’t have read the story in its original US Marvel colour comic book; it would’ve been in the ’70s British weekly black and white reprint Spider-Man comic. (Back then I wasn’t even aware there were full colour American comics.) Being weekly instead of monthly, often the UK Spidey comic would split stories into parts, so as not to catch up to the monthly US Marvel titles they were taking their material from, and in my memory (if not in actuality), this happened to the Punisher’s debut, which is part of the reason it lodged in my brain.

See, in this story, the Punisher shoots Spider-Man, an event that at the time shook me to my bones. As far as I was concerned, Spider-Man’s enhanced agility meant he could dodge bullets – surely everyone knew that – and yet there was Spidey, taking a slug in the chest. And what made it worse was that, unlike the US edition, the story ended right at that point, to be continued the following week. I was in shock. I wasn’t old enough to realise that Marvel weren’t about to kill off their biggest character; all I knew was that Spidey had been shot and might very well be dead. In the space of a comic page, the concrete foundations of my beliefs had crumbled and my tower of faith – in Spider-Man, in comics, in the world – had collapsed. Up was down. Black was white. Spidey was dead.

Of course, next week I found out he wasn’t; the Punisher had used concussive ammunition rather than live rounds, or some other convenient bollocks like that. But it didn’t matter: the Punisher was suddenly the most formidable Spider-Man opponent I’d ever come across. After all, if he could draw a bead on Spidey once, he could do it again.

I must’ve encountered the Punisher a number of times after that in various guest appearances, but none of them lodged in my memory (although, as is often the case, his origin – possibly the darkest of any Marvel character – somehow seeped into my consciousness; in brief: Vietnam vet Frank Castle’s family are murdered by mobsters in Central Park, so he elects to go on a one-man criminal-killing rampage). By the time the character was at the height of his popularity in the late ’80s and early ’90s, starring in his own titles, I was drifting away from comics. It wasn’t until the year 2000 that I finally enjoyed another Punisher comic (we’ll forget the disastrous 1998 miniseries where the Punisher dies and gets turned into an angel of death; continuity-wise Marvel seem to have forgotten it too): the Garth Ennis/Steve Dillon relaunch under the Marvel Knights banner. Writer Ennis, never a big fan of superheroes, took the opportunity to inject some comedy into proceedings, feeding off the inherent stupidity of costumed heroes. It was a mildly entertaining comic book, but nothing more.

And then everything changed. In 2003, Marvel published a miniseries under their ‘mature readers’ imprint, Max: The Punisher: Born. Although it was once again written by Ennis, this was a radically different, bloodily realistic, foul-mouthed take on the character, following Frank Castle on his gruesome final ‘Nam tour and suggesting Castle was turning into the Punisher long before he watched his family die in Central Park. In fact, in this comic – and in a later one-shot, The Tyger, which examines an incident from Frank’s childhood – Ennis went so far as to suggest Castle was always destined to become the Punisher. As Frank himself states in The Tyger before his first mission as the Punisher, “They’ll blame it all on Vietnam. And they’ll be right. And they’ll be wrong.”

Evidently Ennis had discovered some dark truth at the heart of the Punisher, and the following year the main series was relaunched again, still written by Ennis but now under the Max imprint and minus any of the previous superhero trappings. Ennis started drilling down to the core of the character, presenting Frank Castle as a man almost totally lacking in humanity, only able to see the world in terms of black and white, driven by a need to kill criminals of any bent. That had always been the Punisher’s modus operandi, but Ennis took it further. Now Frank Castle had no real allies or friends (divesting himself of his only remaining one in the first arc), no ties to the rest of the human race; he was free to pursue his horrifically single-minded mission to murder. Each story arc took Castle ever further into the darkness, as he dispatched mobsters, gangsters, pimps, people traffickers – even, in one storyline, fatcat businessmen. He had become almost a force of nature, the “Tyger” of Blake’s poem.

It was as if Ennis was examining his blackest fears and deepest demons through Frank Castle, staring hard into the void, gazing dispassionately at a world that seemed to promise only madness and death. In the most recent issue, for instance (#49), a storyline about a group of mob widows who attempt to kill the Punisher climaxes with Castle naked, handcuffed to a bed and straddled by a brutally scarred kindred soul who, having tortured and killed her mob-wife sister and tormenter, the freshly slaughtered body still lying on the floor, punctuates their coupling by shooting herself in the head.

This line of enquiry reached its bleak apogee with the one-shot Punisher: The End. A nuclear holocaust has boiled the human race down to a single surviving enclave of the super-rich and super-powerful, ostensibly the architects of the apocalypse, buried in a bunker. But Frank Castle has also survived, and, dying from radiation poisoning, finds this one remaining outpost of humanity, the last hope for our species… and murders them all. It was the only logical conclusion to Ennis’ train of thought, the bleakest possible future ending to the (still ongoing) Punisher Max series.

And that, my friends, is why, right now, The Punisher is – to borrow a Fantastic Four tagline – The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine.

Wednesday 5 May 2010

Peter O'Donnell, 1920-2010

Sad news: Peter O'Donnell, creator of Modesty Blaise, died a couple of days ago, aged 90. I didn't know Peter that well, but I did work with him when we relaunched the Modesty Blaise newspaper strip collections at Titan in the early 2000s. I got to spend a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon with Peter at his home in Brighton prior to publication of the first Titan Blaise volume, The Gabriel Set-Up, interviewing him about the series, the character, and the novels. He was a lovely man, and he continued to write new introductions for each Modesty story we brought back into print, re-reading the comic strips to jog his memory and try and work out what he was thinking at the time he wrote the tales. It's a shame he won't be around to see the final volumes of the Titan series. He will be missed.

Monday 3 May 2010

To Arundel and Chichester

A trip out at the weekend took me and the bird to a couple of rather ace bookshops, both called Kim's. One's in Arundel, the other's in Chichester, but of the two I'd say the Arundel one is better: absolutely stuffed with old books on three (or possibly four; I stopped counting) floors. Arundel is also the prettier of the two towns (both of which are in West Sussex), quite small, with a great big castle and cathedral, all set on a picturesque hill. We took some pictures but I forgot to resize them, so here's one I borrowed off the interweb instead:

That's a feck of a lot of swans. There weren't that many swans there when we were there. Three at most. Anyway, much more importantly, both Kim's Bookshops offered up a huge haul of books:

At the Arundel Kim's, Rachel bagged a few things:

A 1985 Triad paperback of Iris Murdoch's The Sandcastle. Unfortunately, when we got home she discovered she already had an original Penguin of the book. Whoops. But this new copy did come with a very neat shopping list inside it. Bovril and scones anyone? She also got this:

A 1962 Book Club edition of Agatha Christie's The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side (interesting cover there), and this:

A 1973 Chatto & Windus first edition of Iris Murdoch's The Black Prince in hardback, with a jacket designed by Christopher Cornford. Rachel's slowly working her way through Murdoch and Christie, and has now furnished herself with a list of Christies so she doesn't double up anymore (she's off book shopping in Lewes at lunchtime today, I believe – there's a fair few Christie paperbacks scattered around the Lewes bookshops). She's particularly keen on the Fontana editions with the Tom Adams covers, one of which she picked up at the Chichester Kim's:

That's a 1975 Fontana paperback. Those Tom Adams covers are great. I think we're going to track down a copy of Tom Adams' Agatha Christie Cover Story at some point – I've never read any Christie, but I'd like to have a look through that book.

So that was Rachel's haul. Mine consisted of paperbacks for the most part from the Arundel Kim's, but the Chichester Kim's did turn up a couple of nice hardbacks, so it was definitely worth the further jaunt over there. From Arundel I got:

A 1970 Pan paperback of Kingsley Amis' Bond novel Colonel Sun. Unfortunately it has clear plastic affixed to the cover with no way of removing it, but it was only a couple of quid, and I have a hardback first edition of this one anyway. Next:

A 1971 Fontana paperback (second impression) of Ross Macdonald's The Moving Target (first published in 1949). This is the first of Macdonald's (a.k.a. Kenneth Millar) novels starring the detective Lew Archer, played by Paul Newman in the excellent movie Harper (renamed Lew Harper, natch; I love that film). Comics writer Ed Brubaker is a fan of these, so I thought I'd give one a go. Next:

1971 Pan paperback of Gavin Lyall's fifth novel, Venus with Pistols. I've read The Wrong Side of the Sky, and I have The Most Dangerous Game to read still, so I thought I'd grab this one too. Next:

A 1967 first Fontana paperback of Eric Ambler's Passage of Arms (first published 1959). Ambler is another British thriller writer like Gavin Lyall; I read in an interview once that Kingsley Amis was a fan of these two, as well as of Geoffrey Household. I've got a first Penguin paperback edition of Household's Rogue Male to read at some point, so now I have an Ambler to try as well. Next:

A 1976 first Panther paperback of J. G. Ballard's Concrete Island (originally published in hardback in 1974) with a cover illustration by Richard Clifton-Dey. Been meaning to try some of those early Ballard SF novels – i.e. The Burning World, High Rise – so this was a good find. And that was the lot from Arundel. The Chichester Kim's was a smaller shop with a less interesting selection, but I did get these there:

A 1977 Heinemann hardback first edition of Patricia Highsmith's Edith's Diary, and:

A 1967 Heinemann hardback first edition of Highsmith's Those Who Walk Away. The dustjacket's a bit knackered on this one, but what the hell. I figured I might as well nab it. And it does mean I have an almost unbroken run of Highsmith first edition novels from The Two Faces of January (1961) to her final novel, 1992's Small g: A Summer Idyll. I'm only missing firsts of The Tremor of Forgery (although I've read that in paperback already) and People Who Knock on the Door.

So, all in all, a successful trip.