Friday 11 June 2010

Parker Progress Report: And We're Done (Er, Almost)

And so my quest to collect all of Donald 'Richard Stark' Westlake's Parker novels comes to a close, with the arrival of this:

A 2007 UK hardback first edition of the penultimate Parker novel, Ask the Parrot, published by Quercus. So I now have every single one of the twenty-four Parker novels.

Except... I'm not quite done yet. For one thing, another of my cheapo Amazon punts has gone slightly astray: this copy of Ask the Parrot has turned out to be ex-library, which the seller didn't mention. It's also got the first page – or rather front endpaper, where libraries usually glue their issuing leafs – torn out. Fucktastic. I've just found another cheapo copy, which hopefully this time won't be ex-library. Harumph.

And there's also the matter of the editions I have of the Parker novels. I have multiple editions of some of them, but I'm still missing a few key hardbacks I'd like to own, mostly Allison & Busby ones: The Jugger (even though I've already got an Allison & Busby paperback of it...), The Rare Coin Score (er, despite already having three Coronet paperback editions...), The Black Ice Score (again, already got an A&B paperback of this one, but y'know...)... And then there's the thorny problem of Deadly Edge, which I have in a 1990 A&B paperback, but which I'm not sure was issued in hardback in the UK (it might have been, in 1992, but I can't say for definite), so I'd have to get a first edition US hardback, and those are a bit pricey. (I almost got me hands on one of these on eBay recently, but the internet crashed on me and I lost out. Ooh, you should've heard me swear that day.)

And I'm still debating whether to pick up the two Stark-penned Alan Grofield novels I'm missing, The Dame and The Blackbird. Sigh. It never ends, does it?

Thursday 10 June 2010

Review: A God Somewhere, by John Arcudi and Peter Snejbjerg (WildStorm, 2010)

For reasons I won't go into I was up before 5am this morning (again), but for once I used the time wisely and finished reading writer John Arcudi and artist Peter Snejbjerg's A God Somewhere. It's an original graphic novel about a young man, Eric Forster, who inexplicably gains superpowers, and what subsequently happens to him, to his brother Hugh, Hugh's wife Alma, and their friend Sam, who acts as occasional narrator, and from whose viewpoint the graphic novel unfolds.

There have been countless attempts at a 'real world' approach to superheroes, most successfully from Alan Moore with Marvelman and Watchmen, which A God Somewhere is already being compared to. Actually those comparisons are misleading; in its unassuming manner I think it's probably closer to Kurt Busiek and Stuart Immonen's underrated Superman: Secret Identity, although it's a lot more violent. But either way, A God Somewhere doesn't have its protagonist donning a costume and fighting crime. Instead, we witness Eric's gradual disintegration, as he turns increasingly violent and ends up public enemy number one.

And it's the violence that's really notable here; there are dismemberments and buckets of blood aplenty, with hundreds of deaths over the course of the story. In one particularly gruesome scene Eric stamps on a soldier's head and the soldier's eyeball pops out. It's shocking, but then that's the point.

One thing that works really well is the opaque nature of Eric. There are occasional narrative captions, but they're from Sam's perspective; we never really get inside Eric's head, so it's never clear why he does the things he does – in particular the path of extreme violence he embarks on. That's unusual in superhero comics – where generally motivations are clearly explained – and the book is all the better for it, leaving it up to the reader to come up with their own theories. That even goes for the small things: Eric grows a beard and lets his hair grow long, but it's never explained if that's a choice, or if he's simply unable to cut his hair because of his powers (a la Superman shaving with heat vision – a power Eric doesn't have).

Something that worked less well for me was the race element. Sam happens to be black, and encounters racism as a result, but that's never fully developed and doesn't have anything really to do with the main story, so it just kind of sits there. There's a parallel theme of faith and religion that's better explored, particularly in an unsettling sequence where Eric recounts a dream where he's God.

A God Somewhere is full of ambiguities, but those ambiguities only help to make it more compelling. It's a disturbing, engrossing read that manages to transcend the often hackneyed tropes of superhero comics, and Snejbjerg's artwork (and Bjarn Hansen's colours) is utterly sublime.

Westlake Score #2: Somebody Owes Me Money/Parker Progress: Dirty Money

Rather serendipitously, two Donald Westlake books turned up yesterday, both of them on a cold cash money tip. First, there was my second Donald Westlake eBay score:

A 1970 UK hardback first edition of Somebody Owes Me Money, published by Hodder & Stoughton, originally published by Random House in the States in 1970. I'm quite pleased with this one; it's ex-library (from Forest Hill Library, in fact, which is a few miles from where I grew up in south London), but it's in really good nick, and there are, far as I can tell, only two copies of this edition online anywhere, and those are in New Zealand and Australia (and also ex-library). This one's about a New York cab driver who places a bet on an outside horse, wins, and then tries to collect his money; except his bookie has been murdered, and the cabbie ends up mixed up with gangsters. It's got a great opening line: "I bet none of it would have happened if I wasn't so eloquent." Should be a good read.

The other moolah-themed Westlake book to arrive was this:

A 2009 UK first edition hardback of the twenty-fourth and final Parker novel, Dirty Money, written, of course, under his Richard Stark nom de plume and published by Quercus. I took a chance on a cheapo Amazon copy of this one and luckily it paid off this time: it's virtually brand new (which, considering it was published last year, shouldn't be too surprising). Unlike the painted covers on the Robert Hale editions, the jacket on this one is a photo (courtesy of Getty Images), which is standard for books these days, more's the pity. Anyway, the arrival of Dirty Money means I'm now only missing one Parker novel, the penultimate one, Ask the Parrot. But I should have that very soon indeed...

Wednesday 9 June 2010

Westlake Score #1: Levine

I should have a few Donald Westlake books turning up this week, all of them eBay scores, hence the title of this post. (See what I did there? 'Score'? Like 'heist'? And to think, you get this shit for free.) First to arrive is this:

A 1984 US hardback first edition of Levine, published by Mysterious Press. Copies of this one aren't readily available in the UK – I don't know if it was even published over here – and the most recent edition of it seems to have been 1987. Levine is actually a collection of six novellas, all centring on the eponymous cop. Four of them were written in the late '50s and early '60s for Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, one was written in 1965 for Mike Shayne's Mystery Magazine, and the final one was written especially for this collection, on the request of the publisher, Otto Penzler, as Westlake outlines in his introduction.

And in fact it's the introduction that's possibly the real draw here, as over thirteen pages Westlake details the creation of the novellas, explores his early years churning out short stories for all and sundry, and gives a few insights into his writing process. I read it last night and it's really interesting stuff. Here he is on novel series:

The repetition of characters makes a series, but if the characters in the original story are tied to a theme or a concern or a view of life that colors them and helps to create them, can they live in stories that are irrelevant to that extra element? I don't think so, and I think over the years there have been several series characters who have been less than they might have been because their later adventures never touched upon those thematic elements which had created their character in the first place.

Having now read the first Alan Grofield novel, The Damsel, I reckon you could make a case for that being the problem with the Grofield-starring Parker spin-off books. Anyway, there's lots more fascinating insights in the intro, including how Westlake stopped writing his early experiment with an emotionless character, 361, to write another book starring an emotionless character instead – The Hunter, written as Richard Stark; and how he suddenly found himself writing comedy caper novels, despite never having been, as he says, "the funniest kid in class. I was always, invariably, the funniest kid's best friend... I wasn't the guy with the quick line; I was the guy who loved the quick line."

So, what will be the next Westlake Score to turn up? You'll just have to wait and see...

Tuesday 8 June 2010

Voici! La Liste!

I realise these weekly rundowns of the comics I'll be getting are almost certainly of no interest to anyone other than me, but it keeps me happy, and I got nuffink else to post today, so like it or lump it. Anyway, there's a fair clutch of new comics I'd like to get this week; at least four, possibly even five or six. Pretty good week then potentially. Top of the pops is this:

Batman #700. I love anniversary issues, even though they're almost always disappointing. But this should be a good'un: words by Grant Morrison, art by the likes of Andy Kubert, Frank Quitely, David Finch... and a variant cover by Hellboy legend Mike Mignola (the one on the right there; regular cover by David Finch on the left). Apparently this'll feature stories spotlighting Batmen of different eras: Bruce Wayne; Dick Grayson, the current Batman... and the future Batman, Damian Wayne, currently Robin. That last one was last seen in Batman #666, a future tale of a demonic Gotham where the world's gone to pot and Batman's equally mental, possibly Morrison's finest issue of his whole run.

For some reason Morrison seems to get a lot of stick online for his Batman comics, but in truth there are few mainstream superhero comics being published today with the scope and ambition of Morrison's excursions in the Bat-universe. He's been writing various Batbooks for four years now, which is a lot longer than I expected him to stick around, and he's still going strong, which makes his Batman comics the longest sustained run he's had since New X-Men. I'm looking forward to re-reading them soon; it's basically been one long, strange, twisting story.

Also from DC (or rather Vertigo) this week, I'll probably get Unwritten #14, which, as I've mentioned before, I'm sort-of-enjoying-although-it's-not-as-good-as-Lucifer, so I won't bother to throw a cover up here. Or, on the Marvel side of things, for Iron Man #27, 'cos I got nothing to say about it; S.H.I.E.L.D. #2, 'cos I'm not sure I'll get it anyway; or Mark Millar and Steve McNiven's Nemesis #2, 'cos I can't really remember much about the first issue, which means I might not get this one either. But let's have a cover for this one:

Captain America #606. Yay for Ed Brubaker. And Baron Zemo's back too. What's not to love? Oh, and apparently this is out too:

Michael Kupperman's Tales Designed to Thrizzle #6. Kupperman is an absurdist comedy genius, and there's usually at least a couple of strips in this that make me laugh out loud. For example:

It's the heightened, hysterical final panel pay-offs that do it for me. And that's about it for this week, although I might grab this if I see it:

A graphic novel adaptation of Donald Westlake's first Dortmunder book, The Hot Rock. I haven't read the original, although I plan to at some point, but I might give this a go in the meantime. Or I might not. I know, the suspense is killing you. And speaking of graphic novels, I picked up these in the last couple of weeks:

Jim Woodring's Weathercraft, and John Arcudi and Peter Snejberg's A God Somewhere. I read Weathercraft over the weekend, and it's very good: as strange and unnerving as Woodring's other Frank comics – possibly even stranger, as at one point I sort of lost the thread of what the hell was going on. There's an interesting look at the book here, along with some art from it, and some thoughts about the parallels between Woodring's comics and, of all things, Rupert the Bear.

I've started A God Somewhere, which is a tale of a regular guy who suddenly gains superpowers. Been done before, right? Well, yes, but this one seems to be a more realistic take on the idea. The characters are well realised, and Snejberg's artwork is, as usual (check out The Light Brigade or his Starman run if you don't believe me), terrific:

You don't see much from Arcudi these days; I really liked his run on Gen13 from about ten years ago, which again attempted a more realistic approach to superheroes. So we'll see how A God Somewhere plays out. One thing to note is it's an original paperback graphic novel, not a collection of previously released comics. I think we'll be seeing more of this sort of thing; sales are so low now on some periodical comics that they wouldn't even act as a loss-leader for an eventual collection. So kudos to WildStorm for at least trying something a bit different. It'll probably still sell bugger-all, but at least they're giving it a go.

Monday 7 June 2010

The Grofield Files: The Damsel (1967) by Richard Stark; a Review

Finally polished this one off over the weekend, the first of Richard Stark's four novels starring actor-turned-heister Alan Grofield. Chronologically The Damsel follows on from the eighth Parker novel, The Handle, at the end of which Grofield is left by Parker in a Mexican hotel room recovering from bullet wounds. The Damsel picks up almost immediately after that, as a girl, Elly, swings into Grofield's room through the window and the two of them embark on a cross-country Mexican adventure to stop the assassination of a South American dictator.

Doesn't sound much like a Parker novel, does it? And the Stark four-part structure aside, it's really not. There's some violence, but on the whole the tone is light and often played for laughs – except without actually being funny. I'd read various reports that the Grofield novels kind of fall between two stools: not as hardcore as the Parkers, not as funny as some of the Westlakes. I haven't read any comedy caper Westlakes yet, but that criticism sounds about right to me.

Which isn't to say The Damsel is completely without merit. It's a decent enough read, and actually comes into its own in part three, where we get the Stark Cutaway to, variously, the dictator, General Pozos; his son, Juan; Luke Harrison, the former governor of Pennsylvania (who is plotting to kill Pozos); his son, Bob; and Dr. Fitzgerald, Elly's father and the man tasked with actually offing Pozos. Westlake does something interesting here, moving from one character to the next tag-team style: Harrison sees Pozos' yacht out at sea, and in the following chapter we jump to the yacht; Bob sees Acapulco below him as he flies in on a plane, and then in the next chapter we jump to his father's house below.

Unfortunately it feels as if Westlake loses interest in the final part, which is slightly tossed off and perfunctory. So I'm not sure if I'll bother with the next two Grofield books, The Dame and The Blackbird. I have a lead on a first edition of The Dame, so if that pans out I'll try it, but if not, I'll just read the final Grofield, Lemons Never Lie, which is reportedly much closer in tone to the Parker novels. Speaking of which, it's The Rare Coin Score next for me...