Saturday 17 July 2010

Why Lex Luthor Brings Out the Best in Paul Cornell (and Pete Woods)

Finally got through the pile of comics that's been growing over the past few weeks (I've been swallowed up by Justin Cronin's The Passage, which I've now finished; it's bloody great – read it), and it was a decidedly mixed bunch. Grant Morrison's Batman and Robin was, as ever, top notch, with some lovely artwork from Frazer Irving; Morrison's Batman #701 was also very good, bringing more to the 'untold' tale of what happened to Bruce between the end of Batman RIP and the events of Final Crisis than I figured, and with some surprisingly strong art from Tony Daniel; Garth Ennis' Wormwood was pretty amusing, if a bit slow; Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev's Scarlet was interesting, but not as radical as Bendis seems to believe; everything else was run of the mill.

But there was one comic book that went above and beyond what I was expecting – and it was the one comic book I decided in the end not to buy that week when I went to the comic shop: Action Comics #890, which marks the debut of writer Paul Cornell and artist Pete Woods. Luckily I managed to score a copy of the variant edition on eBay (that's the cover, by David Finch, on the left there), and I'm damn glad I did. Because it's the best-written superhero comic I've read in some time.

The set-up is this: with Superman off traipsing across America in J. Michael Straczyknski's Superman #701 (and disappointingly weepy that was too), he's no longer featuring in Action Comics. Instead, the spotlight falls on Lex Luthor, and his scheme to find and tap into the power of the Black Lantern rings from Blackest Night. That's the plot, but it's really the least interesting thing about this comic. What really makes the issue sing is Cornell's characterization of Luthor, and the sizzling dialogue we get as a result.

There's something about Lex Luthor that brings out the best in certain comics writers. Actually it's broader than that: I think it's villains in general that a lot of comics writers respond to; witness the way Norman Osborn's slow meltdown was often the high point of Marvel's Dark Reign event, or how Mike Carey found his voice with Lucifer. But Lex is a prime example: Brian Azzarrello turned in his best superhero comics work with the Lex Luthor: Man of Steel miniseries; Jeph Loeb, Joe Kelly and others did good things with Luthor during their President Lex storyline in the Superman family of comics; and the likes of Geoff Johns and Gail Simone used Lex effectively in Villains United and during the run up to Infinite Crisis. (And now I come to think of it, DC's President Lex and Villains United really prefigured what Marvel did with Dark Reign to a large extent.)

So there are certainly plenty of precedents for writers responding to villains in general and Lex in particular. And in Action Comics #890 Paul Cornell has upped his game considerably. For those who don't know, Cornell is best known in the UK for his work on Doctor Who, first in Who fandom, then as a writer of tie-in novels, and eventually on telly. The comics he's written prior to this have all been for Marvel, and haven't quite clicked: his Wisdom miniseries was marred by a subpar-Morrisonesque confusion, and his Captain Britain series was decent but unremarkable. On Action Comics, though, he's come into his own.

There's a lot to love about Action Comics #890. It helps that artist Pete Woods, a heretofore talented but undistinguished DC Comics journeyman, invests Cornell's script – which does after all feature extended sequences of people standing around jawing – with an expressive, elegant flow. But there's also the at times sublime dialogue ("Go on, have an adventure outside your skill set"; "So he's genuinely gone on this journey of his. Doubtless to seek more power. In the flyover states, oddly"; "It hasn't even been tested on animals – let alone homeless people"), Lex's arrogance, malevolence and batty quest for power, and a robot Lois Lane.

Above all, though, it's how Cornell writes Lex. There's a great sequence, much of which you can see here, where Lex fires an employee, who promptly attacks Lex, furious that his job's gone just like that when he has mouths to feed. Lex then spends the rest of the day and the evening ruminating on this attack, before contacting a hitman and telling him to kill his former employee. But the real kicker is, the hitman has been positioned on a rooftop across from the ex-employee's apartment the whole time.

It's that kind of insight into how Lex's mind works that provides choice moment after choice moment. Cornell, like Mike Carey, Brian Azzarrello and countless others before him, has finally, whilst writing a villain, discovered his comics mojo, and in the process benefited from a wider truth, one that applies to all fiction: sometimes it take a bad guy to bring out the best in a writer.

I forget

I used to have another blog. In fact, I think I've had four blogs altogether, including this one. There was another Existential Ennui, which was the first blog I kept back in 2006. That was, essentially, a blog about nothing. Or rather, it was a blog about blogging, with a tiresome obsession with stats and views. It was occasionally amusing, but for the most part I think it's safe to say it was probably highly tedious and testing. I deleted it when I started another blog in 2007, called Off Message, again mostly about nothing. And somewhere in there I also started another, very short-lived blog called Move to the Country, which I think consisted of about three entries.

I mention all this because occasionally I get reminded that Off Message is still out there when I receive emails telling me someone has posted a comment on it. Invariably those comments are spam, like this nonsense:

Author : Garrick Curtis (IP: ,
E-mail :
Whois :
Indeed interesting blog u got here. I¡¯d like to read something more concerning that matter. Thanx for giving this material.

But they serve as unwanted but in a way useful reminders of a former blogging life. Unwanted, because I've moved on and I don't, generally, do much in the way of looking back; useful because it never hurts to be reminded that you – as in I – can be a right div sometimes. And interestingly – to me, anyway – when I visited Off Message again just now, I realised that I didn't, in fact, entirely delete the original Existential Ennui. I copied it all and pasted it into Off Message. So if you go to what is purportedly the first page of Off Message, then scroll down and click on 'Older Entries', it takes you to all those old Existential Ennui posts, right back to my very first blog posts in February 2006. It's all a bit embarrassing really, but as I say, also useful.

Friday 16 July 2010

Running out of shelf space?

Buying more books than you have room for on your shelves? I feel your pain. Well here's the solution: turn your entire living room into one big bookcase!

Hmm. Only problem is, where to put the telly...?

(Go here for Lucy Mangan's guide to the ultimate bookcase.)

New Arrival: The Third Man: Life at the Heart of New Labour by Peter Mandelson

Something slightly different today:

This is the UK first hardback edition of former Labour spin doctor/minister/now Lord Mandelson's memoirs of his time at the heart of the New Labour operation, The Third Man, published by Harper yesterday. Not the sort of thing I usually showcase here, but actually not as incongruous as it might seem.

For a good many years in the late 1990s and for a large part of the 2000s, I wasn't really reading much fiction (comics aside). Instead, I was reading political biographies, diaries, polemics and so on. I devoured everything from Alan Clark's three-volume Diaries (absolutely brilliant; I have a first edition of the original Diaries) to Andrew Rawnsley's Servants of the People (the definitive account of New Labour's path to power in 1997), biographies of Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson, Peter Oborne's biography/hack job on Labour spinmeister Alastair Campbell, Nick Cohen's polemical Pretty Straight Guys... anything I could get my hands on really.

This was all the result of a late-flowering interest in politics, fired by Labour forming a government in 1997. I'd always cared about politics, but it was the party I supported getting into power that really made me excited. I'm not gonna get into the rights and wrongs of the Labour government (and particularly not the Iraq War), except to say I believe they did a lot more for the less-well-off in this county than they're often given credit. But of all the New Labour figures, it was Peter Mandelson I found the most fascinating.

The grandson of Herbert Morrison, the noted Labour cabinet minister, Mandelson went to work for Labour in the mid-'80s, running the 1987 general election campaign. He was instrumental in Neil Kinnock's battles with the far left of the party – the Militant Tendency idiots – but it was his friendship with Gordon Brown and then Tony Blair that would form the basis of his political career. He was selected as the candidate for Hartlepool in 1990 and elected to the House of Commons in 1992, from where he helped construct the New Labour project, plotting Labour's 1997 election landslide. Brown famously fell out with Mandelson after Tony Blair's rise to leader of Labour in 1994, but bridges were mended in the last few years when Brown – now PM – brought Mandleson into his government as a Lord. Mandelson himself was twice ejected from cabinet, the first time rather more justifiably than the second, but even in his periods in the wilderness, he never stopped advising Tony Blair and, latterly, when he was EU commissioner, Gordon Brown.

Tony Blair's autobiography is due out soon, and Alastair Campbell's already published his diaries, but this is the book I was most looking forward to. Mandy is a clever, articulate, arch, amusing man; his strategic thinking, understanding of how the media works (he was a producer at London Weekend Television before going into politics) and passion for a fairer, more cosmopilitan, more tolerant Britain helped make Labour electable again. The fact that he's widely loathed by large sections of the British public only makes him more appealing to me; large sections of the British public can be pretty dense at times. And if nothing else, Mandelson can certainly turn an elegant phrase...

Some Books Are Bigger Than Others...

Always good to paraphrase Morrissey in a blog post title, I find.

Something any book collector can't fail to notice is how your books look on the shelf. Whichever way you shelve your books – alphabetically by author, alphabetically by title (which, y'know, would just be weird and wrong, but anyway), grouped by author, grouped by author/date of publication (my preferred shelving system), randomly (geddouttahere) – chances are the formats of your books will vary noticeably, even if, like me, you're mostly collecting hardback first editions.

Basically, what I'm getting at here is, some books stand taller on the shelf than others.

With modern first editions, and in particular over the second half of the twentieth century, there's been a gradual growth in the size of novels (as in format/height, not extent: obviously a novel will be fatter or thinner depending on how long it is). I'm not quite sure why this is – many, many years ago size was determined by the folding of the sheets of paper, but that's less the case with modern printing methods – but you can almost chart the change decade by decade. Here's a snap of one of my shelves by way of example:

Now, this is probably a little confusing, as there are some American first editions mixed in with the British first editions, and sizes between the two counties vary. But generally speaking, the novels from the 1960s – those Kingsley Amis firsts on the left there – are usually quite small, around 71/2" (in fact the smallest hardbacks I own), while those from the 1970s – the various Fletches, Richard Price's The Wanderers – are more like 8" tall. The Hodder editions of Westlake's novels are taller again, more like 81/2", and those are also from the '70s, but that size seems to have become more widely accepted in the 1980s.

Here's a better example, showing how books continued to grow from the 1980s on:

Note the way those Robert Ludlum Bourne first editions grow throughout the series, even though they're all published by under same imprint, Grafton. The Bourne Identity dates from 1980 and is about 81/2" inches tall, same as Le Carre's Smiley's People next to it (published in the same year). The Bourne Supremacy was published in 1986, and that's another half-inch or so taller again. And then we get to The Bourne Ultimatum, published in 1990, which is about 93/4" tall. That's the height that seems to have become widely accepted from about 1990; most of the other books on that shelf I haven't yet mentioned date after that, excepting Banks' Canal Dreams, which was published in 1989, and so is smaller. (Ballard's Running Wild, published in 1988, bucks the trend by being the taller 1990s size. There's always one...)

Here's another pic showing book evolution:

The Highsmiths on the far left are from the early 1970s, all about 8", all published by Heinemann. There's a shift upwards from the mid-1970s through to the 1980s, with Ripley's Game through Found in the Street, all around 83/4", still published by Heinemann. And then there's the great leap upwards with 1991's Ripley Under Water and 1995's Small g: A Summer Idyll, both from Bloomsbury, both at the 93/4" size still in service today. You'll see that all of the Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos books next to those are at the same size, and they're all from the 2000s (although as ever, there's an exception: that 2000 edition of A Drink Before the War is more akin to the 1980s size. Once again, there's always one...)

There are accepted terms for the size of books, but you'll notice I haven't been using them. That's because, essentially, they're no bloody help at all. Most first editions from the mid-20th century onwards fall within the category known as Octavo, or 8vo, which is any book from 73/4" up to 93/4". That's a whole two inches difference just within that one size. Some of the books I've mentioned here, like those '60s Amis novels, would, strictly speaking, fall within the next category down, Duodecimo, or 12mo, which is any book from 63/4" to 73/4" (the Amis ones are about 71/2"). But if you look on AbeBooks or other online listings, even a lot of booksellers on there have those Amis novels down as being Octavo, when they clearly don't belong in that category. Seems Octavo has become a catch-all term for pretty much any hardback book.

So there you have it. The many sizes of books, with little of interest imparted and no conclusions reached. Gripping stuff, I'm sure you'll agree. The hours just fly by round at mine...

Finally, apropos of nothing, here's yet another picture of my Richard Starks, just 'cos I happened to be taking pictures of me books. Never let it be said that I waste an opportunity to show off:

Thursday 15 July 2010

Westlake Score: Jimmy the Kid / Child Heist (Hodder and Stoughton Edition) by Donald E. Westlake / Richard Stark

That's a real mouthful of a title for this post. Sorry about that: got carried away there. Anyway, I teased this one yesterday, and here it is:

This, my friends, is the UK hardback first edition of Donald E. Westlake's Jimmy the Kid, published by Hodder and Stoughton in 1975, one year after the US edition. Regular readers might recall I showcased that American edition last week, with its Don Bender jacket illustration. Well, no sooner had I ordered that book from an American dealer than this UK edition popped up on eBay, and the cover was so fantastic I had to have it. Luckily it seems there weren't many Richard Stark/Parker fans lurking on eBay that week, or at least ones who knew the significance of this book (which I'll come back to in a moment), and I won it easily. The jacket is by one Tony Page, and I love the simplicity of it: a black and white photo, block-coloured in a pop art style, with the the same figure seen from behind on the back cover.

This UK edition is actually incredibly scarce. When I started collecting first editions of the Dortmunder novels (of which this is the third), I had planned to get the UK editions, which for The Hot Rock and Bank Shot wasn't a massive problem (although I ended up buying the latter of those from Australia). But Jimmy the Kid is another matter entirely: there are, at present, zero copies of this for sale on Amazon or AbeBooks. I can see why: if you're a hardcore Parker fan, it's a must-have.

As I mentioned in that other post, in this book John Dortmunder and his crew plan a kidnapping based on a book by Richard Stark called Child Heist, featuring a career criminal called Parker. And of course Donald Westlake wrote a series of books under the pen name Richard Stark about a career criminal called Parker. But Child Heist isn't one of them. It only exists as part of Jimmy the Kid. And having now looked through Jimmy the Kid, I didn't realise how much of the mythical Child Heist there is in there. For a start, early on we get this excerpt:

When the guard came to open the cell door, Parker said to the big man named Krauss, "Come see me next week when you get out. I think I'll have something on."

Which is exactly how a lot of the Parker books open. And also, intriguingly, could be read as suggesting that Parker is in prison at this point (Westlake stopped writing Parker novels in 1974, only starting again some twenty-three years later). Then, later in the book we get two whole chapters from Child Heist. I won't quote them entirely, but here are the opening sentences of each:

When Parker got to the intersection he made a U-turn and stopped, facing back the way he had come...

At exactly four P.M. Ruth, in a pay phone at a Shell station in Patchogue, Long Island, made the second call...

Pretty cool, huh? Ah, but there's even more. Right at the end of the book there's a letter from 'Richard Stark' to his lawyer, about an unauthorized movie version of Child Heist. Bear in mind I haven't read Jimmy the Kid yet, so I don't know if this spoils a plot payoff or something, but here's the first paragraph of the letter anyway; read at your peril:

September 29
Mr. John Donald Riley
27 West 45th St.
New York, N. Y. 10036

Dear John:
I know I promised you I'd never get involved in a lawsuit again, but I think this just might be the exception to the rule. My friend Hal out on the coast tells me he's seen a rough cut of a movie called Kid Stuff that is a direct steal from my book Child Heist, except it's played for laughs. Now, it's bad enough to steal from me, but to make fun of me at the same time is even worse...

So there you go. A few examples of why Jimmy the Kid is pretty much essential for the Parker completist in your life.

Anyone wanna buy a US first edition...? 

Click here for a review of Jimmy the Kid.

Review: Darwyn Cooke's The Man with the Getaway Face

Back from Brighton clutching this in my sweaty paws:

Darwyn Cooke's oversized comics adaptation of Richard Stark's second Parker novel, The Man with the Getaway Face, which I mentioned on Tuesday was out this week. And a fine object it is too: taller and wider than yer average American comic book, printed on a nice thick matt stock. I tore through it on the train home and it stacks up well against the novel. It's only 24 pages long, so obviously Cooke has had to eject parts of the novel, notably Stubbs' story, which is a shame, and also as a result of that Stark/Westlake's killer twist of the knife at the end of the book. But the essentials are all here, kicking off with Parker's plastic surgery, which Cooke deals with in elegant fashion across the title page and the following page:

What Cooke's really good at – aside from drawing, storytelling and all the rest – is visualizing Stark/Westlake's world of highway diners, mangy motel rooms and forgotten urban sprawl. His take on Parker's environment feels as authentic as in the novels. It helps that he's chosen to do period adaptations of the books, but it's more than that: he gets what makes the Parker books tick.

As with Cooke's The Hunter, parts of the comic are 'silent', in particular the heist on the payroll truck:

Translating the mechanics of the robbery from words to pictures alone is some feat. So yeah, it's excellent stuff, and all for $2. Bargain.

One final thing, and look away here if you don't want the ending spoiled (although in truth it's not actually the ending; this is, after all, merely a prelude to the main graphic novel, The Outfit, which is out in October): Skim, the guy who pulls Parker into the job, is doublecrossed by his girlfriend and knifed after the heist. So far, so like the novel. But here he survives, and is last seen being carted off in an ambulance. I can't remember for sure right now, but did he survive in the novel? I don't think he did, and now I come to think of it, Trent's review on Violent World of Parker did mention a new plot twist. I guess this is it. And it makes me wonder if, as Trent also suggests, Skim's survival will play into The Outfit. I reckon he could be the stand-in for the missing Stubbs' cohorts blowing Parker's cover at the end of The Man with the Getaway Face...

The Michael Vyse Mystery: Solved

Thanks to the awesome Google skills of Book Glutton in response to this post about science fiction author Michael Vyse (you can read about BG's research in the comments on that post), I think we can safely determine what actually happened to Vyse. Book Glutton found this link detailing a couple called Michael and Margaret Vyse, now living in Normandy, where Michael paints and does wood carvings in relief. Could be an entirely different couple, you might think, but Vyse did design the jacket for Overworld, his only novel (he also published a collection of short stories, The Outer Reaches), so it's not unreasonable to suppose he might have turned to art instead of writing. But here, I think, is the clincher: last night I checked my copy of Overworld, and lo and behold, there was this dedication (click on the picture to enlarge):

So there you have it: Michael Vyse, alive and well and happily painting in France.

Wednesday 14 July 2010

Westlake Score: Brothers Keepers (UK Hodder Edition) by Donald E. Westlake

This latest new arrival is one of Donald Westlake's odder books, Brothers Keepers:

This particular copy is the UK hardback first edition, published by Hodder and Stoughton in 1977, two years after the US edition. The book is about a monk called Brother Benedict and how he handles the twin threats of real estate developers attempting to tear the monastery he lives in down, and falling in love with the landlord's daughter. So not exactly a typical Westlake crime caper then. Apparently Westlake did set out to write a crime novel called The Felonius Monks, where the monks commit a robbery to save the monastery, but "I liked the characters too much to lead them into a life of crime. So, to begin with, there went the title. 'Okay,' I said, 'let's see what a caper novel looks like without the caper.' Turned out to be a love story; who knew." (Quote borrowed from this excellent round-up of Westlake's books.)

The jacket design on this Hodder edition is by Bill Dare, and I have to say, it's not my favourite cover design ever. The jacket on the Evans US first edition is slightly better

but the UK edition is scarcer, with no copies listed on Amazon at all and only two on AbeBooks (and one of those is sans jacket). Then again, I guess not that many people are hunting for it; I got this one on eBay, where I was the only bidder, even though the price wasn't extortionate. Anyway, according to those who know, it's a cracker in Westlake's canon, and I'm glad to have it.

And tomorrow, all being well, I'll have an even scarcer Westlake Score to show you. Can you guess what it is yet?

New Arrival: Ending Up by Kingsley Amis

And from high-octane international espionage to, er, a tumbledown cottage near Newmarket:

A UK first edition hardback of Kingsley Amis' Ending Up, published by Jonathan Cape in 1974. I got this, dead cheap, on eBay, from the same seller as The Bourne Ultimatum. I hadn't really been planning to buy any more Amis novels – I've still got a fair few to read as it is – but it was, as I say, very inexpensive, and I liked the sound of it, concerning, as it does, a septuagenarian commune in the run-up to Christmas. Flicking through it I came across this choice Amis line at the start of Chapter 30:

Christmas dinner was something of a success; it passed off, at any rate, without bloodshed.

Which I'm sure could apply to many people's experience of Christmas; I think I'll save this one for the festive period... The jacket is by Raymond Hawkey, who's probably best known books-wise for his jackets for Len Deighton's novels (including The Ipcress File) and covers for the 1960s Pan paperback editions of the Bond books, but he also turned his hand to a number of Amis' books:

His designs are always fascinating; I love the accoutrements of old age on the cover of Ending Up, and the military detritus on The Anti-Death League. Smashing stuff.

New Arrival: The Bourne Ultimatum by Robert Ludlum

Time is at a premium this week, as Existential Ennui will be off on its summer hols next week and I've got annoying stuff like, y'know, work to get done before then. But I've got a flurry of new arrivals to get through, so I'll sling 'em up here as and when. And to kick off:

A UK hardback first edition of Robert Ludlum's The Bourne Ultimatum, published by Grafton in 1990. This is the third and final of Ludlum's original Bourne trilogy (Eric Van Lustbader – great name – carried on the series after Ludlum's death in 2001). Judging by the jacket flap copy the plot's completely different to Paul Greengrass' film, as was The Bourne Supremacy (and indeed The Bourne Identity has significant differences to its movie adaptation). The jacket photo is by one Colin Thomas, who may well have also done the photos for the previous two books; consummate professional that I am, I don't have them to hand to check. But the design of the books is certainly consistent:

Collect 'em all! Er, which I have. So that's one collecting goal accomplished at least. Let's hope they're worth the effort (although in truth it didn't take much effort to get first editions); I read somewhere once that Ludlum's a bit leaden. Anyone read any of his stuff?

(UPDATE: I have since "read his stuff"; you can find a review of the first novel, The Bourne Identity, here.)

Tuesday 13 July 2010

Must Be Thursday 15/7/10 UPDATE: The Man with the Getaway Face

Holy cow, how could I have missed this? Also out this week:

It's Darwyn Cooke's oversized comic book prelude to his next Richard Stark graphic novel adaptation, The Outfit! As blogged at the start of April, Cooke decided to abbreviate the second Parker novel, The Man with the Getaway Face, so he could get to the third Parker book, The Outfit. But before his version of The Outfit arrives later in the year, we get the Getaway Face portion as a twelve inches by eight inches 24-page standalone comic! Huzzah! That'll teach me for not reading IDW's listings properly. Comic of the week, no contest.

Must Be Thursday 15/7/10

It's the weekly post formerly known as The List! Yes, we have a brand spanking new title for these weekly rambles through the new comics I'll be buying, or might be buying, or might even not be buying at all. Why 'Must Be Thursday'? Because the new comics come out on a Thursday here in the UK, that's why – hence the date following the title. Got it? Good. And there'll be a special no-prize to anyone who spots the pop culture reference in that title.

So, to the comics! And it's another bulging week of potential buys, most of which are from DC Comics for a change. Let's have a look at those first:

What we got 'ere then? Well, we got Astro City: Silver Agent #1, which is the first of Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson's two-issue miniseries exploration of the origin of the Silver Agent, a character who has been referenced throughout Astro City and to whom something terrible happened at some point. Actually I thought that terrible something had already been revealed, but I can't remember what it is if it has, so maybe it hasn't. Anyway, I dropped out of Astro City for the duration of the Dark Age storyline, which I lost interest in pretty sharpish. But this looks like it might be good, and I used to love this series before that slightly interminable Dark Age story, so I'll give it go I think.

We also got Batman #701, which apparently fills in the gaps between the end of Batman R.I.P. and Batman's reappearance in Final Crisis. Were there gaps? I thought Bruce basically escaped capture by the Apokolops meanies and then got shot by Darkseid, all of which we witnessed. Evidently I am wrong, however, as Grant Morrison and Tony Daniel will explain.

And we got Superman #701, wherein Superman embarks on his trek across America to find himself. Or something. Writer J. Michael Straczyknsi has stated that readers can write to him explaining why Superman should visit their particular hometown, and whichever letter offers the best reason, JMS will divert Supes to that town. I have already written to JMS explaining why Superman should visit Penge.

And also from DC, or rather Vertigo, we got Unwritten #15, in which... some stuff... happens. I can't remember what the hell's going on in this series now. I think the big storyline at the moment is about a book launch, which doesn't, on the face of it, sound like the most exciting event to build a storyline around. Still, it's Mike Carey and Peter Gross, and as I've mentioned more than once, their Lucifer is one of my favourite comics of all time, so I'll keep reading. For now.

That's yer lot for new comics from DC, but I am also mildly interested in this from Vertigo:

A graphic novel called Revolver, by Matt Kindt, who's best known for his Superspy stuff. I think I read Superspy, but didn't really like it. This, however, looks interesting: it's about a guy who cycles between two different realities, one where he's stuck in a mundane life, the other where the world is collapsing as a result of avian flu and dirty bombs. Intriguing, n'est ce pas? Unfortunately, it'll set me back twenty quid, so it's unlikely I'll get it. But maybe someone else will and tell me what it's like in the comments.

On to Marvel, and there's really only one definite for me, plus something I'll take a gander at:

The definite is Invincible Iron Man #28, although I'm starting to suspect I'm buying it out of habit rather than a firm desire to read it. I mean, I like it and all... but I don't really look forward to it. It just turns up once a month and I pick it up. I'm not sure I even remember what the current storyline's about. Something about a rival firm to Tony Stark's muscling in on his former military contracts. Hmm. This habit might need correcting quite soon.

And then there's Uncanny X-Men: The Heroic Age #1, which is by the same writer as Iron Man, Matt Fraction, with various artists. I stepped away from the X-titles for the duration of Second Coming, but now I'm kind of wishing I hadn't. I might even have to get the collection of Second Coming whenever it comes out. I know it's wrong of me, but I do like a good X-Men epic (I really liked Messiah Complex, f'rinstance). This particular comic sets up the X-Men's place in Marvel's shiny new Heroic Age order. I'm not sure I care about their place in that order, but I'll have a look at it.

And finally, there's this from Image Comics:

Bulletproof Coffin #2. The first issue of this David Hine/Shaky Kane miniseries was well weird, about a guy who cleans out dead people's houses and discovers a collection of '60s comic books that shouldn't exist. It's interspersed with samples of those comics, which were created by... David Hine and Shaky Kane. So it's a bit meta. Helpfully, you can read the entire first issue for free here. Which is kind of annoying for those of us who actually bought the first issue, and slightly puts me off buying the second issue. Churlish of me, I know, but that's me all over. Pah.

Monday 12 July 2010

The Mysterious Vanishing of Michael Vyse

How many authors have one book published, maybe two, and then are never heard from again? Thousands upon thousands I'd guess. Perhaps they only have one (or two) books in them. Perhaps their initial efforts don't sell enough for a publisher to publish a follow-up. Sometimes, as in the case of Adam Diment, an author's disappearance is noted and puzzled over for years. More often, as with, say, Robert H. Kelston, an author simply disappears into obscurity, the only evidence they existed being the online listings for their books.

Which is the case with Michael Vyse. Vyse was a science fiction writer who had two books published, both by Faber, both in 1980: The Outer Reaches, a collection of short stories; and Overworld. I came across a copy of the latter when I moved to Lewes a couple of years ago, in one of the many second hand bookshops here. It was the cover that attracted me: a stark, black, white and green affair, featuring a human figure tangled in brambles, actually designed by Vyse himself. As for the novel, here's how it's described on the front flap:

The Hive is the ultimate megalopolis where gluttony is a virtue and the gratification of desire a moral obligation for its teeming millions. Teenage gangs roam the lowest levels, their murderous confrontations televised to excite the jaded palates of those above. Clinging precariously to land not yet ravaged by the Hive's inexorable growth, the Newearths live on memories, cherishing within their Garden the last remnants of beauty. War exists between the two cultures until wearied by suicide missions of Newearth warriors, the Hive embarks upon a programme of total extermination. Yet when the Final Answer is unleashed it is Earth which enjoys an unprecedented revenge, a glittering renaissance. Overworld is an excursion into a future less distant than might be imagined. It is a warning, an indictment, one despairing cry to a world seemingly intent on self-destruction. It is, too, a brilliant successor to The Outer Reaches, the collection of short stories with which Michael Vyse made his debut.

So it's a futuristic eco tale, mixed in with a commentary on consumerist culture. As you can probably tell, I haven't read it yet; I filed it away to read another time, but for some reason I couldn't get the book out of my head, or rather I couldn't get Michael Vyse out of my head. I looked him up online, but all I could find were listings for Overworld and The Outer Reaches. I even started writing a story about him, about what I imagined happened to him (it involved a man with a similar name, the Great Storm of 1987 and Chanctonbury Ring; maybe I'll finish it one day).

And then at the weekend I was in Brighton and in one of the bookshops there I came across his short story collection, mistakenly shelved with the crime fiction. Here's what the jacket flap says about The Outer Reaches:

A man who tires of Paradise and wishes to know what lies beyond its boundaries. An old couple offered the chance to be sole survivors when the Earth explodes. A motorist whose motorway journey becomes the eery exploration of another planet. An office lift which plummets into successive levels of nightmare. The man who betrays his own kind and is rewarded with a dreadful gift of beauty. A woman searches the Universe for a duplicate lover. The capture of a vast starship containing sleeping superbrings and the dilemma of whether or not to wake them. A stage magician whose tricks accidentally conjure a terrifying glimpse of the future. These and other stories represent 'extensions of the possible', exploring the outer reaches of imagination and experience. With them Michael Vyse, a new British writer, makes a brilliant debut.

Neither The Outer Reaches nor Otherworld offer any information at all on Vyse, apart from that he designed the jacket of the latter. And as I say, there's no information about him online as far as I can see. What happened to him, why he only had these two books published, we may never know.

But here's the thing: because I happened to move to Lewes; because I have an interest in first editions; because a bookshop here had a copy of Overworld on its shelves; because I was attracted by the jacket that Vyse himself devised; because his name lodged in my brain; because I became intrigued by his 'disappearance'; because a copy of his short story collection, The Outer Reaches, was wrongly placed in another bookshop in Brighton; because I was in Brighton that day; because I like crime fictiion and so looked in that section; because I was already aware of Vyse and so bought the book; because I have a fairly well-read blog about books...

Because of all that (and probably more besides), there is now some scant information about Michael Vyse online, right here – even if it's only the jacket copy from his books. But it's something. If enough people click on this post, it'll pop up if someone else ever decides to investigate Michael Vyse. Perhaps, if he's still around, Mr. Vyse himself will Google his name and stumble across it. And if that does happen, perhaps the mystery of Michael Vyse's vanishing will be solved...