Saturday 13 November 2010

Westlake Score: The Fugitive Pigeon by Donald E. Westlake (Boardman First Edition, Denis McLoughlin Cover Design)

We began the week with a Westlake Score, and we're ending the week with one too. There's a pleasing symmetry to that.

This is the UK hardback first edition of Donald E. Westlake's The Fugitive Pigeon, published by T.V. Boardman & Company in 1966 – originally published in the States in 1965. The notable thing about this particular novel is that it's the first of Westlake's 'capers', i.e. the first time he hit upon writing a more amusing – yet still crime-focused – book. Prior to The Fugitive Pigeon, the novels Westlake wrote under his own name were straight-up, sometimes violent crime novels (although Killy is more about unions, but anyway). And of course the books he wrote under the pseudonym Richard Stark were even more violent and humourless (and also utterly terrific). But with The Fugitive Pigeon – in which an innocent bartender finds himself the target of two gunmen, and has to find out why – his books took a comedic turn, much to his own surprise. After that, the majority of the novels Westlake wrote under his own moniker were at least partly comical in nature.

This being a Boardman edition, the dustjacket is by Denis McLoughlin, who illustrated and designed dozens of jackets in Boardman's American Bloodhound Mystery series (including the aforementioned Killy), of which The Fugitive Pigeon is number 526. Boardman were key in bringing many US mystery and suspense authors into hardback in the UK, including Ed McBain, Lionel White and, unsurprisingly, Donald Westlake.

But it's for McLoughlin's jackets that they're remembered and collected these days, although not as much as they should be. The best of McLoughlin's covers are restricted-palette, chiaroscuro mini-masterpieces: there's a gallery of some of them on this Dan Dare site; the ones from 400 up to 600 are particularly striking, among them McLoughlin's brilliant, bloody-handed cover for Westlake's Pity Him Afterwards. I own a Boardman copy of Killy (American Bloodhound #454, 1964), plus a Lionel White novel, The Time of Terror (American Bloodhound #351, 1961, which I still haven't read):

Anyway, back to The Fugitive Pigeon: I got this copy, slightly incongruously, at the Paperback and Pulp Fair I mentioned at the end of last week (there were a few hardbacks on offer too). Three quid it cost me, which isn't a stupendous bargain – there are copies for not much more than that online – but is still not to be sniffed at. I also picked up a stack of paperbacks, and it's these (and possibly one or two other paperbacks I've bought recently – although I may save some of those, as I've got enough paperbacks either arrived or on their way for at least another week's worth of posts) that will form the basis of next week's blogging. Yes, next week on Existential Ennui it's Paperback Week, starring Richard Stark, Peter Rabe, Ross Macdonald, Ross Thomas, John D. MacDonald and Jim Thompson. By God that'd be a hell of a dinner party.

Friday 12 November 2010

The ACME Novelty Library, No. 20 – Lint by Chris Ware: Graphic Novel Review

These graphic novellas from Chris Ware have become something of a traditional early Christmas treat, usually appearing around this time of year with such an absence of fanfare that they feel as if they've arrived completely out of the blue. And so it is with his latest.

The ACME Novelty Library No. 20: Lint (Drawn & Quarterly) once again comes packaged as a rather lovely hardback, in a landscape format (see also ACME Noveltys #19, 17, and 16 – but not 18), this time with gold debossing and flock wallpaper-style edging on the cover. And before you take me to task for drooling over the design/finishing, let me just say that design is a big part of Ware's work, from the intricate, tricksy way he lays out a comics page to the look of the final object. And anyway, book fetishism is par for the course here at Existential Ennui, so, y'know: tough.

The thing that's different about Lint has less to do with the design of the book or the now-familiar formal quirks – unusual panel progression; lettering that leaps up and down in case and wanders across the page – than with the qualities of story itself. For one thing, the eponymous star of the book, Jordan (or Jason) Wellington Lint, isn't your typical Ware sad sack character, prone to endless navel-gazing and intermittent weeping (see Jimmy Corrigan, Rusty Brown). He's deeply damaged, of course – you'd expect nothing less from Ware – but he's more rounded a character than previous Ware stooges: he's a jock and a bully, then a stoner and a dropout, then a husband and a father, and finally a grandfather and father all over again.

Which will give you some clue as to the course the story takes. What we witness is nothing less than one person's entire life, from Lint's first abstract glimpses of his mother's face, to his last desperate moments on a hospital gurney. In between those bookends is a story of searing ordinariness, an achingly real account of a life of small triumphs, desperate disappointments, some laughs, some highs (mostly centred around football), some pain, some anger, money made, money lost... all the stuff that each of us go through in our own ways. There are moments of truth that will speak to everyone: for me it was little details like picking at a hangnail in church; teenage venting that no one understands you and that you're "not one of these people"; a closing comment in the hospital – "They keep moving me, you know" – that brought back very recent, traumatic experiences. Yours will be different, but they will be there.

Previously, I've always found Ware's lead characters slightly unbelievable. Jimmy Corrigan was so utterly useless and pathetic that it was difficult to imagine he could have any concrete counterpart in the real world, although I'm not saying that's completely outside the realms of possibility. Rusty Brown, on the other hand (who makes a guest appearance here), while his all-consuming collector mentality was horribly familiar to me, was still more of a parody than anything, and probably intended as such. Lint, however, feels like an actual person. There are awful events that weave through the narrative – the early death of Lint's mother, the slightly later death of his friend – but though these impact on Lint, in ways atypical and eventually quite unexpected, they don't define him overall. The book isn't anywhere near so simplistic. Ware recognises that there's more to a person than the bad things he or she does or that are done to him/her. Our lives are more complex, complicated, confusing and convoluted than that. And so is Lint's.

As happens to so many of us, Lint's youthful dreams – in his case of a career in the music business – are crushed, and he goes to work in his father's financial company instead. He puts his hellraising behind him, gets married, buys a house, has children (there's a one-panel birth scene that reminded me of Miracleman #9); does all those things he spent his formative years railing against, things which, for many, are more important, more worthwhile and more rewarding than the fleeting, facile pleasures of a football game or recording studio. And Lint does begin to comprehend that, but then tips over too far the other way, finds God (a transformation that's foreshadowed at a football game from Lint's youth, and that will have consequences that won't become clear until much later), and ultimately ruins his marriage by shacking up with a younger woman.

He makes mistakes, in other words, the kinds of mistakes we all make (well, maybe not embezzlement...), and regret, and try to rebuild from. There is real depth here, perhaps more so than in any other Ware story. That's helped by some of the most naturalistic drawing we've yet seen from Ware, at least in his comics work – anyone who's pored over the two volumes of the ACME Novelty Datebook will already know what a brilliant draftsman he is. But there are some beautiful panels in this book: the aforementioned birth scene; a portrait of Lint's first wife, seen through a screen door; snapshots of Lint's second wife and daughter. Only Lint himself retains the button-eyed simplicity of Corrigan and Brown, as if Ware can't quite bring himself to let that stylistic choice go – except in one panel, where Lint reads a letter from his son in Iraq, and in a moment of helpless horror develops full cornea.

The transitions from each stage of Lint's life to the next are seamless, apart from one jarring instance where his first marriage slightly inexplicably ends quite suddenly, and on the next page Lint is living in a crummy apartment with his new girlfriend. But that, it turns out, is entirely intentional (if a little dishonest, perhaps, although the withholding of key information throughout the work could be said to be a consequence of lapses in Lint's memory), acting as a set-up for a sting in the tail towards the end of the novella, where a Google search leads to a revelation about that first marriage and abandoned family, encompassing a formalistic switch in the artwork that's both fitting and rather funny, particularly if you know your angsty alt. comix.

And in those final few pages it becomes increasingly apparent what Lint is: a tragedy, on a simultaneously gargantuan and yet human scale. But it's also something more, I believe. Lint represents both another step forward in Ware's development as a cartoonist and, not to be too hyperbolic or anything, possibly even the comics medium as a whole. What with this and David Mazzucchelli's Asterios Polyp, I think we're seeing comics that rival the best novels for their exquisitely crafted characters, their resonance, and their relevance. This is a clever and affecting graphic novella.

(All images © 2010 Chris Ware)

Thursday 11 November 2010

A Quick Plug: Sci-Fi Art Now by John Freeman

I tend not to plug the books I actually work on on this blog too often, but I'm not above a spot of shilling when I know a book will appeal to my scant few readers. And this is such a book:

Sci-Fi Art Now, published by The Ilex Press in the UK and Collins Design in the US. It's a rather ravishing volume stuffed full of dazzling science fiction art, from book covers to video games design to comics work, all lovingly compiled by the legend that is John Freeman. John's set up a great blog to accompany the book, which boasts exclusive interviews with some of the artists featured in Sci-Fi Art Now, plus links to their websites, reviews, inspirations behind the art, and loads more. Go have a look.

Sequels You Never Knew Existed: Rogue Justice by Geoffrey Household, Sequel to Rogue Male (Michael Joseph, 1982)

Or at least, a sequel I never knew existed, anyway.* (And that post title makes it sound like this will be the first in a series of posts, but unless I stumble upon any other books that are little-known sequels to other books, it won't. Sorry.) I found this on a trip up to London, lurking in the musty bargain basement (the book, not me; I was more browsing than lurking) of one of Charing Cross Road's dwindling number of second hand bookshops:

A UK hardback first edition of Rogue Justice by Geoffrey Household, published by Michael Joseph in 1982. It was four quid, which, it transpires, was an absolute bloody steal: there are very few copies of this edition – or indeed any edition – of the book for sale online, and those that are for sale range from £40 for a first edition with a fair jacket up to over a hundred pounds for a fine copy (which mine virtually is). In fact, there were seemingly only ever three editions of the novel: this UK Michael Joseph UK first; a 1983 US Little, Brown hardback first; and a 1984 UK Penguin paperback. In total, AbeBooks only has eleven copies, in any edition, listed for sale.

All of which is very strange, considering Rogue Justice is the sequel to one of the best known, most brilliant thrillers ever written: 1939's Rogue Male, which famously centres on an unnamed English nobleman's attempt to assassinate (and then escape from) an equally unnamed European dictator who bears more than a passing similarity to a certain A. Hitler. (Should you so wish, you can read my thoughts on it here.) When I saw this copy of Rogue Justice on the shelf, it was like one of those dreams you sometimes have about amazing books or comics (or bookshops or comic shops) that, when you wake up, don't actually exist. (Or is that just me...?) Except, in this instance, the impossible, imaginary book really did exist.

Its scarcity might be down to lack of interest/sales historically (and therefore lack of multiple editions), possibly due to the huge gap between the publication of Rogue Male and the publication of Rogue Justice – over forty years, which has to be one of the longest ever between an original and its sequel (I say "has to be", but, perhaps unsurprisingly, I haven't done any actual research to back that statement up), at least as written by the same author (there are, of course, sequels to books written by persons other than the original author published hundreds of years after the fact). Because there is that weird stigma where the longer it takes for a sequel to arrive – whether it be novels, films, albums, or whatever – the more it smacks (to some people anyway) of either desperation or a paucity of ideas. I'm not entirely sure why that is. After all, if you think about it, there's almost something more graspingly avaricious about pumping out a sequel directly after a successful work.

I don't know what the reception was for Rogue Justice when it was published nearly thirty years ago; there are various reviews online, but those are more recent, either on Amazon or on blogs. I can't find any critiques from contemporaneous newspapers or magazines, which isn't that unusual: who knows how much material there is sitting in newspapers' archives that's yet to make it online (and may never make it online). In any case, I'm still intrigued to read it. According to the blurb on the dustjacket flap (which begins, "It must be rare that an author writes a sequel to a novel published over forty years earlier"; evidently that copywriter couldn't be arsed to research what the longest gap between an original and a sequel was either), Rogue Justice picks up directly after Rogue Male, and follows our nameless but noble hero as he returns to Germany to finally off Der Fuhrer (who, unlike in Rogue Male, is actually named in this novel).

The dustjacket design on this edition is credited to Chris Yates. Now, I might be barking up not only the wrong tree but be in entirely the wrong woods here, but I have a feeling that the Chris Yates who designed this dustjacket might actually be this Chris Yates – star of BBC2's A Passion for Angling and author of a brace of books on fishing. I'm basing this wild supposition on a snippet of information I found in this interview with Chris in The Idler, where it's stated that he was once a photographer and designer working chiefly on book and album covers. So, y'know, it could be utter bollocks on my part (no change there), but it feels kind of right, so I stand by the results of my meagre research until proven otherwise.

(*It's since come to my attention that Rogue Justice was recently serialized on digital radio station BBC7. Which just goes to show what a culturally blinkered nincompoop I am.)

(UPDATE: Should you be interested, I've since reviewed Rogue Justice.)

Wednesday 10 November 2010

New Arrival: The Millennium Trilogy Box Set by Stieg Larsson

I sort of splurged with this one:

That is the UK box set of Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy, published in this edition by MacLehose Press/Quercus last month. It comprises all three books in the trilogy – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, to give them their largely inaccurate English titles (more on that at the end of this post) – printed as cloth-cased hardbacks, sans dustjackets, along with a fourth slim volume titled Afterword – Stieg Larsson: Four Essays and an Exchange of E-Mails, plus a fold-out poster of the various cover designs of the original books.

I doubt Larsson needs much introduction at this point; if you've ventured onto any form of public transport in the UK recently you'll have seen someone reading one of his three novels, and I imagine it's a similar story in the States (and indeed many other countries). As with much contemporary fiction, however, the Larsson express kind of passed me by. It's only in the last few years that I've really rediscovered my love of novels, and much of that time has been dedicated to excavating the genre fiction of the previous century. In theory, though, Larsson is (or rather was; he died in 2004) an author who should punch all my buttons: he wrote a trilogy of intelligent thrillers with a journalistic and political bent, and the heroine of those novels has been likened to Peter O'Donnell's character Modesty Blaise. So, y'know: firmly within my sphere of interest. (Although I suspect I might've slightly ruined the first book in the trilogy anyway by watching Niels Arden Oplev's rather spiffing 2009 movie adaptation, which is reportedly very faithful. So it goes.)

And in truth I have debated picking up the Larsson books before... but by the time I cottoned on to him, first editions – first British editions, that is – of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo were selling for hundreds, even thousands, of pounds, despite it only being published in Britain in 2008 (it was originally published in Sweden in 2005). And as we all no doubt know by now, I'm usually psychologically incapable of buying anything other than a first edition, and even more so when a book is so recent. Happily, Quercus have solved that problem for me with this box set, because each book inside the box is a first edition – and first printing – in this format. So not only do you get all three books in the trilogy in hardback – plus the supplementary volume and poster, which I'll come back to in a moment – but each one is first thus too.

The publisher has done a nice job with the design of the books as well; as you can see, each one has a debossed gold foil dragon on the front cover, and each has a map printed on the endpapers:

The Afterword volume is almost worth the price of admission alone (a price which, despite my opening sentence for this post, isn't actually too bad: less than forty quid on Amazon). I haven't read the essays yet, but the email exchanges between Larsson and his original Swedish publisher and editors are fascinating, particularly for anyone interested in the mechanics of modern publishing. These begin with a couple of longish missives from Larsson on technical issues – specs for the books, extent, permissions, etc. – and the content and characters of the three novels, and end with a short, bittersweet note where the author relays his gratification that the publishers are so enthusiastic about the trilogy. That final email was sent on 28 October, 2004, twelve days before Larsson's death, and a year before the first novel saw print.

There's a curious but enlightening publisher's note at the back of the Afterword volume, which runs thus:

"On the copyright page of each volume in the trilogy is a translation of the original Swedish titles. The English and American editions have titles which I learned too late would not necessarily have been approved by the author. Their popularity does not diminish my regret that he would rather have named the first book otherwise. On the accompanying poster it will be seen (by linguists) that the Swedish titles posed more questions to translators than were susceptible of a common solution."

I love the parenthetical "by linguists" there: nothing like catering to an infinitesimally tiny proportion of one's readership. And I can confirm that the poster, while interesting for the various cover designs from various countries it shows, doesn't shed much light on the translations of the three books' titles unless you're fluent in Latvian, Korean, Estonian... Which, having said that, and judging by the stats for Existential Ennui I see behind the scenes, some of the readers of this blog may well be. For the record, those original titles translate as, in order, Men who hate women, The girl who played with fire, and The castle of air that was blown up. Mm, yeah, I can see why two of those might have been problematic for English language publishers and baffling for the general public. Men who hate women might've worked, in a perverse sort of way, but The castle of air that was blown up sounds like a Miyazaki movie. I wonder if the books would have become the bestsellers they have with those original titles...?

Tuesday 9 November 2010

Notes from the Small Press 5: The Curiously Parochial Comics of John Bagnall

For the fifth Notes from the Small Press – parts one to four here, here, here, and here – we turn to one of my favourite small press comics creators: John Bagnall. John Bagnall came to prominence in the 1980s as part of the aforementioned Fast Fiction scene, his photocopied comics being sold through Ed Pinsent, Phil Elliott and Paul Gravett's distribution service. As well as producing titles like Trashcan and Calico County, Bagnall also contributed to anthologies like Fast Fiction and Escape, which was primarily where I saw his work. Even as part of an extraordinary group of highly individual and idiosyncratic comics creators, Bagnall stood out: his style of cartooning was angular yet fluid, while his subject matter was almost invariably historical, often autobiographical tales from his punk youth. His storytelling was unfussy, straightforward, and always charming, lighthearted, and very British, clearly influenced by the kids' comics of his childhood, such as The Beano and The Dandy.

I followed Bagnall's work into the early 1990s, and then lost track of him until 2003, when Kingly Books published a collection of his comics, Don't Tread on My Rosaries (follow that link and one of the excerpted reviews you'll see, the Jockey Slut one, was written by me). Shortly after that John self-published three mini-comics: Get Yourself a Gobstopper, Double Woodwork and Bushels of Coalsmoke (the last of which, again, I reviewed, this time on small press blog Bugpowder). And it's those three comics – plus an earlier small press publication from 2000, A Nation of Shopkeepers, which I think John himself sent to me – that together represent a clarification of his worldview, a distillation of his various concerns – Britishness, Catholicism, colloquialisms, signs, architecture – down to their essential essence.

The earliest of those comics, A Nation of Shopkeepers, is also the most unusual. In fact it's not really a comic at all; rather it's a series of scenes from British shops from an unspecified, but likely 1960s/'70s, period. Most, if not all, of those types of retail establishments still exist in some form today, but they're either utterly transformed (record shops, toy shops), increasingly endangered (barbers, butchers) or virtually vanished and then reappeared again in an ironic form (ice cream parlours). Bagnall's drawings spring from a peculiarly British experience of retail far removed from today's malls and pedestrianised pound shop-infested parades; one of local shops, small town high streets and shopkeepers whose names you know (and who know your name in return). This isn't merely an exercise in nostalgia, however; there is, I think, more going on than that.

Bagnall's intentions come further into focus with that trio of mid-noughties mini-comics. Each of the three features a "Disappearing Phrases" spread as its opener, wherein Bagnall presents one-panel scenarios similar to those in A Nation of Shopkeepers, but broadening out from just shop-set scenes to include pubs, parks, fetes and working class homes. The centre of attention in each panel is a character either verbalising or thinking a British – sometimes even an English, or northern English – colloquialism, but the incidental details are almost as important: a model steam train on a table; a pie shop in the background – the minutiae of the everyday.

There's more of this detailing of British idiosyncrasies elsewhere in the comics. Double Woodwork includes a brilliant four-panel page about the older gentleman's bizarre propensity for whistling, notably at public urinals, and there's a wonderfully silent survey of bleak industrial estates later in that same issue.

The closing four-page story in Bushels of Coalsmoke, "Police Bottle", highlights a once-popular remedy for colds that's since been completely forgotten, at least to my knowledge. And that, I think, is the key to Bagnall's work. His comics aren't simply amusing little vignettes about funny Brits and their funny ways (although they do work on that level); they're snapshots of very real people and places that are in similarly very real danger of vanishing from the record. The "Disappearing Phrases" title is apt: what Bagnall is doing is cataloguing the kinds of things that could quite easily slip through the cracks; the sayings and small details of 20th century British working class life. These little asides and quiet vignettes add colour to a past that can seem remote, conveying the kind of seemingly insignificant yet ultimately vitally-important-to-our-understanding information about people's day-to-day lives that might not be captured in photographs or other documentary footage.

Of course, if that is the purpose of Bagnall's comics, then that begs the question: is a small press comic with a run of around a hundred copies really the best way to document these things? That's quite possibly a poser that John himself has considered, as since 2006 he's been posting some of his comics and drawings on his blog, along with photographs of hand-painted signs, run-down buildings, and anything else that catches his eye. But as accessible and all-pervasive as the internet has become, it's still strangely comforting to know that there are also a small number of no doubt treasured (mine certainly are), printed-on-paper mini-comics and graphic novels containing these all-too-human observations.

(All images © John Bagnall)

Notes from the Small Press 1: Fast Fiction Presents the Elephant of Surprise

Notes from the Small Press 2: Monitor's Human Reward by Chris Reynolds

Notes from the Small Press 3: Small Pets

Notes from the Small Press 4: Anais in Paris by Mardou

Notes from the Small Press 6: Ed Pinsent's Illegal Batman and Jeffrey Brown's Wolverine: Dying Time

Notes from the Small Press 7: The Comix Reader #1

Notes from the Small Press 8: A Help! Shark Comics Gallery

Notes from the Small Press 9: Some Gristavision Comics by Merv Grist

Notes from the Small Press 10: Some Sav Sadness Comics by Bob Lynch  

Monday 8 November 2010

Westlake Score: Smoke by Donald E. Westlake (Signed First Edition)

Let's begin what will be a reasonably random offering of posts this week with a good old traditional Westlake Score:

Namely, the US hardback first edition (and first printing) of Smoke by Donald E. Westlake, published by Mysterious Press in 1995. I'm not actively seeking Westlakes at the moment, but this came drifting past on eBay, and so I netted it, for a few reasons. For one, it's a true first edition from that 1990s hinterland when Westlake didn't have a UK publisher (see also 1990's Drowned Hopes, 1993's Don't Ask, etc.), so the only first editions on offer are American ones, and in order to get your hands on one of those, it's usually a case of ordering from a US dealer. Therefore, when one pops up on eBay from a UK seller, it's often worth grabbing it. For another, the story is really appealing: it's an uncommon 'serious' novel written under Westlake's own name, but it's about a burglar who becomes an invisible man. And then finally, there's this:

It's signed, which is always a joy, even when you do already have a pretty good collection of signed Westlake first editions. The dustjacket design is by Jackie Merri Meyer and the illustration on the front is by Jeff Fitz Maurice, whose quirky style reminds me a little bit of Beryl Cook; Meyer and Maurice were also the team behind 1996's What's the Worst That Could Happen? And I'll have a couple more Westlake Scores over the next week or two, both of which I'm quite chuffed with, so look out for those.