Saturday 12 February 2011

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

For this latest instalment in mini-comix archaeology series Notes from the Small Press (scroll down to the bottom for links to previous posts) we head back to the mid-1980s/early 1990s for a look at some of the comics produced by Chester collective Help! Shark.

Help! Shark were a group of cartoonists based in the North-West England city of Chester, comprising Chris Flewitt, Gavin Butler and Steven Martin. As ever with that 1980s period of frenetic small press action, I became aware of their work via Ed Pinsent et al's Fast Fiction table at the London Westminster Comic Mart – and as ever, Ed himself has a biography of the Help! Shark crew on his website, as well as a cover gallery of their comics. What made Help! Shark's stuff stand out in the first instance was their design: they had the most stylish covers in the entire small press scene, with intriguing typographical arrangements, striking two-colour layouts and often additional quirks, like the cover being slightly shorter width-wise than the rest of the comic, or the comic opening from the back:

Or even, in the case of Steven Martin's 1987's comic Splendid, requiring the reader to undo a vertical strap which folded round from the back cover, like unfastening a belt buckle:

These distinctive design choices extended to the interior of the comics too. Ed Pinsent recalls Help! Shark had access to a litho printer at a community centre, which meant that in terms of production values, their A5-sized publications were a cut above the standard photocopied small press fare. Comics would come with spot-colour endpapers, or perhaps be printed on pastel paper in purple ink:

But despite all this high end design, and as Chris Flewitt's June 1987 four-page pamphlet above demonstrates, the subject matter of the various comics was often determinedly everyday. Stylistically the three artists were quite different: Flewitt's art was scratchy and naturalistic; Martin's had a hint of Gabrielle Bell about it (although obviously he preceded her by some way); and Gavin Butler had much in common with early John Bagnall or Glenn Dakin. But their stories – or at least Flewitt and Martin's; Butler's tended more toward the madcap – were concerned with ordinary people living ordinary lives – albeit with the odd surrealistic touch; Martin's 1987 slice-of-life comic Life & Times, which is essentially about two lads chatting and then failing to get into a club, ends with the introduction of a talking cat called Frank.

That's spreads from Life & Times, Splendid and Domain above. In 1991 the three cartoonists produced an anthology, Great Nation. The first issue featured two stories by Martin and one each by Flewitt and Butler, and it's interesting to see how their approaches had changed. Martin in particular adopted more of a classic British comics style for his largely 'silent' World War I tale "War Story", but Flewitt had also altered his technique, simplifying his linework, while Butler reined in his chaotic artwork for an adaptation of a William Faulkner story.

For the second issue, Martin was replaced by Ten Bears, whose slapstick cartoons sat uneasily next to Butler and Hewitt's more considered work. But there is an intriguing experiment in the comic featuring all three artists plus Rich Holden, "State the Problem", which was produced using Brian Eno's Oblique Strategies technique. It's a real non-sequitur of a strip, as you'd expect, but quite engaging nevertheless:

What happened to the Help! Shark crew after Great Nation I've no idea. Like a lot of British small press cartoonists active in the pre-internet era, there's very little information about them online. But their contribution to the Fast Fiction scene was sizable, and their output was always thoughtful, unusual and occasionally quite special (Life & Times is one of my most treasured small press comics). If they were around today producing the kind of work they did back then, I suspect they'd be rather more feted.

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 5: The Curiously Parochial Comics of John Bagnall

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 9: Some Gristavision Comics by Merv Grist 

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

Friday 11 February 2011

Further Boozing with Kingsley Amis: Every Day Drinking (Hutchinson First Edition)

The Friday night booze-up is something of a tradition here in Broken Britain, as a work-weary nation decamps to the nearest pub to drown their sorrows and bitch about those colleagues who've sloped off home instead. Sadly, it's less of an option for me these days, but I can take some vicarious solace from this slim volume instead:

A UK hardback first edition of Every Day Drinking by Kingsley Amis, published by Hutchinson in 1983, with a front cover illustration by Marc. Amis published three books about booze; if you cast your mind back you'll recall I blogged about the first of those, 1972's On Drink, near the beginning of January, while the third volume, a quiz book called How's Your Glass?, was published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in 1984. All three were collected together by Bloomsbury in 2008 under the title Everyday Drinking – you can read Olman's review of that edition here – but contrary sod that I am, I elected to track down first editions of the individual volumes instead. At least, the first two, anyway. I'm not so fussed about getting hold of a copy of How's Your Glass? Never say never, though. 

Every Day Drinking is in fact a collection of articles originally written for the Daily Express; in the introduction Amis notes that there's "a certain satisfaction to be got from bringing out a book of collected journalism. Being paid twice for the same basic work is always agreeable, and in my case not as frequent as I should like." He then goes on to take issue with the damage done to his prose by mirthless editors: "The most satisfying satisfaction of all, at least until the cheque comes, is afforded by restoring editorial cuts. There's no such thing as a non-cutting editor; it's not in the nature of the beast. The fellow prowls through your copy like an overzealous gardener with a pruning hook, on the watch for any phrase he senses you were rather pleased with, preferably one that also clinches your argument and if possible is essential to the general drift of the surrounding passage. Then – slash!"

I suppose I should take umbrage at that, being an editor myself, but having worked alongside many other editors over the years, I know how brutal some can be with words. I, on the other hand, am a towering exception to Amis's rule, a shining example of deft and adroit and most of all considerate editing. But then you knew that already, right?

Of course, quite how wise it was for Amis – who, as Michael Barber pointed out in his excellent essay on Amis, was "a well-adjusted alcoholic" – to be writing about drink on a weekly basis is open to debate. However, the fact remains he did, and many of the essays in Every Day Drinking are as acerbic and witty as you'd expect. They're also intermittently illustrated by Merrily Harpur (as is the back cover), whose cartoons and articles appear everywhere from The Guardian and The Daily Mail to Fortean Times and Private Eye. She's also an accomplished painter; there are some splendid landscapes by her on her website, which are well worth a look.

Wednesday 9 February 2011

Justified: Raylan Givens in Fire in the Hole by Elmore Leonard (Novella / Short Story in When the Women Come Out to Dance)

It's the final post in this short series on FX television show Justified – which starts its second season in the US today – and how it stacks up against the two novels and one novella by Elmore Leonard that inspired it. Praise the Lord and pass the biscuits.

To recap: on Friday I posted an introductory ramble about the show and the stories, and on Monday I posted some thoughts on the first of Leonard's Raylan Givens novels, 1993's Pronto, and how it compares to the season one episode it forms the basis of, Long in the Tooth, as well as some more general comments on how Justified adopts Leonard's distinctive tone. Then yesterday I looked at the second Givens novel, 1995's Riding the Rap, which inspired the episode Fixer, and wittered on about the characters in Leonard's stories – in particular Deputy US Marshal Raylan Givens – and how they translate to the small screen. The point of all this frantic blogging being to demonstrate how Justified is the most faithful screen adaptation of Elmore Leonard's work yet seen – a point that's probably somewhat belaboured by this, er, point, but what the hell. We've come this far, you and I. Might as well see it through to the finish.

Today we turn to the last of Leonard's Givens stories, the novella Fire in the Hole, which was published as part of the 2002 collection When the Women Come Out to Dance. And in terms of plot – which, as I mentioned previously it would be, is the focus of this post – it's the clearest example yet of how faithful Justified is to Leonard's stories. If you've seen the first season pilot, then you'll experience an overwhelming sense of deju vu in reading Fire in the Hole, because Justified's creators basically took the novella and levered it practically unchanged into their debut episode. There's the addition of the opening shootout with Tommy Bucks in Miami, of course – which, you'll recall, originally took place at the end of Pronto – but other than that, the beats are the same.

Fire in the Hole (the novella) begins with unhinged religious Nazi (literally) Boyd Crowder on his mission to blow shit up, in the company of the unfortunate Jared (who meets precisely the same fate he does in the TV show). Cue the explosive dispatch of one questionable church at the hands of Boyd and his grenade launcher – with his accompanying eponymous Nam-inspired holler – and enter Marshal Givens, on secondment at the request of the man in charge of the East Kentucky Special Ops Group, Art Mullen. From there, events progress much as they do in the pilot episode, as Raylan gets reacquainted with Ava, wife of Boyd's brother, Bowman, who she's coincidentally just shot and killed, and confronts Boyd, with whom he mined coal as a young man.

In terms of plot (and a fair bit of the dialogue, too), the transliteration from page to screen is near total. But the thing is, if all Justified's writers had to go on was the novella Fire in the Hole, I doubt we'd be seeing the remarkably faithful TV series we have. Fire in the Hole is a good (short) story, but it's not the whole story. Both Pronto and Riding the Rap have a lot more meat on their bones, particularly in the way they flesh out the character of Raylan. I wrote at length (and how) yesterday about Raylan's character, so I won't go over all of that again now (read the post, if you dare), except to say that the work Leonard put in on Raylan and other characters is what made the pilot of Justified and everything that follows possible. (The mantra for the show's producers was, "What would Elmore do?") So if you're a fan of Justified, and you're considering reading some of Elmore Leonard's source material – something I'd obviously heartily recommend – I wouldn't start with Fire in the Hole. The novella is so slight, you won't get a true sense of Raylan just from that. Best to make your way through Pronto and Riding the Rap first.

That said, Fire in the Hole is definitely worth reading once you've got the two novels under your belt, if only to marvel – as I did – at the way so much of what Leonard wrote ended up on the screen. Take Ava (played by Joelle Carter in Justified). She's slightly older in the novella, but other than that it's the same character in the short story as in the show; the sparks between her and Raylan are as tangible as they are on screen ("I had a crush on you," Ava tells him, "from the time I was twelve years old"). As for Boyd and Raylan, the weird mixture of animosity and kinship is present and correct in the novella. Raylan delivers his warning to Boyd – "You make me pull, I'll put you down" – and Boyd for his part offers Raylan the same deal Raylan offered Tommy Bucks: "Get out of Harlan County by tomorrow noon or I'll come looking for you. That sound fair?" And we all know where that leads. (The novella ends with Raylan's line, "Boyd and I dug coal together.")

Leonard is apparently writing further Raylan stories*, but even if they never see light of day, at least we've got the new season of Justified to enjoy – and all being well, many more to come. As I've (hopefully) made plain over the course of these posts, it's as close to the true Elmore Leonard experience as you're ever likely to get – without reading the books, that is. And if you're thinking of doing that, here are the stories in the order you'd need to read them, along with the Justified episodes they inspired. How's that for service?

Pronto (Delacourte/Viking/Penguin, 1993)
Justified season one, episode four, Long in the Tooth/season one, episode one, Fire in the Hole (Tommy Bucks shootout)

Riding the Rap (Delacourte/Viking/Penguin, 1995)
Justified season one, episode two, Riverbrook (Dale Crowe Junior/Dewey Crowe prison transport)/season one, episode three, Fixer

Fire in the Hole in When the Women Come Out to Dance (William Morrow/Viking/Penguin, 2002)
Justified season one, episode one, Fire in the Hole

* Elmore Leonard did indeed pen further Raylan Givens stories – a whole book's worth, titled, rather prosaically, Raylan – and you can read my review of that book and how it relates to Justified seasons two and three right here.

Tuesday 8 February 2011

Justified: Raylan Givens in Riding the Rap by Elmore Leonard

If you've just joined us, this week I'm making my way through the two novels and one short story – actually more of a novella – that together provide the inspiration for the TV show Justified, which begins its second season in the US on Wednesday. Yesterday I was looking at the first of those, 1993's Pronto, as well as at how the tone and feel of Elmore Leonard's writing generally informs Justified. Today, it's the turn of 1995's Riding the Rap, and the focus in this post will be on the characters, in particular the star of the show, Deputy US Marshal Raylan Givens, as portrayed by Timothy Olyphant. And if that strikes you as being potentially a bit worthy and dull, well, I'll do me best to pep things up. 

Riding the Rap picks up the story of Raylan, Miami bookmaker Harry Arno, and Harry's former girlfriend – and now Raylan's girlfriend – Joyce, following the events of Pronto, which climaxed with a shootout between Raylan and gangster Tommy Bucks (the same shootout that kicks off the first series of Justified, in fact). All three are now back in Miami, and Harry is back to his bookmaking ways, although still making noises about jacking it all in. To do that, however, he has to tie up a few loose ends, one of which is Chip Ganz, a middle-aged stoner who owes Harry $16,500. So Harry dispatches skiptracer (and occasional hitman) Bobby Deo to retrieve the money. Bobby, however, soon gets other ideas, and falls in with Chip and Chip's ex-con associate Louis Lewis in hatching a plan to kidnap Harry and hold him hostage (Beirut-style) in order to extract Harry's considerable fortune. But when Joyce, who still cares for Harry, realises he's missing, she asks Raylan to find out what's happened to him.

Now, if all that sounds a little familiar to fans of Justified, that's because Riding the Rap forms the basis of the first season episode Fixer. In that episode, Harry becomes Arnold Pinter, Chip becomes Travis Travers (and earns Raylan's exclamation of disbelief upon hearing his name, instead of in the novel, where Raylan responds to learning Lewis's name with, "You putting me on?"), and Louis and Bobby get blended into a single character, Curtis Mims, but otherwise, the broad strokes remain the same. (There's another, early sequence in Riding the Rap that ends up almost verbatim in a different season one episode, namely the second one, Riverbrook. In the novel, Raylan transports Dale Crowe Junior to prison and nearly gets carjacked; in Riverbrook, he transports his brother, Dewey, and afterwards gets locked in a gas station storeroom by an escaped convict. Much of the choice dialogue transfers from one to the other though, along with Raylan's brutal but effective straightening out of Crowe.)

All this chopping and changing of characters shouldn't detract from the central thrust of my hypothesis, however, which is that Justified is the most faithful interpretation of Leonard's stories yet. Yesterday I noted that that's partly down to the way Justified effectively parlays the tone of Leonard's writing, but a lot of it is also down to those characters, altered though some are. Elmore Leonard's characters are unfailingly appealing, whether they're charming policemen or lowlife criminals, because Leonard takes you inside their heads and shows you events from their perspective. He switches viewpoints constantly, not just from chapter to chapter but multiple times within each chapter. In Riding the Rap, one minute you're seeing things from Raylan's perspective, the next from Chip's, then from Bobby's and so forth. It's how Leonard gets you to relate to each character, no matter how objectionable they may be.

Justified does some of this too, although the spotlight does fall on Raylan more (probably necessarily, the demands of television being what they are). Even so, it's commonplace for episodes to cut away to action that Raylan plays no part in. In Fixer, we spend ample time with Travis and Curtis – and indeed they play out a key scene in the episode, the quick-draw dry run, which in the novel is enacted by Louis and Bobby. Similarly, much of Long in the Tooth (inspired, remember, by Pronto) plays out from Rollie's perspective. And throughout season one of Justified we see events variously from Raylan's ex-wife Winona's point of view, from her current husband Gary's, from Raylan's father's, and most prominently from that of Boyd Crowder, who mined coal alongside Raylan when they were young men (as related in both the final Givens story, 2002's Fire in the Hole, and the show), and who becomes his foil, his nemesis, and eventually his friend.

But Justified doesn't just lift characters straight from Leonard's original stories. It introduces new ones too, and expands on existing ones significantly. With the new characters that showrunner Graham Yost and his writers have created, what's interesting is that they could've easily come from the pages of a Leonard book. Neither Rachel Dupree (Erica Tazel) nor Tim Gutterson (Jacob Pitts) – both fellow marshals – appear in Leonard's stories, but the way they act on screen, they might just as well have. Theirs and Raylan's boss, Art Mullen (Nick Searcy), does appear in the novella Fire in the Hole, but not a hell of a lot. Yost, Searcy and co. stay true to Leonard's conception of the character but build on those bare bones to create a fully rounded, funny, often despairing (at Raylan's actions, that is) man who shines in every scene he's in.

The supporting character who's developed most is, of course, Boyd, played by Walton Goggins. He only appears in the short story Fire in the Hole, but he drives the narrative there, a neo-nazi religious nut who's nevertheless utterly compelling. His story ends in Fire in the Hole, but the way he grows in Justified, becoming an increasingly conflicted and complicated character, would, I think, meet with Elmore Leonard's approval.

As for Raylan, it's almost uncanny how Justified brings him to life. As a massive fan of Deadwood, I already knew that Timothy Olyphant could do pent-up fury, but in Justified the way he channels Raylan is extraordinary. It's a cliche, but it really is as if the character has stepped off the page; the way he speaks, his deceptively laidback attitude, his Southern good manners: it's all there. And it's not even a case of him spouting Leonard's lines, although he does that too. Olyphant perfectly captures Raylan's strange mixture of gentle inquiry and simmering but largely invisible anger, as well as his innate intuitiveness. (The character Reverend Dawn in Riding the Rap, herself a psychic – an occupation Leonard offers no judgement on – senses that Raylan possesses a form of second sight. Joyce probes Raylan on this too, wondering how he could have known Tommy Bucks had a gun – and dooms their relationship as a result.)

The affectation of the Stetson is there in both the novels and the show as well, as much a part of Raylan's character as how he thinks or moves. What Raylan is, is a man out of time. The cowboy hat is an obvious pointer, but there are also the constant references to stand-offs, shootouts, gun thugs, and most of all that seated gunfight with Tommy Bucks, which comes to define Raylan in a lot of people's eyes. More than one character notes that Raylan really belongs in the Old West. This is all made explicit in Riding the Rap (the title of which Raylan repeats in the novel itself; "It's all anybody has to do") and Fixer, with Bobby/Curtis wondering if he can outdraw Raylan, although both Leonard and the makers of Justified subsequently puncture that fantasy through Raylan's confrontation with Bobby and then Bobby/Curtis and Louis/Travis's fast-draw practice session.

There are differences between Raylan in the books and Raylan on the screen. Raylan is divorced in both, but has two sons in the stories and is childless in the show. His father is dead in the novels. But these are minor changes. The essence of Raylan is virtually identical in either medium. It's an entirely faithful translation. And as we'll see in my final post tomorrow, that faithfulness, from character to dialogue to plot, becomes glaringly apparent in the last of Leonard's Givens stories, Fire in the Hole.

Monday 7 February 2011

Justified: Raylan Givens in Pronto by Elmore Leonard (1993)

As trailed on Friday, this week I'll be posting a series of essays (which might make these missives sound a bit more high-falutin' than they'll actually turn out be, but allow me a little artistic license here) on the two novels and one short story by Elmore Leonard that together provided the inspiration for US TV show Justified, which begins its second season in America on Wednesday. Both the show and the books star Stetson-wearing Deputy US Marshal Raylan Givens (well, as much as Leonard's stories ever star one character...), a Miami-based lawman who's exiled back to the place he grew up, Harlan County, Kentucky following a shooting. That's how the first season of Justified begins, anyway. But as we'll see, the novels take a slightly more circuitous route...

Raylan debuted in the 1993 novel Pronto, so that's where I'll start, even though Justified explicitly states that Raylan's third and final appearance – in the 2002 short story Fire in the Hole – is the basis for the telly show. Pronto, however, sets up the character of Raylan, as well as some of the other characters who appear in the TV show – in an altered form – and provides a fair few of the plotlines too, including the event that kicks off the entire television series and to a large extent defines it. I'll come back to that, but more importantly than any of that, Pronto sets the tone for the TV show, despite it taking place not only not in the American south of Justified but in large part in another country entirely. (I made grandiose claims about the faithfulness of Justified on Friday, but one thing it's not is slavishly faithful.)

It's a feel and a way of storytelling that'll be familiar to fans of Elmore Leonard's work, but it's one that's rarely been successfully translated to the small or large screen. The remarkable thing about Justified is, the creators have managed to tap into that feel. So as well as comparing the events of Pronto to those in Justified, I want to focus in this post on the tone of Leonard's Givens stories, and how the TV show manages to replicate that tone. In the next post, which'll be on the second novel, 1995's Riding the Rap, my plan is to concentrate on the characters – particularly Raylan – and then in the final post, on Fire in the Hole, I'll ponder plot. And in both cases there'll be further reflections on the stories versus the show. We'll see how that all pans out.

The description "consummate storyteller" is often bandied about as regards novelists, but it's usually applied as shorthand without ever considering what it actually means. There are plenty of writers who are skillful at imparting a convincing tale, but there are few who really tell you a story. As in, it's almost as if the author is sitting there with you (maybe beside a campfire...), just spinning you a story, right there and then. Elmore Leonard is one of the few. And it's not an intrusive thing either; Leonard is a constant presence when you read his work, but he never gets in the way of the story he's telling. It's the lapping cadence of his prose, the long stretches of dialogue, the low-key verbal jousting, that incredible ear for how people speak, from criminals to normals to lawmen, that make his books so unlike anyone else's. Leonard captivates you and leads you sashaying through his stories like no other writer I can think of.

The overall effect is to make his stories seem laidback, easygoing, effortless – even though they're evidently anything but – until, of course, you reach those sequences where violence erupts. Then the underlying tension, that buzzing background menace you always knew was there but had been lulled into ignoring by Leonard's lilting prose and engaging characters, explodes. And the thing is, Justified does exactly the same thing. The TV series has the same easygoing attitude, the same authentic yet witty approach to dialogue – sometimes lifted verbatim from the page – and the same sporadic bursts of violence.

Both Pronto and Riding the Rap provide the basic plots for individual episodes in season one of the TV series – as well as a number of other incidents – while Fire in the Hole forms the basis of the debut episode. I'll be looking at that in the final post, but as this post is on Pronto, it's worth outlining the broad strokes of the story and how it fits into the wider Justified arc. Pronto tells the tale of Miami bookmaker Harry Arno, who falls foul of the mob – from whom he's been skimming for years – and absconds to Rapallo in Italy. He's joined by his girlfriend, Joyce, and hunted by a group of thugs headed up by Tommy Bucks, a.k.a. the Zip. He's also pursued by Deputy Marshal Givens, who wants to bring Harry back to the States.

Much of this plot ends up in the season one fourth episode Long in the Tooth. There, Harry becomes dentist and former mob accountant Roland Pike, who years ago embezzled money from his employers. He goes on the run to Mexico, again pursued by the mob and by Raylan. Both Harry and his counterpart Rollie have encountered Raylan before, in both cases when they gave a too-trusting Givens the slip, so there's a history between the characters – almost a friendship – that plays out nicely in the book and the episode. But there are a couple of other notable incidents in the book, one of which occurs in the episode itself, and the other of which opens the entire series of Justified.

The first of those is a shootout on a stretch of dirt road between Raylan and two mobsters. In Pronto it takes place in Italy, while in Long in the Tooth it takes place on the way to Mexico, but a lot of the action and dialogue is identical, right down to the way one of the mobsters tries to get closer to Raylan, telling him "It's okay", while Raylan tells him, "You take one more step, I'll shoot you." The outcome is slightly different, but it's a good example of how scenes are transposed almost wholesale from books to screen.

The second incident comes near the end of Pronto, where Raylan confront Tommy Bucks at a Miami restaurant, having given him twenty-four hours to get out of the county. This scene will reverberate through the next couple of books, but it's also how the first episode of Justified, Fire in the Hole, begins. It unfolds pretty much the same way in both cases, and in Justified, as it does in the novels, it haunts Raylan from here on out; not so much in that he dwells on it – Raylan's not much of a dweller, as we'll see in the next post – more that it comes to define him in the eyes of many of the other characters – and in ours, too – and affects his relationships with them and how they respond to him.

Incidentally, unlike Harry Arno, Tommy Bucks gets to keep his name in the episode in which he (briefly) appears. But Harry does get a second guest-starring role in Justified, this time as a New York bookie called Arnold Pinter, now reluctantly living in Harlan County and acting as an informant (and still taking bets). His main appearance is in the third episode, Fixer – and that in turn was inspired by the second Givens novel, Riding the Rap, which again co-stars Harry. And I'll be examining that episode and that novel – and also Raylan and one or two other characters – in the next post.