Saturday 30 April 2011

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

For this tenth instalment in my mini-comix archaeology series Notes from the Small Press – links to the previous nine posts in the series at the end of this one – I thought I'd take a look at some of the small press comics produced by Bob Lynch in the 1980s. Lynch is another of those British cartoonists linked to the Fast Fiction scene of the '80s and '90s; his self-produced comics could be found for sale on the Fast Fiction table at the Westminster Comic Mart, and he also contributed regularly to the Fast Fiction anthology – not to mention other anthologies like Harley Richardson's Ugly Mug.

Indeed it was in Fast Fiction issue #18, February 1986, where I believe I first saw Bob Lynch's work (Fast Fiction editor Ed Pinsent's website seems to suggest that Lynch's strips started appearing as early as #16, but unfortunately my Fast Fiction collection has a few gaps in it) – on the cover for a start, which you can see on the right there, but also in a story inside titled "Behold the Hamster". Lynch's confident, cartoony strip stood out even in such esteemed company as Glenn Dakin, Steve Way and the aforementioned Mr. Pinsent; a lot of that was to do with how the other creators in that issue were of a similar sensibility – what we'd recognise today as "art comix", for want of a better term – whereas Lynch employed a bold, Brit humour-comics style. But it was also the way Lynch launched you into a fully-realised, hermetically sealed madcap world, boasting characters and plots he'd clearly been developing for a while.

"Behold the Hamster" was in fact only the first part of a four-part story which continued through issues #19, #20 and #22 of Fast Fiction (#21 featured a standalone Lynch tale about a chemically mutated "rhymic" slug named Samantha), and starred Lynch's regular lead Sav Sadness. Sav is a kind of everyman who lives in a world where giant robots, space travel and bizarre scientific experiments exist alongside suburban mundanity, and where household appliances can talk and have names. In a recap at the start of the strip, we learn that Sav and his wife Juline's son, Dim, was bitten by a radioactive scientist, swelling Dim's brain "until his intellect was twice the power of Einstein's", before he eventually went supernova and became a nebula cloud floating above the city. Meanwhile, back in the present day, a rogue scientist resurrects a recently deceased hamster – called Helen, of course – into the body of which Dim's nebulous mind gets transplanted by lightning.

All of which will give you some idea of the lunatic nature of Lynch's storylines. There's more to them than mere craziness, however; there's a self-awareness that runs though everything Lynch does, manifesting in a meta approach where characters are often cognizant of starring in a comic – breaking the fourth wall to address the reader or comment on events in adjacent panels – either preceding or following. In the second episode of "Behold the Hamster", Helen/Dim even reads the previous issue of Fast Fiction to find out how she/he ended up in this situation (thus providing a handy recap into the bargain).

Lynch's cartooning perhaps reached its apotheosis in one of his full-length A4 comics, Sav Sadness in: Sadness in Space (1988). He'd self-published another similar-length A5 comic before this one – The Whirlpool of Disaster, subsequently revised and repackaged in an A4 edition in 1989 – but Sadness in Space saw him at the height of his powers. The story begins with Sav's appliances – Ronny the Radio, Sharon the Shower, etc. – rebelling over Sav's idle existence, before a confluence of coincidences sends our hero into space, where he gets mixed up in an Alien pastiche involving an extraterrestrial glove puppet. It's a gloriously sustained piece of nonsense, stuffed full of terrible jokes and logic-defying non sequiturs, and remains as fresh and energetic today as it was twenty years ago.

Lynch quit making comics sometime in the 1990s; I don't know what he's up to these days but he does have a Flickr photostream containing all manner of photographs and doodles. It also includes the complete Sadness in Space and Behold the Hamster stories, as well as what looks like all of his other comics work, too. So rather than simply poring over my badly reproduced excerpts, you can go and read the full comics yourself – something I'd obviously heartily recommend. When so much of the work from that vibrant and under-appreciated '80s/'90s era of British small press comics-making is seemingly lost forever, it's nice that, for a change, an important small press comics creator has all of his material available online. And you never know: if enough people visit his photostream, perhaps Bob Lynch might be inclined to produce some new comics. Here's hoping.

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 8: A Help! Shark Comics Gallery

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

Friday 29 April 2011

Eastbourne Buy: The Most Dangerous Game by Gavin Lyall (US First Edition, Scribner's, 1963); William Berry Cover

It can't have escaped your attention that there's a right royal wedding taking place today, but let me reassure you that this post has nothing to do with the union between Kate and Wills... Except, if you're really desperate for a tenuous link, that with an estimated two billion watching the event on telly around the world, it could be said the (now-married, in fact) couple have become a highly successful British export... and the author I'm blogging about today was also, in his day, a highly successful British export. (No? Oh well, please yourself.)

That author is Gavin Lyall, a UK thriller writer who I've covered numerous times on this 'ere blog, most recently in a review of his 1964 sophomore novel The Most Dangerous Game. And it's to that same Scandinavia-set aviation actioner I'm returning today, in an edition that actually predates the British first I wrote about in that previous post. How can it possibly predate the British first, I hear you cry? Well let's find out.

This is the American first edition of The Most Dangerous Game, published in hardback by Charles Scribner's Sons in 1963 – a year before the UK first edition. Indeed, if we take a look at the copyright page:

We can be even more precise about the publication date. See the "A-9.63 [H]"? The "A" denotes a first printing, as was standard with Scribner's books around this period, while the "9.63" denotes the month and year – in other words, September 1963 (not sure what the "H" denotes, though). So this US first edition/first printing was published before the '64 Hodder & Stoughton UK first. As to how that came to be the case, during this initial phase of his career Lyall was, as I mentioned up top, very successful overseas, especially in America, where his debut novel, The Wrong Side of the Sky, did so well for Scribner's that they managed to secure first world publication rights to his second – i.e. The Most Dangerous Game. Thus this American Scribner's edition is in effect the true first of the novel.

I bought this copy in Camilla's secondhand bookshop in Eastbourne (hence the "Eastbourne Buy" in the post title), during my birthday day out last month – just one of a pile of books I bought that day (all of which I will eventually blog about, you lucky, lucky bastards). I'd seen it there before but decided against buying it on the previous trip because I wanted a UK first – not realising what I now know about the US being the true first. But on this occasion I couldn't resist it; quite apart from anything else I really like that moody blue dustjacket, which was designed (read: illustrated) by William Berry, a Texan artist who worked as an illustrator and painter in New York in the 1960s. And it is, after all, a cracking novel – pop along to my other post on it if you want to read what I made of it.

So then, what shall we have next in this series of random book blogging posts? Excellent question. Hmm. Y'know, I really have no idea what I'll be posting next. Ooh, tell you what we haven't had for a while, though: a Notes from the Small Press. Let's see if I can't rustle one of those up for the weekend...

Thursday 28 April 2011

Westlake Score: The Rare Coin Score by Richard Stark (Allison & Busby Paperback, 1988); a Lewes Book Bargain

For this latest random book blogging post, let's have something we haven't had for a while on Existential Ennui: a Westlake Score. But it's not just a Westlake Score. Oh no. It's also a Lewes Book Bargain...

This British paperback edition of Donald "Richard Stark" Westlake's ninth Parker novel, The Rare Coin Score, was published by Allison & Busby in 1988. I bought it in the Lewes branch of charity shop Oxfam the other day (witness the Oxfam price sticker still affixed to the back), which makes it the one and only Richard Stark novel I've ever seen for sale anywhere in Lewes (I've spotted at least one other non-pseudonymous Westlake paperback for sale – a Penguin edition of either Killy or 361, I think it was). At least, up to now, anyway: I donated a couple of unwanted Stark books to charity at the weekend, so there might be one or two ex-library editions still floating about.

Those apart, though, it's safe to say Richard Stark doesn't generally feature in Lewes's various bookshops and charity shops, so of course I snapped up this edition of The Rare Coin Score when I saw it, even though I already own an Allison & Busby hardback of the same novel. But before you berate me for depriving some other Lewesian of the pleasure of the novel (and bearing in mind that I did, as I say, donate some Starks myself), let me just point out that this paperback is one I haven't seen before. Trent at Violent World of Parker doesn't appear to have it in his "known printings" cover gallery for the novel (feel free to grab the images from this post, Trent), and I don't recall ever seeing the cover online before. So by purchasing it and then blogging about it, I am, in a way, performing a service for the wider Parker community. In other words, Lewes's loss is the Parker obsessives' gain.

As with almost all of the Allison & Busby editions of the Parker novels, the cover on this one was designed by Mick Keates. There were, as we've already established, three distinct phases of cover design during Allison & Busby's tenure as the British publisher of the Parkers (not counting the final one for Point Blank alone): from 1984-1986 there was the bold typographical approach of the initial eight Parker novels published by A&B; from '86-'88 there was the "torn" masthead and photo/film still style seen on paperbacks-of-hardbacks like Point Blank and straight-into-hardbacks like The Green Eagle Score; and from 1990-1991 there was that same torn masthead but incorporating illustrations by Stephen Hall. This paperback of The Rare Coin Score of course falls into the second phase; the fuzzed photo on the front looks familiar, but there's no credit, so I can't quite place it I'm afraid.

You can read my brief appreciation of the novel itself here, and there's another pithy overview of it on the Reviews of Unusual Size blog. But next here on Existential Ennui, I'll have one of the books I bought on my birthday a month ago: an intriguing edition of a Gavin Lyall novel I only reviewed at the start of March...

Wednesday 27 April 2011

The Vesuvius Club (Lucifer Box #1) by Mark Gatiss: Signed First Edition (Simon & Schuster, 2004)

Continuing this random offering of posts on books I've either had hanging around for a while or ones I simply fancied blogging about – and after yesterday's slight birthday detour – here's a novel I bought because it's the first book in a trilogy, and I picked up the third book in the series in a Sydenham charity shop earlier in the year...

This is the 2004 Simon & Schuster hardback first edition and first printing of Mark Gatiss's The Vesuvius Club. It's the first of League of Gentlemen/Doctor Who/Sherlock writer/actor/producer Gatiss's three books starring lascivious secret service agent Lucifer Box. Each book is set in a distinct historical period: book two, The Devil in Amber (2006) is set just after World War I, while book three, Black Butterfly (2008), is set in the 1950s; I blogged about Black Butterfly back in March and outlined the themes of the series then. As to The Vesuvius Club, let's have a look at the dustjacket flap blurb to see what this one's all about:

As well as detailing the plot, you'll start to get a sense from that glance at the jacket and endpapers of the excellent design of the book. For, as in the case of Black Butterfly, the various designers and illustrators – and indeed stray Doctor Who aficionados – involved in the look of this first edition of The Vesuvius Club have really gone to town. The jacket was designed by the Simon & Schuster's in-house team and David Mann, but the illustration is by Ian Bass, from a concept by former Doctor Who Magazine editor Clayton Hickman. (Hickman and Gatiss were both active in Doctor Who fandom before they became involved in the show in a professional capacity – as indeed were current and former showrunners Steven Moffatt and Russell T. Davies.) A number of other Bass illustrations pepper the book's interior, too:

Incidentally, Bass and Gatiss also created a graphic novel version of The Vesuvius Club, which was published in 2005. But back to the leering appreciation of the first edition of the novel: the orange arlin case replicates Bass's front cover illustration in a black deboss, while the endpapers, as we've already glimpsed, reproduce Edwardian era adverts (in a similar fashion to issue six of Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill's original League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comic book series, from 1999):

It is, like Black Butterfly, a thoroughly lovely book to gaze at and handle (and hopefully to read; I've yet to start it), and all involved are to be applauded for going the extra mile in its design, particularly in this day and age, when the overall look of novels – ends, case, etc. – has, as I've lamented previously, become something of an afterthought.

Oh, and there's one last thing to note about this particular copy of The Vesuvius Club:

It's signed on the title page. Splendid.

Next on Existential Ennui: a Westlake Score... and a Lewes Book Bargain...

Tuesday 26 April 2011

A Book for Rachel's Birthday: The Sea, the Sea by Iris Murdoch (Chatto & Windus, 1978, First Edition/First Impression)

Something a little different today...

This is the UK hardback first edition of Iris Murdoch's nineteenth and perhaps most famous novel, The Sea, the Sea, published by Chatto & Windus in 1978. I say "perhaps most famous" because in a career that included such well-known works as Under the Net (1954) and The Bell (1958), The Sea, the Sea is the novel that finally won Murdoch the Booker Prize, in 1978. It's a story about obsession and the use and surrender of magical power, as a theatre director, over sixty and a bachelor, goes to live in a lonely house beside the sea, a house which appears to be haunted... The dustjacket boasts two details from works of art; on the front is a detail from Hokusai's The hollow of the deep-sea wave off Kanagawa, and on the back is a detail from a wall painting in the Golden Hall of the Horyu-ji, Nara, Japan.

The fact that The Sea, the Sea won the Booker makes it one of the more collectible of Murdoch's books, but while there is a ready supply of first editions on AbeBooks, crucially, most of those are second or third impressions (no doubt reprinted at the time due to demand from the Booker-curious) – even if their listings don't state as much (I'm betting a query to the sellers concerned would confirm that in most cases). True firsts, i.e. first editions and first impressions – with a jacket, and not ex-library – are rather thinner on the ground: a copy from a UK seller would set you back around £125-£150.

Now, ordinarily, at this juncture I might be inclined to disclose how much I paid for a particular book. But I shan't be revealing how much I paid for this first edition of The Sea, the Sea, as in this instance that would be particularly vulgar. Reason being, it's a present, for Rachel, whose birthday it is today. The Sea, the Sea, you see, is Rachel's favourite Iris Murdoch novel, and possibly one of her most favourite novels of all time. So by the time Rachel reads this post, she'll be clutching a true first edition of the book in her hands.

All of which leaves only one thing left to say:

Happy birthday, honey! x

Monday 25 April 2011

Lewes Book Bargain: Never Shake a Skeleton by Alfred Flett (Michael Joseph, 1973); Beverley le Barrow Cover

It's Bank Holiday Monday here in the UK, which means it's a holiday for most folk (I guess the clue's in the name there). But I couldn't very well leave you with nothing to read but the weekend's Doctor Who novelisation post, now could I? So, to kick off a run of what will be for the foreseeable future a reasonably random selection of posts – whatever comes to hand or takes my fancy, basically, although it's a safe bet many of the books will be of a crime or espionage bent – let's have a look at a book I bought in the Lewes Antique Centre, down on Cliffe High Street:

Never Shake a Skeleton by Alfred Flett was published in hardback in the UK by Michael Joseph in 1973. It's the story of an operative for the Establishment, "Freeman", who's led by a beautiful blonde to, as the jacket flap copy has it, "believe he could win a war. But he found, to his horror, that his own side played rougher than the wartime enemy. He tried again—thirty years later. This was his second error. He shook some skeletons. And 'Freeman' found, once more, that his own side were the toughest antagonists of them all..."

I think I get a vague sense of the story from that blurb; it seems to encompass espionage elements, which was part of the reason I bought it. But not the whole reason. I was also curious about Alfred Flett, who, as the back cover author bio notes, was a journalist (and presumably carried on as such after Never Shake a Skeleton was published; there was no second novel for him), which made me wonder if he was any relation to the former Observer journo Kathryn Flett. He almost certainly wasn't her father – her dad's name is Doug, I believe – but might he be related some other way?

But it was spying (hey!) the credit for the cover photograph that made me decide to plonk down the (meagre amount of) cash in the end. Because, once again, it was taken by Beverley le Barrow – here spelt with no third "e" in his first name – a.k.a. Sun newspaper Page 3 snapper Beverley Goodway. I last blogged about Beverley a couple of weeks ago during Ross Thomas Week, Mark III, but as is now traditional I'll direct you to this post for a summary of all my previous missives on him. Interestingly, Never Shake a Skeleton wasn't the only first edition on the shelves of the Lewes Antique Centre which sported a Le Barrow dustjacket; there were a couple of '70s John Creasey novels with cover photos by Beverley, too. Seems Mr. Le Barrow was even busier during the 1970s than I figured...

Next: a first edition that doesn't, in fact, belong to me...