Friday 22 July 2011

The Deadpan Comics of Norwegian Cartoonist Jason, Featuring a Review of Isle of 100,000 Graves (Fantagraphics, 2011)

Following on from Tuesday's post on Alan Moore: Storyteller – which was, in truth, little more than a link to Monday's post on the Ilex blog on Alan Moore: Storyteller – let's stay with the comics for the moment for a look at the work of deadpan funny animal cartoonist Jason.

I've been reading the graphic novels written and drawn by Jason – alias John Arne Sæterøy – since American independent comics publisher Fantagraphics issued the first English-language edition of his work, Hey, Wait..., in 2001. By that point Jason had been publishing comics in his home country of Norway for twenty years, but for most of us in the US and the UK, Hey, Wait... was our first exposure to his unique talents. On initial inspection he seemed like one more "funny aminal" (sic), or anthropomorphic, cartoonist, in the tradition of Carl Barks or, from the 1980s black-and-white comics glut, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. But one read-through of Hey, Wait... was all it took to reveal that Jason was closer in tone to Art Spiegelman's deconstruction of the subgenre in Maus.

Divided into two parts, the first half of Hey, Wait... follows the adventures of two boys, Jon and Bjorn – drawn, in Jason's soon-to-become-trademark manner, as a humanized dog and rabbit – as they pal around their local neighbourhood, making mischief and generally just hanging out. But then an unexpected and shocking accident signals a marked shift in tone, and the narrative jumps forward some years to detail the humdrum existence of Jon, now grown-up and stuck in a mundane manufacturing job, and haunted by the tragedy at the heart of the tale. It's an achingly sad, deeply affecting piece of comics storytelling, and acted as a signal flare for the arrival of a major new (to English-language readers, anyway) talent in the comics field.

Since then, Fantagraphics have issued more than a dozen further graphic novels by Jason at the rate of over one a year, ranging from slapstick knockabout farces to an adaptation of an obscure Nordic mystery novel to a riff on Frankenstein's Monster. Especially good have been some of the full-colour novellas – coloured by Hubert – beginning with 2005's Why Are You Doing This?, a madcap mystery which wrings a not inconsiderable amount of pathos out of a Hitchcockian "wrong man" scenario. Also worth a look are 2006's The Left Bank Gang, a thriller depicting the travails of struggling cartoonists (!) Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound and James Joyce in 1920s Paris, and 2007's I Killed Adolf Hitler, a tragicomic time-travelling domestic saga.

His latest graphic novel, Isle of 100,000 Graves, published again by Fantagraphics just last month, is co-written with French comics creator Fabien Vehlmann, who brings a sardonic sense of humour to Jason's deadpan stylings. Set in an unspecified period (but probably either the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries), the story follows Gwenny, a young girl waiting in vain for news of her father, who five years ago vanished in search of a treasure island drawn on a map in a bottle he'd found on the beach. When Gwenny too finds a similar treasure map, again in a bottle, she escapes the clutches of her embittered mother and sets about recruiting the assistance of some local pirates in order to find her missing father.

The map is of the famed Isle of 100,000 Graves, which, it turns out, is the base for a bizarre academy for trainee executioners – a leap of logic worthy of Pirates of the Caribbean. The scenes of the young apprentices learning the ways of torture, hanging, beheading and strangulation – latterly practicing on the hapless pirates – are just some of the highlights in a story that throws curveball after curveball at the unsuspecting reader.

Particularly enjoyable is the eyepatch-wearing pirate who Gwenny cons into helping her out by claiming "I know your secret", and who thereafter proves utterly ineffectual – especially when compared to the resourceful and cunning Gwenny – at one point wasting three whole days when he becomes completely incapable of action due to fretting about her fate. The story's denouement neatly punctures the whole enterprise, making a mockery of all that's gone before – which, considering all that's gone before has been gently mocking anyway, is no mean feat. Isle of 100,000 Graves ranks as one of the lightest of Jason's works, but although it lacks the gravitas of Hey, Wait..., it makes up for it with its sure comedic touch. I'll certainly be adding to my Jason collection when his next effort, Athos in America, arrives at the end of the year.

Next up: a review of a first edition of an early Michael Crichton novel...

Tuesday 19 July 2011

Alan Moore: Storyteller by Gary Spencer Millidge (Ilex Press, 2011)

It's not often that I devote a blog post to one of the books I've worked on in my day job as managing editor of illustrated books publisher Ilex Press, but when a book turns out as splendidly as this one has, and when I know that book might be of interest to my small and doubtless ever-dwindling readership, well... I think a post is justified:

This is the UK hardback first edition of Alan Moore: Storyteller, published this very week by The Ilex Press (published simultaneously in the US by Rizzoli), with a cover design concept by the incomparable Chip Kidd, and beautifully designed overall by the supremely talented Simon Goggin, overseen by Ilex Press' doyenne of art direction, Julie Weir. Written by comics aficionado, cartoonist (he created the comic book/graphic novel series Strangehaven), designer (he also penned Ilex's essential Comic Book Design) and friend of Alan Moore, Gary Spencer Millidge, it's an authorized, highly illustrated, 300-plus page biography of Moore's life and work.

It is, if I do say so myself – I edited the thing, with the able assistance of Ilex Press' unflappable senior editor, Ellie Wilson (and with the gently guiding voices of Ilex's Tim Pilcher, Roly Allen and Ilex publisher Alastair Campbell – no, not that Alastair Campbell – in the background) – a bloody amazing book. Not only are Gary's words revealing and insightful; not only does it boast copious quotes from Mr. Moore; not only does it feature such little-seen rarities as an unpublished V for Vendetta script, the legendary Big Numbers chart detailing all twelve issues of that never-completed series, a cornucopia of family snaps, notebook pages and sketches kindly provided by Mr. Moore himself, and lots more besides; but it also comes accompanied by a splendid CD, whereupon you'll find a selection of incredibly scarce songs and performances by Alan Moore and friends, all lovingly mastered by longtime Moore collaborator Gary Lloyd.

I'm not going to bang on at length about the book here on Existential Ennui; I posted a prolix, meandering, self-serving missive about it on the Ilex Press blog yesterday, in which I largely, as is my wont, talked about myself, so go read that if you have a day to spare. Instead I'll restrict myself here to noting that, like another Ilex volume I blogged about last year, The Art of Osamu Tezuka, God of Manga, I'm really rather proud of Alan Moore: Storyteller. Having been a huge fan of Alan Moore's work for getting on for three-quarters of my life, I can happily report this the hefty volume is everything I, and therefore by extension any self-respecting Moore fan, could possibly want in a book about Alan Moore.

Anyway. Do please go read my Ilex Press post on the book; despite my disparaging remarks above, I'm actually quite pleased with that essay (I may even steal it back and post it on here). And should you feel so inclined, you could, if you haven't already, glance at my other Ilex blog posts, such as this one on Richard Stark's The Hunter as featured in 500 Essential Cult Books; or this one on Sci-Fi Art: A Pocket History; or even this one on 500 Essential Cult Movies, featuring The Night of the Hunter. And then I'll meet you back here for the next post, for which I'll be staying on a comics tip in order to discuss deadpan Norwegian cartoonist Jason...

Monday 18 July 2011

On Collecting Quiller, Featuring an Adam Hall Bibliography, and a First Edition of Quiller's Run (Quiller #12, W H Allen, 1988)

For this final post on Elleston Trevor/Adam Hall's series of espionage novels starring secret agent Quiller, I thought I'd share what I've thus far gleaned – in the admittedly brief period of time since I became interested in these books – about collecting Quiller, using this fine tome as an example:

This is the UK hardback first edition of Quiller's Run, the twelfth Quiller thriller, published by W H Allen in 1988. The dustjacket illustration is uncredited, but I believe it's by Tony Masero, an artist who's well-known for his Doctor Who novelisation covers – certainly the jacket of the preceding book in the series, 1985's Northlight, is by him, and Quiller's Run seems to be of a piece with that style. I found this copy in the Oxfam Bookshop in Tunbridge Wells during my recent fortnight's holiday, for three quid – which, it turns out, was a bit of a bargain, because first editions of this one aren't in plentiful supply; at time of writing AbeBooks only has two Allen hardbacks listed, both ex-library. And in researching the book for this post, I discovered that it's not the only first edition from the back half of Hall's career that's hard to come by.

Commonly when you collect first editions you find that an author's earliest novels command the highest prices. This is usually the case even when those early works are in plentiful supply – early novels will always be of greater interest to completist collectors. But occasionally the reverse is true. There can be any number of reasons for this – an author might wane in popularity towards the end of his or her career, thus causing fewer first editions to be printed, or print runs of the hardbacks of their later novels may have been reduced anyway due to publishing conditions prevalent at the time – but the net result is the same whatever the explanation: first editions of their later books become really scarce, and bloody expensive. Such is the case with Quiller.

Probably the easiest way to explain the current Adam Hall collecting state of play is for me to first provide a complete Quiller British first edition bibliography, including, in each case, the publisher – the first time this has been done on the internet, I believe – so you can see who published what when. So here we go:

1. The Berlin Memorandum (a.k.a. The Quiller Memorandum), Collins, 1965
2. The 9th Directive, Heinemann, 1966
3. The Striker Portfolio, Heinemann, 1969 (preceded by 1968 US Simon & Schuster edn.)
4. The Warsaw Document, Heinemann, 1971
5. The Tango Briefing, Collins, 1973
6. The Mandarin Cypher, Collins, 1975
7. The Kobra Manifesto, Collins, 1976
8. The Sinkiang Executive, Collins, 1978
9. The Scorpion Signal, Collins, 1979
10. The Pekin Target (a.k.a. The Peking Target), Collins, 1981
11. Northlight (a.k.a. Quiller), W H Allen, 1985
12. Quiller's Run, W H Allen, 1988
13. Quiller KGB, W H Allen, 1989
14. Quiller Barracuda, W H Allen, 1991 (preceded by 1990 US William Morrow edn.)
15. Quiller Bamboo, Headline, 1992 (preceded by 1991 US William Morrow edn.)
16. Quiller Solitaire, Headline, 1992
17. Quiller Meridian, Headline, 1993
18. Quiller Salamander, Headline, 1994
19. Quiller Balalaika, Headline, 1996

Firsts of the Collins and Heinemann editions of the novels – from The Berlin Memorandum to The Pekin Target – aren't difficult to get hold of; generally speaking a decent copy of all of those can be had for around a tenner each. Where things really start to become tricky is with the W H Allen and then Headline first editions of the books. Northlight, the first Allen hardback, is relatively easy to come by in first – AbeBooks currently has around twenty copies listed, a good number of those for less than a tenner – but thereafter matters become rather more murky. Quiller's Run I've already discussed, but the next book after that, Quiller KGB, is in rather short supply in first; at time of writing AbeBooks only has two copies of the Allen first edition for sale, one in the UK, the other, an ex-library copy, in Australia, both for about thirty quid. There was a third copy for less than that... but I bought it. Sorry.

The next book in the series, 1991's Quiller Barracuda, is almost as scarce – AbeBooks currently has only four copies of the Allen first edition listed, although those are more agreeably priced at around the £15 mark – but is complicated by the fact that the book was first published a year before its UK debut in the States by William Morrow, and that in the UK, it was reissued in hardback the following year, 1992, by Headline, the publisher who would thereafter publish the Quiller novels in Britain. The subsequent Quiller novel, Quiller Bamboo, which Headline again issued in 1992 in hardback, was also preceded by a Morrow edition, although that doesn't seem to have impacted its scarcity: AbeBooks has only three UK first editions listed right now, one of those for more than fifty quid. 

Quiller Solitaire, the sixteenth novel, is more readily available, with a good seven or eight copies of the first edition on AbeBooks and more available on Amazon Marketplace (you'll often find additional copies of particular editions for sale over there, too, although listings can be duplicated from AbeBooks), though in both cases some of those are ex-library. And ex-library copies seem to be what's mostly available of the Headline first of the next book, Quiller Meridian; currently I can only see a couple of copies that aren't ex-library online, and one of those is going for £45.

And then we get into the real rarities. Unless you're prepared to accept an ex-library copy, the 1994 Headline first edition – and first printing; I think it went into a second impression – of Quiller Salamander is very hard to come by – so hard, in fact, that I can't see any non-ex-library copies for sale online right now. On the other hand, a few non-ex-library copies of the Headline first/first of the final book in the series, 1996's Quiller Balalaika, are available, but you're looking at anything from £150–£350 for those. Of course, whether or not anyone would actually pay that amount for a copy is open to debate. It's a curiosity of online secondhand bookselling that books often aren't priced so much to sell as to seemingly sit on AbeBooks indefinitely. If certain book dealers halved their prices, they might actually shift some of their overpriced stock – I for one would be more inclined to purchase those later Quillers if they were more attractively priced.

Anyway, for me, in some respects, Quiller looks to be a tough nut to crack collecting-wise. But as previous collecting sprees have perhaps proved, I'm nothing if not determined in these matters.

And that's it for Quiller for a while, although I will obviously be returning to him at some point. Next, though, it's back to the random books blogging. I've got a few reviews to get through, including a graphic novel, and I'll be spotlighting a recently rediscovered thriller writer who I reckon will be unfamiliar to most folk. And looking further ahead, I'll soon be unveiling that exclusive interview with an author I teased... But first, in the next post, I'll be showcasing a book that goes on sale this very week; an illustrated biography of a towering name in the comics field; indeed a book that I actually edited, in my role as managing editor at The Ilex Press, and which I'll also be writing about over on the Ilex blog...