Saturday 10 September 2011

UPDATED: The Same But Different: DC Comics, the New 52 #1s, Week Two – a Review

In 1973, Oxford University Press published a book by the American writer and critic Harold Bloom entitled The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry. In the book, Bloom set out his thesis that poetry – and by extension art – is in perpetual conflict with its past, struggling to find the new whilst out of necessity being influenced by the old. In summary, artists are forever trying to be the same but different.

This, it seems to me, and without wishing to sound too high-minded, cuts to the root of the problem North American comics publisher DC Comics faces with "The New 52". For the uninitiated, this month DC are relaunching – or rejuvenating, or reinvigorating, or however you wish to term it – their entire line of superhero titles. What it boils down to is fifty-two (a number which has a certain resonance for DC fans) new #1s published across the four weeks of September, including the long-lived, never-renumbered Detective Comics (which, with an unbroken run from March 1937, is the longest continuously published US comic book ever) and Action Comics (an unbroken run from April 1938).

Ever since the initiative was announced back in June, the internet has been awash with commentary, conjecture, opinion, invective, bile and spleen. I actually began this post shortly after that announcement, but quickly realised that adding to the cacophony would be both pointless and fruitless; after all, there's little to be gained in passing judgment on something that hasn't even happened yet. However, this week saw the publication of the first wave of new DC #1s – following on from August's Justice League #1 – and as a longtime but these days largely lapsed DC reader, I was intrigued enough to purchase all thirteen titles. And reading those thirteen comic books, it's clear that Bloom's assessment is as pertinent to DC's admittedly commercial, pop cultural endeavours as it is to any form of art.

To my mind, the most successful of these initial DC #1s are those that best accommodate the past whilst finding new ways to tell stories with characters that in some cases have been around for over seventy years. Grant Morrison and Rags Morales's Action Comics #1, Jeff Lemire and Travel Foreman's Animal Man #1 and Tony Daniel's Detective Comics #1 all fall into this camp. Morrison's fresh interpretation of a brash, young Superman, at odds with the world and with a teenager's sense of injustice, still manages to reference key scenes and panels from the earliest days of Action Comics. Lemire finds fertile ground in Buddy Baker's family background – something Morrison also explored in his groundbreaking late-'80s run on the title – adding in an unnerving horror element, ably assisted by Foreman's expressive drawing. And while on the surface Daniel's Detective Comics #1 adheres firmly to the editorial direction of the non-Morrison Batman titles of recent years, his artwork has developed a visceral energy which sets his comic above most of the rest of this week's field.

The least successful DC #1s are those that appear to be in thrall to the past. It's been pointed out ad nauseum that although DC's superhero comics are all beginning again with new #1s, the creative teams are largely those who've been shepherding the titles for the past few years: Sterling Gates, J. T. Krul, Keith Giffen, Dan DiDio. But what's striking about Batgirl #1, Green Arrow #1, Hawk & Dove #1, Justice League International #1, O.M.A.C. #1 and Static Shock #1 isn't so much how similar they are to so many other comics published in the first decade of the twenty-first century, but how they could easily have been published in the final decade of the twentieth century (or even earlier in some cases). Electing to position these titles creatively circa 1995 – an aesthetically moribund period for superhero comics – is a bizarre choice, compounded by the fact that there's nothing terribly new to offset the old: to me they feel tired and workmanlike, and consequently dreadfully dull. If the remit is to refresh the DC line and thus attract new readers and bring back lapsed ones, these comic books fail miserably: reading them was an enervating experience, and one I have no intention of repeating.

Between these two poles lies a halfway house comprising Judd Winick and Ben Oliver's Batwing #1, Ivan Brandon and Tom Derenick's Men of War #1, Paul Cornell and Miguel Sepulveda's Stormwatch #1 and Scott Snyder and Yanick Paquette's Swamp Thing #1. For me, these were disappointing comics enlivened either by attractive art (Batwing, Swamp Thing) or potentially promising ideas (Men of War, Stormwatch). All are cognizant of the old, aware of the need to transcend it, and yet unable to locate the new. Where the best of this week's DC #1s are the same but different, and the worst the same but superannuated, these titles are, effectively, the same old shit. Or, perhaps more accurately: same shit, different day.

By my reckoning, that leaves me with three comics out of a total of thirteen that I'll be sticking with – which is around the same number of DC comics I was reading on a weekly basis anyway. But more than that, the experience of buying and reading all thirteen comics has soured me on doing the same next week: I suspect I'll be rather more selective in my choices come Wednesday. If Harold Bloom were a comics fan, and happened to find himself in Brighton midweek, I doubt he'd be rushing to Dave's Comics either.

UPDATE, 9/8/12: I considered writing an additional post to this one to mark the one-year anniversary of the DC New 52 – basically a "one year later" (arf) missive detailing which DC titles I'm still reading. Frankly, however, the notion was too depressing to countenance: the only DC comics I'm still reading at this point are Grant Morrison's Batman Incorporated – which essentially completely ignores the New 52 status quo – and James Robinson's The Shade, a twelve-issue maxi-series that again has no relation to the New 52. Even the once-promising Animal Man has become mired in an overlong storyline and now a crossover, and Nightwing, the one "old DCU" title I was guaranteed to buy, whatever the quality of the stories (sad, I know), has lost me too. Still, in truth, Marvel's output has been little better of late, and at least I'm saving myself some money (which I'm spending on old books instead).

Friday 9 September 2011

Ratking by Michael Dibdin (Aurelio Zen #1): a Review of a Signed Association First Edition (Faber & Faber, 1988)

And so we reach the grand finale of my month-long series on signed editions – which must surely rank as the longest (albeit intermittent) series of posts I've yet attempted on Existential Ennui. I suspect this particular theme has rather outstayed its welcome – it's beginning to try even my patience by this point – but at least there have been some interesting (well, to me) books along the way, among them novels by Anthony Price, Gavin Lyall, Stephen Baxter, Ross Thomas and Adam Hall. And for this climactic post, we return to a British author who's already featured once in this series, with the first of his novels starring Venetian-born, Rome-based police detective Aurelio Zen:

Michael Dibdin's Ratking was first published in hardback in the UK in 1988 by Faber & Faber, under a dustjacket sporting an illustration by Irene von Treskow. I skimmed the surface of Dibdin's canon in the aforementioned post on the eighth Zen novel, And Then You Die – and touched on the TV adaptations, too – and I'll be exploring Ratking in more depth in a moment. But first, this particular copy of the first edition, which I bought at the Lewes Book Fair in August.

First editions of Ratking – which, although the debut Zen novel, was actually Dibdin's third – are quite scarce and consequently rather pricey: the cheapest one on AbeBooks at present is listed at £150. But of course this copy isn't just a first edition:

It's a signed first (with a "Z" scrawled across Dibdin's name on the title page), one of only two signed Faber firsts that I know of (the other being the one on AbeBooks, listed at £200). And there's an additional association with this copy:

A bookplate affixed to the front endpaper, bearing the details of the literary agency AD Peters. Michael Dibdin's literary agent was the late Pat Kavanagh, who worked at AD Peters from 1964, so presumably this copy of Ratking is a file copy, which Dibdin evidently signed at some point. I suspect that signature is contemporaneous with publication; if we compare it to the one in 2002's And Then You Die:

You can see that Dibdin's signature has changed in the intervening fourteen years, become more polished, although it's still recognizably the same hand.

In common with other Faber hardbacks from around this period, the pages of Ratking are starting to brown, a consequence of the cheap paper Faber used in their book production (the dealer I bought it from – for a very good price – remarked that he couldn't bring himself to collect Dibdin for this very reason), but that aside, it's in fine, unblemished condition. But there is one curiosity about the dustjacket spine, something I noticed when the book was sitting on my shelves, nestled next to its fellow first editions:

There's no publisher's logo at the base of the spine. That's highly unusual, typically the sort of thing you only find with book club editions – which this copy of Ratking isn't (I checked it against another copy online). An oversight by Faber's production department, perhaps?

Anyway, enough of this tiresome book collecting business: let's move on to the novel itself. And it's striking how elegant a writer Dibdin – who died in 2007 – was. His prose is descriptive, occasionally poetic, often wryly amusing, while his plotting is simultaneously languorous and labyrinthine, drifting and then surging, as, seemingly through sheer happenstance, Zen – fiftyish, divorced, with a similarly divorced American girlfriend of whom Zen's aged, dependent live-in mother disapproves – finds himself unexpectedly catapulted from the bureaucratic sidelines of the Italian police force – where he's languished for years as a result of events referred to obliquely (until towards the end of the novel, that is, when their real life significance is made more explicit) as the Moro kidnapping – into the centre of another kidnapping case, this one highly politically charged.

Uprooted from Rome and deposited in Perugia, Zen has to deal with the troublesome Miletti family – the disagreeable brood of the kidnapped Ruggiero, head of an electronics empire – as well as an indifferent local police force, obstructive lawyers, and recalcitrant criminals. Pulled along by the riptide of events, resigned to his fate, it's only in the latter stages of the story that Zen's copper's curiosity and eye for detail – dulled by his extended time-out cataloguing paperclips in police departments up and down the land – slowly return to him, as an appalling tale of murder and abuse is unfurled.

Zen is the beating heart of Ratking, both in the sense of being the lead protagonist, and in that he's a decent man surrounded by indecent creeps. Practically everyone he meets in Perugia is utterly unreliable (with the possible exception of his bored driver); the city is a tangled mess of power and corruption – the eponymous "ratking", a gruesome phenomenon which is explained midway through the novel. Zen's attitude towards all this is a mixture of resigned world-weariness, bemused detachment and hair-pulling exasperation. Late in the novel he muses on a Chinese fable his girlfriend once told him...

...about a man who falls off a cliff, saves himself by clutching at a plant, and then notices that two mice are gnawing away the branch on which his life depends. There is a fruit growing on the branch, which the man plucks and eats. The fruit tastes wonderful.

Having finally comprehended the point of this story, Zen walks into his office and is handed a file on the Miletti case by a subordinate, a file which can only be read on a computer. Except the department doesn't yet have a computer:

Zen passed one hand across his forehead. There were clearly various possibilities which the Chinese hadn't thought of. For example, the mice stop gnawing, scamper down your arm, cock their legs and piss in your face.

It's a typically acerbic punchline from a writer well aware of the contradictions and stupidity inherent in the human condition, and yet offset by a lead character who in many ways embodies the opposite – who defies those tendencies, however unintentionally or reluctantly.

I'll have more from Michael Dibdin before too long, in the shape of a Zen first edition cover gallery. But next on Existential Ennui, it's a case of from the sublime to the ridiculous, as over the weekend I'll hopefully find the time to share some thoughts on week one – or is it week two? – of DC Comics: The New 52. And then after that, from Monday, it's back to the sublime, with John le Carré/George Smiley Week...

Thursday 8 September 2011

The 9th Directive (Quiller #2) by Adam Hall (Elleston Trevor): Signed UK Bookplate First Edition (Heinemann, 1966)... and a Lewes Book Bargain (US First, Simon and Schuster, 1966)

For this penultimate post in my seemingly interminable series on signed editions, we turn to an author who I featured in another series of posts back in July: Elleston Trevor, and the second of his pseudonymous espionage thrillers starring secret agent Quiller:

The 9th Directive was first published in the UK in hardback by Heinemann in 1966, under a dustjacket designed by Tom Simmonds (featuring a front cover photo by the almost identically named Thomas Simmons, natch). It is, as I say, the second of Trevor's Quiller novels – although actually the third novel written under the Adam Hall alias (the first being the 1963 Quillerless outing The Volcanoes of San Domingo) – and sees our surname-only spy engaged in a duel with the colourfully monikered Kuo the Mongolian. I've yet to read the novel, but I have read its excellent 1965 predecessor, The Berlin Memorandum (a.k.a. The Quiller Memorandum), my review of which can be found right here.

Friend of Existential Ennui and noted contemporary spy fiction author Jeremy Duns has read The 9th Directive, however; Jeremy identified Adam Hall as his favourite writer – and The 9th Directive as perhaps his favourite book of the Quiller series – at the start of this interview with Trevor's son, JP, so this particular copy of the first edition should be of interest both to Mr. Duns and to my new associates on the Quiller Yahoo Group. Because affixed to the front endpaper is this:

An Adam Hall bookplate, signed and dedicated by Trevor as Hall, and addressed from Domaine de Chateauneuf, near Nice, where Trevor lived until 1973 – although I believe he kept his house in France even after moving to America (correct me if I'm wrong, Quiller aficionados). And it's contemporaneous too, as evidenced by the "Novembre 1967" date.

I spotted this copy of The 9th Directive tucked away on Amazon Marketplace, and didn't have to pay through the nose for it. Which was something of a surprise, as there are currently only eleven signed Adam Hall books on AbeBooks, just five of those being Quiller novels (the remainder largely comprising reissues of the novels Trevor wrote as Simon Rattray – which were reprinted as by Adam Hall in the 1970s – along with a couple of copies of his 1979 horror work The Sibling). And among those five, The 9th Directive does not appear. The closest comparison would be the signed first edition of The Berlin Memorandum, which is on sale for £225 from the States. So your guess is as good as mine as to the value of my copy of The 9th Directive.

There's a minor postscript to this Quiller tale, because just the other day I was browsing in one of Lewes' (the East Sussex town etc. etc.) charity shops – the Hospice one opposite Waitrose, in fact – when I came across this nestled in amongst the secondhand hardbacks:

An American first edition/first impression (I believe the US first went through three printings) of The 9th Directive, published by Simon and Schuster in 1966. It was lacking a dustjacket unfortunately, but seeing as it was only 75p, I figured I might as well nab it. The aforementioned Jeremy Duns told me on Twitter that it's this edition of the novel that he owns – with jacket – and together we spent a moment admiring its scarlet publisher's-stain and deckled page edges. (I'll make a book collector out of Jeremy yet, just you wait and see.)

Anyway, I'll have more from Adam Hall and Quiller further down the line, notably on the scarce, later British first editions of the books in the series. And don't forget that next week's blogging will all be on an espionage tip, as I embark on a series of posts on John le Carré's George Smiley novels – chiefly the "Karla Trilogy" – in celebration of the release of the brand new movie adaptation of the first book in that trilogy, Tinker, Tailor Soldier, Spy. But ahead of that, I've one last signed book post for you – the grand finale, if you will – for which I'll be returning to a crime fiction author who's already made one appearance in this series on signed editions, with a very special first edition of his third novel...

Wednesday 7 September 2011

Chinaman's Chance by Ross Thomas: Signed US First Edition (Simon and Schuster, 1978)

On to the antepenultimate signed edition, and this next book was an eBay win (bought from an American seller), one I couldn't resist bidding on (and, er, winning, evidently) despite already owning a British first edition of the same novel, for reasons I'll return to shortly:

It's a US first edition and first impression of Chinaman's Chance by Ross Thomas, published by Simon and Schuster in 1978. Now, reasonably longtime readers of Existential Ennui will be well aware of my appreciation of Thomas, who I've been feverishly collecting and reading since Book Glutton tipped me off about him last year. The majority of the posts I've written on Thomas can be found in the three weeks I've dedicated to him – Week I, Week II, Week III – although there are one or two other extraneous missives dotted about here and there (click on his tag at the bottom of this post to find 'em all).

Suffice it to say I've come to believe that Ross Thomas was one of the finest crime/espionage writers of the twentieth century. And of his novels that I've thus far read, Chinaman's Chance is my favourite (although 1970's The Fools in Town are On Our Side runs it a close second). It's the first in his short series starring grifters Artie Wu and Quincy Durant (the sequels being 1987's Out on the Rim and 1992's Voodoo, Ltd.), and I posted a glowing review of the novel – in its British first edition, with attendant Beverley le Barrow dustjacket – right here.

So you can see why I was tickled pink to acquire this particular copy of the book, which bears this on the half-title page:

Curiously, Thomas's signature is done in red pencil – possibly crayon – but having checked it against other examples of his John Hancock, I'm as certain as I can be that it's genuine. And while Thomas did sign plenty of books in his lifetime – AbeBooks has well over 300 signed Thomas novels listed for sale – signed copies of Chinaman's Chance in any edition are thin on the ground: there's only one other signed copy of the novel currently listed on AbeBooks, and that's a second printing of the Simon and Schuster hardback, going for nearly forty quid. Crucially, my copy is the genuine first printing – not a book club edition – and bears no red remainder mark on the page edges, something that afflicts a good number of the other copies on sale. (How's that for finickity book-collecting geekery?)

The author photo on the back cover is by Michael Lindsay, but the design on the front of the dustjacket is by Lawrence Ratzkin, who's cropped up a number of times on Existential Ennui in relation to Ross Thomas; he also designed the jackets for The Singapore Wink (1969), The Backup Men (1971) and Protocol for a Kidnapping (also 1971), written as Oliver Bleeck.

I'll actually be returning to Chinaman's Chance down the line, with yet another edition of the book – along with an edition of 1979's The Eighth Dwarf – both of which feature intriguing forewords. But let's move on to the penultimate signed edition post, which will be on a novel by a spy fiction author who I dedicated a series of posts to in July. And this one really is quite special...

Tuesday 6 September 2011

The Time Ships by Stephen Baxter: Signed First Edition (Harper Collins, 1995), Plus a Bit of Doctor Who Business

As I mentioned in this post (er, and this post), I've been saving the best books in my series on signed editions till last; each of the final four books I'll be showcasing this week really is quite special, either in terms of scarcity, value, personal value, or a combination of all three. And let's begin with this:

This is the UK hardback first edition/first impression of The Time Ships by Stephen Baxter, published by Harper Collins in 1995, with a dustjacket illustration – and a number of interior illos – by Les Edwards. The Time Ships is Baxter's authorized sequel to H. G. Wells's The Time Machine – published to coincide with the centenary of Wells's visionary original – and as such is a novel I've always wanted to read. So I was thrilled when I chanced upon this first edition – on sale for just a quid – in the Haynes Lane indoor market in Crystal Palace, on a brief visit back to my old "manor". And I was even more excited when I opened the book up and discovered this inside it:

A signed dedication by the author. Now, I don't have a smart phone, so for me secondhand book collecting is still largely a case of guesswork and the occasional piece of good fortune. But when I found this copy of The Time Ships, I had an inkling that first editions/first printings were valuable, and that therefore a signed first/first would be even more so. What I didn't know was quite how valuable: AbeBooks currently lists eight signed UK firsts (plus one signed proof) ranging in price from £120 up to nearly £300. Which makes it not a bad purchase at all for a pound, and a piece of good fortune indeed.

Incidentally, after being rumoured for a while, it was officially announced in July that Baxter will be writing an original Doctor Who novel, Wheel of Ice, starring the Second Doctor (Patrick Troughton), to be published next year. This is part of a concerted effort by BBC Books to attract big-name SF authors to the Doctor Who fiction lines, an initiative which began with Michael Moorcock's The Coming of the Terraphiles in 2010 (Alastair Reynolds is also slated to to pen one). I'm uncertain whether Baxter's book will be published in the same 8vo/Octavo cloth-boards-plus-dustjacket format as Moorcock's novel, as opposed to the smaller self-cover hardbacks that the majority of the Beeb's Doctor Who line is published in these days, but I certainly hope so. And while we're on the subject of Doctor Who, Baxter also provided a foreword to the recently reissued classic Target novelisation Doctor Who and the Abominable Snowmen, which features... the Second Doctor. No prizes for guessing which Doctor is Baxter's Doctor, then.

Moving on, and while by some estimates the next signed first edition perhaps isn't as valuable as The Time Ships – although signed copies of it are much scarcer – it's one that I particularly treasure, because it's a novel that's among the best I've read in the past few years, written by an American crime/spy fiction author who's become a firm favourite here on Existential Ennui...

Monday 5 September 2011

Donald E. Westlake's Science Fiction Stories: "Look Before You Leap", Analog Vol. XVIII, No. 9, September 1962

(NB: a version of this post also appears on The Violent World of Parker blog.)

On we go with Donald E. Westlake's science fiction magazine stories; and like the last SF story I wrote about, "They Also Serve", this one also appeared in Analog Science Fact & Fiction, and has similarly never been reprinted since (and it's not even available via Project Gutenberg). But there the parallels end, because while "They Also Serve" clocked in at just four pages, this one stretches over thirty – it's called a "novelette" in the table of contents – and is a much stronger work all round.

"Look Before You Leap" appeared in the May 1962 issue of Analog (cover art by the late, great John Schoenherr), although once again the edition seen here is the British one from a few months later. This time the story is credited to "Don Westlake", and is only trumped in the table of contents by the first part of Darrell T. Langart's "Anything You Can Do" (which is around the same length as Westlake's tale). Told in the third person, our protagonist is twenty-year-old Jeremy Masters, a trainee in the US Air Force on his third day of bivouac. Crawling through a "pitch-black dry drainage pipe", with Tactical Instructors dropping tear gas bombs at either end, Jeremy becomes so terrified that he suddenly finds himself hundreds of miles away, still on his hands and knees, on his bed back home at his mom's place in Pennsylvania. No sooner has he registered his new surroundings, however, than he's back in the pitch-black pipe again.

Jeremy, we learn from a certain Colonel Brice and his associates Ed Clark and Paul Swanson, who have been studying the bivouac, has unlocked an innate but previously dormant ability to teleport. Only now Jeremy refuses to believe he teleported, and Colonel Brice and co. can only hope that Jeremy rediscovers his ability before he ends up as a section eight. As to why Brice and co. want Jeremy to teleport again, and why they're so willing to believe he can, all is revealed at the end of the story.

Certainly "Look Before You Leap" is a more sustained effort than "They Also Serve", perhaps because here Westlake has rather more room to properly explore his ideas. At one point he does something quite interesting with the notion of teleportation: he ties it to almost folkloric tales of people who report instances of their loved ones suddenly appearing before them at the exact moment that those loved ones are dying many miles away. Jeremy recalls his Aunt Sara and Uncle Fred; eight years ago Fred was killed in an airplane accident in the Rockies, and Sara insisted that at the exact moment Fred "was dying against that mountainside, she swore she saw him standing in the kitchen, right next to the refrigerator".

Developing this theory, Jeremy reasons: 

Say Uncle Fred was a latent teleport. He's sitting in the airplane, probably in a seat toward the rear of the plane, and suddenly the plane bucks and dips and dives straight for the mountain—he can look out the window and see that the right-hand wing has sheard off—and for the first time in his life he's in a situation desperate enough to reach all the way down to the teleporting ability, and he wishes frantically he were home in his own kitchen, raiding the refrigerator, and all of a sudden he's home. Which for shock value is about equivalent to kissing a girl who suddenly and instantaneously turns into a crocodile. So he teleports right back, while he still has his sanity. And the plane plunges into the mountain.

It's an intriguing idea, and actually the best part of the story; there are no real twists to the tale after this one, largely because Westlake presents a decidedly benign version of the US military. The ending in particular is notably upbeat; where another writer might have highlighted the potentially sinister implications of what Colonel Brice is up to, Westlake instead opts for a feelgood finish. Then again, maybe Westlake wanted his audience to read between the lines and draw their own conclusions. Or perhaps he just wrote the damn thing, sent it off, and cashed the cheque: one has to be reasonably circumspect in ascribing too much in the way of intent or motivation with these early SF stories, largely because back then Westlake was writing for whichever publications would have him in whichever genre they required.

In any case, "Look Before You Leap" is a solid entry in Westlake's select science fiction canon, certainly worth a read, although you'd have to track down a copy of the issue of Analog in which it appears in order to do so. Luckily, the next Westlake SF short I'll be reviewing is more readily available, as it was later reprinted in the 1989 collection Tomorrow's Crimes. But before we get to that, there's the final offering of signed editions I promised, comprising four books that are all very hard to come by in signed first, and consequently very valuable indeed. And the first of those is, appropriately enough, a science fiction novel...