Friday 7 October 2011

Notes from the Small Press 11: a Review of Illegal Batman in the Moon, a Free Comic Download by Ed Pinsent

It's been a while since I posted one of these Notes from the Small Press mini-comix missives – the last one was all the way back in April, which, quite frankly, is a disgraceful dereliction of duty on my part – but the other day I received an email from a cartoonist who's featured more than once in the series, letting me know that he's just published a brand new comic. And best of all, it's a direct sequel to a terrific small press comic I blogged about in the sixth Notes from the Small Press – and it's completely free!

Illegal Batman in the Moon is British cartoonist Ed Pinsent's belated follow-up to his 1989 Illegal Batman small press comic, and is available as a PDF download from his website. This time out, rather than (sort of) solving crimes, Illegal Batman becomes interested in the writings of the nineteenth-century mathematician and astrologer John Herschel, in particular Herschel's discovery of "bat-like winged humanoids" on the surface of the Moon, as detailed in an 1835 number of the The Edinburgh Journal of Science. Suitably inspired, Illegal Batman determines to establish his own Moon colony of Bat-Men, and enlists the aid of Dr Slice, a recently-released Gotham Jail inmate. Unfortunately, Dr Slice points out that the (falsely attributed to Herschel) article was a hoax, and that, furthermore, splicing the genes of bats and men will take six to eight months to come to fruition. Undeterred, Illegal Batman sets off in his Bat-Rocket to the Moon to search for his mythical "Bat-Folk".

A new comic from Ed Pinsent is always welcome – the more the merrier as far as I'm concerned – and Illegal Batman in the Moon, with its familiar-to-Pinsent-fans leaps of logic and epic flights of fancy, doesn't disappoint. There's something warm and welcoming about Pinsent's work, an essential humanity born of his comics' preoccupation with folklore, myth and dream-states. Illegal Batman in the Moon takes as its starting point an amusing old hoax and extrapolates from that a tale of loneliness, belonging, disillusionment and wonder – with a bit of needlecraft thrown in for good measure. It's simultaneously whimsical, metaphysical and exceedingly silly, with some splendid deadpan panels and jokey asides peppered throughout, not to mention the occasional nod to other Pinsent stories.

Pinsent is a unique and idiosyncratic talent, a prime mover in the influential Fast Fiction small press scene of the 1980s and the creator of a number of memorable characters, notably Windy Wilberforce and the extraordinary Primitif. He's made a selection of his work available as downloads on his website – well worth an hour or so of anyone's time – and his site is also a treasure trove of information about the '80s and '90s British scene, with a gallery of Fast Fiction magazine (of which Ed was an editor and regular contributor to) cover scans, complete with tables of contents for each issue; extensive small press galleries; overseas small press galleries; and more besides. But as wonderful and essential as all that stuff is, it's especially lovely to have a new comic from Ed, and Illegal Batman in the Moon is as poetic, peculiar, pulchritudinous and puzzling as anything he's done.

You can download Illegal Batman in the Moon here; Ed has hinted to me that there may be more new comics to follow, so make sure you check back regularly to his website. And if you're interested in delving further into the British small press scene, just follow these links to previous Notes from the Small Press posts:

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

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

Coming up next on Existential Ennui, well, it's the bimonthly Lewes Book Fair tomorrow (Saturday 8 October), so if I find anything interesting at that, I'll let you know. Failing that, though, next week I'll be embarking on a series of posts on post-apocalyptic fiction. There'll be books familiar, unfamiliar and unexpected, all accompanied by some splendid cover art. And doubtless there'll be the odd Donald E. Westlake/Violent World of Parker cross-post mixed in too. T'riffic.

Thursday 6 October 2011

Chinaman's Chance and The Eighth Dwarf by Ross Thomas: 2006 Simon and Schuster / Bookspan Facsimile First Editions

Well this is something of a rarity nowadays: two posts in one day. Wonders will never cease.

This is just a little addendum really to my earlier review of Ross Thomas's 1979 spy/crime thriller The Eighth Dwarf, because during my summer hols I chanced upon a couple of interesting editions of The Eighth Dwarf and its 1978 predecessor, Chinaman's Chance, in a Kings Cross/St. Pancras discount remainder bookshop – both of them published in 2006, both facsimile editions featuring new introductions...

Published by Simon and Schuster for Bookspan in 2006, each of the books faithfully recreates the original '78 and '79 American first editions, from the jacket designs – by Lawrence Ratzkin (Chinaman's Chance) and Fred Marcellino (The Eighth Dwarf) – to the interiors. But there is an additional feature in both: an introduction by novelist Susan Isaacs, reproduced in each book and extolling the virtues of Thomas's writing, calling Chinaman's Chance "delightful" and identifying The Eighth Dwarf as "peak Ross Thomas". I'd certainly go along with those assessments.

The two books only cost me a few quid, and since I've now read Isaacs's intro – and since I already own first editions of both novels – I'll be setting them free shortly, either by loosing them into the wilds of Lewes' multitudinous charity shops or by donating them to my mum's forthcoming Beckenham Book Fair at the Elm Road Baptist Church on 12 November. Failing that, if anyone wants to take them off my hands and lives locally (i.e., Lewes), feel free to leave a comment, although as you can see, the back of The Eighth Dwarf's jacket is a little battered.

Anyway, the reason I've posted this today rather than tomorrow is because I've got a Notes from the Small Press missive I want to squeeze in before the weekend – a link to a new comic by one of the most important figures in the UK small press scene. And after that... well: it's the end of the world as we know it...

The Eighth Dwarf by Ross Thomas: a Review (Simon and Schuster / Hamish Hamilton, 1979)

From a factual – if idiosyncratic and self-serving – account of the early years of World War II, to a decidedly fictional take on the year following the end of the conflict, written by an American author who's now a firm favourite here on Existential Ennui:

Ross Thomas's The Eighth Dwarf was first published in hardback in 1979 by Simon & Schuster in the US and Hamish Hamilton in the UK, the Beverley le Barrow-designed dustjacket of which you can see above. Following hot on the heels of the brilliant Chinaman's Chance (1978), it features yet another of Thomas's in-it-for-the-money antiheroes, this time in the shape of Minor Jackson, an ex-OSS operative now out to make a fast buck any way he can. Mid-thirties, prematurely greyed and currently residing in California, Minor enters into an uneasy partnership with a Romanian dwarf named Nicolae Ploscaru in order to locate the son of a German Jewish expat, Kurt Oppenheimer – for a substantial fee. Trouble is, Oppenheimer has become a one-man killing machine, and is currently hunting Nazi war criminals across Germany.

The year is 1946, and moves are afoot in the States for a new intelligence agency. One of the architects of this new agency is Robert Henry Orr, Jackson's former OSS boss; Orr is also interested in Oppenheimer's uniquely murderous talents, so he assists Minor in getting to Germany. But America isn't the only nation keen to capture young Kurt: the Brits are also sniffing around him, in the shape of Major Gilbert Baker-Bates, and the Russians have sent an emissary into Germany too, an ex-concentration camp inmate named Bodden. As each of these parties zeroes in on the seemingly unhinged Oppenheimer, the bodies start piling up, and the chances of Minor escaping with his skin intact, let alone with any money, become increasingly remote.

As with all of the Ross Thomas novels I've read thus far, The Eighth Dwarf's strength lies in its cast of colourful characters, although in this instance it's the supporting players who really stand out. Minor himself is suitably insouciant, but although Thomas sketches in some background for him – notably a disapproving father – there's little to him beyond his nonchalant attitude. Much more interesting are the wry, practical Bodden, the exasperated Lieutenant Meyer, who's tasked with keeping tabs on Jackson, and Kurt Oppenheimer, whose psychosis builds throughout the book. And then there's Ploscaru, or "the wicked dwarf" as he's known in the intelligence community. Ploscaru remains a remote figure throughout, but with his devious, untrustworthy nature and animal cunning, he shines whenever he makes an appearance.

Mind you, all of that's not to disparage the plot, which, while not as Byzantine as others of Thomas's books, still ducks and weaves effectively, ratcheting up the tension as the net closes in on Oppenheimer. The denouement is satisfyingly ironic too, featuring an international auction (of all things) which neatly punctures the whole enterprise. There's also room for a sequel, but unlike Chinaman's Chance, which warranted two follow-up novels, The Eighth Dwarf was destined never to be developed further, although Minor Jackson and Nicolae Ploscaru do warrant a mention in Thomas's final novel, 1994's Ah, Treachery!

Speaking of Chinaman's Chance, I've got one last post to come in this short World War II-themed series – a Ross Thomas bonus post in which I'll be taking a look at both Chinaman's Chance and The Eighth Dwarf, in two intriguing interconnected later editions...

Wednesday 5 October 2011

Lewes Book Bargain: The Second World War Volume 1: The Gathering Storm by Winston S. Churchill (Cassell, 1948)

Continuing this short series of World War II-themed posts, we move on from Len Deighton's 1941-set alternate history, to an account of that period's actual history – albeit a highly personal one – written by a man who had a better vantage point than almost anyone else on those momentous events:

Winston Churchill's The Second World War Volume 1: The Gathering Storm was first published in hardback in the UK by Cassell in 1948. I spotted this first edition/first impression in a Lewes charity shop on Monday, and since this week's posts are largely WWII-focused, it seemed a serendipitous Lewes Book Bargain indeed. Mind you, it's a weighty old tome, clocking in at 640 pages, so Lord knows when I'll get round to reading it.

There's a fascinating critique of The Gathering Storm on the BBC website by Professor John Charmley, which begins with one of Churchill's oft-quoted utterances. "History will judge us kindly," the then-Prime Minister told Roosevelt and Stalin in 1943, "because I shall write the history." And so he did, continuing his mammoth endeavour across a further five volumes, as projected on the dustjacket front flap of the Cassell first of The Gathering Storm, although the eventual number was at that point TBC. "It is planned," runs the blurb, "that the complete memoirs should occupy five or six volumes... though the final total depends on how the work unfolds under Mr. Churchill's hand". Any more than six of these doorstops and Britain's bombed-out homeless could've built houses out of the buggers to "occupy".

Quite apart from the issues of accuracy Professor Charmley raises in his BBC article, it seems even Churchill's deathless prose wasn't immune to those rather more mundane mistakes which bedevil every writer, namely the odd typo – some of them very odd indeed. There's a tipped-in "Author's Note" at the start of the book:

directing readers to the "Errata and Corrigenda" at the back, which corrects various dates, punctuation and what have you. But that page of corrections also has a tipped-in sheet attached with additional errata, and one of those in particular is a real howler:

"Page 56, line 13: For 'poop' read 'prop'." Ouch. Now there's a typo to give copyeditors the heebie-jeebies...

Moving on, and next we travel to 1946, for a Ross Thomas postwar Germany-set tale of unhinged assassination, diminutive espionage and insouciant skullduggery...

Tuesday 4 October 2011

SS-GB by Len Deighton: a Review of a British First Edition (Jonathan Cape, 1978)

Let's embark on another series of themed posts. And the theme this time is the Second World War – or thereabouts. I've got reviews of two novels set in the aftermath of World War II – one by Len Deighton, the other by Ross Thomas – plus a non-fiction account of the early years of WWII, and some additional Ross Thomas business besides.

But let's begin with Len Deighton, and a novel that, while it depicts a post-World War II London, this isn't the city or the era with which we're all familiar...

SS-GB was published by Jonathan Cape in the UK in 1978, under an iconic dustjacket designed, of course, by Raymond Hawkey, and featuring a brilliant fake photo on the back cover of SS troops marching down Whitehall. I bought this first edition in Dim and Distant, Heathfield, East Sussex, having seen another first edition in the science fiction exhibition "Out of This World" at the British Library (archivers of this very blog) over the summer. I was already well aware of Deighton's spy novels – indeed I've blogged about them more than once – but SS-GB is a rather different proposition: an alternate history tale set in a 1941 London where Britain has been defeated by Germany.

Written in the third person, our ostensible lead is Detective Superintendent Douglas Archer, a Scotland Yard policeman investigating an apparent murder. It's November 1941, nine months on from Britain's surrender to Hitler's Germany, and a Blitzed-out, fog-bound London is suffering under the yolk of Nazi rule. Archer now reports to General Fritz Kellerman, the SS Gruppenführer in charge of London's police force; it's an uncomfortably collusionary position for Archer to be in – especially as his second-in-command and closest friend, Detective Sergeant Harry Woods, has links to the Resistance – but one he rationalises by reasoning that an occupied Britain still needs law and order. Before long, however, Archer's murder investigation is complicated by the arrival of another SS officer, Standartenführer Oskar Huth, who seconds Archer to a parallel but related hunt for missing atomic bomb blueprints...

SS-GB wasn't the first novel to conjecture an alternate history where the Nazis won the war; Sarban's The Sound of His Horn and Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle preceded it in, respectively, 1952 and 1962. However, Sarban's tale is a futuristic "what if" set 102 years after World War II, while Dick's novel is set in the year it was published. The closest novel to SS-GB, then, is probably Robert Harris's excellent Fatherland, published fourteen years after Deighton's book in 1992. But although SS-GB shares with Fatherland superficial suspense-cum-crime-thriller trappings, Harris's novel depicts Germany in 1964, whereas Deighton's deals with a scenario both closer to home – at least for me, as a former Londoner – and closer to the conflict itself.

Deighton paints a vivid picture of a London stricken by poverty and starvation, enduring endless checkpoints, mass arrests and summary executions, and afflicted by a gradual, systematic ostracisation and dehumanisation of Jews. That last degradation is only really touched upon, but the glimpses Deighton affords of the plight of the city's Jewish denizens – the enforced wearing of those yellow stars; designated benches in London Zoo – are all the more powerful for their incidental nature. As the Nazis tighten their grip on the country, it's evident Britain is becoming a hellish place, but Deighton doesn't sensationalize this downward spiral; rather, his deadened prose effectively conveys the humdrum but increasingly hopeless existence of Londoners and, by extension, the wider population.

That said, there are sequences of heightened tension, in particular a horrific explosion at the tomb of Karl Marx in Highgate Cemetery and a climactic desperate scramble on the south coast. What misfires there are in the novel are minor; there's some awkward switching of character viewpoints in some scenes, and the decent but dull Douglas Archer isn't a terribly interesting lead. But he's offset by a colourful supporting cast, notably Kellerman and Huth, the latter of whom gets most of the best dialogue and becomes strangely sympathetic towards the end (at least, as sympathetic as an SS officer can be). Deighton is especially good on the internecine low-level warfare between the various branches of the Nazi military and secret police, and Kellerman's and Huth's devious machinations against one another prove deliciously compelling.

SS-GB is terrifyingly plausible, drawing on Deighton's scholarly knowledge of the Second World War and featuring cameos from everyone from Heinrich Himmler to King George VI. One man who doesn't feature, however – except in the briefest of mentions – is the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. Churchill, though, is the author of the next book I'll be showcasing in this WWII-themed series of posts, with a first edition of a non-fiction work I picked up only yesterday in a Lewes charity shop...

Monday 3 October 2011

Richard Stark's Parker Novels: the 1973 British Gold Lion Editions of The Split, The Green Eagle Score and The Sour Lemon Score

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

Always nice to start the week with a massive pistol, I find.

Now, chances are, you won't have seen this particular Parker cover before. It's a hardback-with-dustjacket, it dates from 1973, and it's one of three Parker novels issued by the same publisher in that year which, together, rank among the most elusive – and expensive – editions of any of Donald E. "Richard Stark" Westlake's books.

Allow me to elucidate.

Last week I blogged about a 1986 Allison & Busby hardback edition of The Jugger, in which post I explained that, for anyone wishing to collect Richard Stark's Parker novels in hardback (a foolhardy endeavour, believe me, but there are people unhinged enough to wish to do so), the British Allison & Busby editions represent almost the only way to obtain hardcovers of the initial twelve Parkers – from The Hunter/Point Blank to The Sour Lemon Score – all of which have otherwise only been issued as paperbacks. The key word there being "almost". Because three of those twelve Parkers were published in hardback long before Allison & Busby got their mitts on them – again by a British publisher. And that publisher was Gold Lion Books.

I've not been able to establish much about Gold Lion Books, but I gather they were a London-based outfit who, so far as I can determine, operated from 1972 to 1975. Their modus operandi was reissuing American paperbacks as hardbacks: they began in 1972 by publishing Westerns from authors like W. C. Tuttle, Stetson Cody and Robert MacLeod, before branching out into crime and spy thrillers the following year with Richard S. Prather, Dan J. Marlowe and Edward S. Aarons, as well as Richard Stark. Gold Lion's approach to publishing these authors was somewhat erratic – although not atypical for the period – resulting in seemingly random instalments from the writers' various ongoing series being issued, notably Marlowe's Earl Drake novels (which have been compared to the Parker books) and Aarons's Sam Durell series.

The same fate befell Richard Stark's Parker series. To my knowledge, Gold Lion only published three of the Parkers. The 1973 photographic cover to The Split (a.k.a. The Seventh; Parker #7, 1966) you can see up top, but the other two Stark novels Gold Lion published that year were Parkers #10 and 12, i.e. The Green Eagle Score (1967) and The Sour Lemon Score (1969). And those sported illustrated dustjackets, which look like this:

I can't tell you who the illustrators were on these – Jamie Sturgeon, who kindly gave me permission to reproduce the covers from his Flickr stream, scanned a fellow collector's copies, but he didn't believe the art was credited anyway – but they're not bad at all (I particularly like The Sour Lemon Score one). However, all three Gold Lion editions are extremely hard to come by: AbeBooks does currently have at least one of each of them listed worldwide, but most are on sale for around £150 each, with the single copy of The Green Eagle Score on AbeBooks going for over £300. (I did once see a copy sell on eBay for just under £100, but even that was too rich for my blood.)

Suffice to say, then, that the Gold Lion editions of these three Parker novels are pretty bloody scarce, and pretty bloody pricey. But thanks to the aforementioned Mr. Sturgeon, at least their little-seen covers are now freely available on Existential Ennui (and The Violent World of Parker) for us all to gaze upon...*

Next up: a review of a Len Deighton novel set in the aftermath of World War II... except, this is a WWII that finished rather earlier than the actual conflict...

Update 6/8/16: Five years on, that very same Mr. Sturgeon sold me those very same copies...