Friday 2 March 2012

Notes from the Small Press 12: The Sky in Stereo, by Mardou; Mini-Comic Review

The last time I posted one of these Notes from the Small Press mini-comics missives, way back in October of last year, I remarked that it had been a while since the previous one. The gap in that case was six months, so the five-month gap between this post and October's isn't quite so bad... but clearly I must do better in future. Smack on back of hand with ruler. (Ouch!)

There's also the danger with this latest Notes that I could be opening myself up to charges of favouritism, or possibly even stalking, because the comic I'm reviewing this time, The Sky in Stereo, is by a cartoonist who's already featured twice in the series: British ex-pat (she now lives in the States) Mardou. In my defence, however, I do have an excellent reason for returning to her (again) – actually, two excellent reasons: this newly published mini-comic contains some of her best work yet; and it's set in a time and a place that's very familiar to me.

The time, or rather the year, is 1993, and the place is Manchester in the north of England, where, from 1989 to 1992, I lived and, at least in theory, studied; since I was a fine art student and it was the height of Madchester, not an awful lot of work got done. I'd left the city by '93, but the Manchester of The Sky in Stereo is recognisably the one I drank and danced and occasionally painted in – not so much in terms of drawings of well-known Manchester landmarks – aside from a cityscape on the title page, there are few of those in the comic, although the sequences set in beer-stained student nightclub The Ritz brought a smile to my face – but more the tone of the piece.

There's no real plot to speak of; evidently partly autobiographical, the comic follows Iris, a seventeen year old native of Manchester working a succession of dreary service industry jobs, going out to rubbish clubs, getting stoned once in a while, still hurting from the end of a recent relationship, and generally over-examining every aspect of her life. In other words, an angst-ridden teen just like I, and maybe you, used to be. After quitting her job at a clothes shop, Iris takes a position at a burger bar at the train station instead, in large part because she'll be working alongside Glen Hibbs, "poet, punk rocker, fry master". The two become close, and then Glen gets into smack and matters take a turn for the dark.

That's about the gist of the story – this first chapter of it, anyway; The Sky in Stereo is part of a longer work – but a straight recital of events really doesn't do justice to the comic. The beguiling artistry of The Sky in Stereo lies in Mardou's captivating command of character and mood, of her detailing of the disappointments, minor triumphs and minutiae of everyday life in a humdrum northern town. The cast is convincing and believable, the dialogue is naturalistic, and Mardou's cartooning has reached a level of confidence – similar to that of Gabrielle Bell's – where a few deft lines and a scattering of words can effortlessly conjure up an authentic sense of place, skewer with admirable frankness and clear-sightedness an emotional encounter, or depict a moment of supreme silliness that will make you laugh in recognition.

It's an evocative, beautifully drawn comic which should, in a just world, bring Mardou to a much wider audience, and you can order it direct from Mardou's Etsy store, currently with free shipping in the States (and not that much for the rest of the world). I can't recommend it highly enough. And if you're interested in exploring Mardou's work further, follow the links to the third and fourth instalments of Notes from the Small Press below, or check out her LiveJournal page or the Global Hobo store.

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

Notes from the Small Press 11: a Review of Illegal Batman in the Moon

Thursday 1 March 2012

Westlake Score: Comeback, by Richard Stark (Robert Hale, 2001)

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

Before we get into this latest Westlake Score, I'd just like to say a big thank you to Adam Newell for his excellent guest post on Roald Dahl's little-known first novel, Some Time Never... and shake a friendly fist at him as well: as a direct result of his post I ended up splurging on a British first edition of the book (under its slightly different title Sometime Never). Still, it's me birthday soon. Call it an early birthday present (er, to myself).

So, to business. And as we've repeatedly established over the years I've been blogging about the Donald E. Westlake/Richard Stark first-and-other editions I buy and collect, Westlake Scores comes in many shapes, sizes and levels of desirability. Some, like my most recent one (prior to this latest one, that is), are really quite special. Others, like this one, are nothing special at all. But most fall somewhere in-between those two poles, and that's probably where this newest Score resides:

It's the UK hardback first edition of Comeback, published by Robert Hale in 2001. The seventeenth Parker novel, Comeback is of course also the first book in the second run of Parkers, and arrived twenty-three years after the preceding novel in the series, 1974's Butcher's Moon. Or rather, it did so in the States: Comeback was published in 1997 over there; it took another four years for a British publisher – Hale, in case your attention span has degraded to the same level as mine – to acquire the rights to it and the subsequent Parkers.

Now, in many ways, there's nothing special about this edition of Comeback at all. It was, as I say, published a good long while after the Mysterious Press American edition – so long, indeed, that I actually bought a US first back in 2010 because the gap in publication really bothered me – an aversion I've since, evidently, come to terms with. Moreover, like all of the Parker novels Hale published, its dustjacket sports an illustration on the front by an artist – Derek Colligan – who is something of an acquired taste (although I must admit his style has grown on me). And furthermore, when this copy popped up on eBay recently, I was the only bidder.

Taking that last point alone, you might reasonably surmise that there's little, if any, demand for this edition. But in fact like most of the Hale editions of the Parker novels, Comeback has become really rather scarce. There's currently just one copy of the Hale first on AbeBooks, priced at over seventy quid, and a further four copies on Amazon Marketplace, the cheapest of those being £34. It's a similar story with others of the six Parker novels Hale published – either that or the only available copies are public library re-binds. (I've conjectured previously that the the bulk of the print runs of the Stark and Westlake books Hale published went to libraries, and the available evidence certainly seems to bear that out.) So while the Hale edition of Comeback may have lagged behind the Mysterious Press one, it's a damn sight rarer than its US cousin (there are umpteen copies of the Mysterious Press first for sale online).

Fascinating stuff, I'm sure you'll agree (ahem), but what about the novel itself? Well, funnily enough, Comeback will be the next Parker novel I'll be reviewing in my ongoing Parker Progress Report trawl through the series, so look out for that soon. Next up on Existential Ennui, though: Notes from the Small Press...

Tuesday 28 February 2012

Guest Post: Roald Dahl's First Novel, Some Time Never (Sometime Never), by Adam Newell

Right then. Time for another guest post. And having played host previously to Paul Simpson and Michael Barber, for this latest guest post I'm turning Existential Ennui over to Adam Newell, a friend and former colleague of mine from Titan Books. Adam has been a book collector a lot longer than I have, and has probably forgotten more about bibliophiliacal matters than I'll ever learn. He's turned up something very interesting indeed for this essay, so without further ado, take it away, Adam...

Some Time Never: a Novel You’ve Never Heard of, by an Author You Most Certainly Have

by Adam Newell

This author is perhaps not an obvious fit for the usual preoccupations of this esteemed blog – though he wrote the screenplay to a Bond movie (You Only Live Twice), so he counts as a spy/thriller writer, and his short stories certainly feature the odd crime, perhaps most memorably murder with a frozen leg of lamb – but this post is about a SF novel (well, kind of) and will, I hope, interest book collectors, so here goes…

These days Roald Dahl is known by all as a children’s author, and remembered by many for his ‘adult’ fiction, the dark, twisted short stories published in various collections over the years, many of which were famously adapted for TV as the Tales of the Unexpected. Particular fans of the latter will perhaps have tracked down what its current synopsis on Amazon describes as Dahl’s first-ever novel: My Uncle Oswald, a ribald romp from 1979, which acts as a feature-length prequel for the titular character, dubbed ‘the greatest fornicator of all time’, introduced in two previous short stories (‘The Visitor’ and ‘Bitch’ from the collection Switch Bitch). It’s great fun, but doesn’t read like Dahl was making a serious attempt to write ‘a novel’; it comes across more like a short story that outgrew its wordcount, as indeed it was: he later admitted that his original commission, a request from Playboy for a new Oswald tale, “refused to stop” and grew into a book.

The thing is (and now we’re finally getting to the point of this post), My Uncle Oswald is not Dahl’s ‘first-ever novel’. That distinction belongs to a book called Some Time Never, published by Scribners in the US in 1948, with a UK edition (confusingly titled Sometime Never) from Collins the following year. It has never been reprinted. You’ll search in vain for a mention of it on Its Wikipedia entry doesn’t tell you much. Copies are hard to come by: of the mere dozen or so examples on ABE at present, you’ll have to pay well into three figures for one with a decent dustjacket, and the UK edition appears to be really scarce, with only two copies currently for sale (it’s entirely possible that the print run for that edition was only in the hundreds). Even a reading copy will cost you a few notes, and that’s what I finally managed to snap up a while back: a jacketless ex-library copy of the UK edition, for £20, which I bought the day it was listed on ABE, thanks to my wants list alert. I’d been wanting to read this apparently ‘suppressed’ work by one of my favourite writers for years!

So what’s it all about? I’ll let the flap copy from the US edition sum it up, as it actually tells pretty much the whole plot in précis:

Some Time Never is a blend of superbly written realism and outrageous fantasy, with an almost Swiftian quality in its savage wit and subtle humor.

It is the story of the hitherto little-known Gremlins. It is moreover a piercing commentary on Man and the qualities in Man which are leading him to his destruction.

The Gremlins were the original rulers of the earth in ages past, but with the advent of Man and the spread of his obnoxious activities to every part of the globe, the Gremlins were forced underground to a subterranean network of tunnels. Out for revenge and for the restoration of their former dominant position in the world’s affairs, the Gremlins bent every effort to plotting Man’s annihilation.

During the Battle of Britain these odd and menacing creatures began an offensive against pilots in an effort to hasten the eradication of the human race. From the experiences of three Royal Air Force pilots, Stuffy, Peternip and Progboot, we get an appalling picture of Gremlin activities, and through the eyes of the Gremlins themselves we get a portrait of Man that is far from flattering.

After the Battle of Britain the Gremlins became convinced that Man would effect his own self-destruction without any help from them – so they ceased their ingenious offensive and retired underground to wait. The atom bomb appeared, more devastating weapons followed, World War III took a terrible toll the world over and finally World War IV finished the job. The Gremlins emerged from their underground tunnels and took over world in which all human life and all works of Man had been destroyed.

The theme of this book is a serious one. Mr Dahl’s implications are the most serious a writer could suggest. Ironic and witty, Some Time Never will amuse you, even give you you a few hearty laughs – but it will also make you think.

As someone who’s written a few blurbs myself (it’s part of the day job), I can tell you that the above is a valiant attempt to summarize/’sell to a general readership’ a book that vehemently resists such things. Which isn’t to say it’s a bad book – far from it.

By 1948 Dahl had already had two books published: 1943 saw The Gremlins, an illustrated children’s story, and his first collection of adult short stories, Over to You: 10 stories of flyers and flying came out in 1946. Some Time Never is in some ways a combined offshoot of both: taking the whimsical characters of the former and putting them into the adult style of the latter. (The story of The Gremlins book, and the ultimately abandoned Walt Disney movie version of it, need not detain us here, but thanks to the scene-setting Introduction in Dark Horse’s still in print 2006 edition of that previously impossible-to-find-for-less-than-$300 book, it is now easily accessible.)

So why is Some Time Never out print? Why has it seemingly been airbrushed from the Dahl timeline? Does it hang together as a novel? No, in all honesty, it doesn’t. This is a young writer writing his ‘important first novel’ and he’s trying really hard, but it doesn’t entirely work. Mind you, his chosen theme is about as big as you can get: the destruction of mankind in a nuclear holocaust. Dahl started writing the book in 1946, and even in 1948 it was still one of the first (possibly the first?) novels published post-Hiroshima to address that looming possibility. There is some very powerful writing though, especially in the chapter after the bomb has hit London. Stuffy survives the initial blast, and emerges from a tube station to wander the ruined streets in a daze:

He walked around a double-decker bus which was standing upright in the middle of the road, and as he went past it he saw through the open glassless windows that the bus was full of people, all sitting in their places, silent, immobile, as though they were waiting for the bus to start again. But their faces were scorched and seared and half-melted and all of them had had their hats blown off their heads so that they sat there bald-headed, scorch-skinned, grotesque, but very upright in their seats. Up in front, the black-faced driver was still sitting with his hands resting on the wheel, looking straight in front of him though the empty sockets of his eyes.

It’s a long way from the BFG doing a whizzpopper in front of the Queen, isn’t it?

And yet, the book also deals in fascinated detail with the green bowler hat-wearing Gremlins and their love of snozzberries (a fruit later revived for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), so it’s still very much proto-Dahl.

At the risk of making this already long post stupidly long, I won’t attempt more lit crit here, though I will agree with Donald Sturrock (whose excellent authorised biography of Dahl, Storyteller, covers the novel in commendable detail) that Some Time Never is “extraordinary, undervalued and visionary”.
Its author evidently thought otherwise. Writing the “bastard book” was a long and wearing process, and though Dahl had high hopes for it, Scribner’s respected editor Maxwell Perkins (who had discovered Hemingway and Fitzgerald) died before he’d had a chance to read it, it didn’t get any illustrations (Dahl had wanted Mervyn Peake), the reviews were lukewarm and the sales were negligible. Sturrock recounts how Dahl refused a publisher’s request to print a paperback edition after his later success: “Why in God’s world anybody should want to paperback that ghastly book I don’t know.” He later told a fan who’d written asking where she could get a copy that “It’s not worth reading.”

I’d have to disagree with Mr Dahl: it’s well worth tracking down. It’s a shame that it will probably never be reprinted, but then why would the massive Dahl industry machine bother with bringing back a flawed, untypical and adult novel just to potentially sell a few thousand copies, and get a few eyebrow-raised reviews in the broadsheets, especially if Dahl himself had ended up being embarrassed by it? Better to protect the brand. That’s perfectly understandable, but still a shame. What’s more, Sturrock’s biography reveals the existence of several unpublished short stories in the author’s files, and indeed the manuscript of something called Fifty Thousand Frogskins, a novel that Dahl wrote directly after Some Time Never, which never got properly published at all…

(UPDATE 5/3/11: As a direct consequence of Adam's guest post, I ended up buying a copy of the Collins first of Sometime Never, and you can read about – and see – that copy right here.)

Monday 27 February 2012

An Ill-Tempered Announcement About Commenting, and Some Links and Plugs

Let's get the ill-tempered announcement part of this post out of the way first, and then we can move on to more pleasant matters.

If you've tried to leave a comment on Existential Ennui recently – an unlikely scenario, I know, but indulge me – you might have noticed that there's now an additional step to negotiate: word recognition, or "captcha", to use the common parlance. This is the process whereby you have to retype in a little box at the bottom of the comment panel the randomly generated – and partly nonsensical – words which you can see in another box just above that one, to "prove you're not a robot", as Blogger puts it. Slightly offensive to robots (some of my best friends... etc., etc.), but there you have it.

I've enabled this feature because a gradually increasing number of spam comments have been making it through Blogger's spam filters and onto Existential Ennui itself, culminating in a massive spam attack a week ago, when over 500 spam comments went straight through to the blog. As you can probably imagine, that was incredibly fucking annoying, and if I ever get the opportunity to royally fuck with the witless cretins responsible – I'm looking at you, Coach Factory Outlet Online, Coach Outlet Online Store and Louis Vuitton Outlet UK (and please don't Google these cocksuckers and contribute to their worthless hits) – then I will grasp that opportunity with both hands and gleefully fuck them in their eye sockets.

Until that joyful day arrives, we're all stuck with word recognition on commenting. I hope you'll understand why I've had to introduce it, and why I may yet have to go even further and introduce comment approval, too; even with captcha enabled, the odd spam comment is still making it through the spam guards. Hopefully it won't come to that, but we'll see how we get on. Either way, please don't let it put you off commenting.

That tiresome piece of business out of the way, I thought I'd take the opportunity to throw a few Marvel Bullpen-style links and plugs your way, beginning, naturally, with a link to something I wrote:

ITEM! If you'll cast your mind(s) back to January, you'll recall that I ran a series of posts on Desmond Cory and his Johnny Fedora spy thrillers, during the course of which I reviewed Cory's 1962 mini-masterpiece Undertow. Well, seeing as Mike Ripley's Top Notch Thrillers imprint reissued Undertow late last year, that review can now be found – in an altered and quite possibly improved form – on the website of Shots Magazine, one of the UK's longest-running and most respected crime fiction publications. It's my first review for Shots, so go have a read and see what you think.

ITEM! Back in December of last year I mentioned that Ethan Iverson's brilliant Do the Math website had linked Existential Ennui, something I was dead chuffed about because Do the Math's overview of Donald E. Westlake had been instrumental in helping me navigate Westlake's Byzantine backlist. Well Ethan's been at it again, and now has a page dedicated to the work of another author who's a firm favourite round these parts: Ross Thomas. It's a lengthy article, but Ethan's in-depth, detailed research and insight into each of Thomas's novels – including the Oliver Bleeck ones – make it an essay deserving of your undivided attention.

ITEM! The sixth issue of my pal Martin Eden's splendid gay superhero team comic, Spandex – which I've blogged about before – is out now, and can be ordered here. This issue is especially noteworthy because it also comes with three free mini-comics featuring some of the more minor characters from the series, produced in collaboration with different artists – the Cherry Blossom Girl mini in particular, with art by T'sao Wei, is rather fine. Titan Books will be publishing a collection of Spandex in May, so I'll be returning to Mr. Eden and his cast of colourful characters then, but in the lead up to the pub date, Martin is blogging about various aspects of Spandex on the Titan website, so check back there for updates.

ITEM! Talented Lewes-based book cover designer Neil Gower – who I've mentioned once or twice previously, and whose splendid work is simpatico with the ideals of this similarly Lewes-based blog – popped up on BBC Breakfast the other week, being interviewed as part of a piece on teenagers designing new covers for William Golding's Lord of the Flies. Neil puts in a fleeting appearance towards the end of the item, but it's worth a look because it affords a glimpse into both his working methods – very much traditional as opposed to digital – and his studio. And I'll have more on Mr. Gower soon...

ITEM! British cartoonist John Bagnall posted a short but interesting piece on a twentieth century British artist I'd never encountered before: Algernon Newton. Newton's largely people-free landscapes and cityscapes are, to my mind, curiously appealing, and I'll certainly be exploring his work further. John's blog continues to be a great source of inspirational artwork, both other folk's and his own; I'd urge you to bookmark it if you haven't already.

ITEM! Lastly, if you've any interest in books as physical objects, doubtless you'll have seen this much-shared Flavorwire post showcasing beautiful bookshops (which provoked a caustic response from secondhand book dealer Rick Gekoski on the Guardian website). But what you might not have noticed is that Flavorwire has since followed it up with a post on beautiful personal libraries (link via The Spectator), which is perhaps even more envy-inducing. I do fear for the spines of some of the books in the featured libraries, though: a number of them appear to be shelved in direct sunlight, so I can foresee some severe spine fading occurring – unlike the books in my own "library":

which are largely hidden from the sun's rays; recent house guest Sammy the cat admiring my shaded shelves, there.

Anyway, enough of the linkage: what can you look forward to on Existential Ennui in the not-too-distant future? Well, later this week there'll hopefully be a Westlake Score and a Notes from the Small Press, and the week after that will see the return of two firm friends – of each other that is; they're more passing acquaintances of Existential Ennui's – Kim Philby and Graham Greene. And looking further ahead, in the tradition of previous Existential Ennui chats with Anthony Price and Jeff Lindsay, I have a couple more exclusive interviews lined up for you. Before all that, though, let's have a guest post, courtesy of a good friend of mine – and an occasional commenter – Adam Newell, on a little-known Roald Dahl novel...