Friday 4 May 2012

Westlake Score: I Gave At the Office by Donald E. Westlake (Hodder & Stoughton, 1972); Review; Friday Forgotten Book

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

Much as I suspected I might, and in spite of only sporadic internet access, I've decided to dive into another series of posts, which will all be on books of a journalistic or media-related bent. I can't promise when or how often these posts will appear, but I imagine they'll take the best part of a fortnight to get through, so bear with me if there is, as there is almost certain to be, the odd gap here and there. And we'll begin with a Violent World of Parker cross-post, and a Westlake Score...

This is the 1972 Hodder & Stoughton British first edition hardback of Donald E. Westlake's I Gave At the Office – with what looks like a creased photo of DEW himself on the front of the (design uncredited) dustjacket – originally published in the States by Simon & Schuster in 1971. I found this copy in the fine secondhand book emporium Tindley & Chapman on London's Cecil Court, hidden away in the labyrinthine basement, and was quite excited to come across it: the Westlake novels that Hodder published in hardback in the UK in the early 1970s – the Dortmunders novels The Hot Rock, Bank Shot and Jimmy the Kid, plus some standalones – are pretty scarce, and this, along with the similarly uncommon Jimmy the Kid, is one of the scarcest: there's currently only one copy on AbeBooks.

I Gave At the Office is one of a handful of Westlake novels which deal in some way with the media – see also Trust Me on This (1988) and that book's sequel, Baby, Would I Lie? (1994) – but it also centres on an abiding Westlake preoccupation: island nations or small states which are threatened by revolution. The narrator is Jay Fisher, a self-confessed "radio man" at the Network, a New York-based media outlet. Jay gets mixed up with two ne'er-do-wells named Bob Grantham and Arnold Kuklyn, who have an idea for a TV documentary about gun-running to the Caribbean nation of Ilha Pombo, but once the show gets the green light Jay finds himself shuttling about the country to largely fruitless assignations with supposed gun-runners while Bob and Arnold run up a tab at the Network's expense.

It's not what you'd call prime Westlake – Jay is unconvincingly idiotic, and the plot, with its intentional cul-de-sacs, is frustratingly elliptical – but it is interesting for its experimental approach: the narrative takes the form of transcripts of Jay's taped confession, interspersed with interviews with the various players. Each chapter ends mid-sentence, as Jay tries – and fails – to work out when the tape will end, a conceit which, in truth, starts off cute, but becomes a bit annoying by the end – a summation which in turn probably neatly encapsulates the book as a whole. That said, there's a certain amount of fun to be had here, especially in the shape of Bob, who's forever necking Jay's booze ("Mind if I build myself another?"), and Linda, Jay's increasingly odd girlfriend, whom Jay spends much of the book attempting – and once again failing – to bed, and who harbours a not terribly well disguised ulterior motive.

I'm hoping to return to Westlake later in this run of media posts, but next, a collection of columns by a British journalist famed, like the fictional Bob Grantham, for his epic boozing...

Patti Nase Abbott has her regular round-up of this week's Friday Forgotten Books here.

Thursday 3 May 2012

Graphic Novel Review: Spandex: Fast and Hard, by Martin Eden (Titan Books, 2012)

As Jayne Mansfield once sagely noted, "A 41-inch bust and a lot of perseverance will get you more than a cup of coffee – a lot more." Now, I can't speak to Martin Eden's chest measurement (although I suspect 41 inches might be pushing it), but I can certainly vouch for his perseverance. In the ten-plus years I've been friends with him, Martin has been tirelessly plugging away at creating and self-publishing his own mini-comics, chiefly his superhero soap opera The O Men. He's never been short of critical plaudits, and The O Men is surely one of the most successful British small press comics ever published, but that success never quite translated to mainstream acceptance.

That all changed late in 2009, when Martin created a new mini-comic series, Spandex, featuring what was touted as the world's first gay superhero team. The story was picked up by national newspapers and sales of the comic quickly outstripped those of The O Men – and now Titan Books have collected the first three issues in a fetching hardcover, published this month.

The first thing to note is how much more striking Martin's artwork is at the hardcover's larger size (US comic size, as opposed to the original A5). When he began working on Spandex he largely eschewed the extensive crosshatching he'd deployed on The O Men (something I'd been urging him to do, although I've no idea if that had any influence), with the result that, enlarged, his clear linework and simple, vibrant colouring looks spectacular. Though his influences lean towards mainstream superhero fare and manga, his artwork actually has more in common with British small press originators like Phil Elliott and Paul Grist.

There are similarities with Elliott and Grist (and Ed Pinsent, Eddie Campbell, John Bagnall, Glenn Dakin, etc.) in the choice of locale and storytelling, too. Spandex live in a recognizable Brighton (where else would a British gay superhero team be based?), and while the comic is ostensibly a superhero saga, Martin's more interested in the relationships between the team-members – who spend a sizable proportion of the story hopping in and out of bed with one another (and with their nemeses) – than he is in bouts of fisticuffs. There are those too, of course, notably an extended, thrilling sequence which sees Spandex pitted against an army of pink ninjas, but the charm of the comic comes in its quieter moments – the team's "off-duty" home lives, their intimate exchanges, irreverent conversations, catty squabbles and fleeting, sometimes furtive glances.

As with the aforementioned Elliott et al, there's a very British, quirky, small press sensibility at work in Spandex: Fast and Hard, evident right from the off when Brighton is attacked by a 50 feet-tall lesbian. It's difficult to imagine such a gloriously daft opening being conceived anywhere other than the UK, but in the context of the history of the small press scene in this country, it makes perfect sense: it's precisely the kind of absurdist scenario you'd expect to find in a British mini-comic.

But beyond that, beyond the brilliantly simple idea of a gay superhero team, beyond the deft characterization (each member of the team is colour-coded, but also possessed of their own individual personality, with team leader Liberty being particularly well-defined), culturally specific references, jokes and fight scenes, what makes Spandex: Fast and Hard work is its emotional core. As with all of Martin's work, there's an intimacy to the piece, born of his personal thoughts and fears and concerns, something he explores more explicitly in a handwritten note at the back of the book. As he says:

Whether you're gay or straight, sometimes the pressures of day-to-day life can take their toll. This story deals with that (if you read between the lines a bit), and beyond the 'gay zombies' and hermaphroditic villain of this issue, it is a very personal story to me.

That Martin's stories are personal to him is true of all of his comics, of course; but it's kind of fitting that the work which will finally see his cup runneth over with coffee is the one that perhaps best represents the real him – both as a comics creator, and as a person. 

Martin will be signing copies of Spandex: Fast and Hard at Forbidden Planet in London on Thursday 24 May at 6pm. He'll also be signing at Dave's Comics in Brighton, date and time TBC.

Tuesday 1 May 2012

Coming Soon on Existential Ennui...

I'm back. Hang out the bunting, begin the ticker tape parade, etc. etc. – but don't go getting too excited just yet, because blogging will, for the moment, remain intermittent on Existential Ennui: there are still a fair number of matters to deal with at the new house, the most pertinent of which being the internet connection – or lack thereof. As a consequence, my posting on this 'ere blog – and on The Violent World of Parker blog for that matter – will likely remain sporadic for the foreseeable future, which in turn means that it's unlikely I'll be getting stuck into any series of posts – of which there are a number in the works – any time soon, lest they, out of necessity, tail off partway through.

That said, I may yet throw caution to the wind and dive into a series anyway, not least because some of the runs of posts I have planned promise to be pretty bloody special indeed, and may even, if I do say so myself, having the makings of greatness about them. So to get us back into the swing of things, I thought I'd preview some of those forthcoming delights, accompanied, as is traditional, by a selection of teaser images, which you can see scattered about this post. Some of these topics and authors, I realise, I almost certainly teased in my last "coming soon" post – and indeed the one before that – which only goes to demonstrate how long these things gestate in my fevered brain; but the majority I'm unveiling here for the first time.

In no particular order, then – other than the order in which they'll probably appear, that is – coming soon on Existential Ennui... there'll be a series of posts on journalism and media-related books – both fiction and non-fiction, and featuring Donald E. Westlake, Jeffrey Bernard, Tom Wolfe and Michael Frayn; a series on books which begat perhaps more famous films; a run of posts on what the aforementioned Donald Westlake made of cult crime fiction author Peter Rabe's work; yet more signed editions (some absolute stonkers there); a handful of intriguing omnibus editions; and of course further additions to my Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s gallery.

On top of that, there'll be posts on Patricia Highsmith, Kingsley Amis, P. M. Hubbard, Desmond Cory, Peter Cheyney, Dennis Wheatley, Jeff Lindsay, Michael Dibdin, Michael Gilbert, Brian Cleeve, Charles Willeford, Victor Canning, Eric Ambler, Edward S. Aarons, Francis Clifford, Mike Ripley, Peter O'Donnell, Nevil Shute, Sapper, and, no doubt, many more besides.

But before all that, next I'll have a review of a brand new graphic novel, one which is due to be published this very month, and was written and drawn by a very good friend of mine...