Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Titan Comics Graphic Novel Roundup: The Absence by Martin Stiff, It Came! by Dan Boultwood, and More (2013 / 2014)

I like to keep apprised of what my erstwhile compatriots at comics, magazine and books publisher Titan are up to, and fortunately they assist me in this eavesdropping endeavour by occasionally sending me stuff like this:

A load of hardback graphic novels from their Titan Comics line. Of course Titan have always published graphic novels – it's what the company's built on (along with the Forbidden Planet shops – well, some of them), and indeed overseeing the graphic novels published by Titan Books was my job when I worked there – but the Titan Comics line is a relatively new initiative (it launched last summer), a mixture of new material published as comic books through comic book stores and then collected as graphic novels, and classic comics brought back into print in graphic novel form.

Two of the books in this selection – Jack Katz's '70s underground comix classic The First Kingdom and the Dave Elliott-edited anthology Monster Massacre – have been out since September, so I shan't dally on them here except to note that the former is utterly barking – deranged, hyper-detailed art deployed in the service of a virtually unreadable fantasy/SF story – and the latter is for the most part utterly ordinary; the only standout for me was Dave Dorman's Hitch story "Monkey Business", a part-painted/part-scrawled mash-up of post-apocalyptic zombie/biker/Wizard of Oz weirdness.

The other three books are all due out within the next month, and for my money the pick of the bunch is Martin Stiff's The Absence – and not merely because Martin is a friend (and colleague; by day he's a talented book designer). As Martin notes in the endmatter, The Absence originally saw light as a six-issue self-published miniseries, which is how I encountered it (he sent me copies – one of them signed, no less); it's a dense, complicated, post-Second World War-set story about a disfigured exile who returns to the coastal English village that cast him out, done in a style that's like a cross between Eddie Campbell circa Bacchus and a 1990s Caliber comic. There's all manner of murky agendas at play, as well as a soupcon of the sinister and the supernatural plus a healthy dose of unnecessary swearing. A "Director's Commentary" is available at the FPI blog, but I wouldn't recommend reading much of it before reading the graphic novel (it's quite spoilery).

Dan Boultwood's It Came! and Stuart Jennett's Chronos Commandos: Dawn Patrol again respectively collect comics series, but in both cases the series were originally published by Titan last year. I must admit that Jennett's furious mix of war comic and dinosaur romp didn't do an awful lot for me, but I rather liked Boultwood's riff on '50s Brit sci-fi flicks. The constant comedy "by crikeys" and "bloody noras" become a bit wearisome, but there are some subtler touches – like the just-visible thread suspending the flying saucer – and Boultwood's monochrome animation-style artwork is easy on the eye. Nice bonus material too, especially the adverts and trailers before "our feature presentation".

Thursday, 20 February 2014

High-Rise by J. G. Ballard: First Edition, First Paperback Edition, Book Review, Thoughts on Ben Wheatley's Film Adaptation

NB: Linked in this week's Friday's Forgotten Books.

When news broke a couple of weeks ago that British film director Ben Wheatley would begin filming an adaptation of J. G. Ballard's High-Rise in June with Tom Hiddleston as his lead, I was prompted to finally pick up and read this:

The British first edition (and first impression) of High-Rise, published in hardback by Jonathan Cape in 1975, dust jacket design by Craig Dodd (who would go on to design the wrapper for the 1979 Cape edition of Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff, and who earlier designed the wrapper for the 1969 Hodder edition of Richard Stark's The Dame). I bought this copy early last year in Wax Factor in Brighton – a secondhand record shop which also stocks a good selection of secondhand books – for a pretty good price – a fraction of what first editions ordinarily go for (upwards of £100). The jacket is a little worn and stained, and the book was evidently owned by a smoker and, I'd hazard, drinker who apparently nodded off whilst reading it:

but cigarette burns on the pages and stains on the wrapper are kind of in keeping with the nature of the novel, which centres on a 40-storey tower block which becomes gradually more dilapidated as the story unfolds, strewn with rubbish, fag butts, faeces and eventually bodies. And those defects aside, the book is in pretty good nick, although not in as good nick as this:

The British first paperback edition, published by Triad/Panther in 1977, cover art by Chris Foss. I blogged about this copy back in 2010, noting its relative scarcity, and it hasn't become any less scarce since: there are at present no copies on AbeBooks, and just a single copy on Amazon Marketplace (I think; it's often hard to tell which edition sellers are offering on Amazon Marketplace, but there's a paperback copy priced at £8.99 which I believe is the 1977 Panther paperback).

The only Ben Wheatley film I've seen is Kill List (2011), but even on that meagre evidence I can well imagine what he'll do with High-Rise. Ballard's tale of middle class residents of a tower block surrendering to their base desires seems tailor made for the director, especially if he remains reasonably faithful to the book. The way in which the novel's triumvirate of Dr Robert Laing (25th floor, and Hiddleston's character), Richard Wilder (2nd floor) and Anthony Royal (40th floor, and the building's architect) – along with the rest of the high-rise's residents – shun the world outside their walls and follow their curious internal logic to their ultimate debasement in a way reflects the horrific descent into degradation by Jay (Neil Maskell) in Kill List, although the three protagonists' cool detachment and the state of strangely beatific squalor they achieve is uniquely Ballardian (see also Concrete Island, and I'm sure others too). It's an arresting read, and in Wheatley's hands should make for an intriguing film.

Friday, 14 February 2014

Donald E. Westlake Non-Fiction Anthology The Getaway Car (University of Chicago Press, 2014): Table of Contents and More Details Revealed

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

With Violent World of Parker proprietor Trent currently otherwise engaged – literally – it falls to me to provide an update on the Donald E. Westlake non-fiction anthology Trent and I blogged about back in April of last year. Edited by University of Chicago Press' Levi Stahl, and due for publication by UCP in September, the anthology has now gained both a title and a sub-title: The Getaway Car: A Donald Westlake Nonfiction Miscellany. The full table of contents is available to view on the UCP site, but Levi has kindly agreed for it to be reproduced on VWoP and Existential Ennui:


Foreword by Lawrence Block
Editor’s Introduction

1 My Second Life: Fragments from an Autobiography

2 Donald E. Westlake, a.k.a. . . .
Hearing Voices in My Head: Tucker Coe, Timothy J. Culver, Richard Stark and Donald E. Westlake
Living with a Mystery Writer, by Abby Adams
Writers on Writing: A Pseudonym Returns From an Alter-Ego Trip, With New Tales to Tell

3 So Tell Me about This Job We’re Gonna Pull: On Genre
The Hardboiled Dicks
Introduction to Murderous Schemes
Introduction to The Best American Mystery Stories, 2000
Don’t Call Us, We’ll Call You

4 Ten Most Wanted: Ten Favorite Mystery Books
5 Returning to the Scene of the Crime: On His Own Work
Introduction to Levine
Tangled Webs for Sale: Best Offer
Introduction to Kahawa
Letter to Howard B. Gotlieb, Boston University Libraries

6 Lunch Break: May’s Famous Tuna Casserole

7 The Other Guys in the String: Peers, Favorites, and Influences
Lawrence Block: First Sighting
On Peter Rabe
Playing Politics with a Master of Dialogue: On George V. Higgins
On Rex Stout
Introduction to Jack Ritchie’s A New Leaf and Other Stories
Foreword to Thurber on Crime
Introduction to Charles Willeford’s The Way We Die Now
On Stephen Frears
John D. MacDonald: A Remembrance

8 Coffee Break: Letter to Ray Broekel

9 Anything You Say May Be Used against You: Interviews
An Inside Look at Donald Westlake, by Albert Nussbaum, 81332-132
The Worst Happens: From an Interview by Patrick McGilligan

10 Midnight Snack: Gustatory Notes from All Over

11 Side Jobs: Prison Breaks, Movie Mobsters, and Radio Comedy
Love Stuff, Cops-and-Robbers Style
Send In the Goons

12 Signed Confessions: Letters
To Judy ?
To Peter Gruber
To James Hale
To Stephen and Tabitha King
To Brian Garfield
To David Ramus
To Pam Vesey
To Gary Salt
To Henry Morrison
To Jon L. Breen

13 Jobs Never Pulled: Title Ideas
Crime Titles
Comic Crime Titles

14 Death Row (Or, The Happily Ever Afterlife): Letter to Ralph L. Woods

Name Index

I must say it all looks fascinating: I've read (and written about) Westlake essays like "Don't Call Us, We'll Call You", "Peter Rabe" and "Break-Out" before, but there are plenty more besides I haven't read; I'm especially keen to take a look at the autobiography fragments and the personal letters Levi (and his glamorous assistant Ethan Iverson) dug out of Westlake's files. I'm also intrigued to read Levi's introduction and Lawrence Block's foreword, a single sentence from the latter of which is previewed at the UCP site, along with a quote from Hard Case Crime's Charles Ardai and some more info about the book. Go take a gander.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Westlake Score: Nobody's Perfect by Donald E. Westlake (Hodder, 1978); Dortmunder Daze

NB: This post also appears at The Violent World of Parker. Linked in this week's Friday's Forgotten Books.

This next Westlake Score is again a 1970s British Hodder & Stoughton first edition of a Donald E. Westlake crime caper, again bearing a Mark Wilkinson-designed dust jacket, which I've again added to the Existential Ennui British Thriller Book Cover Design of the 1970s and 1980s page, alongside Wilkinson's wrapper for A New York Dance.

Published by Hodder in 1978 – the year after the Evans first edition, which I blogged about briefly in 2010Nobody's Perfect is the fourth novel in Westlake's comedic crime series starring hard luck heister John Dortmunder and his inept crew, and, to my mind, thus far the least successful. In his two-part essay on thrillers the academic and critic John Fraser labels Westlake's capers "terminally unfunny" (Fraser has a lot more time for Westlake's pseudonymous Parker novels), and I must admit four books into the Dortmunder series I'm beginning to have some sympathy for his position. (Mind you, Fraser also called W. Somerset Maugham's sublime Ashenden, or, The British Agent "dreary", so his word certainly shouldn't be taken as gospel.) The only Dortmunder I've found really amusing so far is the second one, Bank Shot; the other three have barely raised a smile.

But while the debut Dortmunder, The Hot Rock, had novelty going for it (it is, after all, the first book in the series) and the third outing, Jimmy the Kid, was divertingly meta (especially for Parker fans it features a Parker novel-within-the-novel, Child Heist), Nobody's Perfect suffers from over-familiarity. Going in there's the expectation that Dortmunder and co.'s theft of a painting (to aid the owner's insurance scam) will somehow go wrong, and sure enough it does. Which would be fine if the laughs were forthcoming... only they're not, no matter how many comedy Scotsmen Westlake throws at the thing.

Ethan Iverson, in his peerless, indispensable overview of Westlake's oeuvre, "A Storyteller That Got the Details Right", reckons that as of the next book, Why Me?, "the franchise really starts to settle down", and "the team consistently act like experienced pros". I hope Ethan's right, because in the absence of any giggles, for me the Dortmunder books are going to have to stand or fall on those old stalwarts, character and story. And on the evidence of Nobody's Perfect, there's plenty of room for improvement on both counts.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Westlake Score: A New York Dance (alias Dancing Aztecs) by Donald E. Westlake (Hodder, 1979)

NB: a version of this post also appears at The Violent World of Parker. Linked in this week's Friday's Forgotten Books.

It's been a little quiet over at The Violent World of Parker blog of late, at least half of the blame for which rests with me: I am, after all, supposed to be (esteemed) co-blogger over there. Fortunately I have a small pile of Westlake Scores waiting to be blogged about, at the top of which is this:

A New York Dance by Donald E. Westlake, published in hardback in the UK by Hodder & Stoughton in 1979 under a dust jacket illustrated by Mark Wilkinson, who I believe is this Mark Wilkinson, best known for his Marillion record sleeves. As such, his wrapper for A New York Dance must represent a fairly early piece of professional work.

I imagine A New York Dance will be an unfamiliar title to most Westlake fans, especially American ones, who will better know it under its original US title of Dancing Aztecs. It took me to a while to fall in too; back in 2010 I scored a 1976 Evans first edition of Dancing Aztecs:

with its Joel Schick-designed dust jacket (which, for the bibliophiles among us, was trimmed too short on the first edition, meaning that the grey boards can be seen top and bottom), stating that I didn't think it had ever been published in the UK. It was only much later that I realised Hodder had retitled the novel for the British market, something the publisher already had form with with Westlake's work: witness their paperback division's retitling of his Parker novels (written, of course, under the pen name Richard Stark) The Man with the Getaway Face, The Score and The Handle as, respectively, The Steel Hit, Killtown and Run Lethal.

Mind you, Westlake wasn't the only American mystery writer to have his work retitled by Hodder; his near-contemporary, Ross Thomas, had a couple of his novels retitled by the British publisher – his debut, The Cold War Swap, which became Spy in the Vodka (for a short while, anyway), and one of his pseudonymous Oliver Bleeck books, The Procane Chronicle, which became The Thief Who Painted Sunlight. And much later in Westlake's career another British publisher, Robert Hale, did some titular tinkering: The Hook became The Corkscrew, and The Ax gained an 'e'.

As to why I decided to acquire a Hodder first of A New York Dance when I already owned an Evans first of Dancing Aztecs, well, I think most people reading this will be familiar with my feeble justifications by now, so take your pick from:

a) A New York Dance popped up on eBay and it was cheap
b) the Hodder first is pretty scarce (only a handful of copies available online)
c) it gives me something to cross-post on The Violent World of Parker
d) I can add the cover to the Existential Ennui British Thriller Book Cover Design of the 1970s and 1980s page (and have now done so)
e) all of the above, plus I'm demented.

And all of those apply to the next Westlake Score too – another Hodder edition which I already owned – and have already blogged about – in US first, and which again sports a Mark Wilkinson wrapper.

Monday, 3 February 2014

First Editions of Eric Ambler's Passage of Arms and The Light of Day (Heinemann, 1959 / 1962)

To round off what's become a short run of posts on Eric Ambler – see these posts on the 1964 Ambler-compiled To Catch a Spy anthology and the 1965 anthology of three of Ambler's novels, Intrigue – I thought I might show off a couple of Ambler first editions I've acquired – in both cases from secondhand bookshops on London's Cecil Court.

Published in hardback in the UK in 1959 by Heinemann under a striking but sadly uncredited dust jacket, Passage of Arms hails from roughly the midpoint of Ambler's career and is, according to The London Review of Books' Thomas Jones writing in The Guardian, "the last of Ambler's books about a naive, good-hearted man getting out of his depth by doing the wrong thing with good intentions". There's an enthusiastic review over at Booksquawk and a rather less enthusiastic one at Mystery*File.

This Heinemann first came from Cecil Court's Tindley & Chapman, or more accurately the basement thereof, which for me has frequently afforded keenly priced gems, such as a highly scarce Hodder first of Donald E. Westlake's I Gave At the Office and American paperback firsts of Elmore Leonard's Mr. Majestyk and The Big Bounce and John D. MacDonald's A Purple Place for Dying. Indeed, so rich have been my pickings from that basement that the last time I was in the shop a few weeks ago the owner was firmly resistant to my venturing down there. His loss; I trotted up Charing Cross Road and popped into the basement of Any Amount of Books instead, where I found a James Munro first I was missing.

The other Cecil Court Ambler came from outside Peter Ellis's shop, plucked from the little bookcase fixed to the wall by the door (where I'd previously found a first of Kingsley Amis's One Fat Englishman):

A first edition of The Light of Day, published by Heinemann in 1962. The dust jacket, designed by Leslie Needham, is on the scruffy, even grubby, side, but the book only cost two quid, so I can't really complain – plus there's the bonus of a map illustration on the endpapers:

drawn by Audrey Frew. Can't beat a good endpaper map.

The folk at Mystery*File have a lot more time for this, the next book along in Ambler's backlist, as does The Rap Sheet; both those reviews make mention of the 1964 film adaptation, Topkapi and Ambler's 1967 novel Dirty Story, which also stars The Light of Day's lead, Arthur Abdel Simpson.

I've added the front covers of both The Light of Day and Passage of Arms to the Existential Ennui Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s page, the latter under 'Designer Unknown' down the bottom; as ever, if anyone can furnish me with the name of the jacket designer, I should be most grateful.

Next: a Westlake Score, no less.