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I’ve decided to stop reviewing books in 2017. I don’t mean entirely; I’ll still write a review if I feel I have something relevant to say, if a book is really wonderful or really awful or if I think it does something particularly unique. But I’ve wasted too much time over the past few years on my own obsession with box-ticking, with reviewing every book I read even if I don’t have any insights worth sharing. I’ll probably still scribble a few thoughts in shortform on my Goodreads account, if you don’t already follow me there.
Anyway, here are the ten best books I read in 2016 – not counting re-reads, specifically my Re-reading Discworld series, which would have filled up quite a bit of it.
10. The Possessors
“Come out, Mandy. You think it’s cold out here, but it isn’t.”
Sometimes you don’t want a Booker Prize winner with fifteen pages of broadsheet accolades on the inside cover. Sometimes you don’t want gorgeous prose and beautiful metaphors and intricately structured symbolism. Sometimes you just want a classic sci-fi monster story to read late at night with a storm howling at the window. The Possessors is vintage John Christopher, a group of stuffy middle class English tourists trapped after a snowstorm in a remote Swiss chalet who have the singular misfortune of stumbling across a body-possessing alien intelligence, and find themselves falling to it one by one. Sure, we’ve seen this before in The Thing and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but what’s not to love? Books like these are the equivalent of a halal snack pack: you shouldn’t have one for dinner every night, but when it’s what you’re craving it can be pretty damn good.
Further reading: RIP John Christopher, Unsung Young Adult Sci-Fi Writer
9. Black Light Express
Far off, where the sea met the sky, a light the colour of nothing at all reflected very faintly off the clouds.
The sequel to Philip Reeve’s enormously enjoyable futuristic space opera Railhead, Black Light Express sees him in Star Trek mode as Zen and Nova explore an entirely different galaxy full of bizarre aliens and beautiful new planets. Back home in the Network Empire, trouble is brewing, and before long Zen and Nova aren’t the only humans forced to flee into uncharted space. Reeve paints his galactic canvas with gay abandon, and it’s all the little things that add up to make him a great writer: the cinematic setpieces, the concise and subtle descriptions of characters’ feelings, and his uncanny skill of ending chapters with just the right turn of phrase to generate narrative frisson. It continues to bemuse me that he’s not more well-known; he’s certainly one of Britain’s finest YA novelists.
“We have reason to believe that your property may potentially be an important site.”
Not really a comic or a graphic novel so much as an intriguing thought experiment that plays out across a book-length work. There is no story, there are no characters; there is simply a room. There is simply here. The place never changes, but we see the room of an ordinary house over millions of years of existence – including long before it is built and long after it is destroyed – jumbled, out-of-order glimpses of the thousands of minor and major interactions, both human and animal, playing out across thousands of years. It makes you reassess the idea of your own living room as a humdrum, ordinary space. Here is a unique and fascinating work of art.
7. House of Suns
“You are a bookworm, tunnelling through the pages of history.”
Humans can’t really grasp the immensity of space and time, but Alastair Reynolds does a very good job of trying. House of Suns puts us in the minds of near-immortals travelling around a human colonised galaxy, watching empires rise and fall like lilypads blooming on a pond. This is a space opera on relativistic time: where lifetimes can pass in a single paragraph, where a spaceship chase near the climax takes three thousand years, where a character can refer to an empire that controlled thousands of star systems and lasted millions of years as “fifteen minutes of fame.” It’s a testament to his skill how rapidly the reader adjusts to this new world. Beyond that, House of Suns is a great book because it’s just deeply, deeply engrossing – the kind of book that makes you miss your stop on the train.
Further reading: An interview with Alastair Reynolds about House of Suns
6. The Peripheral
So now, in her day, he said, they were headed into androgenic, systemic, multiplex, seriously bad shit, like she sort of already knew, figured everybody did, except for people who still said it wasn’t happening, and those people were mostly expecting the Second Coming anyway.
The Peripheral, like many of Gibson’s works, is a familiar plot-driven genre vehicle with predictable strokes and a deus ex machina ending. He can be forgiven all that because it’s such a richly detailed world – or two worlds, rather, one in rural America in the near future and one in London in the far future, hinging on the time travel connection and transfer of data between the two. Both of these worlds are equally engaging: a run-down, decrepit, barely-getting-by America that’s seen better days, and a glitzy high-tech London built on the ruinous foundations and catastrophes of the 21st century, a world where the haves are doing great and the have-nots have pretty much died out. Gibson once again weaves his magic with the subtle inclusion of small details and an unforgiving determination to rarely hold the reader’s hand.
Further reading: Ned Beauman interviews William Gibson about The Peripheral
At 1654 we heard a long, crackling rumble from the north. I knew that this was the sound of the Soviet weapons detonating over Washington, two hundred miles away.
I remember that a big crowd had gathered, and the local volunteer fire department soon arrived.
We haven’t thought about them much over the past twenty-five years, but all those thousands of nuclear warheads are still there, still patiently waiting to go off. Warday explores not a full-blown nuclear war, but rather a limited strike of only a handful of warheads on US cities… which nonetheless triggers total economic collapse, a balkanisation of the United States, terrible famine and a new world order. This is what a single submarine-load of nuclear weapons could wreak, Streiber says, so now imagine what a full-scale exchange would look like. Warday is very much a product of the Cold War and in some ways it can feel quite dated; but given that a man with the ego and emotional capacity of a toddler is about to take control of America’s nuclear codes, Warday is perhaps more relevant than ever.
The possibilities, Jeff knew, were endless.
It’s a thought I’ve had often enough: what if I suddenly woke up in my own body ten or twenty years ago, with all my memories intact? How much would I remember about sporting events for gambling purposes? Do I try to stop 9/11? How would I cope with missing the people in my life that I wouldn’t meet for another ten years? Replay lives that fantasy (or nightmare) out as Jeff Winston finds himself, over and over again, dying of a heart attack at the age of 42 and waking up as an 18-year-old in his college dorm. It’s a hugely compelling and enjoyable paperback potboiler that feels like a lost entry from Stephen King’s early writing career.
Further reading: Jo Walton revisits Replay
“Didn’t do a bad job with the boys either,” he said. “Seeing to them. I should’ve said that before.”
There are awkward beats in Truth, to be sure; places where Peter Temple’s primary calling as a crime writer shines through a bit too strong, places where he feels compelled to insert a gunfight or some other cliche. But none of that is what comes to mind when I remember this book. What I remember is a novel that hangs on a genre framework, but also powerfully rises above it. Truth is an atmospheric police procedural set during a sweltering summer week in Melbourne, as the smoke of hellish bushfires hangs over the city, as Detective Chief Inspector Stephen Villani tries to cling to the last few shreds of his personal life. It’s an examination of Australian masculinity, a masterclass in laconic Australian vernacular, and a very deserving winner of the Miles Franklin Award.
Further reading: An interview with Peter Temple
2. HMS Surprise
On and on she sailed, in warmer seas but void, as though they alone had survived Deucalion’s flood; as though all land had vanished from the earth; and once again the ship’s routine dislocated time and temporal reality so that this progress was an endless dream, even a circular dream, contained within an unbroken horizon and punctuated only by the sound of guns thundering daily in preparation for an enemy whose real existence it was impossible to conceive.
The third novel in the immense Aubrey-Maturin series, and the one for me where Patrick O’Brien really hits his stride. It’s an epic in miniature, a voyage across the world to Brazil, India and Malaya, the characters we’ve come to know taking their first steps beyond the familiar world of Europe. O’Brien’s prose is so complex, so 19th century in its mannerisms and stylings, that I have to admit it sometimes goes over my head; I would not actually be able to offer you a proper plot synopsis of HMS Surprise, a book which I have decided is the second-best one I read all year, which frankly seems odd. Yet somehow that doesn’t seem to matter with Patrick O’Brien. What I remember is his deeply vivid imagery, and the dozens of scenes that still stick in my head from this book: the loss of the poor, lovesick crewman on a rock in the middle of the Atlantic; the funeral pyre at the edge of the water in India; Stephen’s duel, and the surgery he performs on himself to extract a bullet from the edge of his beating heart; the sad, lonely death of the reverend on a nameless tropical island somewhere in Malaya; Stephen’s heartbroken trek up the side of a volcano in the Canaries to lie in a shadow gutter of snow. This whole series is really one enormous meta-novel, but HMS Surprise is the most strikingly beautiful part of it so far.
Further reading: Philip Reeve on why he loves the Aubrey-Maturin series
1. Megahex & Megg and Mogg in Amsterdam
“That’s not funny. That’s just depressing.”
This is two books, but along with their outrigger zines, online home at Vice, and various scribblings floating around on Tumblr,these comics by Australian artist Simon Hanselmann are the best thing I’ve read in years. A witch, her cat, a man-sized owl and a werewolf: some of the most disgusting, depraved and depressing characters you will see put to print, floating through a pointless life of ennui in a suburban wasteland that’s not quite America and not quite Australia, setting constant new lows in their inhuman treatment of each other. With its slow, agonising build-ups, pitch perfect timing and characters’ ridiculous facial expressions, Megg, Mogg & Owl is probably the funniest comic I’ve ever read.
And that would be enough: a really hilarious and creative stoner comedy that made me literally laugh out loud multiple times would be great, and it would certainly be on this list. The reason it’s #1 is because Hanselmann consistently, subtly pushes the narrative beyond its expected template, creating moments which are unexpectedly moving. The ending of Megahex in particular, as Owl closes his eyes and imagines himself flying free amongst the fireworks, escaping his terrible life, was surprisingly cathartic. Using the words “tackling” or “addressing”makes it sound like an after-school PSA, as though things like drug use abuse and depression and loneliness are solvable hurdles on the road to a happy existence, rather than, for some people, indelible elements of their lives. Maybe the best word is “illustrates;” Hanselmann draws on his own life experience to illustrate depressing, drug-addled, abusive relationships, using anthropomorphic fantasy characters in an endlessly hilarious way.
Megahex by Simon Hanselmann (2014) 211 p.
“Meg, Mogg and Owl” sets a pretty close record for me for the shortest amount of time between discovering an online comic, reading as much of it as I could find, and then buying the book and reading all of that. It’s been floating around on the internet for a few years, on Tumblr and VICE and so on, but Megahex collects a few dozen of Simon Hanselmann’s more polished earlier works into a single hardback volume.
Based on the characters from an innocuous 1970s British children’s cartoon, “Meg, Mogg and Owl” re-imagines them as deadbeat drug addicts slouching around a sharehouse and getting into various revolting hijinks. The heart of the series, for me, is Owl: the most responsible of the friends, still a stoner and a deadbeat, but someone who at least manages to hold down a full-time job and tries to keep the house clean. In return, his friends consider him a stupid nerd and mercilessly torment him.
Lots of this goes into some pretty dark and horrible territory, and this is most definitely not a comic for everyone. A litmus test of whether or not you’ll find MMO compelling or just sick is the comic “Boston Clanger” (not part of Megahex) which neatly encompasses all the main dynamics at play in the broader series: Owl’s abuse at the hands of his friends, the gross-out comedy, but also the more subtle levels of characterisation and comedic timing. Because the funniest part of “Boston Clanger” – go read it now if you haven’t already – is not Werewolf Jones and his children messily shitting on Owl’s bed, as funny as that is. It’s the following twenty-four panels in which Owl is left to painstakingly mop up their mess, singing the Frasier theme song to himself as he goes through the kitchen cabinets for cleaning products, scrubs his floor, hoses his blanket off against the back fence, etc. It’s horribly pathetic and sympathetic at the same time and it absolutely cracked me up.
I completely get that some people would just be turned off by this, or don’t have a sense of humour dark enough to find the torment of others funny, or – even among people who do – would find the cumulative effect of Owl’s personal hell a bit too much. That’s fine. But oddly enough, the more MMO I read, the more sympathetic I find the characters and the more comfortable I feel with it. Meg and Mogg do actually care about Owl, but seem oblivious to how awful their treatment of him is. Owl himself is no saint. Even Werewolf Jones, whirlwind of disgusting chaos that he is, has a core of wretched neediness alongside his malice.
Part of what makes it easy to enjoy humour this disturbing is that it’s rendered in the form of children’s cartoons – a witch, a cat, an owl, a werewolf. Hanselmann has said in interviews that many of his comics are based on real life, on experiences he had with friends and housemates growing up in Hobart and Melbourne. I doubt it would appeal to me as much if I were reading the awful adventures of actual human beings, but Owl – an inherently risible figure, a ludicrous bird man – yeah, sure, I can laugh at him all day.
Which is not to say that Megahex is nothing but button-pushing comedy; I’ve weirdly come to actually care about the characters, and the final comic in the book is surprisingly affecting. Like I said, it’s not for everyone, but if you can stomach it then it’s something wonderful and unique.
Sleepwalk and Other Stories by Adrian Tomine (1998) 102 p.
Fuck me dead, Adrian Tomine was a depressed young man. Sleepwalk is his first published collection, put out when he was just 24 and collecting material from his early black and white comics. It clocks in at just over 100 pages but it took me a couple weeks to get through it because virtually every story is has the bleakness and melancholy dialled up to 11. Break-ups, deaths, divorces and violent assaults punctuate a world in which the overriding theme is one of a complete failure to connect with other human beings; a pervasive sense of loneliness and depression in which all relationships are fleeting and the gulfs between individuals are ultimately unbridgeable.
Stand-outs (I can’t bring myself to call them “highlights”) include “Layover,” about a man who misses a flight and spends the day until the next one mooching about his hometown, feeling awkward about going back to his housemate or his girlfriend, wondering if anybody’s really going to miss him; “Supermarket,” about the forced interaction between a blind customer and a grocery clerk who shops for him; and “Drop,” a one-page comic about a man falling from a high road in Japan. (Interestingly, this was one where I thought I picked up a hidden layer of meaning; the narrator is describing the death of his father, who “accidentally” fell from the road; but since the father was alone at the time, how could the son know what happened? Is it perhaps an explanation he’s made up for himself to avoid the idea that his father committed suicide?)
It feels a bit unfair to criticise the stories here for being bleak, since Killing and Dying isn’t a barrel of fun either; but Killing and Dying manages a lighter touch, a sense of humour, a sense of hope, while Sleepwalk is full of the angst we all remember and love from our teens and early twenties. The constant use of a narratorial voiceover bothered me as well; Tomine hadn’t yet learned to let his art speak for itself. It’s a good collection, but clearly the work of a younger man.
Hicksville by Dylan Horrocks (1998) 248 p.
I’ve never been a fan of superheroes, which means in turn that I’ve never been a fan of comics, even though I like the art form. (It’s a pain in the ass to find acclaimed comics that don’t feature superheroes, although this Goodreads list is quite helpful.) Hicksville isn’t a superhero story, but it is a meta-work about superhero comics, following a journalist trying to trace the origin of a hugely successful cartoonist by travelling to his hometown of Hicksville in an obscure corner of New Zealand; an odd little place where everybody is obsessed with comics.
I can’t remember the last time I cracked out the Field of Dreams analogy, but it goes like this: you will never understand the love that certain people (always Americans or Canadians) have for the Kevin Costner film Field of Dreams unless you grew up playing baseball and have a deep and overwhelming sense of nostalgia about it. Hicksville works much the same way. I can see how a comics tragic would adore it. As an outsider I can look at it, and respect it, and didn’t feel it was a waste of my time; but I could easily tell that I wasn’t the target audience.
Here by Richard McGuire (2015) 304 p.
I recently moved into my own apartment for the first time, a one bedroom place in a two-storey complex at the edge of St Kilda Junction. St Kilda is one of those inner city Melbourne neighbourhoods currently in a state of flux, as developers buy up properties, demolish them, and build a new tower as high as they can under the council regulations, to the very edge of the property line, full of as many rabbit warren apartments as they can to flog off to Chinese buyers or our own home-grown all-Aussie negative-gearing baby boomer caste. There are no less than two huge, loud construction sites outside my bedroom window.
My building is from the 1950s. It occurred to me the other day that I will probably be one of the last people to live here; I give this place another ten years before a developer tears it down and throws up something fifty storeys high (which, before I start sounding like a writer for the Age, is exactly what should exist in a location like this). But how many people have lived here before me? How many families, couples, young single professionals?
Even if the building itself goes, this space will endure. People will still live in this same air, whatever kind of building surrounds it, just as the indigenous Kulin people lived here for tens of thousands of years before us. It’s just a patch of ground, but those generations stack up. In the tiny space of my living room, how many human stories have played out over tens of thousands of years? How many arguments, insults, first kisses, agreements, fistfights, break-ups, deaths, murders?
Richard McGuire’s graphic novel Here takes place entirely within a single room in a house somewhere in the north-eastern Unites States. The setting is static, but it ranges enormously over time, from the primordial swampland of 3 billion BC to the far future of the year 22,000, when strange new megafauna roam across a tropical landscape. Most of Here focuses on the 20th and early 21st century, when the house exists, and we see a parade of those seemingly banal events that make up a life: children playing, people dancing, lost keys, parties, family photos, sickness, birth, death, and the whole gamut of life.
None of this is chronological (McGuire apparently considered having the publication process jumbled, so that every reader would have a unique book with a different progression) and neither are the years separated. Different panels show different events unfolding in different years; a woman scrubbing the floor on all fours in 1986 is juxtaposed against a wolf in a forest with a fresh kill in its jaws in 1430. A woman reads on a couch in 1999 while a pair of Native Americans make love on the forest floor in 1609. A man practices his golf putting in 1958 while people in radiation suits inspect a desolate landscape in the 24th century.
There are no distinct narratives to follow; no names, no families we can trace through the house as they grow and pass on. The constant cutting and chopping and the blurry, pop-art nature of the illustration make this impossible, and in any case this wasn’t McGuire’s intention. “Graphic novel” isn’t the right word for Here; neither is “comic,” not that I’m prejudiced against the word. Here is a creative work unlike anything else I’ve ever seen; a wholly original and fascinating concept executed beautifully. What seems at first an amusing gimmick develops into a meditation on space and time, the indifference of the planet, and the impermanence not just of our own lives but the human species as a whole. Here is one of the most unique things I’ve read in years.
Killing and Dying by Adrian Tomine (2015) 121 p.
Adrian Tomine wasn’t a name I knew before I heard of this acclaimed comic collection, although I quickly recognised his drawing style: he’s one of the most regular cover artists for The New Yorker, and has a distinctive style of understated, pastel, almost motionless scenes which manage to capture those small, revealing moments in life. (My favourite is probably the central one here.)
Killing and Dying takes six of Tomine’s short comics and puts them in a collection that’s sad, funny, and surprisingly moving. Tomine has lived in New York for more than ten years, but nearly all of Killing and Dying is set in the drab California landscape of his youth, a perfectly rendered place of quiet suburbs, freeways, and cheap apartment buildings. (I love the cover: that bleak little Denny’s squatting at the edge of an intersection beneath a smoggy urban sunset.) If there’s one word to describe Tomine’s stories, it’s “subtle.” Comics are of course an excellent medium for subtlety, with all the unspoken details the artist can leave in the background, but Tomine is particularly good at it. The title story, “Killing and Dying,” is about a nervous teenage girl who decides she wants to try stand-up comedy, and her parents’ differing reactions to this – until about halfway through, when you suddenly realise it was a different kind of story all along.
The only problem I have with Killing and Dying is a problem I have with most of the comics and graphic novels I read, which is that it’s far too short. But it’s a beautiful book – both for its stories and as a physical hardback – and well worth your time.
Saga Vol. 1 by Brian K. Vaughan (2012) 160 p.
This is the first collected edition of Brian K. Vaughan’s space opera comic Saga, gathering issues 1-6. The story begins as star-crossed lovers Marko and Alana, both deserters from opposite sides of an interstellar war, are holed up in a garage on a planet called Cleave, with Alana heavily pregnant and about to give birth. Volume One covers the misadventures of the couple and their baby as they attempt to escape the planet, pursued by military forces and bounty hunters.
Saga is heavily inspired by Star Wars; this is space opera as fantasy rather than science fiction, and Vaughan goes a step further than Lucas by openly involving magic. It’s also a heavily weird comic, in a weird why-the-hell-not way rather than the more mythic, deadly serious weirdness of something like Brandom Graham’s Prophet. Within the pages of Saga you’ll find a forest that grows rocket ships, a sort of deadly women/spider centaur, the ghost of a girl who dresses and speaks like a ‘90s SoCal teenager, a seahorse-like alien who acts as a Hollywood-style “agent” for various violent bounty hunters, soldiers who ride pegasuses (pegasi?) for some reason, and sex scenes between robots with TV monitors for heads (characters who are, I hope, inspired by Evan Dahm’s The One Electronic in Rice Boy). Whether or not you like Saga depends largely on how happy you are to embrace this sort of madcap, tongue-in-cheek creativity, and whether you think it strikes the right balance between playfulness and gravitas. Personally I was okay with it, but we’ll see how future volumes go.
The pacing is solid. You can tell that this is the beginning of what Vaughan hopes will be a long story, and Saga is an apt title for a work like this. The story has an omniscient narration by the couple’s infant daughter Hazel, who looks back on their struggles from a future vantage point, Wonder Days style, which I think works well. Opening the story with Hazel’s birth was absolutely the right moment to do so, throwing the reader into a family’s life-or-death struggle against a hostile universe from the exact moment they properly became a family, and I like the idea that Saga could chart a character’s entire life in this crazy universe from birth to death.
Saga is not precisely the kind of epic science fiction story I’d like to read – I’d probably prefer something a little more serious – but I still liked it quite a bit, and I’ll keep reading it. Volume One is a solid opening to what I hope develops further and becomes a classic sprawling space opera.
Maus by Art Spiegelman (1991) 296 p.
Alongside Alan Moore’s Watchmen, Art Spiegelman’s Maus is one of the most renowned graphic novels of all time, and one of the first examples usually cited when people say the genre is capable of being Real Literature. Subtitled “A Survivor’s Tale,” Maus is a true account of Spiegelman’s father’s experience as a Polish Jew sent to Auschwitz during the Holocaust. The book’s only unrealistic quirk is to portray the various races and nationalities as animals – Jews are mice, Germans are cats, Poles are pigs and so on.
Given the amount of acclaim the book has receieved – it won the Pulitzer Prize, the only comic book ever to have done so – I knew I’d read it eventually, but was reluctant to do so. The reason for this is because I’m sort of burned out on the Holocaust. I know it was a terrible, awful thing, and that we must never forget it, but I’m at a point in my life where I’m not really interested in hearing any more about it.
I found Maus to be an excellent book nonetheless, not because of how it deals with the Holocaust, or even because I like graphic novels, but rather because of the way Spiegelman chose to present the story. It is not a simple, straightforward account of his father’s experience. Rather, it’s presented as a meta-narrative, with a mouse-version of the author visiting his father in Queens, interviewing him about his experiences. It also deals with the results of the book’s success, since it was originally serialised – in the second half we see a world-weary Spiegelman sitting at his drawing board, which is teetering atop a pile of Jewish corpses.
The most important effect of this story-within-a-story is that we see Spiegelman’s father from his own eyes, presented as the man he truly is. And that man is, despite being a Holocaust survivor, an asshole. He treats his wife like a slave, rarely gives his son any respect or recognition, is an almost perfect caricature of a stingy Jew, and – ironically – is racist towards blacks. Spiegelman clearly has little patience with him, finds him difficult to deal with, and tries to avoid spending time with him apart from interviewing him for the book. He feels guilty about it, and guilty about having an easy life after what his parents went through, but none of that guilt is enough to cancel out the generally negative feelings he has towards his father.
This is the crux of the book – a Holocaust survivor’s story does not end with liberation by American troops. It’s something they carry with them for the rest of their lives, and something that goes on to affect everyone around them. Some of Vladek Spiegelman’s flaws are doubtless a result of his time in the camps – his stinginess, for example, and his obsession with never letting food go to waste, stem from a time when he had to fight for every tiny thing he had. At one point he draws his son a diagram of the hiding place they constructed in Poland in the early years of the war, saying “It’s good to know exacty how was it… just in case.” His son seems to take this as being for the comic, but I got the heartbreaking impression that perhaps, in the back of his mind, Vladek never felt wholly safe again after the war.
But other flaws of Vladek’s are certainly just a part of his nature, and serve as an example that just as not all Germans were bad, not all Holocaust victims were good, either. “It wasn’t the best who survived, nor did the best ones dies,” Spiegelman’s shrink (a fellow Holocaust survivor) tells him. “It was random!” At another point, a reporter asks Spiegelman to “tell our viewers what message you want them to get from your book?” Spiegelman replies, “A message? I dunno… I never thought of trying to reduce it to a message. I mean, I wasn’t trying to convince anybody of anything.”
The scenes in Maus between Spiegelman and his father were, for my money, the best parts of the book. The Holocaust scenes mostly failed to move me, as most Holocaust scenes do. I think I’ve been desensitised. Is it perhaps wise to tell young children about it? I recall it being part of the curriculum in primary school. They showed us photos of mass graves and everything. I don’t think it’s too intense for young minds to handle – quite the opposite, in fact. I couldn’t quite grasp the seriousness of it at that age, and then it’s part of so many books and films that you just sort of grow up with it, and now I’m 23 years old and perfectly aware of what happened… and yet it’s such an immoveable fixture of the 20th century, such a solid part of history, that it fails to move me to the extent it should. I don’t believe that I’ve ever sat down and thought about it and been horrified that it happened – and I don’t believe I’m capable of doing so, either. (What does disturb me is something that only occurred to me recently, while I was actually in Germany, or perhaps when I watched “The Reader” – the fact that a whole nation willingly and consciously allowed it to happen.)
This feeling is also touched upon in Maus, actually. Spiegelman’s shrink says “Look at how many books have already been written about the Holocaust. What’s the point? People haven’t changed… maybe they need a newer, bigger Holocaust.”
Spiegelman, when writing Maus, didn’t just set out to re-tell his father’s story. Doing so was irrevocably wound up with the story about his own relationship with his father. Maus is largely a book about the Holocaust, but it’s also a story about living with a difficult father, about being greatly impacted by something one never experienced, about guilt and anger and love and how they can mix up with each other. Maus is a much, much stronger book than it would have been if Spiegelman had made it purely about his father’s experiences – but then, I doubt that was even an option.
I’m not going to compare it to Watchmen, because I’ve never seen a clearer example of apples and oranges. But suffice to say that, like Watchmen, Maus is absolute proof that comics can be great literature.
Amulet: The Stonekeeper by Kazu Kibuishi (2008) 187 p.
I’m well aware that Amulet is aimed at children, but I adore Kazu Kibuishi’s Copper comics, and love his covers for the Flight anthologies, and I read a review somewhere that compared Amulet to the works of Miyazaki, which was all I needed to hear to shell out ten bucks. Amulet: The Stonekeeper is the first graphic novel in a series, which follows the adventures of a young girl as she and her brother are drawn into a fantasy world after moving to a house in the country following the death of their father.
Comparing it to a Miyazaki film is a bit generous, but it’s certainly good kid’s adventure story, with monsters and alternate worlds and quirky little robot characters. Kibuishi indulges in his passion for awesome vehicles, and the final image in the book is particularly neat. It’s a fairly simple story but strong on art, and I’m sure I would have enjoyed it a lot more if I was nine years old. As it was I was still pretty happy with it; I mean, it only took me about half an hour to read all 187 pages. (I finished this more than a week ago, just forgot to actually post the review.)
It did seem a little dark and gloomy, though, compared to his bright and airy Copper comics. They spend a lot of time underground, and even when they emerge it’s into a rain-soaked pine forest.
Anyway, I thought this was a pleasant enough children’s tale; I won’t rush out to buy the sequels, but I can definitely recommend it to kids and parents.
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Volume II by Alan Moore (2004) 224 p.
Volume II of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen has the advantage that all such sequels have, namely that it begins with the team already assembled and can jump direcly into a story. This volume opens on Mars, where various imagined inhabitants are fighting for control of the red planet, and the first chapter ends with the “molluscs” being routed, and invading Earth – beginning with a space capsule landing at Woking, Surrey.
And so Volume II is largely a retelling of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, with the disparate League being tasked with defending England from a Martian invasion. Moore continues to inject his universe with fictional characters drawn from the collective imagination of mankind, often with a diabolical twist – one particular appearance, in issue five, was simultaneously horrifying and hilarious.
Moore has more space to explore the characters in this issue, and Hyde in particular is more well-developed, yet on the whole I still felt like both characters and plot were far too fleeting. Perhaps it’s one of the constraints of the comic book’s short format, or perhaps it’s Moore’s own fault. I had a similar problem with Watchmen, which despite being magnificent, had only a few truly grand characters; Rorschach, Ozymandias and Dr. Manhattan dominated that novel, while Nite Owl and the Silk Spectre felt stunted. Similarly, the two main characters in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen – Allan Quatermain and Mina Murray – feel less developed than Hyde and to a lesser extent Griffin (whose betrayal seems forced in simply for the sake of it).
The appendix of Volume I contained a pulp fiction short story featuring Allan Quatermain, which I felt was tedious and not worth mentioning in my review, but the appendix for Volume II features a more intriguing “Traveller’s Alamanac” to the fictional world of the League. Since it is populated by fictional characters, it is likewise a world cobbled together from the vast work of human mythology and fiction. This turned out to be rather less interesting than I thought it would be. While Moore draws from sources ranging from The Odyssey to House of Leaves, the simple equation of history means that the vast majority of fictional realms are drawn from works at least several centuries old, and sometimes dating back to antiquity. And so the reader is typically drawn across a series of islands and archipelagos dreamt up as a simple fantasy or allegory by writers and poets of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and unless the reader happens to be an English Literature major, they’re unlikely to recognise most of the references. A sampling:
“We find an island called Lanternland by some, where great Demosthenes burned midnight oil, and putting in to shore upon my command upon its soil saw men to glow-worms turn: each Lord and Lady dressed with glass and gem that caught the shine of wanton candleflame. Jewelled crest and diamond hem, blazing they pass, no two the same, their radiance divine.
“Not far away an oracle is found: a bottle in a crypt upon an isle where did sweet Bacchus make a vineyard grow. The bottle speaketh with a crackling sound, and I did like its augurs not at all. We sailed south, past the Lotus-eater’s land of yellow sand and endless afternoon. A fellow there his care will soon forget in fragrant blooms, where hides worse slavery yet. Ogygia too we passed and left behind, where fair Calypso walked in violet meads, and so we came to find instead a place, a curious atoll by an island near…”
And so on. Moore’s breadth of literary knowledge is astonishing – he appears to not only be aware of the entire human canon, but to have actually read it all – but crafting as fictional traveller’s guide in which the reader is strung from brief description to brief description is not a valuable use of this knowledge. I actually had trouble finishing the appendices in both volumes, and it made me suspect that without the visual aid of the graphic novel, Moore would not be a particularly good writer.
But then, one can’t review a graphic novel and not fairly take into balance its visual aspect, and Volume II is marvellous, with some lovingly detailed scenes of chaos and terror as Martian tripods stalk the land. Incidentally, Steven Spielberg would appear to have closely copied Kevin O’Neill’s visual interpretation of the Martian tripods for his 2005 film. (Also, was it just me, or is the scene where Hyde tears open the casing of a fallen tripod and tells the Martian inside “Welcome to England!” a direct homage to Will Smith’s “Welcome to Earth!” in Independence Day?)
Despite its flaws, Volume II is still a good read, and more entertaining than Volume I – though I suspect this is simply because The War of the Worlds is a timeless classic, and a better story than the fairly generic outing Moore came up with for Volume I. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is a solid set of graphic novels, but still doesn’t even begin to compare to Moore’s magnum opus, Watchmen.