My Best Friend’s Exorcism, by Grady Hendrix

29106178This is an excellent tale of teenage friendship and demonic possession. As young girls, Abby and Gretchen become fast friends. As they hit their mid teens, Gretchen begins to change, sparked by a night of youthful experimentation that goes wrong. As you might expect, it takes a while for Abby to realise that this isn’t adolescent petulance, but rather that her best friend has been possessed by a demon. Once the satanic penny finally drops, she becomes caught up in an all consuming struggle for Gretchen’s soul, aided by an unlikely troupe of Christian bodybuilders.

There’s a distinct 80s nostalgia to the settting, with all kinds of namedrops and references, only some of which meant anything this side of the Atlantic, but the intent is clear. This also has a lot of the flavour of classic 70s religious horror movies like The Exorcist and The Omen. It’s a fast moving engrossing book that kept me turning the pages. I really cared about whether or not Gretchen could be saved, and I found the portrayal of the all encompassing friendship between the girls quite moving. Other highlights of the book include a genuinely spooky phone call, a climax that is over the top in all the right ways, and a poignant final chapter. A special shout for the depiction of Charleston – Hendrix evokes a decaying swampy atmosphere that fits the narrative perfectly. This is his second novel. I’ve always been tempted by the first (Horrorstor – a novel disguised as an IKEA catalogue!), and now I’ll definitely pick it up.

Melmoth, by Dave Sim & Gerhard

198466(This review is slightly out of narrative order – to be clear, Melmoth fits between Jaka’s Story and Flight in the overall Cerebus narrative).

Throughout Jaka’s Story, Dave Sim had faced a barrage of complaints that there wasn’t enough Cerebus / action / advancement of the overall storyline / mystical woo (delete as appropriate). So, ever cognisant of the needs of his audience, he gave them twelve issues of Cerebus clutching Jaka’s doll and sitting almost catatonic outside a cafe while, up the hill, Oscar Wilde is slowly and painfully dying. That’s it. There are cameos for passing characters from Church & State while Cerebus is occasionally dusted, but Oscar’s death is the focus of this one. It’s told in the same text panel and image style as the “Daughter Of Palnu” extracts in Jaka’s Story, using actual letters from Robert Ross and Reginald Turner describing the last days of the real Oscar Wilde. The mood of the book is stately and sombre. It is a study of a man on the edge of the abyss, unflinching without being graphic or voyeuristic. As you might expect, it is dark and disturbing, with all the emotional heft a serious consideration of the subject deserves. That’s not to say there is no light relief. Mick and Keef are back for a few pages, and the Roach’s latest incarnation as normalroach is an hilarious study in repressed anger, but you won’t be closing this one with many chuckles.

Given that this story takes us up to the exact halfway point of the saga, it’s easy to draw comparisons with what we know about Cerebus’ death, which at this point Dave had been promising for several years would occur in the very last issue. In his final days, Oscar is far from alone, unmourned and unloved. A great deal of the emotional power of the book is in the sadness and confusion of Robbie and Reggie, and their helplessness in the face of the inevitable. With the text taken from other sources, Dave can concentrate on the art, which is just wonderful. The character sketches are superb, and Gerhard has upped his game even further on the backgrounds. For such a slow, small story, there is a real cinematic feel, a sense that the events on the street are being viewed through a camera which simply records what it sees, sometimes panning up and down the hill, from Dino’s Cafe to Oscar’s hotel and back. A powerful, haunting work.

This is, believe it or not, where I started reading Cerebus. Probably not the best jumping on point, but even with little knowledge of the background, the quality of the work was evident. It was autumn 1990, and I’d just started at Nottingham University. There was a basement in the Virgin Megastore with a comics concession in, and I eagerly fell on it, as exactly the sort of thing I’d been starved of growing up in the deep South West. After I’d been in a few times buying pretty much whatever DC put out with a Mature Readers tag, the bearded guy behind the counter said “you might like this”, and slipped a random issue of Jaka’s Story into my bag, explaining that the new storyline, Melmoth, was starting imminently. I read it, didn’t really understand what was going on, but liked what I saw, and started buying the monthly issues regularly. That was Mark Simpson. Over the next few years, he, and his co-worker Stephen Holland, introduced me to so many great comics. After that, Mark and Stephen went on to open Page 45, and blew me away with their vision of what a comic shop could and should be. I kept in touch once I’d left the East Midlands (Mark and Stephen both ended up coming along on my stag night), and I’ve bought my comics from them for quarter of a century now. Well, only Stephen for the last ten years or so. One night in 2005, Mark went to sleep and just didn’t wake up. As if this book wasn’t suffused enough with death, I’ll always associate it with Mark, just for that simple act of kindness (which, let’s face it, was also a pretty good business decision, as it led directly to me spending hundreds and hundreds of pounds on the rest of Cerebus). There’s a nice piece about him on the Page 45 website: http://www.page45.com/world/about/mark-simpson-1968-2005/ . Rest in peace.

My usual random observations

– Something that struck me this time is the sequence where Cerebus sees the chained Astoria in the middle of the road, and then seems to swap places with her again, as happened in C&S. This is a pivot, and it’s after this vision that he starts to (slowly!) emerge from his catatonia. It also seems to have affected things in the outside world – it’s after this, for instance, that the waitresses change, which I don’t think is otherwise explained or commented on. I’m not entirely sure what is going on with this swapping. Any ideas?

– those are some very pigeony pigeons.

– what an epilogue. After almost forty issues of Cerebus doing very little, this explosion into action kickstarts the second half. The next couple of books are Cerebus back in high gear, and it starts here.

– In the afterword, Dave talks about having to excise one of Oscar’s comments, as he could find no workable equivalent for “Jew” and didn’t want to face a deluge of mail questioning the existence of Judaism in ancient Estarcion. Just remember that when we get to Latter Days.

Flight, by Dave Sim & Gerhard

198468After three years of slow paced storylines exploring character without a tremendous amount of action, Flight virtually explodes off the page. For a short book there is an awful lot going on here. Cerebus’ bloody retribution from the Melmoth epilogue inspires a short lived uprising. The Roach becomes Punisherroach and mows down Cirinists until Elrod turns up and spoils everything. We see far more of the inner workings of Cirinism than we have before, and we learn just how obsessed Cirin herself is with planning her Ascension. Cerebus himself disappears out of the world and returns to the abstraction of Mind Game. Throughout it all the voices of anonymous townsfolk offer commentary and confusion. Cerebus’s reawakening has consequences far beyond his own person, a magnifying effect that we will learn more about in the rest of Mothers & Daughters. His return to action is mirrored in many tiny ways across Estarcion, all building the huge sense of rising action that runs through this one, until it finishes poised on the confrontation between Cirin and Astoria that slingshots us into the second part, Women.
Being only the first part of Mothers & Daughters, there’s no narrative resolution here, which makes it a bit harder to write about themes and subtext and so on, but there are a couple of things worth talking about. I’m pretty sure that part of the idea behind splitting M&D into four books was a conscious attempt to mirror the first four Cerebus storylines. It’s most explicit here in the parade of characters and settings from the first volume that reappear, but also in mood – this is the closest the series ever comes to the sword and sorcery adventures of the first book. Comparing the two shows just how far Dave’s talent has developed. The panelling is absolutely miles ahead of the first volume, and plays no small part in the freneticism of the story, and as I seem to say about every book, the art and character observation just gets better all the time. There are other little nods, like the return of the text captions narrating the action in the Pigt sections. (For the record, I reckon Women reflects High Society’s depiction of political intrigue and squabbling, Reads is an attempt at an origin story of the universe like Church & State and Minds is a sustained interrogation of one character as was Jaka’s Story. But it’s been a long time since I’ve read them…we shall see.)

My patented random observations:

This is the second time we’ve seen a depiction of Cerebus lose an ear. Hmm, I wonder if that’ll pay off in later books?

The Cirinist suppression of Cerebus’s reappearance is heartbreaking and chilling. And speaking of heartbreaking…poor Bishop Posey. At least he died happy, proving to us that the Oscar in Jaka’s Story was not the same Oscar in Melmoth.

As I said about Melmoth, this was when I was buying Cerebus issue by issue, and I can still vividly remember the thrill of realising exactly who and what Suenteus Po was. Just superb storytelling.

The Fireman, by Joe Hill

downloadWhen news broke that Joe Hill’s new book was about a disease-inspired end of the world, it was hard not to think of his dad’s epic The Stand. I dismissed that as a hopelessly lazy comparison, at least to begin with (more on this later). The Fireman is a very different book in scale and mood. Civilisation may be collapsing across the world, as populations fall prey to Dragonscale, a spore that infects its victims, paints beautiful patterns on their skin, and then causes them to combust, but this book focuses entirely on New England, and the story of school nurse Harper Grayson, pregnant and infected. It’s one small story in a global catastrophe, which keeps the stakes low but very personal. Harper’s unhinged husband (wrongly) blames her for infecting him and is bent on carrying out a suicide pact he thinks they’d agreed on. She is determined to live and bear her child, and so escapes, whereupon she falls in with a small community of infected people who may have found a way to live with Dragonscale. One of these people is the titular Fireman, a mysterious fellow with an English accent and a dirty fireman’s jacket. He is notable for being able to somehow control the Dragonscale fires, and he starts a slow burning romance with Harper. Life in the colony is peaceful and safe, but there are serpents in this particular Eden, and it won’t be long before they rear their heads. Because, let’s face it, it would otherwise be a pretty boring 700 pages, wouldn’t it?

Beyond the immediate narrative, there’s plenty to get your teeth into here.The workings of the disease are not unlike social media, with strong parallels with the behaviour of Twitter mobs. It’s interesting to read the book as a fictional counterpart to Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed as an examination of how people can become lost in groupthink and chasing the approval of their peers with no regard for right or wrong.
This is also a celebration of the power of story. It’s full of references to Harry Potter, Mary Poppins, Doctor Who, Fahrenheit 451 and more. A key family name throughout the book is even Storey, for heaven’s sake, which leads to the wonderful line: “All the rest of us flutter round you Storeys like moths around candles”. Of all stories though, the one that looms biggest behind this one is The Stand. As I said up above, it seems lazy to say that just because of the author’s genes, but the parallels are too many to be anything other than deliberate. A world ending disease, a deaf mute called Nick, an obnoxious teen called Harold, a quasi-religious leader going by the title Mother….I’m not quite sure what Hill means by this. Respect for his parent? A cheeky proclamation that a baton has been passed on? At any rate, it’s safe to say he has not forgotten the face of his father.

Above all, it’s a hopeful book. In the midst of disaster there are many small moments of humanity, people helping each other out, trying to form new societies and just being decent. We are a long way from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road here, as is acknowledged in another literary nod. It’s no Wyndhamesque cosy catastrophe though (and I only just twigged that the Camp Wyndham in the book must be named for John Wyndham!). There’s no flinching from the reality of mass death, the villains are pretty unpleasant and there’s some fairly graphic gore. But this is a book about engagement with the world, about love, and about the need to survive in the worst of circumstances. Hill has been well known in the genre community for a while now, but I’d love to see him break out with this one. It’s a terrific book, one which deserves to be read.

Jaka’s Story, by Dave Sim & Gerhard

0919359124On the face of it, Jaka’s Story is an unlikely follow up to Church & State. It shifts from the cosmology, mysticism and fate of nations stuff that has underpinned Cerebus up till now to a small scale domestic drama with but a handful of characters. Jaka is now living in a mountain village with her husband Rick, dancing in a local tavern and trying to keep it all together. The tavern owner, Pud Withers, lusts after her, running endless unlikely seduction scenarios through his head. Their neighbour, Oscar Wilde (yes, that Oscar Wilde), is writing, without her knowledge, a series of reads based on her childhood, using information he gleans from his talks with Rick. Extracts from these, describing Jaka’s childhood in Lord Julius’ household, run throughout the book in a text and image format that Dave would use increasingly often in later Cerebus. Cerebus himself is shellshocked by the revelations he was vouchsafed on the moon. As the former Pope, Iest and her new rulers are very dangerous, and so he becomes a reluctant secret houseguest to Jaka and Rick. This is our first taste of life under the matriarchal Cirinists, and their threat hangs over the first two thirds of the book, before being terribly realised in the last act.

This is the first book in the series that seems to have been composed as a novel rather than a serial. Unless you’re counting the page numbers you’d have no way of knowing where one individual issue ends and another begins. The whole thing just oozes craft. The care and depth of thought that has gone into the creation of these characters and their interactions with one another is tremendous, and the thinking through of structure is evident in the way, to pick a few examples at random, adult Jaka’s imprisonment mirrors her younger self’s anticipation of emancipation, or the repetition of the gardeners sheltering the younger saplings. The character art has completely left behind caricature (well, apart from Mrs Thatcher (yes, that Mrs Thatcher), who is not so much a character as shorthand for the smiling and solicitous machinery of repression). Gerhard shines again, of course (he actually built a model of the whole “set” and used it constantly as reference to ensure that his drawings of the apartment interior were consistent from one scene to the next).

Rick may be the most sympathetic character Dave Sim has ever created. Feckless idiot that he may be, he is completely devoted to Jaka (best bit of dialogue in the whole book – Cerebus: Listen, kid. Cerebus is in love with your wife. Rick: I know. She’s great, isn’t she?). He is so amiable and guileless that until, the very end, it’s hard to imagine him feeling anything more than passing annoyance at things like Jaka not waking him up when she returns. Pud is brilliantly drawn. Sim nails the seething pit of resentment, thwarted desire, hate and self loathing that boils away in the heart of a less than alpha male. There’s an Alice Donut album called ‘Revenge Fantasies Of The Impotent’ that I think of whenever I remember Pud Withers. But it’s hard not to feel some sympathy towards him as Sim sketches in his background and childhood at the hands of a domineering mother. That’s another sign of the quality of characterisation at work here. In a medium that’s more readily associated with men in different primary coloured tights hitting each other, this is a work with endless shades of gray. No one is completely good, no one is completely bad. Even Jaka dances knowing she is endangering everyone else in her life. From one angle, that’s extreme selfishness. From another, it’s a compulsion, a need to create Art. There are clues to Dave’s take on this in the foreword, where he likens her dancing to his own work, trying to create something of quality in a field that is well below the critical radar. Later in that foreword, he says something along the lines of “I can’t see the fate that befell [Oscar Wilde] as anything other than Society vs The Artist”, and this is the core theme of the book for me, and another dimension to Jaka’s tragedy. What do you do when you are compelled to do something, but that something can land you and your loved ones in the direst of straits?

Sharp Ends, by Joe Abercrombie

sharpAfter nine novels, this is Joe Abercrombie’s first short story collection, all based in his First Law universe. Although the short story is more associated with SF than fantasy fiction, people who have enjoyed the novels will find a lot to enjoy here. There’s plenty of Abercrombie’s trademark violence, none of which he flinches from describing, as well as the humour that relieves the relentless grimness of the setting. A lot of these stories are very funny, in a “throw your hands up and laugh at the unfairness of the world because there’s nothing else you can do” kind of way.
Characters from the other First law books float around the edges of these stories, but they are mostly standalone works where a bit of background knowledge is useful, but not essential. Several of the stories in the book follow the adventures of Shevedieh the thief and the warrior Javre, two women who have been thrown together by circumstance and end up in a series of scrapes across the continent like a latter day Fafhrd and Grey Mouser. These stories are the most enjoyable works here with the two adventurers sparking off each other in a most entertaining way. They could easily have been fixed up into a short novel of their own, and I’d love to see Abercrombie return to this pair, especially as my only grumble about this collection would be that quite a few of the stories are more like vignettes that place you in a scene and then then whip you away with the outcome unresolved. But being left wanting more isn’t exactly a bad problem when it comes to reading, is it? If you’ve never read any Abercrombie then you should probably start with the novels, but once you’ve torn through them and left wanting more this collection will do nicely.

Church & State, by Dave Sim & Gerhard

198464Short review – it’s amazing. This is the longest sub-story in the whole Cerebus project (unless you count Mothers & Daughters as one book instead of four). It starts with Cerebus as houseguest and ends with, well, everything.

I mentioned in my High Society review that a lot of core Cerebus was still waiting to be introduced at that book’s end. This is where it all happens. We finally see the military force of the matriarchal Cirinists, and learn exactly what Cirin is (ahem). Cerebus’ magical nature comes into focus, things like the tiny Cerebus appearing to Astoria, or the sneezing fire (and how good is the sequence where he picks up the one coin supposedly minted by Tarim, and the other coins start ripping their way out of the sacks and flying towards him?), and the preoccupation with cosmology starts. If I remember right, Dave has three attempts at explaining the beginnings of the universe throughout the 300 issues, and I’m not sure any of them have the impact of the amazing double page “that’s what left of her” spread here.
It’s a running theme of the book that Cerebus is his own worst enemy and Church & State makes that clear. His vanity and greed ruin his chances again and again, not least with the sphere that melts while he is distracted by the artists. It’s this quality that make him so manipulable as well. As in High Society, he is set on his path through the book by the actions of others. For someone who doesn’t have a huge amount of screentime, Weisshaupt is perhaps the most influential character in the series thus far. I love that Dave is confident enough in his worldbuilding to show us the consequences of actions we didn’t see, without the overexplanation and infodumping of lesser works.

There is more foreshadowing scattered throughout the book. Dave must have planned this (the first 200 issues at least) down to the smallest details. I am constantly amazed at this laying of groundwork for things that wouldn’t be fully explained for another six or seven years. Once again, Elrod’s first appearance contains a seemingly throwaway line that means an awful lot more once you’ve read a few books on, as does one of the sequences in Cerebus’ dreams shortly afterwards. Even little things like Boobah thinking something fell in the pantry resonate with knowledge of what’s to come. Possibly the most extreme is the way one illustration in the first volume suggests that Dave had a pretty good idea of the way he was going to draw the key moments of issue 300 even back at this point. And as for “You live only a few more years. You die alone. Unmourned. And unloved.” – well, we’ll see, won’t we?

I could sit and pick out highlight after highlight (“Oy should wont to boy drogs wif moy ‘alf”, “Sounds like my ex-wife” “It is”), but my favourite part of the whole book is the Astoria’s trial sequence. The rising tension and sense of something hugely disruptive approaching is expertly handled, and the way the page layout forces you to read quicker and quicker is masterful. In fact, the rhythms of the storytelling throughout are phenomenal, and then Gerhard’s appearance partway through the first volume is the final piece of the jigsaw. His backgrounds – hotel, tower, moonscape – are just exquisite. In fact, almost everything here is wonderful. There’s philosophy, comedy, cosmology, drama, a sharp understanding of power and institutions, plus the sheer quality of the characterization, the dialogue, the art, the structure – this is quite possibly as good as comics get. Not bad for a funny animal book.