Thursday Book

Biomega, vols 2-5 - Tsutomu Nihei

The first two volumes of Biomega seem to set the pace for the rest of the series: synthetic human heroes ride around on supersonic motorcycles, blowing the shit out of biomechanical zombies and the masked transhumans responsible for them. At one point in volume two, the series' iconic talking grizzly bear, Kozlov, remarks that there now seem to be no normal human beings left. You might take this for a throwaway acknowledgement of a genre-typical setting, but Nihei has actually shown some measure of development in his world up to this point, and its an omen of things to come.

The third volume sees both hidden fracture lines and unexpected alliances become apparent in the frantic build-up to a massive conflict of post-human ideals. It's clear early on in the story that Nihei isn't afraid to follow strange speculations through to their extreme logical conclusion, and the culmination of this conflict in volume four results in such a stonking great development in the story that I don't want to spoil it, save to say that at one point a hole is blasted right through planet Earth.

But the thing that impresses me so much about this series is that for all its epic scale and unswerving commitment to massive ideas, this is always first and foremost a laconic action comic. Far from being laden with exposition, Nihei often has his characters barrel headlong into the surreal aftermath of a new plot point, only explaining it after the fact. Things which have a visual consistency with the otherworldly logic of the settings are frequently left satisfyingly unmentioned in the dialogue. In this way Biomega manages to be both fast-paced and also surprisingly thoughtful speculative fiction. I'm eagerly anticipating the final volume.



Skip to 1:40 for a strangely beautiful 2001-esque take on Asteroids.


The Reflexive Engine

Just trying another little series. I'm going to try and keep each chapter relatively short (I'm aiming for 500 words), and I'm also going to maintain this post as a contents page of sorts.

I: The Golden Egg
II: Jezebel
III: Beau
IV: Charlie
V: Once Cracksman's Gang
VI: Parts
VII: Lakechurch
VIII: The Skysail
IX: Thanks for the Horse
X: Travelling Salesman
XI: Fission

The Reflexive Engine I

The Golden Egg

They clambered up streets strewn with rubble, weaving between the wild plants that spilled out between uneven cobblestones. Ahead, the ragged skyline stretched across the horizon, ruined buildings reaching broken limbs towards the storm clouds above. And either side were the neoclassical fa├žades of long-deserted embassies and galleries, windows broken and door frames empty.

She stopped suddenly, and her brother stumbled clumsily into her back, almost dropping his musket.

“This one,” she said.

He looked the building up and down, trying to catch his breath. He was a big lad - powerful, but too clumsy to keep pace with his lean sister on ground like this. “Are you sure?”

She looked back over her shoulder at him, hair cropped short, almost sexless in her breeches and overcoat. Like the others, he had long since grown used to her once scandalous antics.

“Trust me,” she said, and led him through broken double doors.

Within, weeds broke up through a marble floor scattered with rotting detritus and massive bones. The grey light of the overcast sky broke in through shattered windows and cracks in the ceiling.

“Did there really used to be creatures this huge?” he asked, looking at the bones piled on a nearby pedestal.

She nodded and looked around at the markings on the walls. “Of course. But they were too big to ride. People would have always used horses for that. Come on, this way.”

He followed after her, down a shadowed hallway. It wasn't a thing he could understand - why she could read, or how she did it. But it made her useful. Made the others shut up about her many oddities.

He tripped over something, and looked down, recoiling from the golden arm that lay severed on the ground. “Cathy!”

She whirled around, a hand on the the pistol tucked into her belt. “Boyo,” she sighed, a note of disappointment in her voice that made him flush with shame. “You have to get over this fear. The clockwork men don't move anymore. And they never will.”

She turned and went on. And he followed after, still red, still clutching his musket tight in both hands.

The corridor opened into a room with an arched roof. An overgrown tree pushed in through the window, clouds of dust dancing in the thin beams of light that made it through its branches.

“A dead end?” she asked, surprised.

He looked around. Two golden figures lay together in the far corner, slumped against the wall - clinging to one another. “I don't like this, Cathy. Let's go.”

She looked at the markings on the walls, ran a finger through the years of accumulated dust that covered them. “Wait.”

Her fingers slipped through the dust, and then through the wall - no, not a wall: a thin curtain, hidden in the dust and shadows, closing off an alcove. Brazenly, without caution or care, she yanked it open.

He gasped. His sister fell back, landing on her backside with a thump and throwing up a thick cloud of dust. The room lit up, bright rays shining out from the alcove. From the great golden egg that sat on its pedestal, as large as a person curled up into a ball.

They could both only stare.

“What is it?” he asked, eventually.

“I don't know,” she said. And then: “Valuable.”

He was reluctant to approach it. “It looks heavy. We'll never carry it back.”

She got to her feet, unable to take her eyes off the perfect, radiant shell. “Go back to the caravan, Boyo. Bring a shire horse.”

He stared dumbfounded at the egg, and then tore his eyes away, running back down the corridor, musket slung over his shoulder. His feet clattered and scraped against the marble floor, drumming an irregular rhythm as he passed a closed off room, its door obscured by shadow.

Inside the room, the autotelegram stirred from its decade of slumber and began to quietly tap out a message.


Thursday Comic

Batman: The Long Halloween - Jeph Loeb, Tim Sale

Shrouded in corruption, Gotham City's Falcone crime family seems unstoppable. But three different forces for justice have allied against them: police captain James Gordon, district attorney Harvey Dent, and masked vigilante Batman. And on the opposite side of the law, Catwoman, the Joker and the mysterious new Holiday Killer seem to have it in for the Falcones as well. Faced with the rising tide of Gotham's freaks, kingpin Carmine Falcone decides that his only option is to fight fire with fire...

Compared to his cramped and hyperactive introduction to Hush, Loeb has a lot more room to work in on this book, as well as a much more grounded story. The result is a gripping mystery thriller that's not quite as clever as it thinks it is, but still managed to keep me guessing to the end (even if it does seem to go a twist too far in terms of credibility). Some of the dialogue is pretty weak (every single one of Alfred's lines is painful), but for the most part this is the kind of dark, gritty, street-level story you want from a Batman book.

Tim Sale's art is beautifully stylish, evoking the shadowy aesthetic of a well shot film noir, but it's often loose and not very detailed, which is not really to my tastes. Nevertheless, after reading The Long Halloween, I can easily see why this is an oft-cited source text for Christopher Nolan's Batman movies.


The Doing

I'm at that point in my creative cycle when I really want to work on something, but I'm not sure which project to focus on. Hitting stumbling blocks on my main project, I started a little throw-away project that I'm now enamoured with - but that's also kind of similar to a large project I have on the back burner.

Really, I want them all done... but the doing is the thing.

(Commuting a lot this week and the previous one... tired.)


Thursday Comic

Batgirl: Year One - Scott Beatty, Chuck Dixon, Marcos Martin, et al.

You'd think that having the police commissioner as your father would help with a career in law enforcement, but Barbara Gordon finds that her overprotective dad only gets in the way of what she wants to do. Even Gotham City's freaky superheroes won't pay any attention to her talents - at least, until one Halloween when the bat-costumed Babs crosses paths with Killer Moth, a man who wants to be to Gotham's underworld what Batman is to its law abiding citizens.

So you may have noticed that Oracle, a.k.a. Barbara Gordon, formerly Batgirl, is my favourite superhero. That "formerly Batgirl" bit is, of course, one of the many cool things about the character, but I have to say that for me the emphasis is kind of on the formerly. This backwards-looking book, then, could almost be aimed at me, as throughout Batgirl: Year One, a lot of common criticisms of Babs' Batgirl are retroactively countered (isn't she just a cheap knock-off of the main Bat? Why isn't she Batwoman?) Which is nice... if also kind of cheating.

More effective are the nods to her future - the references to oracles are a little heavy-handed, but nifty all the same, and while having Black Canary (seen above, THOK-ing) beam into the story from a space station may set a stark contrast to the brutal realism of Batman: Year One, it's the (somewhat rocky) start to a friendship that will come to underpin Birds of Prey, my superhero comic of choice. Elsewhere, a couple of casual comments about the Joker take on a chilling significance in the wider context.

Probably the strongest thing about the book is the art: bold, colourful and rather cartoony - reminiscent of Bruce Timm's animated character designs. It sets a distinctively Batgirl-ish tone to the book, and probably does more to convey the character of the young Barbara Gordon than the internal monologue that crowds each panel. The story itself has its strong and its weak points, but it does the job: neatly defining Barbara Gordon's adventure-seeking Batgirl, while also quietly scattering the seeds that will grow into a mighty Oracle.


Sweet 'n' Sour Mash-Up

Mind... blown.

The care and attention to detail in this thing are amazing.

Via the GameCentral Inbox.


Monday Movie: The Illusionist

As the music hall gives way to the music concert, a French magician winds up doing a small gig on a remote Scottish island. There he meets a young woman who doesn't seem to realise that he's not the worldly star she takes him for. When she follows him back to London, the conjurer struggles to make ends meet, and keep a smile on her face.

While Sylvain Chomet's earlier Belleville Rendez-vous was a raucous adventure with an undercurrent of bitter realism, The Illusionist takes the opposite tack, telling a melancholy, ordinary story tinged with cartoonish magic. The focus is on emotion over plot, effectively aided by the beautifully detailed animation, but the film perhaps feels a little undernourished as a result.


Thursday Comic

Birds of Prey: Sensei and Student - Gail Simone, Ed Benes, et al.

Black Canary, the Gotham superheroine with the voice of a sonic weapon, is in Hong Kong to visit the death bed of her former martial arts master - a man who was also apparently one of the many tutors of ice cold assassin Lady Shiva. Someone seems too impatient to let nature take its course, however, and their sensei is murdered, leading the two women to form an uneasy partnership in pursuit of the guilty party. Meanwhile, back in Gotham, the USA PATRIOT Act comes calling for Oracle, and, in the absence of Black Canary, she's once again forced to call upon her least favourite vigilante, Huntress.

A few months back a genuine comic book store opened up in my two horse town. I dutifully paid a visit, expecting a decent selection of independent and Japanese comics. I was disappointing to find a range vastly inferior to that in my local bookshop. Later, I went back looking for a couple of specific superhero comics. And I still couldn't find what I was looking for. Instead, I found this: one of the two Gail Simone Birds of Prey collections that I don't already own. Score one, local comic book shop.

This is basically the Birds at their best: a relatively small cast; a focused, character-driven story; and a dearth of the greater excesses of superhero mythology. The typically bright and bold artwork of Ed Benes (who does most, but not all of the pencilling) fits the mood perfectly - even if his penchant for T&A goes spectacularly overboard on some pages. And Simone writes great dialogue: with just a few speech bubbles she can express a compelling and entertaining relationship between even the bitterest of enemies. It all makes me rather happy that the latest issues of Birds of Prey are now back in her capable hands.


Monday Movie: Little Big Soldier

In the aftermath of a brutal battle, only two survivors crawl out of the heaped bodies: a reluctant conscript (Jackie Chan) and a wounded general (Leehom Wang). Seeing the opportunity to collect a reward, the conscript ties up the general and begins dragging him back to his homeland. But he soon finds he has to deal with not just his ruthless and highly trained captive, but also the back-stabbing relatives who want the general dead.

A labour of love that Jackie Chan has been trying to get into production for two decades, Little Big Soldier is a historical odd-couple comedy that manages to branch tentatively into action, tragedy and character drama. It's not perfect by any means, and to say that it's Chan's best film for years probably tells us more about his recent track record than anything else, but this is clearly a story that its creators believed in and wanted to tell, and that kind of enthusiasm is always infectious.


I'm starting to suspect that, barring divine inspiration or theft, crafting a plot is kind of like sculpture.

What I mean is, you want a statue - but you get this ugly, shapeless chunk of rock instead. And you look over at Michaelangelo and wonder what the hell you're doing wrong. And the answer is that Michaelangelo got the shapeless lump of rock as well, but he didn't stop there.

Now just replace "statue" with "plot", and "lump of rock" with "not-a-plot".


Thursday Book

Above the Snowline - Steph Swainston

In the harsh environment of the Darkling mountains, two almost-human races are competing for territory: the winged and urbane Awians, and the ruthless, uncivilised Rhydanne. Seeing her people driven to starvation by Awian overexploitation, the uncompromising Rhydanne huntress Dellin seeks help from the Emperor and his immortal Circle of paragons. And the Emperor sees fit to call on Jant, whose half-Rhydanne, half-Awian ancestry makes him the only man in the world who can fly.

But selfish, arrogant, and ashamed of his own heritage, it's not clear that Jant is really the right mediator. And, despite Jant's overconfident condescension towards his new charge, is he really the one who's in danger from Dellin? Could she even be the only woman in the world with what it takes to break his hardened, misogynistic heart?

The end of the third novel in Swainston's superlative Fourlands fantasy series featured such a breathtaking, tear-jerking twist that I was absolutely desperate to find out what happened next. And so I must confess I was disappointed to learn that the fourth book was a prequel. A prequel set in a time when our dashing anti-hero is not wrestling with his addiction to a drug that also transports him into the bizarre alternate dimension of the Shift. A prequel set in his backwards homeland rather than the front lines of the Fourlands' war against giant Insects. No addiction, no Shift, no Insects... Is there any meat left on Swainston's premise when you tear out these seemingly vital organs?

The answer, I quickly realised, is, "Yes, don't be stupid." I love these books so much because of Swainston's ability to imagine the most outlandish, out-of-this-world settings and characters and then incorporate them into properly plotted, intricately characterised, convincingly detailed stories. This is an author who can write a scene in which a giant insect tears the wings off a man and leave you wincing at the anatomical veracity she lends not one, but two impossible creatures. The Darkling mountains may be a lot more grounded than the most surreal locations Jant has encountered in the Shift, but this is still a highly imaginative story told with that same unexpected realism.

The characters are all sympathetic, even when they're clearly wrong-headed, and the shifting first person narration allows even minor characters the chance to leave an impression (as well as giving us a chance to see the Fourlands without the added tint of Jant's ego). Emotions flow tangibly from the page, and the darkness is balanced with good humour and wit. Above all, though, this is a book, like the three before it, that throws out any and all genre tropes in favour of telling a damn good story.