April 25, 2018

LOVEJOY:


The Judas Pair
by Jonathan Gash
256 pages, C&R Crime

Review by Pat Black

Lovejoy. That name puts me right back in the zone.

Sunday night, early 1990s, Ian McShane, mullet, boil-washed white T, leather jacket and jeans, catchy harpsichord theme tune. I can hardly remember anything about the plots, but I do remember the furniture.

It’s a relic of a time when we had far less choice on television in the UK, but had more of a sense of shared cultural experiences through programmes that everyone watched.

For me, Lovejoy’s in the same slot as One Foot In The Grave – a well-liked pre-internet era show which still resonates with the public, nearly 30 years on, separate from fanaticism or genre geekery.

Lovejoy was set in the world of antiques, but really it was all about the main man, the arch wheeler-dealer. There’s probably a picture of McShane’s face, with a smile like a prison searchlight, next to the entry for “loveable rogue” on Wikipedia. The role made him a star, and he’s a familiar face on TV and the movies to this day, from Deadwood and beyond.

Grinning, breaking the fourth wall, knocking around the flat East Anglian countryside in his battered vintage car… It seems as comical, even naff, as bell-bottomed trousers and kipper ties now. Did people fancy Ian McShane? Of course they did. It was acceptable in the eighties. And nineties.

Lovejoy is an antiques dealer, a rascally figure with a keen antenna for things of great value – known as a “divvie” in the trade. He’s the guy who’ll pick out the Van Gogh in the transit van, or the Canaletto in the car boot sale. Although the TV incarnation first appeared in 1986 – only coming to prominence after its second series ran, five years later – Lovejoy was already well established in a series of novels by Jonathan Gash (John Grant).

The first of these, The Judas Pair, was published in 1977.

Now, while you’ve still got McShane in mind – you might even be humming that theme tune to yourself – here’s how we were introduced to Lovejoy back then:

“What the hell do you mean” she was starting to say when I belted her. Down she went on the loo amid the steam.

That’s chapter one. This is his girlfriend, being belted. He goes on to call her “the stupid bird”.

That flinch reaction you’ve just experienced could be called The Lovejoy Problem.

Gash’s debut novel is very entertaining. The plot concerns the flintlock duelling pistols in the title, a legendary “missing” 13th pair made by a famous craftsman. Hot on the trail of these items, Lovejoy discovers that someone was killed for them. When someone close to him dies later on in suspicious circumstances, Lovejoy is less loveable rogue than just plain rogue, and seeks vengeance.

Along the way there’s some sleuthing as Lovejoy tracks down both the guns and the killer.  But what I liked best about The Judas Pair was the insight into the world of antiques, and the shadowy industry connected with sourcing, buying and selling them, with its strange terms and practices. Lovejoy’s pithy “come hither, there’s more” delivery really draws you in – a fine example of how a unique voice can put oil in your storytelling engine.

Still, for people used to mild Sunday night comic capers with British eccentrics in leafy villages, this Lovejoy is a bit of a shock. Lovejoy’s still got a cosy relationship with his audience, addressing his readers in the first person as if they were friends and confidants, and you’re pulled in by his grubby charm. But the man himself is a far harder character than you might remember from the telly. He’s not averse to cheating people, and goes on to outline some scandalous behaviour in his trade, such as intruding upon the recently bereaved in order to pick up bargains while people are in a confused, distressed state.

And he is violent. Lovejoy absolutely batters two people in this book, which should by rights have seen him haggling over antique pebbles in the prison exercise yard. That’s separate to his casual approach to domestic violence, the only consequence of which seems to be a mild feeling of guilt because he’s left a bruise on his girlfriend’s face.

What makes this even more nauseating for the reader is that she goes back to him, and dismisses his behaviour. Just Lovejoy being Lovejoy, eh? Shrug. What a loveable rascal!

Unacceptable in any era, you’d hope, but perhaps slightly less so in the seventies compared with today. You can expect a night in the cells if there’s even a hint that you’ve lifted a hand to a partner nowadays, but back then, short of serious assault, police would hope to clear up “domestics” with a talking-to, and leaving the house in as peaceable a state as possible.

I don’t think Lovejoy’s behaviour would have been any less shocking to decent people in the seventies, but it was obviously, that word again, more acceptable. Hence the reason Lovejoy’s so blasé about it. What you don’t expect to see is the hero of your page-turner novel admitting to it so casually.

The shift between Lovejoy from the book to the TV is mainly a class distinction. The character as portrayed by McShane might have had a leather jacket and a mullet, but his manners and diction were impeccable. He would pronounce everything on the menu without eliciting even a hint of condescension from the maitre d’, and has enough charm to make any galloping major or country house squire a bit insecure when their old lady gets to giggling.

The printed Lovejoy is more of a Del Boy Trotter character – no fool, but no aristocrat, either, and he cuts corners in the same way. Sausage butties with lashings of margarine finished off with custard rounds are his idea of a slap-up meal for his girlfriends. He’s aware of the absurdity of this, but again, that jack-the-lad pound shop pirate type would cut little ice in a big commercial novel these days. He’d be more polished, like his TV depiction. It is unlikely he would be working class.

Lovejoy does have a soft centre – he looks after some people, and seems fond of the downtrodden, whether that’s the perky robin he feeds in his garden, or people on the verge of making a mistake in the antiques trade. Tough guy, shrewd operator, but with a heart of gold, etc. We get the picture.

But we still have that pesky Lovejoy Problem to solve.

There’s a danger of sliding into a kind of puritanism when it comes to interpreting art from other times. Art, no matter what the era, should make us suspicious if it solely exists to cater directly to narrow beliefs and prejudices, or what is perceived to be good at the current rate of exchange. If it does, there is a good chance you’re consuming propaganda, or spreading it.

Lovejoy is no Mary Sue, and was never intended to be. We might dislike his behaviour, even hate him if we must, but we should credit Jonathan Gash for trying to portray a complex character. We were no doubt meant to be shocked by Lovejoy bashing his girlfriend; perhaps this granted the character a sense of edge and danger in a hyper-macho era only just learning to wash its armpits every day.

The true fault lies in assuming that we would still be on his side after this behaviour, whereas today, no-one would dare to portray their hero as a wife-beater.

Lovejoy does suffer, mentally as well as physically. He’s almost burned to death, and has to use his wits to get out of a seemingly hopeless situation, but this was less interesting than his emotional journey. After one big twist, Lovejoy undergoes a breakdown which puts him in bed for days; not eating, not washing, and not engaging with the world.  It seemed realistic to me. It’s quite rare to see this in a commercial novel, even today, when we’re far less ignorant about mental illness and the horrors trauma can inflict on seemingly strong mentalities. I’d like to see this happen to Jack Reacher.

With regards to The Lovejoy Problem, there’s a TV show which got on my wick lately: It Was Acceptable In The (insert decade). It’s a talking-heads schedule filler, where comedians, TV presenters, journalists, actors and DJs of varying degrees of smugness review clips from previous decades. The show makes heavy use of crash-zooms on the guests’ gurning faces, as sexism, racism and class prejudice are highlighted, provoking well-intentioned, if tedious, responses.

And they’re right to respond that way, because, like Lovejoy punching his missus, some of the stuff which passed without much comment in past times is awful, and we should be upset by it, and things have hopefully improved. But we shouldn’t think this generation will be any different – that its entertainment won’t be mocked or ridiculed or even completely denounced in the future, by people living in a different political climate, with different norms, or realigned social strata.

In the future, reality TV shows will look particularly awful – as bad as racist sitcoms or sexist cop series from the 1970s. Perhaps they’ll seem even worse, because they deal with real people.

I recall one show from the mid-noughties where a bunch of young models who thought they were answering an open casting call were invited to strip to their underwear on camera and take their places in a drained swimming pool. They did so without hesitation. Even at a very late stage, it didn’t dawn on any of them what was about to happen.

They were then blasted with water from a hose. Once the jet was shut off and the screaming stopped, we were treated to close-ups of ruined make-up, turning them all into shivering, sobbing grotesques.

The point of this stunt was – we were told – that the girls shouldn’t feel they had to put on their best clothes to be beautiful, or their best make-up. I don’t know who came up with this programme, but cruelty and humiliation lay at the heart of it. You wouldn’t tolerate this being done in a prison, but there it was on TV, served up for entertainment.

But reality TV’s an obvious villain. One fascinating recent phenomenon is how time can catch up with seemingly unimpeachable content. Look at the recent row over The Breakfast Club. Good old John Hughes, eh? The stalwart of “almost realistic” teen dramas. Except it seems like they were a wee bit sexist, too. And nobody noticed, or cared, until now.

I’ve also heard of people having a go at Friends for its mockery of overweight people, among a host of other perceived sins which flew over everyone’s heads 20-odd years ago. Friends! The definition of sliced white bread television. Who’d have thought it? Nothing is sacred, true enough.

Quick questions for you to consider: Did you like Trainspotting when you were younger? Did you have Sick Boy and Begbie up on your bedroom wall?

So, yes, Lovejoy’s got his problems. The character’s behaviour is repellent, but I don’t think we were meant to like it. Let’s not burn the book for one admittedly awful part. As time goes on, you’d hope he learns how bad his behaviour was.

Besides, it’s fiction. In telling lies, writers have to be as truthful as they can. Characters don’t ring true if they’re flawless. Nothing is.

Lovejoy’s just a character, warts and all. He’s a product of his time – just like real people are, for good or ill.

April 4, 2018

WATCHING THE DETECTIVES:


DCI Tom Barnaby

by Caroline Graham 
288 pages, Headline

Review by Pat Black

True story: A few years ago, my then-girlfriend moved into a nice block of flats in a pretty market town.

She hadn’t yet got her parking permit for the site, but left her car in an unmarked open bay the night before moving in. She wanted to quickly double-check everything was in order on the itinerary – you know, no bodies sprawled in the lounge, no gold bullion packed into the cupboards, no ancient burial chambers lingering under the bed. This task took her about 10 minutes.

When she got back to her car, she found that someone had placed nails underneath the front tyres.

No parking permit, you see. Not the done thing, dear. If you should get a double puncture, crash and hurt yourself, why, that’d be your own bally fault, wouldn’t it?

Malice in pleasant, even twee settings is a staple of the English murder mystery, and Caroline Graham’s first Midsomer Murder is absolutely packed with it. The Killings At Badger’s Drift introduces us to DCI Barnaby and his sidekick, Troy, as they investigate the suspicious death of an elderly lady who was out looking for a rare bloom in the woods around the titular village.

The lonely eccentric, Miss Simpson, stumbles upon something naughty in the great outdoors that the two participants would rather she hadn’t.

Barnaby’s initial suspicions are proven correct when the post-mortem shows that Miss Simpson was poisoned with hemlock.

We are introduced to a full cast of suspects, all with deep and sometimes deadly secrets. There’s a local rich bloke in a big house, preparing to marry a beautiful young woman far too hot for him; there’s a louche, snobby artist who lives in an unlocked cottage out in the woods; and there’s a bizarre mother-and-son duo who creep everyone out. Could the late Miss Simpson’s friend, Miss Bellringer, a competitor over botanical curiosities, have anything to do with it? And what about the death of the disabled aristocrat’s previous wife, shot dead in a hunting accident?

It’s all connected of course, in an engaging puzzle beautifully designed to catch out people who don’t pay close attention, like me.

The story wasn’t quite as cosy as the initial murder leads you to believe. While death by hemlock is very Golden Age, there’s a subsequent murder that’s much more Video Nasty. If I was Barnaby I’d have checked Jason Voorhees’ movements on the day of the killing.

In fact, Jason would happily live in Midsomer (or Badger’s Drift, in this first story in the series; “Midsomer” was invented by Anthony Horowitz, who first scripted the TV adaptation). A peaceful, bosky setting would suit Jason to the hem of his hillbilly killer dungarees, and his distrust of strangers and barely concealed psychosis would also fit like a glove.

A leather glove, unscrewing a lightbulb, in the middle of the night.

Like the first Morse mystery, this story is grubbier than expected. It seethes with lust, infidelities and sleaze. Even the sober, no-nonsense DCI Barnaby finds himself in a local brothel as part of his inquiries – complete with a classic “he made his excuses and left” gag.

Barnaby is from the Adam Dalgleish stable of sturdy, reliable and somewhat priggish English policemen. You can trust him; he commands great authority and lets his temper escape now and again, and you can bet the hapless uniformed coppers around him jump to the beat, on the double.

He seemed more like a former military man, a good Tom who attended Sandhurst or similar and blusters through life, expecting everyone he encounters to snap to attention at his every utterance. I can’t be sure I liked him, or at least, I can’t be sure I’d have a pint with him. I’d have a pint with Morse any day of the week, and I can see myself sharing a mint julep with Poirot somewhere smart and shiny, my collars clean and my hair slicked into a brutal centre parting. But Barnaby’s a perfect fit for the series; the type of guy you would want guarding you as you sleep.

Not literally, like. You know, standing over your bed, and that. That’d be odd.

The most interesting element in the book was how Barnaby and Troy interact. The sidekick role is a thankless one in detective stories, probably starting with Dr Watson. They get their time in the spotlight, and the odd chance to save the hero or shoot the bad guy, but they are doomed to live in the shadow of their intellectual superiors. This can be done in a subtle fashion, with give and take between the principals and even a sense that the underling might be the better man (like Morse and Lewis), but it’s overt in this story.

This was refreshing – similar to how Barnaby appraises a frank, opinionated woman he interviews in this story. He likes a bit of that. It can be energising to meet someone who doesn’t mince words or motivations, every now and again, Barnaby muses.

But not all the time.

Troy is young, naïve and actually quite thick. He’s not bad in a tough situation and he’s an excellent driver, but Barnaby can barely conceal his contempt and basic dislike for the detective sergeant. Troy tries to impress his more senior colleague, but quite often makes the wrong call or leaps to the wrong conclusion – giving Barnaby a chance to play a stronger hand and show him up.

I pitied Troy. He was every greenhorn who ever tried to flex their muscles, only to be swatted aside.  Most of us have been there…

Here’s hoping he gets a better crack of it in later books.

Like many fictional detectives who made a successful transition from the page to our tellies, it’s difficult to dissociate Graham’s Barnaby from the one who became familiar to millions, played by John Nettles. The actor – who first found fame as another TV detective, Jim Bergerac – even provides a foreword to this story. You can probably find Nettles’ performance as Barnaby somewhere on the schedules to this very day. Although he’s long left the role, the show goes on (Tom Barnaby retires, and is replaced by his cousin – John Barnaby… how Parish Council can you get?). It’s been running for 20 years, there’s a new series on its way, its popularity is undimmed, and it will most likely overtake Taggart as the longest-running detective drama on British TV.

There is much cosiness in the setting – perhaps that intriguing blend of sweet and sour is Midsomer’s secret recipe? We’ve all wished we lived in a chocolate box village at some point in our lives, usually after we hit 30.

During a tough time in the past, I once surprised myself by blurting out: “Ye know, just one night, I wouldn’t mind sitting in my jammies with a takeaway and watching Midsomer!”

Despite the bodies hitting the ground every 200 yards or so, you’d settle for life in the village. There’s something comforting in Barnaby’s return home to his beautiful house after a tough day interrogating suspects. He has some comfort food, and rests his head on the bosom of his super-nice/bad-cook/perfect-homemaker/amateur-dramatics-every-Tuesday wife. I can relate to that.

Er, I’m not saying I want to nuzzle his wife, I don’t want anyone to get the wrong idea… I guess some couples are cool with it, though, strange things can and do go on in nice quiet villages, you better believe it… but you see what I mean.

Midsomer’s also a big hit around the world. It’s shown in 200 countries. Do they watch it in China? Iran? Borneo? Lapland? What is it they like about it?

I reckon people dig that clipped, precise, calculated English malice. It’s so proper. Evil, but perfectly-presented.

A self-diagnosed cultural expert with lots of unsolicited opinions on writing once said to me: “Don’t waste your time writing detective stories. Everyone writes them.”

Correct. But everyone reads them, too.

March 22, 2018

HOOK JAW


by Si Spurrier, Conor Boyle, Giulia Brusco and Rob Steen
128 pages, Titan Comics

Review by Pat Black

Hook Jaw’s the man. Or so I thought…

Actually Hook Jaw’s a fish, a great big one, who found fame and notoriety in the pages of the British boys’ comic, Action, in 1976. The story was too nasty to live, but once experienced – like a love-bite from Jaws – it’s never forgotten.

After 40 years in the doldrums, Hook Jaw is back. I was more excited for this five-issue run from Titan than I was for the past two Star Wars movies.

IPC Magazines took advantage of the Jaws craze by making a great white shark the focus of Action’s most popular strip. Even for the time, Action was extraordinarily violent, and Hook Jaw boasted the worst of it every week.

The fish was part environmental crusader, part maniac, and he chomped his way through oil rig workers, modern-day pirates and holiday island tourists - the good, the bad and the merely unlucky alike - in rich red detail, every single episode.

Hook Jaw’s gimmick? A gaff stick protruding through his mouth, placed there by a sports fisherman who very quickly rued his rashness. The shark went on to use this appendage to shish-kebab his prey.

After a hysterical media reaction, the strip was neutered by editors before Action was swallowed up by Battle – but its punk rock aesthetic sowed the seeds for 2000AD, which is still going strong to this day. Despite its short run, Hook Jaw lingered long in the memory, so much so that Titan commissioned a fresh run of comics, coinciding with Action’s 40th anniversary.

Hook Jaw was before my time. My first brush with the big guy was in old annuals which belonged to my brother in law. I was goggle-eyed at the gushing red blood and the body parts, as well as the gleeful nihilism on show as Hook Jaw munched his way through most humans in the vicinity. Even the heroes got eaten. I grew obsessed with reading the strips. When they surfaced online, they were as nasty as advertised.

There’s a special collected edition of the original Hook Jaw out now, and I’ll get round to reviewing it – but, entirely separate to that, there’s this reboot from Titan.

Like the original sevenpenny-nightmare, this Hook Jaw is full colour – much of it nice, rich claret. The story is set off the coast of Somalia, where our heroine, the young American, Mag, is helping tag great whites for a research project. There is a female pack known as the Sisterhood which congregates around the same area year after year, and Mag and her assortment of oceanographic oddballs are hoping to find evidence of co-operative behaviour among these eighteen foot monsters.

Somali pirates are operating in the area, and they routinely board the researchers’ boat – and then leave, finding nothing to steal and no-one particularly valuable to kidnap. The scientists merely shrug this intrusion off, utterly blase.

This well-scripted pantomime (there’s a few jokes when the ship’s cook turns out to be related to the pirates, openly insulting his bosses in his own language) is disrupted by a team of Navy SEALs, led by the obnoxious American Klay Clay. Many of the pirates are shot and dumped overboard. This spilled blood and raw meat attracts the attention of a fishie a bit bigger than 18 feet.

Si Spurrier’s script has a decent plot involving the pirates, a missing geoengineering device at the bottom of the sea which might save the world, the CIA and environmental campaigners. The old Hook Jaw had plots, too, but these were a bit of a sideshow compared to what Action’s readership really wanted to see – kills.

Hook Jaw does kill a lot of people in this new version, but, strange as it might sound, there’s some subtlety involved in how the ocean giant dines. In Action, you usually saw characters making their exit inside the shark’s jaws, with full-frame shots showing these victims in the process of being diced. It makes what you saw in Jaws look as tame as an old pub dog. There are gore shots in this book, but nowhere near as much utter carnage as the old Hook Jaw mustered week in, week out. (“It delivers,” as Pat Mills told me of the original).

Instead, you’ll be given hints and flickers, signposts of the shark. One character lost at sea, clinging to a piece of wood, sees something sticking out of the water. Could it be a ship or something? he wonders. Actually no, it’s a gaff stick.

In the next frame, there’s just an empty plank of wood.

It’s cleverly done. One kill featuring two environmental campaigners smoking a doobie as they trail their toes in the sea was utterly brilliant – but I should warn people thirsting after the sheer nihilistic carnage of the 70s edition Hook Jaw that there’s not quite as much of it in the 2016 update. I do worry that people up for a bit of bloody mayhem and not much else might be a little bit disappointed. That said, there is one extraordinary kill in the fourth issue which is probably the best of any in Hook Jaw – and you are spared no details.

There is some ret-conning – always a risky affair. First of all, the story makes Hook Jaw out to be a long-standing myth like the Loch Ness Monster, a seafarer’s tale stretching back decades, which turns out to be real. Some people might suck their teeth a little when they read that the legend “even spawned comic books” – and then you’re shown a panel of a little boy in the 1970s reading Action.

So, the Hook Jaw you know isn’t quite the one you see here. This is most apparent in the shark’s appearance – the gaff stick isn’t wedged under its lower jaw, as in the good old days, but protrudes at an awkward angle through the mouth. One element of this I really liked was that the fish’s piercing isn’t merely for cosmetic effect – it is used to explain the shark’s bad attitude and catholic tastes at mealtimes. The metal stuck in its mouth interferes with how it processes sensory information, in effect driving it mad.

And, for any environmentalists present who feel the need to bite down on something when they see a dangerous predator rendered as a dangerous predator: although this comic thrives on the idea of sharks devouring people, it repeatedly stabs home the message that these creatures don’t really hunt humans or acquire a taste for their flesh.

There is one other change which might get a few male readers of a certain age’s claspers in a twist - though again, it made perfect sense to me…

In real life, the girls are a lot bigger.

Indeed, the new Hook Jaw openly invites a feminist reading. The main character, Mag, isn’t a victim, but she has been battered by her experiences, usually at the hands of men. It’s not heavy-handed, just something she refers to here and there. If there’s a way to tidy up the world’s messes, she says, the solution must be driven by women. “Every time I try to do something in my life, some guy comes along and breaks stuff!” she observes.

Another break with tradition is Hook Jaw’s stream of consciousness, near-subliminally represented in the same way as sound effects within the frame of the story, separate from speech bubbles. These are usually things like WRONG FLESH… GOOD FLESH… REND… FIRE IN BRAIN...

This sharky narration slyly places us on team Hook Jaw. The point of the original strip was that the fish was the hero, not the villain, after all.

One complaint – the &*^in’ swearing. If you’re going to swear – swear. As in, write the words down. Or maybe have one little asterisk here and there. But if you’re not going to properly swear, and insist on putting this kind of (*&$in’ thing all the way through the text *&”$%^$!* then maybe next time, don’t &^$£(“) swear at all. It doth offend mine eyes.

The artwork was superb, in particular Giulia Brusco’s colouring. I loved the night-time scenes, the play of light on the water, the sense of gloom and threat beneath the waves, and the glorious bright red blood clouds. Conor Boyle’s sharks are things of beauty – but also authentically-rendered sharks. Massimo Belardinelli’s wonderful monsters from the first run of Hook Jaw were brilliant, but exaggerated – posturing, snarling leviathans, as the medium of the time dictated. Conor Boyle has depicted the real thing, and Hook Jaw is improved as a result. A real shark wouldn’t pose for its close-up all the time, and the same is true here. I think it’s scarier as a result. The underwater sequences where divers are menaced by the giant hunter try to take you close to what it must be like to be stalked in the gloom by a great white shark – one of nature’s greatest ambush predators. A fin here; a tail there; shadows all around. Then, all of a sudden, the jaws.

Not the jaws!

This may seem like a daft thing to say, but aside from the needs of the front covers, we don’t always see Hook Jaw’s teeth, or its mouth agape. So this heightens the effect when we do see the great fish’s tools of the trade, at their bloody work.

And what a craftswoman she is.

February 27, 2018

LATE TO THE PARTY:


by Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore
144 pages, Image Comics

Review by Pat Black

I’ve written the title and the authors and the number of pages and the publisher and finally my own name, but here’s a question: Why bother reviewing The Walking Dead? I can’t add anything. Should I review breathing next? Should I review existence?

You probably know lots about this graphic novel or its TV adaptation without having actually seen or read it, like me. It’s the story of American everyman copper Rick Grimes, who emerges from a coma in hospital after getting shot tackling a bank robber, only to find the world has ended while he was sleeping. He gets out of bed, puts his clothes on, and tries to find his family, encountering difficulties along the way.

Specifically: zombies. The groaning, shuffling, rotting undead, hungry for living flesh. Rick has to look lively. He escapes the video-game-level nightmare in the hospital – just - and then hits the road.

He eventually journeys to an Atlanta teeming with zombies. After a narrow escape or two, he hooks up with a community which includes his missing wife and son, and led by his fellow copper and best mate, Shane. Living in the woods just outside the city in their cars and camper vans, the community tries to survive as the zombies close in around them. Not everyone makes it, but you already knew that…

The Walking Dead seems to have been going on so long that it’s practically dead on its feet – series after series, shock after shock, more soap opera than horror story. The media gets everywhere now, so you can hardly have missed it, or references to it. You’ll probably know about people like Negan from only the briefest skim of online entertainment news. Ditto the shocking deaths, the gore, and the fact that Egg from This Life has been turned so convincingly into an American policeman. Hey, remember when you had to actually watch shows to know things like that? You had to sit down with This Life in order to know who Egg was, back in the day. You don’t need to have watched or read The Walking Dead to know who Rick Grimes is. I’m the proof.

But this is a general whinge, and nothing to do with Robert Kirkman’s work. 

I’ve read it now, or at least the first part of a sprawling comic book epic, comprising six issues. As a story it’s hard to fault – exciting, scary, sad, poignant, and gory. As you’ll have spotted it’s not original, though. Man in a coma waking up to find the world changed? We’ve already seen that in a zombie(ish) story, 28 Days Later. Before that, we saw it in Day of the Triffids. And the zombies abide by the modern rules of the genre. But this is to be expected; few fictional constructs are more rigidly defined than zombie lore. Rules get bent or broken in werewolf stories or vampire stories, but sometimes you’ll get a vampire who walks during the day or a werewolf who changes without recourse to lunar cycles, and snorts at the idea of silver bullets in that way only old dogs can. You get little deviation with zombies, though. The late George A Romero didn’t invent the idea of zombies, either, but he surely perfected it, so much so that people rarely mess with the furniture half a century on from Night of the Living Dead. So, The Walking Dead’s Zombies eat human flesh; they can die – for good - via a bullet to the head, or just a general interruption in their brain tissue. They transmit the virus by biting you, after which you die, then un-die. And just as in Romero’s work, the surviving humans, with all their faults, prejudices, lusts and jealousies, must band together to survive as the undead close in. The Walking Dead has plenty of those bits.

Speaking of bits (the kind that drop off), there’s one gruesome novelty in this story that I liked: artist Tony Moore’s walking dead rot properly. I‘ve often wondered – and hopefully It’s Not Just Me – what would happen with zombies regarding insect infestation, if the undead were to exist in real life. Surely beasties and larvae would help the natural processes along, and you wouldn’t get too much trouble from a disarticulated skeleton. In the warm months, there’d be a zombie mass die-out (or die-die-out) as mother nature gets busy on that smorgasbord of decomposing meat. But you rarely see this in zombie films, even though it’d be a really horrific effect to perfect on screen, and a perfectly achievable one with state-of-the art make-up and computer graphics.

Max Brooks, in his Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z, explained that the zombie virus repels insects and slows down the work of bacteria, which I believe was the first time anyone’s actually tried to solve the paradox of rotting zombies which don’t rot properly.

But I’m happy to say The Walking Dead goes the other way; you’ll see the monsters’ skin seething with vermin here. “Give us a kiss!” you would say, before puckering up. In fact, few details are spared in this book, whether that’s in showing you decomposition, spurting blood or the effects of a bullet to the head.

There’s a statement about gun use and gun ownership when one character saves another who hadn’t wanted him to have weapons by killing a zombie with a headshot. The Walking Dead saga comprises 176 issues and counting at time of writing, so this outcome may well be rendered ironic thanks to subsequent episodes. And without guns you’d have a lot less drama in zombie stories, I get that… Just, God spare us a world where owning a firearm is a necessity.

Another great strength to this story is its sense of action underpinned by solid drama and believable characters. Little wonder it translated so well to a long-running TV show, flesh-eaters and flying brains aside. First you’ve got Rick trying to find his family. Then, once he finds them, it turns out they’ve been looked after by his mate, Shane. And not only looked after, in his wife Lori’s case… Always, the test isn’t just family loyalty – it’s got a lot to do with the moral choices Rick Grimes makes, and how much he can hold onto his essential decency while the world goes to hell around him.

What really inspired me to put the words down here was the most frightening thing about this frightening book: the blurb on the back. It goes something like: “When was the last time you really had to do something for yourself? When was the last time you had to find and prepare your own food? When was the last time you had to fight to stay alive?”

These are troubling questions. I can see myself reporting for duties after the army shows up to save us during the undead apocalypse. “What can you do, son?” the guy at the desk would ask. “You got any skills? You build things? You put up houses? You fix fences? You do any farming? Animal husbandry? Hmm. Can you fire a gun? Do you have a gun? Handle guns at all? Even once? No? Have you got any skills we could use? Typing, you say. Well. Think you can adapt to using a shovel? Get shovelling, then. You’re on latrines duty.”

What real skills do you have? It’s a sobering question. And with the passage of time, lack of skill isn’t merely restricted to mechanical matters and nuts n’ bolts practicalities, or even survivalist fantasies. Think about coding, computers, and the digital world. This is everywhere, but how much do you really know about computing? Here we find a new frontier of technical knowledge, and I freely admit I know nothing about it beyond zeroes-and-ones. Most of us would have to phone someone if something goes wrong (and hopefully not with our phones). Or – admit it – we’d simply buy more hardware to replace whatever conked out.

Here is my sum knowledge about coding:

10 Print “bugger all”
20 Goto 10
Run

Who knows when the breakdown will come? Not to go all Chicken Little on everyone, but cities, city states, empires and whole societies fail. It’s happened before, it’ll happen again. There may come an age when London is ruins, or underwater, or a desert. The ancient Babylonians thought they were the bees’ knees, too, but they’re a long time out of the game. The curtain might come down sooner than we think. As I said, it’s a sobering thought.   

February 6, 2018

THE DRACULA FILE

by Gerry Finley-Day, Eric Bradbury et al
98 pages, Rebellio

Review by Pat Black

In 1984, a horror comic called Scream! hit the UK market. This was the height of the video nasties era in Britain, when hype and hysteria helped create something of a sub-cultural boom in all things scary and bloody.

The pattern typically went like this: tabloids hate thing; thing makes money. IPC magazines saw its chance.

I was seven years old. A 10-second TV advert transmitted on a Saturday morning showed Dracula and other horrors hiding behind a sofa, waiting to pounce on a boy reading the comic.

“Don’t buy Scream!” shrieked adverts in other funny pages. “You have been warned!”

Did I fall for it? You betcha.

It was brilliant – aiming for something between a period Hammer Horror and 1950s B-movies, with a few Addams family-style comic cuts thrown in. It had Victorian cryptkeepers, one-off Twilight Zone-style shockers, killer cats, psychic investigators, mutant sea beasts, monsters in the attic, giant spiders, bats, werewolves – and what a werewolf! - graveyards, skulls, cobwebs, tombs, ghosts and ghouls… And who could forget Max the Computer and his 13th Floor? (That’s coming in October… cackle!)

It hit right home - bullseye. I absolutely adored it. If you want a more detailed precis, I’ve extolled its virtues in some depth already, right here

The comic sold very well, but lasted just 15 issues before mysteriously disappearing from Britain’s newsagents. Theories persist that it was a little too near-the-knuckle for a children’s paper, and it had been cancelled as a result of the furore over video nasties then prevalent in the tabloids. Memories of Action! comic’s death-by-media experience were still relatively fresh in the public eye; IPC editorial staff wouldn’t have wanted to take chances.

Other commentators point to a more prosaic fate, with a printer’s strike having caused production on Scream! to stop for two weeks, after which the decision was taken to cancel. Although if that’s the case, why weren’t Roy of the Rovers, Eagle, Whoopee, Whizzer and Chips and all the rest from the IPC stable cancelled, too? Even temporarily? Why did it only kill Scream?

Wherever the truth lies, Scream! was not long for this mortal coil (its top strips ran for a bit longer after they were absorbed into the Eagle), but its black star burned very brightly. In the 34 years since it has enjoyed a charmed afterlife, being very well regarded by serious collectors and casual fans alike. The prices certainly creep up and up on eBay; seeing this, I curse myself for having had the entire collection in my hands before sending them to the cowpp one dark afternoon 15 years ago. Some of those summer specials are going for silly money now.

That said, I would never have sold my copies. If you read Scream! as a child, you never, ever forgot it.

Having bought IPC’s rich back catalogue from Egmont, 2000AD publisher Rebellion is reprinting its Treasure Trove Of British comics in collected form. This means Scream! can look forward to a joyful resurrection.

The Dracula File is a complete collection of strips from all 15 issues of Scream! as well as four holiday specials. It features Scream!’s cover star and its lead story in each issue… Yes, it’s Dracula. The Count sports a timeless look, borrowing from classic screen incarnations, and yet with a style all of his own - hair swept back from his skull, widow’s peak, dark hair, fangs, a cape, a medallion… and scary eyes.

The Dracula File brought the Count into present day England in 1984. It starts with someone defecting from the East German side in Berlin, somehow surviving being zapped with a machine gun as he makes a break for it in no-man’s land.

It soon becomes clear that the defector isn’t your regular Soviet spy come in from the cold. We don’t get into the reasons why Dracula doesn’t just change into a bat or a dog and try to get across that way, or even why he bothers with stealing a uniform when he has a spooky supernatural costume of his own. Logic is dispensed with many times in these stories.

The Count has used his defection as the perfect cover to get back to England and take up residence in the streets he knew 100 years before. After turning two humans into his servants, he is soon out for blood on those 1980s mean streets…

I’ll make a confession. Although I loved Dracula as a kid, I didn’t love The Dracula File. It wasn’t what I really looked forward to every issue. This is because Dracula wasn’t scary to me, the same was as Bruce the Shark or Darth Vader weren’t scary to me either – I saw them as heroes (anti-heroes might be a better term, although they were proper heroes to me). I’d have been happy with posters of them above my bed – and I was.

I’m not saying I identified with Dracula or anything, although I do recall lying in a cardboard box at my folks’ and pretending it was my coffin. Should I admit to that in public? Shit, I just have.

So, as I loved Dracula rather than feared him, I was more intrigued by the things which I did find scary about Scream! - such as the Library of Death anthology series, or The 13th Floor.

Looking at it with fresh eyes but an older head, I’m struck by how fantastic The Dracula File was – particularly Eric Bradbury’s artwork. Scripted by Rogue Trooper creator Gerry Finley-Day, this is a cheesy old Dracula, but he wasn’t rendered cheesily. In the front covers – in particular the unforgettable image snarling at you from the 1986 Holiday Special – he could be horrific, with greenish skin and blood smeared over his fangs. Bradbury paid particularly close attention to Drac’s eyes – his scariest feature. In these stories, you’ll see Drac morph into a bat or wolf, you’ll see him stalking people in the dark, and you’ll see him turn into smoke and choke people.

In one brilliant frame, Dracula waits inside a postbox, his eyes blazing forth from the slot when a luckless blood donor passes by one night.

I should have been more scared than I was, if that makes sense. And although you’ll never see Drac with his mouth fixed on anyone’s throat (there’s nothing remotely sensual in his blood-sucking, an understandably puritanical rendering of the vampire mythology), you’ll see him do some surprisingly nasty things. The worst graphic death by a mile is the punishment he metes out to a street hooligan he finds bullying a young boy in an alley – instant death with one swipe of his clawed hands.   

Of course, Drac is no white knight. After killing or scattering the bullies, he gluts himself on the boy they were picking on.

See? It’s nasty. You remember these things.

That aside, it’s pleasingly tongue-in-cheek. Let loose in London, Dracula stalks victims in a cinema, as they watch a horror movie entitled Dracula’s Death. Drac pounces at the same moment his on-screen depiction does the same to a victim in the film, with the very real screams drowned out by the audience. Then, even more deliciously, Dracula is invited to a Hallowe’en costume party by people impressed by his get-up. People offer him a drink, and he smiles sardonically. You almost don’t want this episode to end.

The prince of darkness is stalked by a man called Stakis (har de har), a tough KGB defector with a briefcase full of vampire-killing goodies… but you’re never quite on his side. He gets close to Dracula – at more than one point his stake is poised, waiting for the hammer to fall - but never close enough. A few flashback episodes show you an English vampire hunter who succeeds in making a killing stroke on his undead quarry back in Transylvania… but if Hammer Horror has shown us anything, it is that Dracula always comes back.

This handsome hardback collection is a bargain, and I treasure it already. It has the full bhoona (the full black pudding might be a better description) – absolutely everything Dracula-related from Scream!, including the full serial, all the one-off holiday special strips from 1985-88, a Dracula quiz, Dracula readers’ letters and artwork, all the front cover images and a quick essay detailing IPC’s horror output. If you were in the same sweet spot as me, a comics fan aged 7-12 in 1984, then you probably have this already. If you don’t, you should.

Creature feature Ant Wars from 2000AD (I encountered it in a 1980s reprint in Eagle) is out now from Rebellion; Scream! stalwart The 13th Floor is coming in October, and I cannot wait for that.

If anyone out there is listening, can we please, please have Bloodfang the tyrannosaur?

I dunno how successful this relaunch is, but I can tell you that it’s got my money safe. HookJaw the shark, another reprint from Action!, will be reviewed soon… after that, we’ll check out fellow Scream! alumni Uncle Terry, from Monster. Do tune in…

If you dare…