A Nostalgia Trigger From the Grotty Floating Hovel: Slipknot’s We Are Not Your Kind

So Slipknot have released a new album and it’s a winner, beating even Ed Sheeran in the charts and delivering a slice of post-nu-metal that satisfies this nostalgic punter on so, so many levels.

But beyond the simple enjoyment of tucking into the fresh material of a band with whom you’ve intermittently come of age, is the refreshingly optimistic realisation that something previously thought irrelevant can be good again; that the adage of ‘has-been’ is something our culture has been getting wrong all these years.

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Neither is it an entirely alien feeling, either: I’ve personally been very glad to fall in love with The Pale Emperor, another latter-day release by a supposed has-been who was a musical guiding star for me even before Slipknot took over in the late nineties.

I still remember popping in a bootleg cassette of Marilyn Manson’s Mechanical Animals and thrilling to the wash of immersive-yet-subversive sounds; the photocopied wrap-around cover not being cut entirely right, so that the album read ‘Mechanical Anima’ in what felt like an apposite error: the pained screams of a mechanised soul, the ghost in the machine aching to express itself in mournful, trickster anger.

But we’ve seen this elsewhere too. The Cure, by all accounts, knocking it out of the park at Glastonbury (wish I’d been there for that one). Actors we thought washed up at the movies returning to shine on the smaller screen, reaping the benefits of the kind of long-form storytelling afforded by the TV Renaissance to character actors whose creases accommodate stories of nuance and depth.

stranger things

Weaponised nostalgia: Netflix’s Stranger Things

I’m convinced that this isn’t just the Stranger Things impulse: it’s not just about the indulgence in nostalgia for its own sake. For one, this surely the historical time-frames we’re dealing with here are too compressed, too recent to offer the kind of generational time-hop necessitated by the kind of the thing the Stranger Things does?

Granted, twenty years is a sizeable amount of time. It used to be a lifetime, not all that long ago. But just like we’re getting re-assessments of The Matrix and American Beauty (Brian Raftery’s Best. Movie. Year. Ever. offers an excellent analysis of the cinematic mainstream in that low-key magical year of 1999), this is more about taking stock than sinking in the warm bath of cultural nostalgia.

Maybe it has something to do with the way distribution models have changed. Both American Beauty’s Alan Ball and The Matrix’s Wachowski siblings, with varying degrees of success, have managed to find a foothold in the realm of TV. And with MTV no longer being the benchmark of what’s cool and popular, maybe musicians not being beholden to their cycles also serves as an opportunity.

Yes, social media is hardly ever a good thing. It’s too image-obsessed. It’s too fragmented and fickle. Far too easily beholden to manipulating and manipulateable algorithms to ease our minds into believing that our enjoyment of pop culture is not an expression of some folksy universality. Instead, it’s just us bending the knee to our corporate overlords yet again.

And yet, and yet. Being part of an ever-shifting stream means the ‘has-been’ is an obsolete term. When the hegemonic order is dispersed — again, when MTV is no longer the arbiter — age really does become just a number.

With MTV no longer being the benchmark of what’s cool and popular, maybe musicians not being beholden to their cycles also serves as an opportunity

A number, much like Slipknot’s own members styled themselves, at first. Now of course, their masks and costumes have evolved into something eminently Instagrammable, but that’s a rich discussion to be had on another day.

I’m no music critic and I actually can’t claim to have heard Slipknot all that much beyond their blistering sophomore effort Iowa (2001), but there’s certainly something to be said about how We Are Not Your Kind has burrowed its hooks in me pretty deep.

It comes down to that well-calculated blend of the familiar and the new. In this case, experience doesn’t communicate exhaustion, but depth and maturity. Like a friend you haven’t seen for a while returning from an exciting year of adventuring across countries, continents and galaxies, eager to recount their experience over refreshments in safe and comfortable surroundings.

slipknot iowa

The nine Iowans comprising Slipknot’s classic line-up wouldn’t be all that familiar with dingy arcades on Mediterranean beaches, but We Are Not Your Kind’s opener ‘Insert Coin’ certainly evokes that for me: these oil-caked, fry-up-stinking hovels are the kind of places we’d get some shade in while dipping in and out of the sea during those carefree summers.

One of these summers was that of 1999, where we’d scratch together pocket-money to get our hands on the band’s scene-changing, self-titled debut album. In a post-Napster, pre-Spotify world this would be a talisman of contemporary metal soon to be joined by the likes of Soulfly’s ‘Back to the Primitive’ and Fear Factory’s ‘Digimortal’, whose cuts we would still get to enjoy in grotty one-room nightclub venues, now closed, and whose single-row metallic pissoirs I remember with markedly diminished affection.

As an overbuilt, overcrowded and overpolluted floating hovel, Malta provides plenty of atmospheric angst of its own

Because while the angst inherent in Slipknot’s repertoire has something of the universal about it, neither should it be all that surprising that the sun-kissed Mediterranean isle I hail from is partial to a bit of metal.

Many of the bands that serve as mainstays of this scene rehearse in badly-lit, terribly under-oxygenated garages located in the depressed industrial town of Marsa and the mushrooming suburb of Birkirkara… as an overbuilt, overcrowded and overpolluted floating hovel, Malta provides plenty of atmospheric angst of its own.

It’s an angst that certainly finds cathartic release in We Are Not Your Kind’s hit single ‘Unsainted’, whose blasphemous undertones speak to Malta’s only-recent de facto liberation from Catholic theocracy while admittedly also existing as tropey metal mainstays. The song is a distillation of just the kind of anthemic perfection that launched Slipknot into the mainstream; boasting a killer chorus limned by jagged but thumping surrounding verses, like an speed-injected Cadbury Creme Egg framed by a Marmite-marinated crown of thorns.

For me, it’s a reminder of the energetic core that’s the true appeal of metal music. The magnetic pull that can’t be denied; that others will find in other genres, but that nothing else really replaces for me even now, when my own tastes have evolved beyond what I’d used to listen to twenty years ago. Yes, I’ll tell myself that I only really listen to the likes of Opeth and Tool anymore, but when songs Korn’s ‘Blind’, or Fear Factory’s ‘Replica’, or Slipknot’s ‘Wait and Bleed’ and indeed ‘Unsainted’ pop back up on the horizon I can’t help but run towards them.

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But neither should we diminish the importance of evolution and maturity; the adding of something new to the mix. The washed-up actor whose career finds a new lease of life on Netflix or HBO should use their hard-won scars and creases to their advantage, not cover them up. Otherwise, that’s how we end up in Stranger Things territory (please accept by continued and non-flattering references to this show as mere shorthand, I actually enjoy it quite a bit).

Thankfully, We Are Not Your Kind does manage to achieve that elusive blend of the old and new. It distills Slipknot back into their essence, but like truly seasoned artists, they still manage to slide in a reminder that they’re aging gracefully.

‘Spiders’ is a kooky Mike Patton-like number that still manages to be true to the ‘Knot’s Halloween-horror roots, while ‘My Pain’ cranks up both the atmospherics and melancholy. But this isn’t a mellowing out so much as a deepening of the musical landscape they’ve created. More than anything, Slipknot feel even more ‘cinematic’ now, wedded to their inspired imagery in more ways than one. More John Carpenter than Cannibal Corpse, and all the better for it.

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And perhaps this is why We Are Not Your Kind resonates with me so much right at this moment. While it’s hard to resist the nostalgia and romance that their debut evokes for me (see above), and I’m in a place where I’d rather fight for the hovel that is Malta to become a little bit less so; to salvage what is left of its green spaces, and for local bands to be able to practice in more than just grotty garages.

More than anything, though, the sonic architecture makes for a perfect writing accompanyment. It pummels at me to write and create works with uncompromising verve and energy, while offering that break of atmospheric concentration that’s also necessary to the process.

In short, it is a perfect soundscape of horror, which can take many forms, and whose protean variety I am continuing to find utterly thrilling.

Plus, “Horror will never die” says John Carpenter himself… another supposed has-been whose musical career offers a dignified middle-finger to that very notion.

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Film Reviews | Local Respite and Arthouse Oxygen After These Bloody Blockbusters

I’ve waited for the reviews to form a satisfyingly diverse cluster before putting this together, as it’s been an interesting couple of months at the movies. But here they are; some of my recent pieces of film criticism for MaltaToday, liberally cherry-picked and in no particular order.

Which is, of course, a total lie. Cherry-picking implies selection, and selection implies intention, which implies order of some kind.

In this case, we’ve see a few glittering diamonds in the rough just about rising up for air in an atmosphere suffused by entertaining, but equally suffocating, blockbuster fare.

***

The Inevitable Epic: Avengers – Endgame 

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“Though an epic send-off may have felt like a foregone conclusion Marvel Studio’s unprecedentedly long-running superhero saga, the mammoth achievement that’s ensued is certainly no casual fluke. Carefully calibrated to give each character and sub-plot their due while never short-changing its emotional content, Avengers: Endgame gives itself the licence of sizeable running time to tell a story that is part dirge, part mind-bending time travelling heist and part meditation on friendship and power. The cinematic landscape may have been changed by these colourfully-clad supermen and women in debatable ways, but the byzantine byways of its interconnected stories clicking so satisfyingly together is certainly no mean feat.”

Click here to read the full review

Note: Check out a more ambitious, expansive and crazier foray into superhero-media criticism in this article, which I was graciously invited to pen for Isles of the Left

The Vicious Familiar: Us 

Us

“More ambitious and tighter than his barnstorming Get Out in equal measure, Jordan Peele’s second stab at film-making may have some rips at its seams, but in the long run makes for a thrilling feature with something to say. Satisfyingly structured and laced with nuggets of ambiguity that will burrow through the brain, it’s offers a full-bodied experience of genre cinema that feels sorely needed in a landscape oversaturated with superheroes and remakes.”

Click here to read the full review

Third Time Bloody: John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum

Keanu Reeves stars as 'John Wick' in JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3 - PARABELLUM.

“Expanding on its world with a tightly-focused and clever simplicity that allows more than ample room for its trademark bloodbath-balletics to shine through, the third installment of the little action franchise that could continues to plough its way through the competition with violent, witty elan. A satisfying ride from start to finish, Reeves and Stahelski’s baby has grown up and taken the world by storm, while betraying zero signs of franchise fatigue so far.”

Click here to read the full review

Local Flavour: Limestone Cowboy

Limestone Cowboy

“Though lacking polish in certain areas and never quite managing to resist the temptation to stuff every frame with ‘local colour’, Limestone Cowboy remains an engaging and effective dramedy that successfully alchemises quirky Maltese mores into a feature of universal appeal.”

Click here to read the full review

Too Good For This World: Happy As Lazzaro

Happy As Lazzaro

“While offering an unflinching and deeply upsetting gaze into the unequal power structures of capitalism both past and present, Happy as Lazzaro also manages to be a rich and rewarding fable, limned with a magical glow that keeps cynicism and hopelessness at bay. Mixing in a team of first-time actors and non-professionals with established names, Alice Rohrwacher creates something of a minor miracle, which is likely to remain resonant for years to come.”

Click here to read the full review

***

Coming up: Reviews of Vox Lux (dir. Brady Corbet) and Beats (dir. Brian Welsh). Check out my Facebook, Twitter and Instagram avatars for updates on reviews and other projects

 

Film Reviews | Too Much Colour, Some Black & White and the Perfect Middle

It’s been a while since I’ve posted links to my ‘day job’ film reviews here. There’s no strict or particular reason for this; it’s just something that I’ve been doing by rote for the largest chunk of what one could call my career (it is, in fact, the practice that kickstarted it all), so that it often feels superfluous to point to it in any explicit way.

But this is, of course, just my own psychological cushioning and laziness at play, and shouldn’t be given all the credence it’s been getting. So for whatever it’s worth, here’s a handful of recent reviews I’ve written up for ye olde and trusty homestead at MaltaToday.

Too Much Colour: Aquaman

aquaman

(…too much, but that’s okay…)

“While certainly not without its faults, James Wan’s brave and confident handling of the latest offering from the struggling ‘shared universe’ by DC moves at a steady clip despite its cumbersome running time and some perfunctory exposition. With nary an original beat in sight, what we do get is a classic hero origin story all set in a mesmerising undersea world that is not afraid to indulge the full technicolour bliss of comic book fantasia.”

Click here to read the full review

Two Colours Only: Roma

Roma

“An autobiographical story that somehow manages to feel both intimate and massive, Alfonso Cuarón’s trip down memory lane is a masterful feat of empathy and historical reckoning. In a world where repressive governments insist on barring entry to outsiders, and where a toxic political discourse based on constricting identity politics chokes the global conversation, Roma feels like a welcome breath of intimate and complex humanity.”

Click here to read the full review

The Colours Are Just Right: The Favourite

THE FAVOURITE

“Caustically funny without being flippant or excessively mean-spirited and beautifully wrought but eschewing visual fetishisation, The Favourite is a rare beast indeed: a sneakily entertaining anti-period drama that deconstructs the foibles of its erstwhile genre while sustaining the momentum of a mutually destructive human vortex that is perversely, beguilingly entertaining from start to finish.”

Click here to read the full review

To go along with the colour-wheel vibe established here, my review of Netflix’s Velvet Buzzsaw is out in today’s edition of the paper. Online version will be up in a few days’ time, but suffice it to say that my take is about as unflattering as anything Gyllenhall’s sneery art critic character could come up with on a good-bad day.

Savouring the Action | Mission Impossible: Fallout

It’s been a while since a summer blockbuster has impressed me as much as Christopher McQuarrie’s Mission Impossible: Fallout has, and this speaks to both my own fatigue with the Hollywood mainstream as well as the very evident mechanics which foment that fatigue.

I’m writing this literally minutes after having also enjoyed Ant Man & The Wasp, but that enjoyment was tellingly less pronounced when compared to the exhilaration I felt during particularly the latter act of the Tom Cruise-starring superspy epic, the poster for which I was left to gaze on longingly during our intermission for the latest Marvel Studios installment — yes, intermissions are still a thing here — and wishing that I was back in there with Ethan Hunt.

mission impossible tom cruise

I’m tempted to assume that a heady confluence of factors led to the Mission Impossible franchise being the primary rallying point for action cinema this season. One of them is Tom Cruise’s sheer determination to cement his status as a still-viable action hero, as he sets out on a warpath to run, climb, punch and kick his way out of an uncomfortable whirlwind of tabloid-friendly personal eccentricity.

The other is the simple existence of the John Wick franchise, which reminded all and sundry — but most significantly, studio heads — that shaky cam should no longer be the way to make action movies, and that if you do it properly, all the money you spend on thorough choreography and lucid camerawork will be recouped by an appreciative audience.

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It’s also a reminder that action is a balletic feature of any narrative, that should be taken in slowly and savoured. Unlike the Michael Bays of this world, McQuarrie seems to understand that action is not a condiment to be assaulted with. It should be an integral part of the meal — a showcase piece, to be sure, but not a murderously spicy dish that brings tears to your eyes before coming to life to punch you in the face, leaving you black-eyed and confused.

Another thing that also made Fallout so endearing is that it tapped into the vein of espionage-pulp that the Bond franchise has gone weird on, and that Bourne has reduced to a gritty sludge that nobody is biting on anymore. It comes down to a pact with the audience – an understanding that these are superhero stories where the heroes have no powers but do superheroics regardless, and where technology is effectively magic.

So yeah. Mission Impossible: Fallout. I liked it a bunch. Read my ‘official’ review of it on MaltaToday by clicking here

 

Short and Bittersweet | Pick of the Novellas | Neil Williamson, Immanuel Mifsud, Jonathan Ames

I like novellas. There’s something about their in-between state which really speaks to me, and makes me feel as though I can forge a more intimate connection with them than other genres and formats on either side of the word-count spectrum.

‘Full’ novels demand a commitment and immersion by proxy. They are to be consumed across various intervals, and the stops and starts make them more of an organising principle than something to be savoured — just like the prestige (or not-so-prestige) TV series a lot of them are ending up as these days, they need to be scheduled into your day until you finally complete them, before moving on to the next one.

And while the membrane separating short stories and novellas can be quite thin at times — a couple of thousand odd words here and there can land the tale in either one category or the other — there’s still something different in the experience of either.

Short fiction has the punch of the impressionistic moment in its favour — the sketch, the instant of revelation (or put another way, epiphany — as exemplified so often in that landmark short story collection, James Joyce’s Dubliners).

The novella, on the other hand, allows for the core ideas to unspool just enough to give them breathing room — at its best, it can be the perfect, attention-grabbing marriage between ‘thought experiment and narrative.

IMG_20180506_163237I thought a lot about this particular facility of the novella as I dug into The Memoirist by Neil Williamson (NewCon Press, 2017). Set in a world where surveillance is paramount, the story focuses on Rhian Fitzgerald, a wordsmith for hire currently charged with ghost-writing the biography of Eloide Eagles, former lead singer of the subversive punk band The HitMEBritneys.

I was familiar with the Scottish writer’s short fiction prior to diving into The Memoirist, his first novella, and I found the same penchant for quirky ideas and sensitive portrayals of human beings — specifically, how they deal with situations that might feel off-kilter.

The Memoirist is also a masterwork in building up a near-future science fictional world without any recourse to crude info-dumping, all the while keeping the narrative threads working towards a fine, crystalline target.

This is also very much evident in his short fiction, and his amusing, politically sensitive story ‘Fish on Friday’, from the collection Secret Language, is one of my favourite examples of this… and a close thematic fit to The Memoirist, which offers a similarly low-key take on what would otherwise be considered technological dystopias.

While her subject — an aging punk rocker famous for her anti-surveillance stance — would slot in comfortably as the protagonist in more cookie-cutter cyber-noir stories, here Williamson has the far more laissez-faire Rhian experience that journey.

After watching a historical live performance by Eagles — in which she angrily denounces the new surveillance status quo — Rhian confesses to finding it “difficult to sympathise with her anger”.

“No one had ever been going to strip the public completely of their privacy. If anything, now, your private things were more private. There were clear lines. As long as you observed them, you were fine. So what if we all had to be on all the time these days? To pay more attention to our appearance and watch our P’s and Q’s a bit more, under the gaze of family, friends, schools, bosses, colleagues, clients […] It was all about being a better public person. A small price to pay for a safer world.”

Such a cloyingly ‘neutral’ position is a perfect vantage point through which we can be introduced to this not-so-brave, not-so-new world, and Williamson deftly calibrates both the necessary exposition and our sympathies for the protagonist.

This is a character-driven slice of cyberpunk, with a clear idea at its centre and a satisfying structure that perfectly fits the novella format.

The Memoirist takes advantage of the narrative economy offered up by the novella, operating on satisfying narrative beats that hearken back to the noir genre that’s always lying nested in any cyberpunk work worth its salt. But while the slim, ‘movie-length’ page count can give us a certain satisfaction as the mystery unfolds, the ability to depart from narrative convention without taxing the readers’ attention all that much is another advantage of the novella, I find.

IMG_20180506_163200I certainly found this to be the case with Immanuel Mifsud’s Fl-Isem Tal-Missier (u Tal-Iben) (‘In the Name of the Father (and Of the Son’)). Nestled as it is somewhere between novella and memoir — with frequent and appropriately-footnoted recourse to literary theorists like Helene Cixous — Mifsud’s landmark work of contemporary Maltese literature, now translated into several languages, packs both an emotional and intellectual punch.

“On the 21st Dec 1939 I joined the British army and was enlisted in the 2nd Battalion. The King’s Own Malta Regiment, this regiment was stationed at St. Andrews barracks and we were instructed by the NCOs of different units. The first day that I spent at the barracks I was very happy, my comrades used to teach me how I must fowled the blankits and how to mount the equipment and how to clean the Rifle.”

So Mifsud introduces us to the voice of his late father, soon after his death, and just as Mifsud has become a father himself. He plucks the entry verbatim from an old diary, and prompted by that same fount, Mifsud applies an impressive intellectual rigour to what is, clearly, also a richly emotional landscape.

Scholar, poet, prose writer… the amorphous format of the novella allows Mifsud to tap into all of his varied talents. Some of the passages in the book build precisely with the musical crescendo of a poem, but then Mifsud also dips into a rich found of contemporary philosophy and psychoanalytic theory to explore the implications of his father’s legacy on his own psyche.

It’s a profound and utterly honest work that bears revisiting, and fortunately, the novella format makes repeat readings an all the more palatable experience.

IMG_20180506_163054But the final novella I’m going to look into is so ringed with bleakness that repeat readings may not exactly be the thing you end up craving as you put it down… however, that’s not to say that Jonathan Ames’ You Were Never Really Here doesn’t encourage you to keep those pages turning… thus ensuring that you’ll likely have it done and dusted in roughly the same amount of time it’ll take you to finish its superlative film adaptation by Lynne Ramsay.

Mining a furrow of contemporary noir so dark you’d be forgiven in assuming that Ames was really just arranging the genre’s grisly puzzle pieces to get a rise from the readership (a pinprick-accuracy that is reflected in the book’s sparse style), the book finds former FBI agent and Marine, Joe, take on a case that leads him into a spiraling underworld of corruption and sexual depravity.

Though Ames certainly does get mileage out of Joe’s effectiveness at meting out calculated violence, this isn’t a book that’s dripping in machismo — which, again, gave Ramsay an excellent entry point from which to construct a tonally rich though no less harrowing thriller — but rather, in a legacy of fatherhood that’s far more toxic than anything we see explored in Mifsud’s volume.

Left to care for his sickly mother, Joe is in turn hollowed out by years of abuse at the hands of his father. His attempts to find redemption leave him stuck on a loop; he rescues girls from sex trafficking rings, but this rarely salves any of the pain left by his father — pain inflicted even by implements such as hammers. And in what becomes a clear-as-crystal illustration of the cyclical nature of abuse, hammers end up being Joe’s favourite tool of the trade because, “He was his father’s son after all.”

“Also, a hammer left very little evidence, was excellent in close quarters, and seemed to frighten everyone. It held some universal place of terror in the human mind. The unexpected sight of it raised in Joe’s hand would always momentarily paralyze his enemies, and those few seconds of paralysis were usually all he needed.”

Made up of perfectly pruned sentences that move the narrative along as if it were a film just unfolding in front of you, the adaptation feels like something of a foregone conclusion. But leaving that aside for a minute, Ames’ slim-and-grim story made me crave for more of this stuff. Because dark as it is, being able to slip into such a world in the full knowledge that the story will never drag, that its moments of violence and revelation will soon peak to a crescendo without the risk of getting lost along the way… these are the things that make me thankful for novellas.

End of Year Favourite Things | Horror, Revisionism, Punishment and Thor(s)

As I’ve mentioned in my last post, December took it upon itself to welcome me with a nasty sucker-punch of the flu: a freelancer’s nightmare in a season when all the clients want things done in bulk so that everyone can rest up during the holidays.

But one upside of it all is being able to soak in all the stuff I would have soaked in otherwise, but with an added single-mindedness… partly owing to the fact that I could do little else and so was justified in spending days on end just reading and watching things.

So here are some recent things I’ve consumed and enjoyed during that period… though some of them were either consumed or begun before the illness hit. Either way, feel free to allow them to double-up as gift ideas. Am sure the indie creators on the list would appreciate that especially.

Tanzer_CREATURES_OF_WILL_AND_TEMPER_finalCreatures of Will and Temper by Molly Tanzer (novel)

I was never too keen on the ‘& Zombies’ sub-genre of literature, if we can call it that. It just seems like such a one-trick-pony gimmick that to spread it out over an entire book — much less an entire unofficial series of them — just struck me as a bit redundant and silly.

Having said that, I did enjoy the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies film, in large part because director Burr Steers deftly shot all of it as a Jane Austen pastiche first and foremost, with the zombies having to blend in with the established ‘heritage film’ mise-en-scene, rather than overpowering everything into pulp madness once they do show up.

Rest assured that Tanzer’s novel — a meticulously put together gender-swapped take on Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray — owes very little to the ‘& Zombies’ trend, save for perhaps this last element. When the supernatural element does rear its ugly head, it does so in world with firm period rules already established, and in a story about sibling angst that stands front-and-centre for the bulk of the running time.

The result is an experience that is both immersive and captivating; a Victorian pastiche and tribute to the legacy of Wilde that very much scratches those familiar itches, while also offering a fun, pulpy comeuppance in the end.

***

The-Man-Who-Laughs-CoverThe Man Who Laughs by David Hine & Mark Stafford (graphic novel)

The last thing I did before getting sick was attend Malta Comic Con 2017, and a fun time that was indeed. Meeting old friends and new under the spell of our geeky obsessions is an experience that’s tough to beat. I also spent an inordinate amount of money on comics and artwork and no, I regret nothing.

Particularly when it concerns undeniable gems such as these — a work that once again draws on a literary classic, though one certainly not as universally lauded as The Picture of Dorian Gray.

As writer David Hine writes in an afterword to this adaptation of Victor Hugo’s L’ Homme qui rit — perhaps more famous for a silent film adaptation starring Conrad Veidt which in turn inspired look of Batman’s arch-nemesis The Joker — the original novel, a late-period Hugo miles away from the populist charm of a Les Miserables, is something of a convoluted, knotted beast whose socio-political digressions he’s had to cut down to ensure the story flows as well as it can.

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Mark Stafford, ladies and gentlemen

Stripped down as such, and aided by tremendous illustration work from artist Mark Stafford, the volcanic melodrama at the centre of the story — and it is a melodrama, though perhaps in the best possible sense of the word — is allowed to come to the fore, and I practically tore through the pages as my heart raced, yearning to discover the fate of poor perma-rictus-infested Gwynplaine and his fragile adoptive family.

Stafford’s work really is tremendous, though. His grasp of the grotesque idiom works to highlight both the social horror and sublime tragedy that frames the whole story, and the chalk-like colouring technique adds that something special to the feel of each page.

The assured lines and deliberate exaggerations brought to mind the work of Lynd Ward, and in any case — here’s a story that definitely shares some genetic make-up with God’s Man, dealing as it does with the venal, compromising nature of the world.

***

winnebagoWinnebago Graveyard by Steve Niles and Alison Sampson (comics)

Collecting all the single issues of the titular series, this is another gorgeous artefact I managed to pick up at Malta Comic Con, this time from its affable and keenly intelligent artist, Alison Sampson, who was kind enough to sign my copy over a chat about the comic’s intertextual DNA of ‘Satanic panic’ and folk horror.

It’s a lovely-to-the-touch, velvety volume that comes with generous backmatter expounding on the same DNA, but what’s in between isn’t half bad either.

A simple story about a family being shoved into a deeply unpleasant situation — i.e., an amusement park that dovetails into a Satanic human-sacrifice ritual — is elevated away from cliche by Sampson’s art, which flows from one panel to another — often letting rigid panel divisions hang in the process, actually — in a grimy-and-gooey symphony.

***

god butcherThor: The God Of Thunder (Vols. 1 & 2) by Jason Aaron & Esad Ribic (comics)

More comics now, though this one only confirms that I’m as much of a lemming to the machinations of popular culture as anyone else. To wit: when Comixology announced a discount-deal on a bunch of Thor comics in the wake of the brilliant and hilarious Thor: Ragnarok, I bit like the hungriest fish of the Asgardian oceans.

I’m glad I succumbed to this obvious gimmick, though, because it gave me the chance to catch up with this gem of a story arc, which gives us three Thors for the price of one, all of them trying to stop not just their own Ragnarok but the ‘Ragnarok’ of all the gods of the known universe, as the vengeful Gorr vows to unleash genocide on every single divine creature out there.

The two storylines out of the run that I’ve read so far — ‘The God Butcher’ and ‘Godbomb’ — felt like such a perfect distillation of everything that makes superhero comics work. A grandiose, epic story of ludicrously huge stakes, sprinkled with a necessary indulgence in pulp craziness (Thor on a space-shark, anyone?) which is in turn deflated by the strategic deployment of self-deprecating humour (the sarcastic back-and-forth between the Thors is a pure delight).

Ribic’s art seals the deal though. His gods certainly look the part — they may as well have been carved out of marble — helped along by the clean, gleaming shimmer that is Dean White’s colouring work.

While I eagerly look forward to devouring the latter half of the series, this rounds off a great year in Norse-related literature for me, during which I’ve enjoyed Christine Morgan’s across-the-board excellent The Raven’s Table from Word Horde, while I’m currently devouring Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology — a book that so far displays the popular myth-maker’s slinky and pleasant way with words, if nothing else.

shark

***

The Punisher (TV)

the punisher

Another Marvel product that needs no signal-boosting for me, but which I found gripping enough through its 13-episode run, for some obvious and less-obvious reasons. Yes, updated as it is to insert a too-easy critique of the American military-industrial complex (though really, only of its “bad apples”), Frank Castle’s adventures offer an easy cathartic kick.

As the title character of another show I love dearly — far, far more dearly than The Punisher or anything else for that matter — would have it, “Doing bad things to bad people makes us feel good“.

But that wasn’t what stayed with me. What stayed with me was Frank’s very nature as a “revenant” — he’s even referred to as such by another character at one point — and how that’s hammered home by the fact that he’s made to operate from an underground lair as his true self, but that when he returns temporarily to the surface, it is as if he were alive again, but only when he wears his new disguise.

A mythic touch in a story that revels in its supposed grittiness, and a welcome one too.

Happy holidays to all!