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It was like an Abadazad museum. There were copies of the first three books…Little Martha in Abadazad, Queen Ija of Abadazad and the Eight Oceans of Abadazad

…that looked as old as Mrs Vaughn. A tiara that looked just like the one the Two-Fold Witch wore (I’m sure the rubies were fake, but they sure seemed real to me. Of course I’ve never seen a real ruby in my life). And best of all, hand-painted figurines of Queen Ija, Professor Headstrong, Mary Annette, Mister Gloom, Master Wix, and a whole mess of other characters. And they weren’t like the plastic junk you see in the toy stores. They weren’t even like those ridiculously expensive “collectibles” they sell to super-nerd adults who never got a life. This stuff – I wish I could explain it – it was like they weren’t based on the characters, they WERE the characters. Like each of those little figures had…I dunno…a soul or something.

I remember the first time I heard about Abadazad. It was featured on the sadly defunct Ninth Art review site. J.M. DeMatteis and Mike Ploog‘s series received rave reviews, even talk of a Disney film adaptation shortly after the first issue, but that was not enough to protect the book from the implosion of publisher Crossgen. Fortunately Disney did acquire the rights to the series, but only three books out of a proposed eight were ever published. Here’s an interview with DeMatteis explaining what inspired the story in the first place.

What I am reviewing is in fact the second iteration of Abadazad, published by Disney in a format that mixes Ploog’s art with pages of text. DeMatteis introduces the clever premise that we are actually reading the diary of the main character, Kate, which has been enchanted. So the images that appear are in fact magical windows into the world of Abadazad itself, which Kate can look through – but sometimes the creatures she sees can see her as well. It’s an inventive wave of justifying the use of these colourful illustrations and text.

For most of her life, fourteen-year-old Kate raised her younger brother Matty. Her parents separated when the children were young and instead of having a typical childhood in Brooklyn, the two would read the novels of Franklin O. Davies together, describing the adventures of plucky young heroine Little Martha in a magical land called Abadazad. Their mother Frances was left a mess after the divorce, so retreating into this fantasy world afforded the children a welcome escape from the adult world of depression and misery they were trapped in.

Then one day at a summer fair, in front of Kate’s eyes, Matty simply vanishes. That was five years ago. Matty’s face has been on milk cartons and Kate has been seeing a therapist ever since. ‘Frantic Frances’, has retreated further into herself and her daughter has turned on her, in an attempt to alleviate her own guilt. “It’s been five years, Frances, he’s dead. Get over it.”

Kate meets an elderly neighbour, Mrs Vaughn, who owns an impressive collection of Abadazad memorabilia and even claims to have known Franklin O. Davies. At first Kate finds herself reminded of her own dead grandmother, but then Mrs Vaughn starts to say some strange things. Such as that Abadazad is real. She has been there and, what’s more, she was Little Martha. Kate argues that Little Martha was a white girl and Mrs Vaughn is an old black lady. She claims Franklin O. Davies made the character Little Martha white to sell more books, but the books are just adapted from her own magical adventures. Kate is halfway out the door when Mrs Vaughn says something even crazier. Her brother Matty is alive – and he is in Abadazad.

For the purposes of this review I read the first two volumes of the Abadazad series. While some might feel the pace somewhat slow, DeMatteis does  a great job of introducing the character of Kate and establishing this more modern setting, contrasting her upbringing with that of say Dorothy Gale, or Little Nemo. Abadazad itself is a hybrid of Dr. Seuss and Oz – and Mike Ploog’s illustrations reminded me of the Seussian wonderland featured in Tom Fowler‘s Mysterius the Unfathomable.

By the second volume the story really takes off. There are repeated allusions to the censoring of children’s fantasy, with Kate surprised at what Davies left out for commercial purposes.

Warm, funny and sweet – travel to Abadazad.

As I said  in yesterday’s review, I have decided this weekend to write about two comic book creators whom I am most excited about for the next year. Yesterday I wrote about Paul Cornell, today I have chosen Jeff Parker. Now as it happens I have already reviewed a book by Parker – the whimsical Mysterius the Unfathomable. His comic book career continues to grow from strength to strength, and like Cornell, he evidences a strong fondness for a brighter, more fun spin on the stories he writes. Agents of Atlas, his superhero team book for Marvel Comics, is a wonderful example of comic book absurdism, with talking gorillas, vast global conspiracies and underworld (literally) societies. It was fun, refreshing and each issue left me wanting more.

For this earlier effort from Parker published by Virgin Comics, he has teamed up with Ashish Padlekar to fictionalise a series of episodes taken from the life of creator Dave Stewart. Now I already thought Stewart was cool – he and Annie Lennox were a bright light in my culturally sour 80′s childhood – but with this book he outstrips even that previous coolness cachet.

What I really want to know is, when Stewart was a young fellow jaunting around Europe did he really meet a psychic octopus? According to Parker’s script something like that happened…

Well in fact the story of Walk In concerns a young Mancunian named Ian who has a habit of blacking out and finding himself in strange locations with no idea of how he got there. Recently these episodes have gotten worse and he has found himself coming to in new countries, with no memory of what he has done. In an attempt to cope with the dislocation, Ian begins to frequent strip clubs. They provide a decent cover for his unusual behaviour, plus there is complimentary food (and naked ladies).

He begins to experience visions after he arrives in Moscow, visions that he uses as part of a variety act at a strip club named Deja Vu. It appears his black outs have bestowed upon him the gift of being able to surf the patrons’ subconscious. He works for tips, is given floorspace to sleep on at an apartment belonging to two of the club’s strippers Astrid and Valery (shared with a German band named Doppelganger) and becomes a permanent fixture at the club, with his act as ‘The Dream King’.

His increasing fame draws the attention not only of the club patrons, but two sinister shaven headed twins who appear to be following him. Also his visions begin to become more elaborate. Not only is he witness to people’s dreams, he begins to see individual auras as well, not to mention the odd appearances of an octopus around Astrid’s neck. Finally one night, after hours of listening to Doppelganger’s turgid experimentalism, he goes into a trance state and sees an incredible futuristic vista of flying vehicles, incredible buildings and people resembling the unusual twins. Has he completely lost his mind, or is Ian actually stretched between two worlds.

Oh and there’s a talking bear from Sussex who is not too fond of string theory. Just throwing that plot detail out there.

This is a fantastic book. Also, given the locale of Ian’s adventures with drug dealers, Russian mafia and strippers, the tone is surprisingly innocent. Parker’s script gives Padlekar plenty of opportunities to include funny little details in the panels, such as a Pizza Hut sign in Cyrillic script, or Ian’s ‘Dream King’, costume resembling Dr. Strange‘s duds. There are also plenty of hints scattered throughout as to where the plot is going, such as Valery hearing from a fortune teller that she will lose her heart to a man with long hair. It does happen, but not in the way she expects.

The book itself is also very funny – the talking bear is also a sharpshooter, I love that damn bear – and Ian’s weary acceptance of his increasingly weird life is well described. His narration to the reader is audible to the other characters, who assume he is crazy. If you’re looking for a comparison, think Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, but with a psychic octopus and some strippers with hearts of gold. Padlekar’s art is somewhat cartoonish, which adds to the slightly innocent tone as mentioned above, with plenty of opportunities given for psychedelic excess during Ian’s visions of the futureworld.

Strongly recommended folks, Parker is someone to watch for the future.

Rawrr catty.

I am becoming a swift fan of Jeff Parker’s writing. Last year I read The Age of the Sentry by him, a miniseries from Marvel Comics about a Superman knock-off. Previous writers had been unable to do much with the character, lumbering the Man of Not-Steel with mental health issues to distinguish him from DC’s ‘Boy Scout’. Parker ignored most of this and spun the Sentry into a series of parodic adventures, even including Truman Capote in the proceedings. Here was a superhero comic brimming with ideas and a deft farcical touch.

Which brings us to Mysterius The Unfathomable. Even had I not known of Parker’s work, I would have had to snap this book off the shelves due to the cover alone. Tom Fowler’s art places an almost undue emphasis on bulging stomachs and shapeless bodies. The hero, Mysterius, even has a drink enflamed proboscis, to hint at his sleazy nature. The actual texture of the graphic novel in my hands feels worn and engrained. There are coffee mug stains over the title and an impression of curling pages on each corner. This is Parker returning us to the era of the pulp magazine, featuring the strange adventures of the paranormal, but with a modern twist.

The story begins with a panicked auctioneer meeting with a representative of Mysterius, who calls herself Delfi. This of course is not her real name – as we soon learn, names have power in the world of magick. Their prospective client, a Mister Ormond, has a rather unusual problem that he hopes the famous magician can help him with. His skin has broken out in a series of highly visible tattoos. Each tattoo represents the name of a prostitute he has slept with.

Mysterius is intrigued and agrees to take the case. This also provides him with an opportunity to give Delfi more instruction into the ways of magic. She is not his first assistant. In fact he has worked with countless young women bearing her name since the turn of the century. Mysterius is quite old and powerful, although his abilities prove to be rather erratic at the best of times. Delfi was originally a reporter who encountered her future partner while covering a séance at a playboy celebrity’s house. Unfortunately the proceedings quickly went out of control – is it not always the ways with séances? – and the young woman found herself introduced to a strange world.

In following up on the Ormond case, however, the pair quickly come up against larger problems than they had been anticipating. For one there is the little matter of the disastrous séance yet to clear up. What’s more Mysterius suspects Ormond’s strange affliction is due to a witch, whom he has slighted in some way. It turns out the witch belongs to a coven that worships an old and familiar evil.

Then there are the demonic Doctor Seuss books. I always knew that damn Cat in the Hat was evil!

Mysterius The Unfathomable is a delightful story. The main character is an absolute louse, his distended stomach a testament to his wasted long life and poor habits. He is also cowardly, at one point suggesting that they distract a demonic creature from another dimension by letting it eat a baby, so that he and Delfi can make their escape. In certain respects his relationship with his assistant is similar to that of The Doctor to his many ‘companions’. I am thinking in particular of the madcap Tom Baker incarnation. He will do the right thing – eventually – but usually only after a series of puckish stunts. Mysterius is the anti-Thomas Carnacki, whose only rule is to always get paid (although as a matter of principle, he refuses to exchange money for anything).

This is more than a parody of the pulp magazine era, it is a rueful love letter to madcap adventures and paranormal absurdity. Lovecraft-esque, but with a sense of fun and whimsy that eluded the grim New Englander. If you were to say the word ‘squamous’, to Mysterius, he would probably snort with laughter. There’s even a dig at Lovecraft and the pulp era’s more racialist tendencies, with Delfi’s ethnicity raising the main character’s eyebrows briefly.

Tom Fowler matches the manic proceedings with a grotesque bestiary of humans, only to let loose with the Seussian demon dimension. He captures the sleazy vibe of Mysterius’ world perfectly.

Gleefully recommended.

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