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“I am a vampire and a murderer. Whatever else I do in this world, nothing will change that. I can fight on the side of the angels until doomsday, but I’m still damned.”

Some months ago I spotted this book on the shelves of a bookstore in Wollongong. I knew I had to read it, for the title alone. However, I was not prepared to pay thirty dollars for the dubious pleasure. I am a bad taste nut. Two of my favourite shows are Mystery Science Theatre 3000 and Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place. I have my limits though. So it was with great relief that I spotted this book in my local library.

Nathaniel Cade was a sailor on a whaling vessel in 1867. Upon reaching America, he was found in the ship’s hold feeding on the bodies of two other crewmen. He was arrested and sentenced to death, only to be pardoned by the then President of the United States Andrew Johnson. Cade was committed to an asylum for the rest of his days. This, believe it or not, is a story not too dissimilar from actual events.

However, in this universe, that was only the official tale. Cade was instead pledged to serve the office of the President and defend the country itself from threats both internal and from ‘out there’. He has acted in this capacity for over a century and his existence is highly classified.

Now Cade’s services are being called on to protect America from a new threat, an army of unstoppable soldiers created by a conspiracy between Muslim extremists and a familiar foe from the days of the Third Reich. His new partner, Zach Barrows, is a brash and overconfident White House staffer with a lot to learn. The cocky young man has been drafted in to replace Agent Griffin, the vampire’s liaison with the White House for over thirty years and his only friend. Griff has been diagnosed with cancer, leaving Cade to break in his new handler while also looking to prevent the greatest terrorist attack on the United States since 9/11.

This is a very silly book, but also a readable one. Partly this is due to Christopher Farnsworth dropping various easter eggs for fans. Zach comments that Cade’s lair resembles the Batcave;  the two carry recognizable aliases such as Agent Cushing and Agent Lee (although for the joke to really work, the names should have been reversed); there is an enemy operative named G. Morrison; and the evil Nazi scientist at the centre of the plot is a pastiche of Victor Frankenstein and Herbert West.

Also, in fairness to Farnsworth, the plot does race along at a steady pace, retaining the reader’s interest until the climactic finale. By then several problems have already sprung up though.

Firstly I find the post-9/11 references somewhat offensive. The Muslim extremists behind the plot to attack America are not just Islamofascists – they are Satanists also. Cade berates himself for not stopping 9/11 from happening, as he was delayed by an opponent with a flaming sword. This is nonsensical, as the attacks on the Two Towers were due mainly to a failure to properly monitor intelligence on the activities of Osama bin Laden. Implying that an otherworldly force of some kind was acting in concert with the terrorists both excuses the failures of that administration, as well as offers up the basic fantasy that America’s other war, here named the War on Horror, supersedes the current conflict in the Middle East. The mixing of fantasy with this very real tragedy is, to my mind, inexcusable.

Sadly toe-curling chauvenism is evident with the female characters that appear. There is also the issue that this is derivative of other franchises, such as Mike Mignola’s Hellboy. Farnsworth’s epilogue to Blood Oath sets up a number of plot-threads for a sequel, but a movie is apparently also in the works. This is somewhat unfortunate, as the Zach character’s role is identical to that of Agent John Myers in Guillermo del Toro’s adaptation of Hellboy.

I would have preferred it if Griff had been the main character and narrator of the story. He vanishes for large sections of the book and his relationship with Cade struck me as a more interesting one.

To sum up this is a perfect book to read on a plane journey. Keep your expectations low and your brain on silent.

I remember the advertisements for Zero Hour, a major crossover between titles for DC’s superhero comic book line. The series gimmick was eye-catching – each issue was numbered in reverse order from #4 to #0. Also the hype was contagious for 14-year old Emmet – ‘Everything will change’, the promotions declared. Wow, I gotta check this out I thought. I never did read it in the end though. Now I suspect that was a blessing in disguise.

First off, I do not recommend this collection to casual readers. Comic book annotation sites were invented for books just like this. The cover shows well-known DC characters Superman and Batman leading a charge of superheroes. However, they barely feature in the storyline itself.

The ‘plot’, is concerned with a character named Waverider, a time traveller from the future, warning the heroes of 1994 that the villain Monarch is somehow interfering with time itself. Unfortunately for everyone, Waverider’s intervention only increases the threat. Now empowered with the ability to travel through time, Monarch seems to be somehow responsible for an entropic force eroding the universe’s future and past. Renaming himself Extant, the villain takes on the combined force of the Justice Society of America, World War II era superheroes who were transported into the present day (just….just run with me on this).

Using his control over time itself Extant kills and disables the team, leaving the surviving heroes the difficult task of trying to stop the forces of entropy in both the future and the past. As the chronal wave advances  through time billions of lives are erased. Protected by Waverider’s powers, a small number of heroes remain to face Extant. Only for the shocking reveal that the real force at work is former Green Lantern Hal Jordan, now calling himself Parallax. Having been driven mad the one-time hero has decided to restart creation itself, according to his own designs.

Alright……to steal Linkara’s catchphrase, this comic sucks! The plot is incomprehensible; characters appear and disappear in a confusion of cameos; and without an encyclopaedic knowledge of who’s who readers will quickly become rudderless in a sea of continuity fixing. Here’s where another history lesson is need. Zero Hour is actually a sequel to a previous crossover, Crisis on Infinite Earths.

The irony is that ‘Crisis’, was an editorially mandated effort to make the DC Universe less confusing, by eliminating a series of ‘alternate earths’, that resulted due to the sliding timescale caused by characters were first emerged in the forties still being published in the present day. So the older adventures of Batman, for example, occurred on a different earth from the present-day stories that contemporary readers were following. Zero Hour was an attempt to resolve further problems that had emerged due to Crisis, including the continuity snarl of the Hawkman character, eliminating the Justice Society for the crime of being too old I guess and to the annoyance of an oh-so-annoying-nerd-cult named H.E.A.T. making Hal Jordan a bona fide super villain. Also the Flash died again. Flashes always die during a DC Crisis event for some reason. In Zero Hour the death of the Flash is delivered in such a perfunctory manner that it is hard to care.

In a sense this was a thankless task for Jurgens and Ordway to attempt. I get the impression the miniseries was intended to launch a new era of the DC comic line, with several new characters briefly appearing during the storyline. Most failed, with the notable exception of James Robinson’s Starman series. Furthermore, most of the deaths featured in Zero Hour have since been reversed. Hell the villains Extant and Parallax have both returned from beyond the grave redeemed as heroes.

I would advise anyone reading this to avoid Zero Hero if possible. Maybe play a couple of games of Little Big Planet instead, as I saw several kids do in my local library when I wandered back from the lonely comic section. Comic commentators wonder why kids today are refusing to read the ninth art and spending their parents’ money on games instead. Titles like this, with the convoluted continuity issues recently condemned by Darwyn Cooke (he says it much better than I ever could..), are among the primary causes for this evacuation of the medium.

Gaiman and McKean make for a stellar team. One a master of dark, yet whimsical fantasy writing, the other an artist who introduced a post-modern, industrial aesthetic to the comic industry. During Gaiman’s seminal Sandman for DC’s mature reader’s Vertigo imprint McKean provided much of the amazing cover art and continued to do so for various spin-off titles that emerged afterward. He also interpreted the esoteric script for Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth as a Jungian nightmare that elevated DC’s Batman mythos far above its pulp origins.

The dynamic duo have moved on from comics to greener pastures, with McKean providing the credit sequence for Gaiman’s television series Neverwhere (as well as the cover for the tie-in novel). Later McKean took on directing, with his assured debut Mirrormask, scripted by Gaiman (of course) a hallucinatory vision of a rust-brown dream world, with winged gorillas, stone titans and dark queens waiting within.

With this book the pair took their inspiration from Gaiman’s daughter’s complaint about his ‘crazy hair’. The story’s narrator explains to young Bonnie just how crazy his hair really is. Featuring pirates, a polar bear, exotic birds, butterflies and even stalking tigers, it is very crazy hair indeed.

Hunters send in

Expeditions

Radio back

Their positions

Still, we’ve lost

A dozen there

Lost inside

My crazy hair.

Eventually Bonnie attempts to groom the narrator, only to disturb a mysterious voice inside the hirsute jungle. She is suddenly seized and pulled into the world of hair and has many amazing adventures.

Gaiman’s rhymes accompany McKean fantastic visuals throughout. Giant, cracked follicle seas; tentacle-like strands stretching out from the narrator to Bonnie; a comb thieving blue polar bear; and curiously lifelike merry-go-round creatures. Although one line describes – Butterflies and Cockatoos/ Reds and Yellows/Greens and Blues –  McKean’s attempt at my favourite Australian birds look more like parrots. I guess that’s the problem with living on the other side of the world.

In keeping with classic fairytales, while the story of a man with a head full of wonderful creatures seems a fanciful notion, McKean’s angular art-style and crowding shadows introduce a perfectly sinister note to the proceedings. Much like Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are, this is a fairy tale that flirts with scaring the children reading it, while also letting them know it’s ok to be afraid. I attended a signing for this book some months ago in Dublin and McKean spoke about the importance of not censoring dark material in children’s books. He believes it is just as important to frighten your audience as it is to make them laugh, or cry, much like readers of any other age-group. I am eagerly awaiting McKean’s next project, a children’s book on explanations of the meaning of life, written by Richard Dawkins. From the following article

“We take thirteen questions about the world and answer them initially in the ways we have in the past – myth, religion, folk stories – and then present our best scientific answer, which hopefully proves to be even more astonishing and magical than the others.”

What I admire most about Gaiman & McKean’s approach to children’s literature is their refusal to condescend to young readers. It’s something that can so easily scuttle a story, as if kids are unable to tell when they are being lied to, or being force-fed an insipid tale of good triumphing over evil. These two creators do not pretend that there are not reasons to be afraid of the dark, but instead remind their readers that often it is more important to not spend one’s whole life running from shadows.

In short, this is a magical fable that should be enjoyed by everyone. Pick it up.

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