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When an author chooses to tell a story from the point of view of an animal, with the perfect mixture of pathos and sentimentality, it outstrips childish fables about talking household pets. One of my favourites poems from school was An Bonnán Buí by Cathal Buí Mac Giolla Ghunna. It is sad, yet also humourous, the death of a small bird from thirst being used by the poet to justify his alcoholism. In one perfectly composed poem he marries the vulnerabilities of a small, weak creature to his own frailties.

A far greater accomplishment than any wise-talking animated rodent.

Beasts of Burden has previously appeared as short stories in comic book anthologies, as well as the miniseries collected here and even a notable crossover with Mike Mignola’s Hellboy. Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson have fashioned together a strange world of talking dogs and cats, where human pets defend their owners and the rest of the world as well, from supernatural threats such as plagues of frogs, ghosts, witches and zombie dogs.

Our heroes are a small band of dogs, and an orphaned cat, who live on Burden Hill, a seemingly ordinary suburban neighbourhood. When leader Ace calls on a ‘wise dog’, to advise on a dog kennel haunting, the group find themselves drawn into a series of adventures, eventually leading to their own initiation into the ‘Wise Dog Society’ as apprentice Watchdogs.

The first page sets up the story immediately. Ace has Doberman Rex, Jack Russel Whitey and Pugsley (who is of course a small and very argumentative Pug) summon a wise dog by howling at midnight. We see the three dogs argue about whether or not the summoning is working, with the cat known as Orphan mocking them all the while, only for a large shaggy white dog to appear before them. Ace explains to the wise dog that his friend Jack claims his hutch is haunted. They group discover a carcass buried underground, with a collar attached. The wise dog identifies the bones as belonging to a dog named Trixie. The stage is sent for a most curious and heart-breaking exorcism.

When you come to Jill Thompson’s panel of the gathered group of dogs with tears in their eyes, it’s hard not to feel a lump in your throat. In fact the art of this book is one of its great strengths, the water colours brilliantly emphasising Thompson’s style, which in the past I have found a bit harsh for my liking. The loose lines around the characters gives them the appearance of constantly being in motion, which fits the material quite well. I also love how the ordinariness and lack of anthropomorphism contrasts so sharply with the occult horrors of Burden Hill.

Dorkin’s script manages these contradictions quite well, with the animals fitting in their adventures between making appearances at home so their owners remain none the wiser. There is this fantastic, incongruously epic tone to the proceedings, such as an army of cat familiars invading the neighbourhood, or a missing pups case becoming a story about vengeance from beyond the grave.

There is also a light melancholic tone to the stories collected here. The lives of these pets are cheap. After all, their owners can always just go back to the pet store. The story A Dog And His Boy is particularly heart-breaking. Dorkin also uses that issue to drop hints that some in the human world are aware of the goings-on at Burden Hill, but choose to leave the general public in ignorance.

This book is both warm and compassionate, as well as surprisingly humane. Dorkin and Thompson’s title joins the likes of David Petersen’s Mouse Guard in introducing contemporary readers to stories about animal protagonists that read more like classic adventure tales written with wit and pathos, than Disneyfied trite fare.

Drop whatever you are doing and get this book. It’s just that damn good (and many thanks to my lovely wife Stephanie who bought it for my birthday).

 

Recently Stephanie and I have become fans of Escape to the Country. Produced by the BBC it is aired in Australia on the 7 Network. Why have we become addicted to this daytime television show about that most clichéd of yuppie dreams? Because it is incredibly frustrating! The couples never seem to buy a house. Either they are outbid, or they decide not to move after all, whatever the result in many cases beautiful homes nestled in picturesque bucolic towns are left for another buyer and viewer gratification goes unsatisfied once again.

There is something instinctively appealing about buying a home in the countryside though. I find it ironic that I am now on the other side of the world and all of a sudden have discovered a love for country living. Especially given that it is the English countryside (although Stephanie is partial to a move to France), and here we are living outside Sydney with a veritable panoply of exotic wildlife just hanging out in the back garden.

Partly this is due to the sense of accumulated history that is associated with rural towns and villages in England. My dream would be to find a nice cottage, turn one of the rooms into a study and just stuff it with weird and wonderful books. Head down to the local pub for a pint or two of Old Speckled Hen and buy my groceries from the local farmer.

Alex Hunter unwittingly finds himself in just such a town, a place not even on the map named Strangehaven. After  crashing into a tree while travelling out to Cornwall, Alex wakes up in the local B&B being tended to by Doctor Charles and Jane his receptionist, who quickly befriends the injured stranger. He reports to them that he saw a girl in a black dress standing in the middle of the road moments before he crashed, but they assure him no one else was found at the scene of the accident. As soon as he recovers, Jane takes him around the town and introduces him to the casually odd inhabitants of Strangehaven.

There’s Albert Bonneti an Italian mechanic who speaks in pidgin English and an exaggerated accent; Adam who claims to be an alien who insists on wearing shades the entire time for fear of Earth’s ultraviolet rays; Maggie McCreadie the B&B owner who spends her evenings searching for something in the graveyard after midnight; and Meg, an Amazonian shaman who through the course of the series begins to instruct Jane’s brother Jeremy in shamanic initiation rites. Unbeknownst to Alex many of the town worthies including the school head-master, the doctor and the police constable are all members of a Masonic Order known as The Knights of the Golden Light.

Strangehaven is also host to normal village excitements such as romantic affairs and family conflicts. Jeremy’s father John takes exception to Meg’s relationship with his son. The green grocer Peter is sneaking around behind his wife Beverly’s back with Suzie Tang. Even the sweet friendship between Alex and Jane, which she tragically misconstrues, is well-drawn.

The town, however, is not simply inhabited by a collection of eccentrics, but under the influence of eerie supernatural forces.  Alex discovers he is unable to leave Strangehaven, finding himself turned around when he tries to drive on to Cornwall (with a series of crop circles visible in the background). Jeremy and Meg successful manage to inhabit the bodies of two birds courtesy of a magical ritual. Also Alex seems to have forgotten that the woman he saw suddenly transform into a tree looked just like Jane. There are frequent cutaways to a naked painting of her, depicting her body floating in a fish tank, being stared at by a mysterious stranger in Strangehaven.

Creator Gary Spencer Millidge has many strings to his bow. Writer and artist of the wonderful Strangehaven, he also self-publishes the series, has written a biography of Alan Moore and despite the irregular release of issues, still insists that number #24 will complete the story. The influence of Twin Peaks, The Prisoner and The Avengers is clear, with innocent seeming English towns revealed to be sites of global importance. Alex’s car accident resembles the opening of Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren, a favourite of mine that has the protagonist encounter a woman outside the city of Bellona who transforms into a tree. The art is impressively photorealistic, with creased smiles and angry outbursts perfectly captured.

An excellent series, strongly recommended.

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.

To the left of this blog’s main page, there’s a display of the most commonly used terms in the last thirty two reviews. With every reoccurrence of a search term, the display of that particular word or phrase begins to grow, to indicate how often I have mentioned it. Alan Moore’s name has been growing I noticed, so I thought I should actually write about something he has done.

A Small Killing was welcomed as a departure for the comic writer sometimes referred to as the Northampton Magus. No superheroes, no deconstruction of American comic book tropes, just a simple story about a man who works in advertising looking back on his life. Oh and giant insects.

Timothy Hole has landed the contract of a lifetime, marketing a major cola in Russia. A successful advertising creative based in New York, he decides to go on a holiday to his hometown of Sheffield, so he can recapture his spark and come up with some ideas for the campaign. While he’s managed to achieve a lot in his professional career, his marriage to his college sweetheart failed, due to an affair he had with an artist named Sylvia. Timothy obsesses about whether or not he was at fault, more troubled by his later being dumped by Sylvia than his betrayal of his wife Maggie. Going over and over the events of years ago in his mind, he finds himself unable to focus on his job. Then a mysterious boy appears and Timothy is compelled to follow him. At first he catches glimpses of the figure in the distance, but soon he begins to suspect that the boy is trying to lead him into danger, even kill him. When Timothy flies to London he discovers the boy is somehow already there, a phantom presence taunting him.

Timothy’s troubled thoughts are relayed to us by Moore’s precise prose, while Zarate conjures up nightmarish crowded scenes – a party filled with advertising colleagues, a long queue at customs, a packed plane journey, a London pub exploding into violence – to contrast with the main character’s inability to think about anyone else. The people in his life are excuses for his own failings, somehow always at fault regardless of what he has done. The title refers to the little sins in our past that we cover up, never revealing to anyone no matter how close we are, in the hope that the guilt will somehow disappear.

This being Moore there’s a healthy amount of intertextuality as well. Timothy finds himself relating to Nabokov’s Lolita, although he can’t decide if he’s the predatory Humbert Humbert, or the eponymous innocent girl. Nabokov’s book was written as a twisted love letter of sorts to America, summing up the Russian émigré’s feelings about the country he had come to call home. Timothy, conversely is going to Russia to sell images of capitalist excess to the Russians, marketing Americana to them and disregarding the socialist imagery he was so fond of as an over earnest teenager –

“Blue jeans. That’s it, isn’t it? Blue jeans is it. Whatever the West means to them, that’s what we associate Flite with…They want to be American. It’s obvious. No point second-guessing their needs. We just sell them ours. Our culture. Our appetites, our..”

A Small Killing itself was Moore’s break from the over commercialised American comic’s scene, so choosing an ad-man as his protagonist is certainly interesting in that respect. Babylon by Victor Pelevin is an interesting contrast, being a Russian novel about the divide between advertising and art.

Zarate’s artwork is beautiful, matching the reflective tone of the writing by resembling the drawing of an adult who never stopped using crayons. The imagery is childlike, yet disturbing also. The abovementioned crowd scenes are filled with freakish grotesques and animalistic facial expressions. Timothy himself is a needle-thin adult version of Harry Potter (although this predates Rowling’s books by some time), surrounded by overweight bodies and skinhead boozers. The boy he keeps seeing is depicted with a wicked, mocking smile, that perfectly captures the puckish spirit of the character.

Alan Moore is one of the most important creators of the last thirty years. If you want to avoid the cape and tights brigade in sampling his work, you should check A Small Killing out. A confident, heartfelt reflection on past mistakes and the broken promises we make to ourselves when we are young.

Now I read the first issue of Brian Wood and Riccardo Burchielli two years ago (cheers Chesney), but only just got the chance to read the trade. What was I waiting for?

Wood imagines a near-future scenario where the United States is torn apart by civil war after years of overseas conflict. The secessionist Middle American states have pushed their way towards the coast, with the island of Manhattan becoming a fortified ‘demilitarized zone’.

Matty Roth is a young photojournalist, who through some string-pulling by his father, has landed the internship of a life-time. Working with award winning journalist Viktor Ferguson, Roth expects it to be a safe cubicle assignment. Instead he is loaded onto a helicopter and flown to Manhattan Island “highlighting what it’s really like for people living in the ‘D.M.Z.”

Turns out the civilians living behind barricades on the island don’t appreciate choppers landing in their neighbourhood. Ferguson and his crew are slaughtered, with Roth barely escaping with his life. Stranded in the D.M.Z. he discovers what he’s been told about the war and life behind the battlelines is mostly lies. Former medical student Zee becomes his reluctant guide and encourages him to write about what is really happening for folks on the mainland. Roth’s status as a journalist opens more doors than he expects, allowing him access to parts of the island only rumoured to exist – the ghost conservationists of Central Park, snipers from the two sides of the conflict who exchange love letters through signs, and the leader of the Free Armies. Just as he starts to find his feet though, Roth’s journalist’s accreditation is stolen by someone looking to impersonate him, leading to a breakneck chase through a booby trapped Manhattan, with no protection from the locals to rely on.

Wood writes convincingly about this ‘second civil war’, where “every day is 9/11“. Research is one of his key strengths. Seeing as he followed D.M.Z. with Northlanders, a Viking comic, I’m not surprised. These first five issues fly past, with action scenes informed by an incisive intelligence. It reads like John Carpenter’s Escape from New York rewritten by Cody Doctorow. Exploitation cinema meets political subtext, guerrilla activist fiction.

One of the ironies of 9/11 was that this attack on the city of New York unified the United States against the threat of terrorism, while resentment of Manhattan excess, East Coast pinko intellectuals and permissive morality continued. Wood actualizes this continuing antagonism towards the East Coast with the civil war, the hatreds stoked by ‘heartland’ shock jocks, Fox News anchors and opportunistic politicians given full force. Matty Roth discovers a world of greys awaiting him on Manhattan, a multiethnic community scavenging for itself among the ruins.

The art by Burchielli rests somewhere on the line between Scottish penciler Jock and Paul Pope. Scratchy lines and streets drenched in shadows. It’s very kinetic, complimenting Roth’s breathless pursuit by soldiers and gangs.

I enjoyed the story a great deal and am looking forward to collecting the next few trades.

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