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There’s something about your own name in someone else’s handwriting that gives you an instant blip of recognition, even when you meet it in unusual circumstances. And this certainly counted as unusual in my book. For one thing, it was written backwards, from right to left: but then, that was because it had been written on the inside of the car windscreen, by someone sitting in the driver’s seat. More strikingly, it was written in blood.

When I first read Mike Carey’s The Devil You Know I was pleased with his mixture of Chandlerisms and references to Vertigo Comic’s John Constantine, with protagonist Felix Castor also a Scouser with paranormal abilities. Thankfully Carey was able to go further with his own literary sandbox, introducing themes and ideas that might not have gone over to well with DC editors looking to develop further sequels to the mediocre Constantine film. The three titles in the series preceding the subject of today’s review are fast-moving supernatural thrillers, with Felix Castor a sometime-exorcist by trade, trying to make a living in a post-Millennium London that is teaming with werewolves, zombies, demons and ghosts.

This book quickly introduces the status quo, without leaving new readers lost. I would recommend reading Castor’s previous adventures, just to get a feel for the universe Carey has fashioned, as well as the excellent supporting cast.

Thicker Than Water opens with a daring heist, of sorts, with Castor and his partner Juliet (a succubus whose actual name is Ajulutsikael, but that’s not important right now) absconding from a private hospital with a very special patient. Some years ago Castor botched an exorcism involving his friend Rafael Ditko, which body was then transformed into a cell for a very powerful demon named Asmodeus. For years Castor has played a game of brinkmanship with the creature, managing to keep it sedated for brief periods so that Ditko can enjoy some peace. Until that is word got around about the powerful demon trapped in a human’s body and a court order was issued releasing him into the custody of old rival’s of Castor’s, who dearly wish to see what makes a creature such as Asmodeus tick.

After everything seems to go according to plan, Castor tries to lie low. Ditko is safely stashed away at a friend’s househouse. His landlord Pen gets to visit her old boyfriend for a conjugal visit or two while the demon is slumbering. And his buddy Nicky, the paranoid zombie, has invited him around to watch a private screening of Blade Runner in his own restored cinema. Then everything goes wrong fast.

Castor is implicated in the stabbing of a man named Kenny Seddon. Not only did he grow up with the victim in Liverpool, the severely wounded man managed to write the exorcist’s name in his own blood at the crime scene. As a suspect Castor is ordered to stay at home for questioning, but suspecting a fit-up, he returns to investigate Seddon’s home at Salisbury estate, a vast perpendicular warren of tower flats and narrow over-passes. There he discovers a malign, vicious miasma of evil, infecting the ordinary families living in the towers with a thirst for blood and violence. Somehow it is all connected to Felix and his childhood. And only Asmodeus knows what it wants.

First off this book is a great leap in quality from the preceding entries. I enjoyed them for what they were, but thought the formula was beginning to wear a bit thin. Carey has positioned all his pieces nicely for this book, allowing for greater depth with a more personal touch entering the proceedings. Castor’s childhood and his relationship with his brother Matt the priest is dwelled upon, we learn more about the nature of demons, adding to the already impressive world-building of the series and his rivalry with the demon Asmodeus finally comes to the fore.

New characters are introduced, including a zombie with a woman’s voice and a team of Catholic exorcists with fewer qualms about eliminating souls than Castor. The overall feel of the book is that of a more pop-culture literate William Blatty, with a fine line in Scouse banter. There’s even a dig at Blair-era Labour cynicism, as well as themes relating to adolescent self-harm.

Castor’s the kind of bloke you’d enjoy having a pint with, but would never want to owe a favour to. Check out this series and enjoy his company – from a distance.

Lately I have had a foretaste of what it means to be a parent. If you want to know what it feels like to parent a child, you should get a dog. If you’re curious about the experience of living with an adolescent, who uses your home as a place to occasionally doss and eat the entirety of your food – get a cat.

We have been housesitting in a very beautiful part of the world, just along the New South Wales coast for the last week. As mentioned previously, said house-sit involves caring for two cats, one of whom has been ill for the past few days, so we were asked to keep her indoors.

Now cats who are used to roaming free outside don’t like being kept indoors and they have no problem letting you know how annoyed they are with you. The plaintive cries and yowling of the cat sitting by the front door in my mind became anthropomorphized as ‘let meeee ouuuuuttt!’ Not only does the cat insist on complaining about this unfair (“soooo unfair!!!) detention within the house, it makes concerted attempts at escape; hisses at me when in a bad mood (read always); and decides it is important to wake me up at 4am to discuss the toilet arrangements.

So yeah, I’m feeling just as frazzled as a concerned parent. My nerves are frayed and I am one more cat incident away from a panic attack.

The Unwritten is initially a comic about the creative process involved in writing a book. It is also about fathers and sons, the inescapable shadow that a more successful father leaves behind. Tom Taylor’s father not only wrote an incredibly successful fantasy series of books about a boy wizard – he named the main character after his son. Tom Taylor has never managed to make a career for himself outside of his father’s creations. What’s more some fanatical fans of the novels have a near religious obsession with the character ‘Tommy Taylor’, and to them he is more real than the boy who inspired him.

Tom makes a small income from making appearances at fan conventions dedicated to his father’s books, where he continually is asked about the mysterious disappearance of Wilson Taylor, or the rumours that he vanished without having settled his estate. Tom has had no access to the revenue generated by the Tommy Taylor media empire.

At one another of these interminable conventions, things take a turn for the worst. Firstly a lunatic who styles himself after Tommy Taylor’s arch nemesis, the vampire Count Ambrosio appears. Then a reporter announces that a Eastern European couple have claimed that Tom is actually their son and that Wilson adopted him as a child. This revelation leads to the cultish Tommy Taylor fans turning on their ‘false messiah’, and Tom is forced to go into hiding.

Then Tom discovers that this turn of events are connected to Wilson’s disappearance. Hints that his father was involved in a quasi-masonic conspiracy begin to emerge, one that stretches down through the years and has dictated the careers of many writers. The question of Tom’s own parentage continues to raise his head. Maybe he isn’t the son of Wilson Taylor, or the Eastern European couple – what if the fans are right and he is actually Tommy Taylor. If a fictional character can become real, what else has crossed over into this world from the world of books.

When I bought this book from the excellent Kings Comics in Sydney, the teller’s eyes lit up. He assured me that while the initial issues, what with all the comparisons to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter (as well as some overt digs at the obsessive fandom attached to the boy wizard) might seem predictable – and in many senses this is yet another typical Vertigo comic, which specializes in post-modern, literary graphic novels – by the last issue in the collection it makes a quantum leap in quality. Without giving anything away, let me just say the digression into the lives of Rudyard Kipling and Mark Twain/Samuel Clemens is wonderfully constructed.

I also found the book reminiscent of Jonathan Carroll’s Land of Laughs, a favourite of mine from way back. The estranged relationship between Tom and his father underpins the central theme of what writers owe to their creations once they are let loose into the world.

Carey and Gross have fashioned an instant classic. A must-read.

I studied Othello for my Leaving Certificate examinations. I really like that play, so drama studies was one of the few classes I looked forward to. Our teacher decided to take us to see a production of Othello showing in the Tivoli Theatre in Dublin. The director had made an interesting choice. While a white actor in blackface played the Moor, he cast the part of Iago with a black actor. This was intended as a comment on the racial politics surrounding productions of the play in the past. Thankfully it is rare to see a Royal Shakespeare Company production featuring a white actor in the main title anymore. Unfortunately the overall play that we saw was fairly mediocre. I will never forget the actress playing Desdemona slipping into her native D4 accent mid-speech: “O-thell-looah”. Yikes.

I will always remember that play though, as it showed a certain bravery in attempting to reinterpret Shakespeare, who has become a sacred cow that we mere mortals are not allowed to doubt. I love the language of the plays, the sonnets, I love the mystery as to the Bard’s own identity, I love his use of propaganda in the historical plays – but above all the work of William Shakespeare was intended to be entertainment. Its richness and wit were part of the package, but in the years since his work has been raised on a pedestal, become abstract, divorced from the sense of fun often present in the plays. His writing is full of profundity, but it also was intended to get a laugh.

By divorcing the ‘genius’, of Shakespeare’s plays from the content – be it frivolous, thrilling, or indeed a ‘weepie’ – we have done his memory a huge disservice. He is the dry, dusty voice of academic lectures, while the height of wit enjoyed by the likes of his audiences has been replaced by: Hallo ladies, Look at your man, now back to me, now back at your man, now back to me, sadly he isnt me

“Hey Mike, get this Bill Shakespeare on the blower, I think we have the purrfect guy for that Othello part!”

McCreery and Del Col’s story begins with the history of Prince Hamlet. Exiled from the castle of Elsinore following his murder of Pelonius, his friend Rosencrantz confesses to him that he and Guildenstern have been commanded by King Claudius to make him a captive of the King of England. Before Hamlet can decide on a course of revenge, he is visited by a dreadful vision, which in turn is interrupted by an attack of pirates.

The ship lost, his friend dead and Hamlet barely escaping with his life, he comes to on the shores of England. He is welcome by King Richard III (notice anything) who informs him of a prophecy by three witches (nudge, nudge) that he is to kill an evil god known as Shakespeare (meta!). Richard promises Hamlet that if he does this his father will be returned to life and his evil uncle Claudius dethroned. The Danish Prince agrees and accompanied by the king’s aide Iago (eep!) sets off on his quest.

This book is great fun. Shakespeare’s villains including Richard, Iago, Lady MacBeth and Don Jon conspire to destroy their own creator, whereas rebels known as ‘prodigals’, such as Juliet Capulet, Othello and Falstaff seek to prevent their enemies from succeeding. In this ‘England’, Shakespeare is a literal god, whose power is represented by a talismanic quill that Richard wishes to possess. The villains of course plot and scheme against one another, while the ragged band of heroes try to convince Hamlet to do the right thing and protect the innocent country folk harried by murderous soldiers in service to the king.

There are a number of other books out there, such as Mike Carey’s The Unwritten, or Bill Willingham’s Fables that are similar to this, although I imagine Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, particularly the Midsummer Night’s Dream storyline, is the primary inspiration for this mash-up of ‘high’, and ‘low’, culture. My personal favourite example of this trope is Bugs Bunny abridging Wagner’s Ring Cycle to seven minutes!

However, this book earns bonus points for making Othello bad-ass. Check out that panel up top.

Here’s a fun, unpretentious mash-up of classic literary figures and an action/adventure story. Great fun.

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