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On top of this blog and my magazine internship, I have taken on yet another writing gig. Tastes Like Comics is a recently launched comic website that is looking to offer more than just reviews of the latest releases, with a number of columns from different writers featuring interviews, essays and even parodies.
I am having great fun and I invite you to check out what the folks over on TLC have got up to since launch.
You Are Here opens in the countryside idyll of Phoenicia in upstate New York, looking for all the world like a classic Disney enchanted forest. A cute raccoon even appears, seemingly on the point of breaking into a musical number with a beautiful princess. Instead he enters a cottage in the middle of the woodland, revealing an interior filled with pastel-coloured paintings of flowers. The artist in question is one very grumpy New Yorker, Noel Coleman. For the past year Noel has been living a life of bliss with the beautiful and unflappably charming Helen, a woman who does share all the qualities of a Disney princess. She even talks to the animals. Noel’s problem is he has been lying to her the entire time.
He is not an artist with an abiding interest in florals, but a former jewel thief with an extremely sordid past. Hoping to leave all that behind him, Noel travels back to Manhattan to sell his apartment. When he encounters some former friends, the general assumption is that he has been in prison for the past year. He quickly slips back into some bad habits – smoking, heavy drinking, eyeing the girls – but then an old enemy gets out of prison with murder on his mind, the police are on his trail and Helen then arrives, expecting to introduced to the many high-brow academics and artists Noel invented as part of his tapestry of lies, as opposed to the drunks and strippers he is actually friends with. Murder, mayhem and high speed pursuit on horseback through Central Park soon follow.
This is a classic book, a genuinely hysterical comic teaming with fantastic art courtesy of Kyle Baker. I first encountered Baker through his miniseries for Marvel Comics, Truth: Red, White & Black. The series had the ingenious idea of marrying the origins of Captain America, that symbol of national patriotism who was created by a secret military experiment, to the real-life history of the Tuskegee experiments. The story reveals how before Captain America was created, the military first experimented on African American test subjects. Baker’s satire was razor sharp, his art perversely cartoonish and despite the widespread online condemnation of the series, I absolutely loved it.
You Are Here is similarly perverse. Noel yearns to be a ‘happy person’, like Helen, hence her Disney-esque life in the forest. Pollyana-esque, he is horrified when she turns her sunbeam charm on drug-dealers, muggers and worst of all – rush-hour traffic drivers. Manhattan is almost a different kind of reality, a fallen world that slowly reclaims Noel, pulling him to its sordid bosom.
The art throughout is very amusing, especially Baker’s decision to visually model killer Vaughan on Robert Mitchum, released from prison with a best-selling novel titled ‘Yes I Did It And I’ll Kill Again’. The script is rendered alongside the panels like a film storyboard, used to great effect when Helen is accosted by a number of different ethnic New Yorkers, with the competing voices overlaid on top of each other to illustrate the linguistic confusion.
This is a great hybrid of romance and crime thriller, gut-bustingly funny with fantastic art.
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.