“The Sculptor” by Scott McCloud (2015)

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“Ready?”

Ah, comics. Sorry, “graphic novels”. I’ve never been one for superhero comics or anything sprung from that world, but visual stories are far more than that. I’ve not submerged myself in the world of graphic novels at all, but I dip a toe in now and again. I’ve read some Shakespeare adaptations in that form, and I’ve read Scott Pilgrim and am up to date with Saga, one of the best and strangest graphic novels around. Earlier this year I read the story of Agatha Christie’s life in the form. It’s definitely an area of publishing that seems to be maligned and ignored, although slowly they seem to be gaining slightly more prominence. I present to you today The Sculptor.

David Smith was once an admired artist, one of the greatest sculptors in America, if not the world. But times have changed and now he’s struggling to make ends meet, unable to create or have anyone show an interest in his work. He declares that he would give his life for his art, a statement he may come to regret.

He meets Death, who gives him that very option. If David takes up his offer, he will be able to create whatever he can imagine, just using his hands to mould any material he comes into contact with. However, if he chooses this path, he will die in two hundred days. David, so consumed by the desire to create, thinks that it can’t possibly be as bad as all that – he’ll achieve immortality with the art created from his new skills. Unfortunately, he’s just fallen in love, and time is ticking…

There are some stories that only work in certain mediums, and this is one that couldn’t possibly work as a traditional novel. It’s requires the visuals, and the old cliche of “a picture paints a thousand words” holds fast here. McCloud has a wonderful ability to use the right number of panels to set up anything, as well as setting up locations with great angles. In fact, I can see that it would work pretty well as a film, although I’d worry someone in a suit and a film studies degree meddling with it and adding or subtracting plot points. The story is plenty solid enough as it is. The artwork is beautiful, and McCloud balances well the panels that show us what’s going on without dialogue and those that contain speech.

It’s a really brilliant tale about how our obsessions consume us and to what extent we’ll go to do the things we love, no matter the cost. It’s a story of promises and carelessness, caution and mistakes, tragedy and art. I confess I even shed a tear towards the end. Graphic novels can move us just as much as a traditional novel. It’s heartbreaking and painful, but there’s a sense of hope among it, about making the most of our lives and accepting that we’re not all going to change the world, no matter how much we want it.

It’s a hefty tome, but I breezed through it in a couple of hours, lapping it up with great joy. It’s so real, and so vivid. If you think graphic novels aren’t for you, you could do worse than starting here.

“Agatha” by Anne Martinetti (2016)

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agatha-comic“These novelists will stoop to anything for some attention!”

Of all the authors I’ve discussed on this blog over the years, there’s none I’ve talked about quite so much as Agatha Christie. As the bestselling novelist of all time, Christie is someone who, even if you’ve never read one of her books, you will be able to name at least one of them. Her life was much more than just writing murder mysteries, though. In fact, her feat of writing over eighty novels and countless plays and short stories is just about the least remarkable thing about her.

My love for Christie is unashamed and unlimited and, as you have probably noticed, today is Valentine’s Day. I’m told you’re meant to spend the day with someone you love, so I did the best I could and ventured to the small village of Cholsey in Oxfordshire to visit the grave of this incredible woman. It only seemed fitting, then, to read about her while I was there. Although I do have her autobiography on my shelf awaiting reading once I’m finished with her fiction – plus it’s a hefty tome and I need to work on my upper body strength first – I picked up this book, Agatha, last year and decided to read that for now. It’s a graphic novel that tells the story of her life; a story just as interesting and complicated as her finest novel.

The story opens with her fabled disappearance in 1926, before leaping back to explore her early life. Once caught up to her vanishing act again, it progresses forward. The story deals with all the important moments in her life, such as the death of her beloved father when she was just a child, her first husband’s affair, her time as a nurse during the First World War, her sister’s challenge to her to write a novel, her travels around dig sites in the Middle East, to the success of The Mousetrap and later receiving her DBE. It also explores things about her that are perhaps less well-known, such as the fact she was one of the first British people to surf standing up, having learnt while in Hawaii, and that she was once offered propaganda work by Graham Greene during the Second World War.

christie-graveThroughout the narrative, she is visited by her characters, Miss Marple, Ariadne Oliver, Tommy & Tuppence, and most of all, Hercule Poirot, a man she swiftly grew to hate and promised to kill off. Sometimes these characters serve to give her advice, but sometimes she longs for them to go. Her relationship with Poirot is particularly interesting, as she realises that while she doesn’t like him, he can’t exist without her and she has no fortune without him.

The book dwells a while on her disappearance, although because she never spoke about what happened, what is displayed in the book is pretty much all drawn from the imagination. One incident that really occurred around this time involved another great mystery writer – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He took one of Christie’s gloves to a medium to get to the bottom of whether she was still alive or had died rather than just gone missing. Rather pompously, but very sweetly, he comments here, “the father of Sherlock Holmes could hardly abandon the mother of Hercule Poirot!”

Above all, while reading this, not only do you get a sense of what an interesting and bright woman she was, she can also be considered very modern. While there’s no getting away from the fact that some of her books, particularly the earlier ones, contain views that are very much of their time, she was a pioneer in many other respects. In 1911 she flew in one of the first aeroplanes, and later she spent so much time on archaeological digs with her second husband Max Mallowan that she became the most knowledgeable woman in Britain on the subject.

Agatha Christie was a phenomenal woman, modest and humble right up to the end. She knew her own mind and lived an extraordinary life, but I sense that she didn’t always see that. I am honoured to have her in my life in such a big way, and if there was a better way to spend Valentine’s Day this year, I don’t want to know about it. Thank you, Agatha, for everything.

“Macbeth” and “As You Like It” by William Shakespeare (1599 – 1606)

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This post is an unusual one as it is for two books, both of which were too similar to really warrant pages of their own. Last year I reviewed (individually) manga versions of two of Shakespeare’s plays; Henry VIII and Much Ado About Nothing. I return here with two more.

macbeth“Macbeth” by William Shakespeare (1606)

“When shall we three meet again?”

Macbeth is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays, and one I studied at school more years ago than I care to think about. Along with Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet, it is probably his most famous play, and even if you’ve never read or seen it, you’ll know some of the quotes and characters from it.

While the text of the play remains the same here as in the original, the setting has been entirely changed, now taking place in a post-apocalyptic nuclear wasteland as the survivors, many of whom are mutants, fight for dominance over the landscape. So, not Denmark then.

Most people, I think, will know the story, but for those unfamiliar with it, Macbeth is spoken to by three witches who tell him that while he is already Thane of Glanis, he will soon become Thane of Cawdor and then later, he will be king. They also tell his friend Banquo that, while he won’t be a king, his descendants will be. After originally dismissing their prophecies as nonsense, Macbeth is soon made Thane of Cawdor, leading him to believe that what the witches said was true.

He begins to conspire to take the throne from Duncan and, egged on by his power-hungry wife, the infamous Lady Macbeth, sets plans in motion to kill anyone who may get in his way. Once Duncan is dead, he takes the crown. But in doing so, he has made many enemies, and the witches convince him that he is invincible with a smartly-worded prophecy. Meanwhile, he has started to see ghosts, and Lady Macbeth has started to go mad with the knowledge of what she and her husband have done.

It doesn’t end well.

Macbeth is rightly one of the best known plays, and I think it helps because it’s one of the shortest (2477 lines compared to Hamlet‘s 4024) and easiest to understand. It’s simply a story, I feel, of how knowing the future can drive one mad. The appearance in the story of prophecies and ghosts are taken as read, and they aren’t there to be questioned. While a lot of it is about men fighting and basically having a pissing contest regarding who is most powerful and who will have the best legacy, it’s arguably the few female characters who make the story what it is. The Weird Sisters put the whole plot in motion, and Lady Macbeth is perhaps the most interesting and recognisable woman (after Juliet, maybe) in the Shakespearean canon.

While I like the graphic novel format (plays are a visual medium, after all), and it made for an interesting take on the story to set it somewhere completely new, I think that the manga format works slightly better for the comedies. Which brings us to…

as you“As You Like It” by William Shakespeare (1599)

“As I remember, Adam, it was bequeathed me by a will a thousand crowns to breed me well.”

Before coming to As You Like It, I knew just three things about it. Firstly, that it was a comedy. Secondly, that it contains the “all the world’s a stage” speech. And thirdly, it involved a lot of trees. I always prefer the comedies over the tragedies and histories, and I’d chosen this one because it seems to be one, as I just demonstrated, that gets forgotten and people don’t necessarily know a lot about.

In this tale, we have all the usual tropes of a Shakespeare comedy – boys dressed as girls, love at first sight, sibling rivalry, a happy wedding-centric ending, and so on. Orlando and Rosalind fall in love and, while both of aristocratic circles, they meet once and then are split. Rosalind is banished from the lands of Duke Frederick, her tyrannical uncle and in an act of solidarity, his daughter and Rosalind’s best friend, Celia, leaves with her. Rosalind disguises herself as a man, Ganymede, and Celia becomes her sister. They also take with them the court fool, Touchstone, and head off into the Forest of Ar-Den.

Orlando, too, must leave his home or he will be killed by his brother Oliver, and he also powers into the Forest with his trusted servant Old Adam. In the forest, couples meet and part ways, Orlando writes poetry, Rosalind must not reveal herself to him, and Jaques, the most melancholic lord of the sixteenth century presides over everything, sharing his opinion and generally moaning about being melodramatic.

Though I actually sort of hate being the person who says this about Shakespeare, but it did genuinely make me laugh on a few occasions. It’s incredible skill that four hundred years later and in an old-fashioned form of language, Shakespeare has managed to write something that can still make us chuckle today. The biggest laughs come from Touchstone, the fool, and Jaques who was emo long before that was even a thing. I also adore the relationship between Rosalind and Celia, which borders on more than platonic from time to time, but is realised better than many female friendships in modern movies.

It comes to it that this might have just become a Shakespeare play that I really like, and the manga styling works really well for it. Again, the setting has been updated, this time to “an Oriental … post-modern city”, but like most of Shakespeare’s works, this could really be set anywhere.Well done, William, another cracking performance.

“Saga: Volume 1” by Brian K Vaughan & Fiona Staples (2012)

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saga book“This is how an idea becomes real.”

Graphic novels have so far featured poorly on this blog and on my reading lists in general. It’s not that I don’t like them – actually, far from it – or don’t consider them “proper books”, it’s simply that I don’t know where to begin with them. The only ones to have graced my blog so far have been manga versions of Shakespeare plays,  so it’s about time I took a look at something else. Fortunately for me, having a wide circle of friends with varying circles of interest means that every genre and style finds its way to me eventually, and it’s thanks to two of these friends that Saga found its way onto my shelf.

The one I’ve read is the first six chapters of the story, collated together, although I’m told there is much more to come. The background of the world is that there are two warring races of aliens, those of the planet Landfall who all have wings, and those of Landfall’s moon, Wreath, who are all adorned with horns. While the war has now ended on this planet and moon (under the logic that the destruction of either will too destroy its companion) the battles have been outsourced, and now the entire galaxy has to choose whether to side with the planet or the moon. There is nowhere to hide from the war.

Amid the mess, two have fallen in love: Marko, a Wreather who has vowed to never use his sword again, and Alana, a Landfallian with a sharp tongue and little fear. Somehow, they have sired a daughter and are now on the run from both of their peoples, not wanting to be part of the neverending war. However, there is a bounty on their heads and several people are now after them. These include Prince Robot IV, a robotic royal with a screen for a face, and two freelance bounty hunters, The Will (a slightly washed-up figure who travels everywhere with his companion, Lying Cat) and The Stalk (a creature from your worst nightmares). With the help of a half-bodied teenage ghost called Izabel, Alana and Marko are determined to get as far away from the war as possible, but with everyone in the galaxy seemingly looking for them, that’s going to be a lot harder than it seems.

So what we have here is that someone has taken Game of Thrones, Star Wars and your worst nightmares, loaded them into a blender on full speed and poured out the remains onto the paper. The characters and story are immediately compelling and while the whole “two from different factions fall in love” shtick has been going since Romeo & Juliet if not before, this is one of the freshest takes I’ve ever seen. Fiona Staples’ artwork is a thing of absolute beauty and genius and the characters are phenomenally well-realised. The design is beautiful and there are no short cuts. Every single character is identifiable. Just because everyone in Marko’s race has horns, it doesn’t mean they have the same horns. While his are curled like a ram’s, we also see a whole bunch of other styles, including a unicorn.

By far and away the outstanding character so far is Lying Cat, The Will’s faithful companion, a large green feline who can immediately tell if someone is telling the truth or not. The facial expressions on the beast are so wonderfully realised that you totally go along with it. The whole universe has clearly had a lot of work put into it, so while there is all this ongoing political drama, the true focus is actually on this pair of new parents, trying to do what is right for their newborn daughter in a galaxy that is rife with problems. This humanising plot means that you totally buy everything else that’s going on.

Sure, there are some images here that are going to haunt my dreams for the next few nights, such as the two greeters on the brothel planet Sextillion who are merely porn-star heads on spindly legs, but it’s absolutely worth it. The imaginations of both Vaughan and Staples are out of control, and I for one am not willing to help them reel them in. Long may they continue.

“Much Ado About Nothing” by William Shakespeare (1599)

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Heh, heh, heh

Heh, heh, heh

“I learn in this letter that Don Peter of Arragon comes this night to Messina.”

Nursing a hangover, the day required a simple book that I knew the story of and thus in came the manga version of Shakespeare’s comedy, Much Ado About Nothing. It’s probably my favourite of his works, often billed as history’s first romantic comedy, and it’s the play I’ve seen performed the most frequently in one form or another. I think most people know the story, but to summarise briefly:

There are two stories going on within the play. The first centres around old flames Benedick and Beatrice, who now trade witty barbs at one another and love nothing more than winding each other up. There is little love lost between them. The second story is about Claudio, Benedick’s friend who has fallen in love with Hero, Beatrice’s cousin. However, the nasty and jealous Don John wants Hero for himself, so conspires to ensure their marriage does not go ahead. Meanwhile, everyone else conspires to get Benedick and Beatrice to admit that they actually do love each other, despite their surface-level hatred.

While Shakespeare can be a bit dense from time to time, this is probably the easiest of his plays to understand and, even to a modern audience, it still stands up humour-wise and I actually did chuckle aloud a couple of times. One of my favourite lines involves someone saying to Beatrice, “So Benedick isn’t in your good books?” and Beatrice quickly replies, “If he was, I’d burn down my study.” That’s paraphrased, of course.

Beatrice and Benedick are two of my favourite characters in the Shakespeare canon, Benedick for his amusing arrogance, Beatrice for her devout hatred of men, and both for their sharp witticisms. Don John is a scheming and nasty piece of work, but otherwise even the minor characters seem quite good fun. The play is loaded with innuendo (hell, the title alone is pure filth if you know your Elizabethan slang) but it’s a good read. Studying the plays in manga form is very interesting as it allows them to be experienced closer to the original intent, and while I’d recommend this one, if you ever get a chance to see this performed then take it. If you’re new to Shakespeare, there are worse plays to start with than this.

“Henry VIII” by William Shakespeare (1613)

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HENRY_VIII“An untimely ague stayed me a prisoner in my chamber when those two lights of men met in the vale of Andren.”

I mentioned a while ago on here that I have very recently been to Stratford-Upon-Avon and, as such, Shakespeare was bound to turn up on the blog eventually. So, here he is, although perhaps not in the form that anyone expected.

Y’see, I’ve had continual issues with Shakespeare over the years. He’s the finest writer in history, sure, but he was not a novelist. He was a poet and a playwright, meaning that his work isn’t really supposed to be read, but rather seen. I’ve seen a few performances in the past, as well as some modernised adaptations, and I do generally enjoy them. So when in Stratford I stumbled upon a new way to enjoy the plays, I jumped at it. This is Shakespeare manga.

Manga, for those who aren’t aware, are comics made in Japan, conforming to certain historical rules. The style is often beautiful, alternating between simple and detailed, rarely coloured, and they cover a whole variety of genres. Manga is not just for children – it is read by most of the population. In recent years, the popularity of the format has spread globally and, with its bold designs and ability to tell any story, it seemed logical to put Shakespeare’s stories into this format. As far as I can tell, fourteen of his plays have so far been adapted for the style, and I have begun with his last play. It is one of the less well known of the canon: Henry VIII.

As you may have surmised, the play tells the story of the eighth King Henry of England and his dealings with his first two wives, as well as political figures like Cardinal Wolsey, Archbishop Cranmer and Thomas Cromwell. With Catherine of Aragon seemingly unable to provide him with a son, he moves to marry Anne Boleyn, although must first contend with the church and get a divorce. Meanwhile, Wolsey has gone crazy with power, so it seems, and many of the lords are plotting to remove him from his seat to further their own means.

While interesting and engaging, Henry VIII is not the Bard’s finest work. It is actually commonly suggested that collaborated with fellow writer John Fletcher on this one, although perhaps a collaboration with Andrew Lloyed Webber would’ve been more exciting. Otherwise, the play is notable for two other reasons. Firstly, the original has more stage directions than any other of his plays. And secondly, it was the play that was being performed when the original Globe theatre burned down in 1613, when a special effects cannon ignited the thatched roof.

Maybe this wasn’t the best one to start with – the other manga I bought are plays I know better, and will feature here in due course – but I didn’t dislike it, and the method of storytelling is a rather smart one, given that the medium is supposed to be visual. Just goes to show that you can’t keep a good bard down.