Modernist Library: Blue Monday vol. 2 – Absolute Beginners

img338Title: Blue Monday: Absolute Beginners (plus webisode scripts)
Script: Chynna Clugston-Major (edited by Jamie S. Rich; intro to webiside scripts by Rich)
Illustration: Chynna Clugston-Major
Published: Oni Press, 2001; (original comic book miniseries, 2001)

You know, for some reason, I just didn’t like this increment in the Blue Monday series as much as i liked The Kids Are Alright. In general, the quality of the story structure is just as good, like like the fact that she’s developing the other characters a little more, and even introducing new ones, but here are the main issues i have with this:

The general plot for this installment is “Bleu gets humiliated by the boy who likes her”. OK, for a high-school setting and dramady, but the specifics are something I find kind of beyond the pale. As it’s such a central thing to this four-part book, I doubt it’s going to count as a “spoiler” to anyone who doesn’t expect a complete blank-slate for their stories, so I’m just going to say it: Alan and Victor, the primary supporting male characters in TKAA, covertly take a video of Bleu getting undressed and taking a bath, and quickly spread it around the school. Now, OK, this is set in the early 1990s, before even tame staples of childhood, like the naked-on-a-bearskin-rug photos of us as infants were considered “child porn”, much less a more-or-less fully-developed fifteen / sixteen-year-old young woman, who just happens to still be in high school, and since Alan and Victor are in her class, there’s no “pedo factor”, but for hell, this is just ineffably creepy on so many levels, and I can’t really get into it played for comedy in the way that it has been. Now, how the video incident played out, i can totally see within the realm of believability for 15-20-year-olds (I mean, hell, I did something similar in New Dance), but I dunno, maybe I’ve seen too much SVU lately to see the comedy in this sort of thing (at least when I did a similar thing, it played for drama).

I’m also pretty unfond of the character development for Erin O’Neill (who finally has a surname) morphing from The Good Bad Girl into a Bitch in Sheep’s Clothing. While it certainly lends to drama, this is not only a development I’ve seen several times before (and for clearer reasons than we’re given in this volume), it’s a development that’s pretty predictable at this point, and honestly, this was a character that I wanted to like as I was reading the first book.

While I like the new character of Rissa, she’s just sort of sprang on readers and feels less fleshed out that Erin was in the first volume; aside from how she’s drawn, we know pretty much nothing about her personality other than that she likes football (soccer, to Americans). Now, Ms Clugston addresses this, humorously, in a filler comic at the end of the fourth chapter, which is a nice touch.

Another positive is the “mini comics” in the margins. Having never seen this in anything but GN form, I assume at least some of these were added for the compilation into graphic novel, as there’s an “aside” about Clugston mislabelling a song by The Beat as being by General Public that lasts several pages, to much amusement. When the next edition comes out, she needs to point out that she misspelled “Dexys Midnight Runners” on a t-shirt Clover wears as “Dexy’s Midnight Runners” –no, seriously, there’s no apostrophe.

I was also really enamoured with the introduction of Seamus, a pwcca taking the form of a six-foot-tall otter and who is apparently only visible to Bleu and clover, though he can clearly interact materially and psychically with other characters, even though they can’t see him. Again, I’ve done something similar in Peacocks & Fairies, so this not only serves as a reminder to crack down on myself and schedule in more writing time, but now I’ve got confidence that this sort of thing has appeal to more people than myself (which is a nice thing for a writer trying to stay in booze money to learn).

So yeah, in structure and development, it holds up as well as the previous book, but I didn’t like Clugston’s decision to play a borderline-assault for comedy, and I was disappointed with her character development choices for Erin. I would’ve rated about a full target higher if not for the video incident. It happens.

Spot On Etysy: Red with Purple Flashes

So, this week’s Treasury is inspired by The Creation’s record title Our Music Is Red With Purple Flashes:

New badges this week:

There are four copies of New Dance back in stock, too!

…and remember, for the rest of this month, use the coupon code HAPPYBIRTHDAYRUADHAN for 16% off all purchases of $3 or more (before shipping)

Is Mod Retrofuturist?

This is not a trick question, but I’ve noticed that the likelihood for one to say “yes” or “no” is largely dependent first on age, and second on what it was that got one interested in the scene in the first place.

First off: What Mod Is

Virna+Lindt+virna“Mod” is a subculture originating in the UK in the late 1950s. Depending on who you ask (yes, even those “who were there”), the term may or may not be interchangeable with “Modernist”. It’s generally accepted by cultural historians that Mod came about initially as the UK’s take on the US’s “beat generation”, and by about 1962, the scene had become commercialised and from about 1962 to 1968, “Mod” was pretty much a youth fad used as an adjective to describe cloths and haircuts; for the most part, the main people who will argue against this are self-proclaimed “first genners” who didn’t get into it until Ready Steady Go! permeated the after-school airwaves, starting around 1962. While the primary driving forces behind the Mod subculture are music and fashion (the historical and present importance of one or the other will vary, depending on who you ask), Mod is also loosely associated with art, literature, and philosophical movements that certainly pre-date 1958, and I will say until the day that I die that the origins of the subculture even go beyond that, and extend into the “flappers and shieks” of the 1920s. As a living, breathing subculture, it’s had changes over the last sixty years, and variations are generally accepted within the scene, even if a bunch of snooty people on the Internet might lead one to think otherwise.

Now the next part: What Retrofuturism Is

Retrofuturism is an art and literary movement, first and foremost, though in the last ten to fifteen years, fashion and music inspired by said art and literature has sprung up and made itself known, which may lead to the assumption that various retrofuturist categories are separate subcultures, though most people involved in retrofuturism tend to stress the art and literature movements over the idea that it’s about fashion and/or music —even long-time retrofuturist artists who also work in clothing/fashion and music stress the media as art, not as fashion.

As of the time I write this, the most popular retrofuturist movement are Steampunk, Dieselpunk (and its offshoot Decopunk), and Atompunk. The terms came about as a tongue-in-cheek reference to the “cyberpunk” science fiction movement, which has little to do with the punk subculture, but cyberpunk certainly seems to regard its aesthetic and “attitude” as inspired by some of the more affectionate stereotypes of the punk subculture. laurent-durieux-things-to-come The prefixes, as with cyberpunk, allude to the “technology ages” of the 19th and early-to-mi 20th Centuries that the classifications take their inspirations from. Steampunk is therefore a science fiction setting based on Victorian and early Edewardian “steam powered” technology. In the late 1910s, the rise of the diesel engines came about, so Dieselpunk has an aesthetic and makes use of technologies based on what was available from about 1915 to 1950. Atompunk is about the “atomic age”, about 1945 to 1970 (though it can extend to 1980), and is still arguably the most “futuristic”-looking of the main three (excluding cyberpunk, which tends to consciously reject “retrotech”).

Steampunk is the oldest of the styles, not just in aesthetic, but as a potential future aesthetic. The sub-genre of sci-fi has been retroactively applied to the writings of Jules Verne and others. Films like Metropolis and HG Wells’ Things To Come are regarded by Deiselpunk fans as prototypical masterpieces of the subgenre and aesthetic. While I’m at a loss to think of early examples of Atompunk, the Church of the Subgenious and the band DEVO certainly make copious use of atompunk imagery.

There are further subgenres. If the story or the aesthetic is based on clockwork technology, a handful of Steampunk purists will call it “clockpunk”. If the technology is based on the early age of electricity, especially the works of Nikola Tesla, a few handfuls will argue that it’s neither Stem- not Dieselpunk, but Teslapunk.

On, and a few other places on the Internet, there is argued to be a bit of a divide between Dieselpunk and Decopunk (or Dieselpunk Deco, as I sometimes see it referred to) with the assertion that Dieselpunk is gritty, grimy, almost ultra-noir, and has higher tendencies toward dystopian settings (like the video game BioShock), whereas even when Decopunk has darker themes, it’s shinier and usually more optimostic in tone. Gatehouse Magazine also describes the divide as “Piecraftian” (gritty, dystopian) and “Ottensian” (shiny, optimistic), and Ottens himself has even gone so far as to suggest that Ottensian/Decopunk is the ideal Dieselpunk subgenre for returfuturism.

So now: Whether or Not Mod qualifies as Retrofuturism

peggy-moffitt-23Due to the origins of Mod laying ostensibly in late 1950s London, England, though a handful of people (including myself) placing its gestation over thirty years prior, it’s really easy to be tempted to associate Dieselpunk or Atompunk with Mod, and going by some of the more avant-garde fashions from the mid-to-late 1960s (often modelled by Peggy Moffitt), it’s certainly understandable that atompunk and early space-age science fiction would certainly appeal to the Mod scene, and on the forum on, the love of crime noirs is apparent, and crime noir has been a staple of the Mod scene for decades.

That said, while it’s indisputable that there’s a subculture growing around the retrofuturist literary and art movements, this is something that, by and large, developed wholly independent of the Mod subculture, and Mod has likewise developed largely independent of retrofuturism (or what would later be dubbed such), even if certain retrofuturist aesthetics can certainly have high appeal to Mods. It’s as inaccurate to say that “Mod is retrofuturism” as it is to say “punk has nothing to do with rebellion”.

Modernist Library: Two-Step by Warren Ellis, Amanda Connor, and Jimmy Palmiotti

img226Title: Two-Step
Script: Warren Ellis
Illustration: Connor & Palmiotti, colours by Paul Mounts
Published: Wildstorm, 2011 (original comic book miniseries, 2003-04)

I’ve enjoyed the comicbook writings of Warren Ellis since a friend introduced me to Transmetropolitan via the “holiday special” in collected volume three. Ah yes, Scott and Edé’s housewarming, I had passed out in a chair, our friend Aeric on the couch, and I woke up to the sound of Edé’s girlfriend coming downstairs and asking Aeric, “what’cha got there?” and Aeric replied, “I’m not sure, but it’s psychotic. Ru, are you up yet? You have to see this when I’m done.” Everyone else should be so lucky to have such an introduction to Ellis. So imagine my intrigue when I saw this title with the indies at my local comic shop on a day I had a full punch card.

Two-Step’s cover also promised “a weird romance” and leads consisting of Tony Ling, a Zen gangster, Rosi Blades, a bored camgirl, something about riding a classic Vespa down a one-hundred story building, and the promise “they don’t fight crime” –which is important to me.

The story is set in a sort of “alternative universe” London in the year 2001, where you can apparently get curry skunk, cosmetic surgery has taken some transhumanist turns, and cybernetic technology is such that implants of webcam tech (which I think is how that floating orb camera gets to follow Rosi around) is fairly common. The atmosphere for the alternative London created is part crime noir, part cyberpunk, and it’s presented with an odd but cute Bollywood style song-and dance —which, when you consider that nearly every page since Rosi is introduced has at least one “strip” of four panels, each representing one of her live webcams, the translation of such a number to the graphic story really works for it. If you don’t have the imagination to create your own music for these pages, just sit down with the book and a record of late 1960s psychedelic or 60s pop music from Mumbai of your choosing, it’ll work.

The story is another relatively simple one and, for the most part, kind of starts out the way a lot of such romantic comedy crime dramas of this sort do: Tony was contracted to steal something important from the Quarry gang, and is on his way to do it and be done when Rosi, allegedly the most-clicked camgirl in London and looking like a busty, corporate logo’d cyber-rave dreamgirl (of indeterminate ethnic background, though the concept sketches in the back of the book suggest she might be of African diaspora ethnicity –the sketches also suggest that the corporatised outfit is where part of her financial income comes from), wanders the streets bored and contemplating leaving the city when she stumbles upon Ling chasing another man. Rosi, mistakenly, believes thst the item Tony is after was stolen from him, rather than something Ling himself is hoping to steal. Ling would’ve gotten away with it, too, if Rosi hadn’t been streaming the whole thing.

Needless to say, the next two chapters are pretty much all a direct result of Rosi streaming the ordeal live, and while it certainly takes some crass turns, and the colours aren’t perfect, it’s certainly a tasty little read. The sketchbook selections are a ni e addition to the collected mini-series, as is the wcript to chapter one / the first issue, neither are really qll that necessary after you’ve just read it all. The ending has been done before, in this kind of story, and while I’m unsure if it works or is just the tiniest bit too predictable, I also realise that I have no superior ideas and that the characters work well for a one-shot miniseries. It’s not Transmetropolitain, but it was many times a more enjoyable read than Long Hot Summer, which I had little good to say about. Furthermore, where Transmet is a cynical look at society, politics, journalism, celebrity, and the cyberpunk setting, Two-Step is clearly optimistic for all its shootings and its absurd and grotesque take on the rape gag. The stock Zen references reinforce this, but not in any way that’s been overplayed yet.

All this said, certainly there are going to be those who may question its inclusion here, but personally, I think it’s pretty obvious: Tony’s suit seems drawn a little bit big on him, but the style shout be recognised as sharp to any fan of Quadrophenia, the classic scooters, London, taking on the crime genre, the casual philosophy… Seems pretty clear to me.

Modernist Library: Baby’s In Black by Arne Bellstorf

img225Title: Baby’s In Black – The True Love Story of the Lost Beatle
Written & Illustrated by: Arne
Publisher: 1st Second
Published: 2012

Now, I’m not a fan of The Beatles, and most of the time, I only really tolerate their music. They weren’t innovative, but they were clearly influenced by others and eventually utilised their fame to introduce interesting music to the mainstream. Brian Epstein pretty much bought their early success, part by changing their image from rockers in leather jackets to something more Mod-influenced, and part very literally by buying it. They were clearly competent musicians, and Lennon & McCartney had a real knack for cranking out catchy little tunes, but that was about it. There are a few exceptions, like “Norwegian Wood”, that I really love, but by and large, I really don’t like them as a group — and I only really love Lennon’s post-Beatles career, though I gotta respect George Harrison as a musician, and the fact that Ringo was able to make a career out of being Ringo Starr. But I digress….

Baby’s In Black is a graphic novel by German cartoonist Arne Bellstorf. His illustration style is simple, subtle, and yet oddly distinct. When I say “subtle”, I mean cos when I started reading it, I needed a few pages to to learn how to tell certain characters apart, and if I’d put it down, heat up some dinner, and come back to it and only half pay attention, I might’ve forgotten which character was which. His illustrations are simple, hand drawn, black and grey pencil work, and the difference between Pete Best and Paul McCartney, as rendered in these drawings, is mostly observed in the way the bridge of the nose is drawn —the people who feature more prominently, Stu Sutcliffe, Astrid Kirchherr, and Klaus Voormann, don’t really have this problem.

In theory, I like novelisations and films based on true stories —on the other hand, I go in usually knowing how it’s going to end, and with at least a fair idea of the personalities involved, and that often gives me a pretty high bar that I expect the book or film to meet. To the favour of Bellstorf’s story, it has been over a decade since I’ve been at all interested in The Beatles, and I haven’t even watched the comparable film, Backbeat, since 1998. I don’t have quite as high a bar for this as I had for, say, Oliver Stone’s The Doors, or What’s Love Got to Do With It?, the Tina Turner biopic. And unlike how Backbeat was more inclusive of the story of The Beatles, Baby’s In Black has very little to say about The Beatles, it’s the love story of Sutcliffe and Kirchherr.

I really liked the way this portrayed Sutcliffe and Kirchherr as two sweet-natured intellectuals in love. Despite the simplicity of the dialogue, it’s easy to feel the characters of the people portrayed.

I’m finding this one pretty hard to review, because I enjoyed it, but I really can’t say why. Objectively, it’s pretty well done, and while the story is kind of minimalist, no more details about Sutcliffe or Kirchherr or Voormann or Lennon or anyone or anything could have added to this story, and in some ways, one could argue that more facts might’ve taken away from the story of this part of Sutcliffe and Kirchherr’s lives.

When you’re given more than the story needs, you’re left with unanswered questions that the story itself cannot satisfy; other avenues need to be sought or created. Searching for the rest of the story isn’t always a bad thing, and leaving those questions unanswered can sometimes work with the right story and the proper storyteller, but a simple story is still indispensable, and the perfect simple story won’t leave you asking, “is that all there is?” I mean, we all know what happened after this story ended, you barely need to read the page of typeface epilogue: Kirchherr went on with her photography, Voormann continued in both his design and his music, the cause of Sutcliffe’s brain haemorrhage will likely never be known, and, well… The Beatles.

It’s more intimate a story than I recall of Backbeat, and the subtlety ends up working to its favour, and the last chapter is breathtaking. It wasn’t at all life-changing for me, but it didn’t need to be.

Santa is…

Santa is a… by *humon on deviantART

Just thought I’d share one of my favourite installments of one of my favourite comics.

Modermist Library: Scooter Girl by Chynna Clugston

Title: Scooter Girl
Written & Illustrated by: Chynna Clugston-Major
Publisher: Oni Press
Published: 2004
ISBN-10: 1929998880

I know I’ve ragged on other stories for being formulaic, and while this one kind of is, Ms Clugston also makes clear diversions from the formula to keep it interesting in this story, which certainly makes up for the fact that you can see the ending coming just from reading the back of the book. The basic story follows this familiar formula:

  • Meet Boy, he’s a charismatic womaniser who gets away with it cos he’s something of a latter-day Alfie.
  • Meet Girl, she’s somehow the only one in all of San Francisco who’s wise to his hijinks and starts to point it out to others.
  • Boy is obviously crushing on Girl in some meaningful way, but is prematurely too set-in-his-ways to see it, and acts like a jerk.
  • Boy blames Girl for his sudden onset of personal problems, even though she’s barely said two words to him.
  • Girl and Boy can’t avoid each-other and somehow end up together in spite of long-held animosity toward each other.

I’m sure this has been explained on TV Tropes, but if I tried to look it up without knowing what they call it there, I’d never get this post finished. Now tropes are not bad things, or at least not universally; basically, they’re potentially entertaining little formulas for writing stories, including for television, film, or songs, that skilled writers use to make quality entertainment. Chynna Clugston is one of those skilled writers.

The story is focused on, and narrated by, Ashton Archer, who builds himself up in the first few pages as some paragon of male perfection, even though he’s only eighteen, and his ideas about dating, sex, and relationships seem plucked from the original version of Alfie. I really hated the title character in that film, by the way. As his life spirals out of control over this girl, Margaret Sheldon, I can’t help but get really into it, because I really hate those smarmy bastards. A lot of the humour also revolves around Ash getting his come-uppance and doing some much-needed introspection and self-analysis, and from the fact that many characters point out to him, on occasion repeatedly, that he’s not as gifted as he fancies himself.

I mean, to be frank, this really isn’t that different a story from Long Hot Summer, but the engaging style of Ms Clugston’s writing makes it, in my opinion, a far more enjoyable read, and one worth reading repeatedly. Her illustration style is also considerably more expressive and involved, whereas Long Hot Summer kind of looks as flat and reduced-emotion as the first couple seasons of Mad Men. While I started the story only caring very slightly more about Ash than about, say, Alfie, overall, I ended up understanding him and especially his character growth a little better, and in the end, I’m convinced that he’s a better person now. While Margaret isn’t given as much development by Clugston as the title might suggest, she’s also clearly more than a cypher existing for no other reason than as some personified McGuffin; unlike Long Hot Summer‘s Ashley, she clearly has a personality that’s developed enough to make sense out of her and the things she does and says, even if we’re mainly seeing this from Ashton’s point-of-view, and it’s very easy to like her. Even her twin brother, initially introduced for apparently little more reason than aiding Margaret’s own character development, is himself a fleshed-out character given a real and distinct personality.

Also keep in mind that the story diverts a bit from “the real world”, and it can make California’s Mod scene in approximately 2004 seem as big as London 1963 —which is a laugh and a half, in all honesty, but it’s nice that the story doesn’t have to deal with addressing the fact that it’s actually a pretty small subculture, Stateside, which kind of gives it a potential for wider appeal than California. Ashton’s self-introduction as some scholastic prodigy and a gridiron star for his school’s team, and suave enough to get into the knickers of every girl in his high school is just kind of ridiculous and makes it easy to really hate this character at first —if only cos, as per my experience and that of most of my friends in the scene, we didn’t become vinyl-hoarders obsessed with clothes well-removed from mainstream culture because we were athletic and possessing of amazing sexual prowess, and being vinyl-hoarders obsessed with clothes certainly didn’t help us toward becoming athletic and gaining sexual prowess. That said, I tend to forgive the clear fantasy elements noted simply because it kind of makes it clear that Ash is a bit of a narcissist, so naturally, he’s going to build himself up as being the best at everything, whether he might actually be so or not, and if I wanted to fan-wank it, as the kids say, I could say his idea that the Mod scene in California is bigger than it ever was is simply another symptom of his self-obsessions that borderline narcissistic delusions; to Ash, nothing else exists but his scene, so naturally any story told from his perspective is going to seem like the entire world is that way.

Clugston, clearly, is an awesomely talented story-teller, and her characters truly seem to pop to life in the pages, no matter how minor. My advice is to put this on your permanent summer reading list, and you’ll not regret it. I also really like her idea of putting in a “soundtrack” for the story, with songs and their bylines sporadically listed throughout the pages; I didn’t do that exact thing with New Dance, but before I’d even read Scooter Girl, I’d had a similar idea to give out a sort of self-selected “soundtrack” on CD-Rs at events where I bring copies of the novel, and will probably continue this. So naturally, I can appreciate people with similar ideas.

The Great Gatsby

You’ve just watched the trailer to the lost silent film, The Great Gatsby, released in 1926. If you’re critical of the fact that novels give way to hasty film versions at a supposedly alarming rate in the last decade, keep in mind that the novel was published in 1925. Film historians, basing their belief on reviews, are generally of the opinion that the lost silent was the most faithful film adaptation of the book, but personally, I really love the 1974 film —and anyway, short of another freak find of film cans in a grain silo or something, this trailer is all that survives of the silent.

Great love story of our time? Oh, Mr Trailer Narrator… Did you even watch the film? I mean, I’m not denying there’s a love story in there, but it’s not what you think it is.

The 1974 film starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow (I always love Farrow’s performances, and in this she was as perfect as one could imagine) is fair enough. Upon its release, it was praised for sticking closely to the novel, but oddly criticised for failing to portray The Jazz Age through Nostalgia Goggles —but considering the philosophical themes of the story, wouldn’t something thouroughly stteped in nostalgia sort of miss the point? I swear, sometimes I want to take a cricket bat to film critics (one of the few I regularly find myself agreeing with being Doug Walker of That Guy With the Glasses —but then, hating Moulin Rouge! [NOT the 1953 biopic of Toulouse-Laurtrec starring Jose Ferrer on his knees portraying the 5’1″ descendent of inbred French aristocracy, but the jukebox musical with the exclamation point in the title —which also features an ostensibly Puerto Rican actor as the French painter, this time John Leguizamo, who is given a similar digital treatment to make Elijah Wood and Sean Astin into Hobbits] as much as I did is never a bad thing).

The Great Gatsby is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic story about a man who does everything he can to attract the attentions of high society, especially one woman in particular, seems to, and at one point, feels he has made it to the top, only to learn that the woman he’s pined for (and the Old Money society he’s tried to impress) is still unimpressed with his working class / white collar criminal background (he’s a bootlegger during the Prohibition era), and will never love and accept him. Gatsby’s character is sort of a satirical inverse of Trimalchio, a character in the ancient Roman novel Satyricon (and Trimalchio was Fitzgerald’s preferred title for the novel, but his agent advised against it), and the novel itself is more a classic satire of the socio-economic class system as much as it is a tragedy of the titular character.

I first became a bit excited to learn of a 2012 remake of the film —and then I learned that the film due for a 2012 release is directed by the same man who directed William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge!, two films where the only thing I praiset is use of songs performed by Gavin Friday in the soundtrack albums. I am not confident that this will be a decent film.

Just going by the trailer: It looks like everything that sort of worked about the other two films is present in this one, and yet the trailer leads me to believe that it’ll be subjected to the same music-video style editing, where you can’t actually appreciate the visuals and design, and (just as I hated about Romeo + Juliet), it’s trying too hard to be “dark and edgy”, where what works about the story is the juxtaposition of shallow lightheartedness with virtue and misguided determination. This is not a story about being brooding and “edgy”, it’s a story about doing everything one can to be at the top and impress people, only to end up without happiness —and this is not adequately satirised with a Romeo + Rouge! “dark and edgy” atmosphere. The trailer suggests that this is one of those films that’s going to have a few nice points (which one may not be able to fully appreciate because it looks and feels like a music video) but which misses all the nuances of the source material, which is what makes it so engrossing and thus adds to the timelessness of the piece.

But hey: Shit sandwich? Tastes great! I doubt there are going to be very many people who will realise how shitty this film even seems from the trailer, and so will flock the the cinema, their minds already made up that “nice title card + obligatory Baz Lurhmann dark atmoss with random sparkly shit = OMG! REESE’S-MASTERPIECES!!!”, and this will thus be public opinion of an objectively bad film that can essentially buy a good review.

Modernist Library: City of Spades by Colin MacInnes

Title: City of Spades
Written by: Colin MacInnes
Publisher: Allison & Busby
Original publication date: 1958
ISBN-10: 074901153X

I realise that The London Novels are not a series where all books need to be read in order, or even all together, to understand what one is talking about. Still, not one to pass up the works of one of the great bisexual authors of Midtwentieth Britain, I did read this one, first, and discovered some of the same themes in Absolute Beginners, in part, London youth and the Modern Jazz set, and where Absolute Beginners touches on relations with immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean, City of Spades immerses itself in the topic. In researching the book after reading it, I did learn that MacInnes was befriended and respected amongst the people he wrote about in the late 1950s, and that really shows in the story here.

The narrative follows two young men and their stories; the very green young-twenties social worker, Montgomery Pew, and the eighteen-years-old meteorology student from Lagos, Johnny Fortune. When they meet, Johnny is Monty’s first casefile, and living in a hostel, Monty quickly takes a liking to the charismatic Johnny, and soon fails to report that Johnny has been ditching his classes —furthermore, Johnny can’t even really explain what he arrived in the UK to study. Johnny quickly moves out of the hostel and in with another friend, another Nigerian, and takes to dealing drugs. Monty also learns of Johnny’s half-brother, born of the Sr. Fortune’s own youthful indiscretion, and whose half-sister Johnny takes a liking to, and Monty also soon introduces Johnny to a vibrant woman who has some unspecified job with the BBC (and it’s hinted that even her employers are unsure of her exact position), but who lives downstairs from Monty.

The story is very slice-of-life with the conflict being society rather than any one person or group of people, which is common of Modernist literature. A lot of the stylised speech and colourful slang from this book clearly followed into Absolute Beginners, but other than the setting of London and the Modernist narrative and themes, there’s nothing really that the two stories share, each story standing alone and sharing no characters.

I rate this one relatively high simply because I like this sort of character-study narrative that’s low on story and high on social struggles, but at the same time, my background with political activist friends leaves me unsure how to regard MacInnes’ portrayal of the African community in late 1950s London. While the stylised slang is certainly accurate for the ages and of the characters and the modern Jazz set, he makes great use of eye dialect for the African characters that would certainly be poorly regarded by social justice-minded youth today, and at best regarded as a Midtwentieth anachronism; at the same time, it’s hard not to see the value in this use of phonetic dialect as preserving a reality of the era rarely saved on film. While disingenuous to compare MacInnes’ use of eye dialect for the African characters to, say, Zora Neale Hurston’s use of phonetics for most of her own characters, especially African Americans, I find it hard to put on the same level as, say, Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus stories, if only because he clearly takes care to record some of the idiosyncrasies between, say, Lagos English and West Indies English, doing it just subtly enough that responsibility is typically on the reader to notice. MacInnes also clearly illuminates the racism of mainstream UK whites and does not shy away from eye dialects for pale complexioned East Enders and others. He clearly did this better than most people could have, but lacking my own Black British experience, I’m reluctant to make claims that it’s a respectable portrayal of eye dialect, and so I take it down about half a point to reflect this. This considered, the casual and unmoralising inclusion of queer characters is quaint and novel for the time; additionally, the loving but keenly honest and unglamorous portrayal of post-WWII London is certainly one of the novel’s high points. His portrayal of British nightlife for African and West Indies immigrants is, as per my research, quite impeccable and shows a fond first-hand knowledge of the clubs and dance halls.

All in all, I definitely recommend it for one’s summer reading list, especially if one enjoyed Absolute Beginners. I also recommend Kate Hudson’s review on London Fictions.

Modernist Library: Long Hot Summer by Stephenson & McKelvie

Title: Long Hot Summer
Written by: Eric Stephenson
Illustrated and lettered by: Jamie McKelvie
Publisher: Image Comics, 2005
ISBN-10: 158240559X

I wish I liked this one more than I did. It was a quick read and the illustrations are stunning, but I think when you take the title of a Style Council song, the music video of which probably lost them more fans to homophobia than Paul Weller’s ego and unflattering hairstyles ever could subtract, there is major potential for something genuinely interesting and not just the Generic Teen Summer Romance plot, only with Mods. Now, I’m not saying that making Ashley a gent would have automatically made this interesting, and I’m not saying Generic Teen Coming-Out as Gay Story, with Mods, would have necessarily been interesting, either, I’m just saying there was a reference to be made, and Eric Stephenson clearly didn’t care to make it. Making that reference would have at least been funny enough to earn another half-point —at least to me, but I find quirky and borderline-obscure references like that to be funny, and it’s my review.

The story is set in Southern California (probably san Diego, where I know there’s a sizeable Mod scene) and follows Ken, who’s sharp and cool and everybody likes, his mate Steve, who’s shorter, fatter, and people think is a bit annoying cos he whines a lot and isn’t as sharp and cool as Ken is, and Ashley, who’s high on good looks, and in personality is something of a female version of Ken. Ashley is initially asked out by Steve, but she assumes it was a Not-A-Date, and immediately ditches Steve upon meeting Ken. From there, it’s kind of predictable, but overall works for the same reasons every such story works: The characters are just enough “blank slates” that it’s easy to self-insert and imagine oneself as any of the three, but there’s also just enough characterisation put in to make it worth writing a story about them.

It’s rather nice that the story doesn’t keep coming back around to how Mod the characters are and “by the way, did you know this tale features Mods?” sorts of narration. I’m probably guilty of that in parts of New Dance, to be honest, but the book mainly relies on the artwork to set that up and the occasional reference to Mod staples or scene terminology. On the other hand, all of the clichés of the Generic Teen Summer Romance are in there (boy meets girl, girl meets boy’s best friend, girl is kind of callous in an “empowered” way, first boy flips out when he learns best friend and girl made some whoopee, girl takes everything in stride, etc…), but I still give this Average marks because I think Stephenson may have been conscious of this, I just don’t think he was very good at playfully satirising it enough. Unlike The Originals and Quadrophenia, there’s no real existentialist dilemma to motivate the ending (that or Stephenson is just being too subtle about it) which, as with the above titles, is rather bittersweet, but at the same time, unlike with the other two titles, I didn’t really care about any of the characters by the ending, especially not Ken, so ultimately I feel he ended up where he deserved slightly more than I can imagine any sympathies for him.

On the other hand, I give this book as high a score as I do not just for the art, but because I have to admit that I have a bit of as guilty pleasure for these quick, stupid little stories that end up being fairly quick reads. I can recommend taking it out for a weekender or some beach reading, so you have something to occupy yourself with while you’re waiting for friends, but won’t want something so engrossing as to be distracting. I have a friend who calls these sorts of stories “purse books” (or “bag books” for her male friends), and I definitely like to keep something of this sort in my messenger bag for when I’m waiting for friends at the coffeehouse, or stuck in the waiting room at my allergist’s. It’s pretty basic, but still enjoyable enough to keep around for when you have some time to kill.