So what have you been reading? Me, I’ve been delving back into comics. Well, the old Powers trade paperbacks to be more precise. Blame the end of term cold, but all I wanted to do for a few days was catch up with something vaguely familiar; nothing too heavy but capable of keeping the hook dug deep. Plus I had volumes nine through eleven sitting unread in the summer pile, so it seemed sensible to go back to the very beginning.
It felt good to be reunited with the Powers universe. Like meeting some old friends after a few years away. It felt familiar, and yet there were new nuances to pick up on, new stories to tell under the old ones. It’s funny how you bring something new to the table when you revisit those old tales. They stay the same, but you don’t, so the experience is different each time. You cherish the old favourite moments, but at the same time different ones create themselves around a newly noted reference. Or something previously unseen chimes with a memory made since your last visit. It’s all good.
Now I think Brian Michael Bendis is a terrific storyteller. You all know this, no doubt. And Michael Avon Oeming is a genius artist. You know this too. It’s just nice to be reminded every so often. I do not think that I have never been a comics geek, but I do love following some of the trails. I was sitting nodding and grinning broadly when I was reading the Bendis interview where he was going on about discovering Noir, and all those great novels. That line about reading all of the Jim Thomson novels in a three-week period. Oh yes. I know all about that. C and I were talking about that kind of thing the other night. That period of devouring all the Noir and gritty crime novels we could find. Ross MacDonald, Chandler and Hammet, Charles Willeford, Block, James Crumleys and of course Pelecanos. Grand times. It’s so exciting when those things are fresh and new to you. But still there are things to discover of course. Threads to follow, connections to make.
So I love the Powers books. But truth be told, it was always the Noir part of the Noir/Superhero axis that meant the most. I still kind of struggle with the superheroes. Few of them mean much to me. Batman still, of course, and those old Silver Surfer stories were great. I am sure there are more. The stories of the great unknowns; the strained and strange outsiders. Those are the stories for me.
I am not sure if you could call Gervase Fen a great unknown or a strange outsider, but perhaps, perhaps. Those Edmund Crispin novels were unknown to me for so long. I had a suspicion of British crime fiction for such a long time. It remains somewhere inside, doubting always. But you think of Derek Raymond, Jake Arnott, David Peace, Gordon Burn. There is so much to love. And Edmund Crispin. Strange to put him on that list, for he is of a much older school, perhaps more in tune with G K Chesterton, and there is surely nothing wrong with that. For Chesterton is perhaps an unsung hero in some respects too. Certainly I had ignored him for too long, but after adoring the deliciously arch madcap rush of The Man Who Was Thursday and the glorious romp of The Napoleon of Notting Hill, I am poised to delve into his Father Brown stories. I am sure it is going to be a terrific journey.
But Edmund Crispin and Gervase Fen; one of those Donnish detectives. The murky appeal of 1940s England; a land full of poets, academics, church mice and brown suits. Marvellous stuff. Then there is the local appeal in Holy Disorders: a thinly disguised Teignbridge area being the setting for a tale of murder in the cathedral with a bunch of Nazi spies thrown in for good measure. It carries something of the flavour of those old Sherlock Holmes movies that adapted Conan Doyle’s stories for the wartime audiences, but at root it’s a locked room mystery, and none the worse for that. And how can you not love the bizarre buffoonery of the church music composer proposing marriage to the beauty of the village within forty-eight hours of meeting her? As I say, marvellous stuff.
I had hopes that Michael Chabon’s The Gentlemen of the Road would be marvellous stuff too, but those hopes quickly faded. It was all I could do to finish the book, which is a shame, for Chabon can write a great tale. Wonderboys, The Mysteries Of Pittsburgh and the rightly acclaimed Kavalier And Clay of course. His The Yiddish Policemen’s Union was a great read too; a brilliantly paced romp in the vein of James Crumley. It seems to me though that Chabon is like Jonathan Lethem in that perhaps he needs a stronger publisher or editor. Someone willing to stand up and say ‘nah, this one sucks’. But what do I know?
Now I mentioned Pelecanos earlier. Well I have not yet felt the need to delve back into those old novels of his, but one day, one day for sure. In the meantime we have been catching up very belatedly with The Wire TV show. It makes for compulsive viewing and you can see how the Pelecanos connection would have been made. It reminds me, I never did transcribe that interview I did with him way back in the day. When Serpents Tale had first published the Nick Stefanos trilogy, which had me totally hooked. I still have that interview on minidisc somewhere, though I think the disc may be waterlogged from inadvertently being put through the washing machine. I should check it out and see if anything can be salvaged. I recall feeling quite intimidated by his presence – I felt like a fanboy interloper, but it was a great experience. His mass-observation is still here. He was taken aback, as I remember, with the ‘what do you make’ question; interpreting it in that American way of ‘how much do you earn’. It was an awkward moment…
To get back to that idea of the outsiders though; what about John Carney’s unfolding series? Shameless self promotion, maybe, in that I’ve been doing the illustrations for it and putting together the website, but still, if I were not involved I would still be such a huge fan, and I look forward each week to reading about what escapades John’s glorious bande à part have been up to. My work colleague hit it right on the head when she said it was a great reflection of a time/some times. Maybe you had to be there and live through them too, I don’t know. But it hits the spot for me.
I was set to thinking about John’s series yesterday, actually, when I was drawing. I do not think it is giving away too much of the mystery to tell you about how these drawings take form, for like the best Pop Art they are at heart composites created from a host of reference points. The sources of the references are important, but perhaps only to me. The song titles sometimes give clues, but as often they do not; are simply red herrings, if you like. So the visual references, well, they so often come from postcards stuck on the wall, or from photography books that I pull from the shelves. It is a great way of re-acquainting oneself with old books, and as often as not I will get lost in the book and leave the drawing behind for a while. So it was yesterday when I was looking at Bruce Davidson’s Brooklyn Gangs. We really should revisit this book next summer, when the photographs will be fifty years old, but what the heck. These are some of my favourite photographs by anyone, anywhere. There is something so special in them. The faces, the moments in time; specifically that moment in time at the cusp of the decades. You can see something of the band of outsiders in those photographs. The link to the Outsiders of S.E. Hinton of course, and to the motorcycle outlaws of The Loveless perhaps. And yes, to the jazz loving, Modernist troupe who were Outside Of Everything. There too is that link into the contemporary world of The Wire, perhaps, with the story of those teenage faces from the fifties bleeding into the sixties and the arrival of hard drugs and tragic stories. The beginnings of The Game, perhaps. Something like that. And Bengie’s story, printed in back of the Brooklyn Gangs book is one to make you cry for sure.