Book Review – Drawn & Quarterly 25 years (Drawn & Quarterly – 2015)

This celebration of the first 25 years of ‘contemporary cartooning, comics, and graphic novels from Canadian publisher Drawn & Quarterly (edited by Tom Devlin) is something of a leviathan.  At over 770 pages and weighing around 4lb 10oz (or 2.1kg if you work in metric) it’s not something you could snuggle down with in bed unless you have wrists of iron or a bed lectern.   

The book is crammed with cartoons, art work, photos, history, memoirs and written ‘appreciations’ of the many artists and cartoonists who have been associated with D&Q since it was started by Chris Oliveros in 1989.  D&Q has been likened to the comic equivalent of the New Yorker and many of the contributors to this book have achieved critical acclaim such as Julie Doucet, Seth, Joe Matt, Chester Brown, Art Spiegelman, Joe Sacco and many others.

In the early days D&Q struggled to get serious comic books taken, well ‘seriously.’ Amongst the reproduced ephemera is a leaflet entitled “Selling Graphic Novels in the book trade”, which is a charming pamphlet and something that booksellers could still learn from.

The work of the artists and cartoonists is preceded by an appreciation, which helps to set the work in context.  One that stood out was an appreciation of the cartoonist James Sturm by Noel Murray.  I’d not heard of Sturm before but the essay by Noel Murray made me want to read his work straight away.   This was followed by a story by Sturm about a comic artist who feels he is falling behind and about those he abandons in pursuing his aims.  Sturm adopts a variety of cartooning styles and the story ends in a neat punchline.

Naomi Fry describes the profound affect that the work of Daniel Clowes had on her:

If you weren’t consistently humiliated by life, you wouldn’t recall every stupid moment of it in such intense detail.

This is a feeling a lot of people can identify with and the autobiographical work of some of the artists linked to D&Q can be so open and honest, in the way that very personal and possibly embarrassing memories are bought to life, that the reader feels their pain and shame. 

Rather than just being lots of boring words to be endured between the cartoons, the written appreciations of the artists are genuinely interesting, illuminating and add to the enjoyment of the work.  

The D&Q artists enthuse about great cartoons from the past and the enduring impact that it has had on them.  Chris Ware writes fondly about Walt and Skeezix by Frank King, a strip where the characters aged in real time and ordinary things happen.  The strips reproduced in the book revealed a lovely, engrossing story of real life.

Seth writes at length about Doug Wright and argues he was every bit as important to comics and cartoons as Charles Schulz.  In capturing the texture of the 1960’s, Seth notes that Wright achieved it 

…thought work that was focuses on quite, tiny little moments.’

Wrights influence can be seen in the work of Seth which often has a quiet Zen like quality about it.  

Many of the cartoons are beautiful artworks in their own right and demand to be studied and appreciated, a couple of cases in point being the works of Denys Wortman and Shigeru Mizuki.

In a tome of this size with an amazing variety of contributors, not everything hits the mark but this would be true of any publisher who tried to put together a collection involving their entire roster of authors. 

This is a great collection and serves as a great introduction to D&Q and a celebration of its achievements over 25 years. 


Book Review – The Paper Magician by Charlie N Holmberg (47 North – 2014)

Magic, magicians and magic schools in a rather old-fashioned setting but so much more than a Harry Potter book (which could be good or bad depending on your view of the boy wizard).

Ceony Twill is a young lady who has recently graduated from the Tagis Praff School for the Magically Inclined (great name for a college). In this universe, an alternative Victorian England, magic is practiced through man-made materials and Ceony was hoping to be a Smelter, that is one who uses metals in their magical profession.  Much to her chagrin, Ceony is instead bonded to paper magic (viewed as the weakest of the magics) under the apprenticeship of Emery Thane, an enigmatic, quiet and likeable soul with green eyes.  

The use of green eyes to signify atractiveness, danger and mystery must be taught at writing schools and I intend to give a character green eyes if I ever get round to writing a book, which still seems unlikely.

The formal yet quiet and comforting routine of Ceony’s training is exploded when a female Excisionist, a magician who uses flesh and bone, called Lira bursts into Emery Thane’s house and attacks leaving him mortally injured and Ceony bewildered and hurt.

Senior magicians arrive at the scene to take charge and it becomes clear from overheard snatches of conversation that there is a lot more going on than either Ceony or the reader is allowed to know.

Ceony, who has developed a fondness for Thane, takes matters into her own hands and the book becomes by turn darker, stranger and more dreamlike than the initial chapters hinted at.  Odd, affecting and thoroughly readable.

The use of paper for the practice of magic was an inspired choice.  The magic of paper appeals to writers and book lovers and triggers a nostalgia associated with making paper planes, darts, snowflakes and fortune-tellers.

The author is American but gives a largely believable picture of English life.  The only two instances where I suspected the U.S. influence were in the use of the word ‘ornery’ and where a meal of ‘sausage gravy and biscuits’ was mooted. But, these are trivial observations.

Overall, a good book that made me want to read more.

Book Review – The Caltraps of Time by David I Masson ( Gollancz – 2012)

On initial inspection of this book, I really liked the idea of it.  It’s in the SF Masterworks series, it represents all of the published short stories of a writer I’ve never heard of and it has a great title. (I had no idea what a Caltrap was and had to look it up). It seemed to have forgotten classic written all over it.  However, the proof of the book is in the reading and the initial promise evaporated pretty quickly 

Another reviewer has commented that the SF Masterworks series seems to publish everything, which whilst being a tad unfair does raise an interesting question about quality control and who actually regards the titles in the series as classics.  

In the first story, Traveller’s Rest’ a soldier is relieved from front line duty in some hideous war where no-man’s land appears to be a rip in space-time.  It quickly becomes obvious that time moves faster at the front line than at the rear.  The main characters’ name gets longer the further he gets from the front and the prose also becomes more descriptive.  I quite enjoyed the story even though the pay-off at the end was a bit obvious.  

‘A Two Timer’ tells the story of a man from 1683 who stumbles across a time machine and jumps into 1964.  The use of archaic period English is quite nice but Masson stretches the point of how an Elizabethan would be amazed by 20th century technology a bit thin.  

Masson was clearly interested by language, the introduction points out that he was fascinated by

The functions and effects of phonetic sound patterning.

This interest s clear in ‘Not So Certain’, which is a rather tedious exercise in the study of alien language that is resolved by a punchline that was not with the effort of reading the story.  

Masson’s interest in language means that many of these stories are hard to get to grips with and feel like they were written for his own amusements there than for an audience.  As an example, here is the last line from the story ‘The Transfinite Choice’ (I don’t believe that this can be seen as a spoiler, you’ll see what I mean when you read…)

It was his reality which had been fractionated by infra-hypo-subquark shunt.

Really, it was like trying to read the fitting manual for a gas cooker in a foreign language.

I won’t distract you much further with this review but I will mention the following:

  • Psychosmosis – In my notes I have simply written ‘What?’
  • The Show Must Go On – A SF satire in which the author grumbles about how modern life is rubbish. I suspect it would have been more amusing in the 1970’s.
  • Doctor Fausta- More time travel explained in tortuous fashion and a truly dreadful ‘Bizarro world’ set up.

Whilst I would admire attempts to bring true great works to a wider audience, this volume proves that not everything that is old and has been out of print for a long time is a ‘classic’.  This would have been best forgotten.  Claptrap of Time.