What I’ve been reading lately, part 21

Who Sent the Sentinels? — Andrew Rilstone

A short but brilliant analysis of Alan Moore and David Gibbon’s classic graphic novel Watchmen (see below). Rilstone peers at the original comics and the 2009 movie from many different angles, supplementing his observations and insights on these works with more general thoughts about comics derived from reading golden-age DC and silver-age Marvel.

What emerges is a profound but fragmented view on the whole Watchmen phenomenon, arrived at not by following a single careful train of thought but by the gradual accumulation of understanding from multiple perspectives and the progressive accretion of a synthetic view.

Rilstone’s analysis to some degree mirrors the structure of Watchmen itself, and does so with enough integrity and panache to make it work. It’s an invaluable companion to the comics, and I highly recommend it to anyone who loves them (or the film).

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince — J. K. Rowling

Despite the superb character that is Dolores Umbrage in Order of the Phoenix, I found the book as a whole something of a place-holder. There is incident, but most of it relates to the tale being told right then rather than the over-arching story. As a  result, you could cut out say 80% of Order of the Phoenix without harming the thread through the seven books.

Half-Blood Prince is not like that: it’s where the Potterverse gets serious again. Aside from the occasional digression into quidditch, pretty much everything that happens is directly relevant to the ongoing great battle with Voldemort and his disciples. The last third of the book, in particular, is absolutely packed with crucial plot development, to the point where it becomes a little breathless: not something that the later, longer Harry Potter books are often accused of. I will say nothing specific about the ending, in the hope of avoiding spoilers. but I do remember being legitimately shocked by the key development when I first read the book.

Watchmen — Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

I re-read this on the heels of having re-read Andrew Rilstone’s critical analysis (see above), and it’s hard to overstate how brilliant this is. Watchmen is a quite dazzling work, fully deserving the reverence in which it is held, and well worthy of its place on Time magazine’s All-Time 100 Greatest Novels list — the only graphic novel to make the list. This is, I think, the fourth time I’ve read it, and I kept on and on finding things I’d missed the previous three times. It’s rich.

Watchmen tells the story of a loosely affiliated group of costumed heroes in an alternative-history USA, set mostly in 1985 but with lots of flashbacks. In the “present”, we follow Nite Owl II, Rorschach, The Comedian, Silk Spectre II, Ozymandias, and Doctor Manhattan; and in the 1940s we follow an older group of their predecessors, including the original Nite Owl and Silk Spectre. Doctor Manhattan is the only one with superpowers: the others are just vigilantes with varying physical prowess, some of them with special equipment. The whole thing is impressively realistic, and fully delivers on the old Marvel Comics idea of heroes as real people. Alan Moore’s script and Dave Gibbons’ art sell the story, but more importantly sell us the characters, so that we can to some extent sympathise with every single character — even the “bad guys”. The climax of the story poses a genuine moral dilemma, with the fate of world at stake and a handful of damaged, complex characters trying to work out what to do about it all.

I really can’t recommend it highly enough.

Pro Git — Scott Chacon

A free book which I should have read seven years ago instead of whining about how git doesn’t do things they way I expect. If only I’d taken a few hours back then, I could have saved myself years of pointless frustration and confusion. Seriously, if you use git at all, then go and read this book now. You’ll thank me.

Only now do I grasp, for example, the core fact that there is only one branching and re-merging) history of all commits, and that all the so-called “branches” — including “remote branches” — are merely pointers into this one history. That makes a huge difference: for one thing, the notion of a remote branch on the local machine makes perfect sense.

The book is far from perfect: the prose is not great, and some of the chapters (“Git on the Server”, “Customising Git”, “Git and Other Systems”) were really a waste of my time. But the core of the book is informative enough to override these complaints. Chapters 2 and 3 (“Git Basics” and “Git Branching”) are key; chapter 5 (“Distributed Git”) was an interesting but inessential insight into ways of managing different git workflows on projects of different sizes; and chapter 10 (“Git Internals”), which I nearly skipped, turned out to be a revelation, helping to make sense of how it all fits together.

I will be re-reading chapters 2, 3 and 10 to make sure they sink in fully. I recommend those chapter to any software developer. (And while you’re there, you may as well read the rest of the book.)

Complete Future Shocks — Alan Moore (and various artists)

Having been fascinated all over again by Watchmen, I wanted to go back to some of Alan Moore’s earliest published comics, in this collected volume of his contributions to the British comic 2000 AD. (Despite the title, the collected strips are not only Future Shocks, which in fact make up only about 40% of the volume. The others include Time Twisters, the collected Abelard Snazz stories and some miscellaneous one-shots.)

This is the second time I’ve read the volume, but the third, fourth or even fifth time I’ve read some of the strips, as I had the original comics when they came out and re-read them every now and then.

As you would expect, these strips are of wildly varying quality. Some are simple vehicles for not very good puns (“The Clone Ranger”); some are appallingly dated, as in the strip where Abelard Snazz gives the Ares, Greek God of war, a “contemporary” rebranding as the God of  Space Invaders machines. There is also some pretty flagrant plagiarism in there.

But there are places where Moore’s talent shines powerfully through. For example, there is a conceptually brilliant story, Eureka, in which a search for extraterrestrial life is successful, but the aliens that are discovered have no physical presence but exist only as ideas — as a mind virus. (We see the beginning of the specific idea: “If all time is simultaneous and all events happen in a single instant, then time is but a figment of mind and …” This of course is how Dr. Manhattan will see the universe three years later in Watchmen. (It’s hard to believe how much Moore progressed between 1983 and 1986; probably much of the apparent progress was simply due to the limitations imposed by 2000 AD’s short-story format: usually three or four pages, never more than six.)

Best of all, even in the context of a two-page story, the early Alan Moore can be genuinely emotional. I’ll leave you with One Christmas Day During Eternity, probably my favourite story in the volume. (Click through for full size.)

Now that is writing, whether in a kid’s comic or in Actual Literature.

 

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10 responses to “What I’ve been reading lately, part 21

  1. Talking of Moore, it’s a shame that the Halo Jones series was never finished: probably my favourite work of his. The artwork was by Gibson, who had a different style to Gibbons, but IMHO is every bit as good. I think that’s been stuck in limbo for 30 years now and I’m guessing it’s long since died.

    I also think it’s a bit of a shame that the guys who made their name with 2000AD had to go to a US publisher to be taken seriously. Comics still seem to be rather sneered at in the UK even though characters like Judge Dredd have become much more widely known in recent years.

  2. I have the collected Halo Jones as well, and may well re-read that soon — and Skizz. I didn’t know that Halo Jones had been left in limbo, so I was completely taken by surprise (and very disappointed) when I reached the end of the book and it just stopped.

    Valid point on US vs. UK. It’s not like comics are taken particularly seriously in either country, but perhaps things are even worse in Britain than in America — or were in the 1980s, at least.

  3. I never actually read Skizz! I think I’ve probably missed out. The Ballad of Halo Jones was intended to cover her entire life and I think was supposed to run for 10 books, so the sudden ending of Book 3 is I guess as abrupt as if it’d finished at the end of the first or second. I’m not even sure what went wrong exactly: certainly not a dispute with the creative team: indeed Gibson seems keen to work on it with Moore again. I suppose it was probably part of the seemingly interminable ownership wrangling that beset 2000AD at the time (which ISTR is also why Robocop managed to steal Judge Dredd’s thunder so comprehensively on the big screen).

    You’re right about the medium not being taken *that* seriously anywhere, though at least it does seem to have a bit more of a pedigree in the US, as much as The Simpsons take the mick with Comic Book Guy (though I think that’s more of an observation than anything else, as tends to be the case with them). Again, I think the UK publishers dropped the ball considering Eagle seemed to be quite highly regarded when I was growing up. Then again, it’s always easy to hold something in high regard when it no longer exists and I dare say if Eagle was still a major thing at the time I was growing up it would’ve been more reviled than revered. Because people are capricious like that.

  4. Many thankingnesses for the kind review. That was the first self-published book I did, though not the first fanzine. I’m still rather proud of it. You can get it from Lulu… http://www.lulu.com/shop/andrew-rilstone/who-sent-the-sentinels/paperback/product-13639851.html

  5. Why do you consider Umbrage a superb character? To me it was always a ham-fisted one. A purely evil opportunist. While there are indubitably people like that, what is interesting are why the character got that way.

    To be honest, villains are not Rowling’s forte. Even Voldemort only gets a a few wholly insufficient pages on his background in the whole series. Perhaps the most interesting “villain” is Draco Malfoy, precisely because it’s the most nuanced one, and perhaps the only one we are allowed to empathize with a little.

  6. Vometia, I’ve only read Skizz once, and didn’t at all remember it from the comics. I really should re-read. If I do, I’ll let you (and the world) know whether I think it’s worth buying.

    Gavin, interesting backstory on Halo Jones, thanks.

    Andrew, my pleasure. It’s probably the critical work that I’ve re-read the most time, and I will surely read it again. I’ll also be linking to it again from my in-progress analysis of the Watchmen movie.

    Nicolas, I think Umbridge is excellent because her awfulness only unfolds quite slowly. We first meet her at Harry’s trial at the Ministry, and assume she is a one-shot comedy character. Then when she turns up at Hogwarts, she seems annoying and incompetent — no more. Her malice and hunger for power unfolds gradually; by the end, it turns out that she is prepared to use Crucio to make Harry talk, and even that she ordered the dementor attack that started the book. None of that is remotely guessable from her initial appearance, but it all makes perfect sense as it progressively emerges. Then when it turns out in Half Blood Prince that she is still employed by the Ministry instead of in Azkaban where she belongs, it’s a chilling reminder of how corrupt the Ministry is. (Reading the book, I imagined her played by Annette “Blon Fel-Fotch Pasameer-Day Slitheen” Badland, but in her very different way Imelda Staunton nailed it.)

  7. Interesting, I was never surprised about her actions. It’s true I didn’t expect the character to stick around after the first appearance (precisely because it’s such a one-sided caricature), but it’s clear from the start she has no moral principles and will do anything she can get away with. In my view, her character does not unfold, the political situation worsens.

    Perhaps it’s a fitting parallels for current events. The horrible human beings were always there, but they are now only coming out of the wood because they feel it’s safe.

  8. Speaking of comics, I’ve just been reading Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics and gosh is it good. If you haven’t read it I’d highly recommend it.

    I read it ages ago and have always thought of it as a classic, but re-reading it I am struck again by the sheer density of interesting ideas. It’s also interesting, that the first time I read it I was younger than he was when I he wrote it and now I’m several years older, and I’m conscious of it as a young man’s book. The ambition to take on such a large topic armed with passion, energy, and the desire to tie together every possible reference is charming.

  9. I _have_ read Understanding Comics, and remember enjoying it greatly; but I agree, it’s due a re-read.

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