Sunday, 31 October 2010

The Lion & the Spider

It's the late 1970s. I'd spent the decade absorbing Marvel's back catalogue of reprints, learning to read along the way from the day my aunt handed the four year old me my first Spider-man issue. Okay - four year old me got my dad to do the reading initially but you get the idea. I reread those early Lee/Ditko & the Lee/Kirby (back-up strip was The Mighty Thor) stories time and time again. Not too long after - 1976 to be exact - I fell in love with Marvel UK's new hero: Captain Britain was born.
Unfortunately, most of the other kids were more impressed with The Beano, TV Comic, Look-in or all those war comics. Captain Britain was dead. After 39 weekly issues Marvel UK's British experiment was laid to rest. The UK just wasn't in tune with America's love of the super-hero comic genre. At this time Marvel had got used to canceling comics after the shine had worn off the launch glitz. These titles usually ended with just a small loyal following which the publishers would try to tempt over to another title by merging the defunct title with one of the more viable titles. In this case Captain Britain's loyal die-hards would have to start collecting Marvel's flagship unsinkable British reprint title: Super Spider-man. The 11 year old me was a big fan of both. This archive volume begins with those post cancellation stories.The Captain Britain series was already deeply flawed even before the merger. It inhabited a Britain that only existed in the lampoon influenced American psyche. The first installment is pretty eye-watering as the writer tries to fit every perceived Brit cliche and mannerism into that first 5 page segment. I'm guessing there were some editorial memos on the fly following this as they did attempt to tone it down a bit in following installments. Two arcs of fairly lacklustre story-telling followed, getting wackier by the week, which seemed to have more in common with vintage titles like Batman from a decade or two earlier. The entirety of Claremont's Captain Britain/Spider-man Team-Up with the original splash pages (included here) would complete the phase-out for our hero. This team-up is quite decent, even considering it features Marvel's 'filler' villain - Arcade.
Captain Britain was dead. Or was he? In 1978 the new Hulk Weekly, designed to cash-in on the popular tv-series but without the use of Marvel's Hulk back catalogue, was looking for British produced back-up titles. One of these was the Steve Parkhouse written Black Knight series that would feature a mysterious stranger who would turn out to be an amnesiac Brian Braddock. The brief was to write a Tolkienesque quest, while drawing on British mythology. It would be packed with mythical creatures and magic, most notably the diminutive feral looking elves commanded by master archer Moondog. At this stage there is no sign of Jackdaw (Captain Britain's future fated side-kick) though I guess we should assume he is one of Moondog's troop. Paul Neary would provide the startling and distinctive black and white art, ably assisted in inks by John Stokes. Sometimes something astounding just comes together by people coming together at just the right moment in time. It was destiny I suppose. For the first time since his launch Captain Britain gained an identity that wasn't just an amalgam of successful American comic book characters. The first 29 installments are included here for the first time in over 30 years. It's a shame the series has been split up with the concluding parts kicking off the next volume. Early concept art closes the book as well as some memos from Stan Lee and bizarrely Neil Tennant (the then Marvel UK London editor of latterly Pet Shop Boys fame).
For British comic book nostalgists this book is a dream and for those who know Captain Britain's history they'll know this was to be the stepping stone that would bring our hero under the triumphant pen of the master himself - Alan Moore. The Best was yet to come.
Captain Britain was alive.

Friday, 22 October 2010

On the hills

Camera Critters

I've seen a ghost that strides the line
where earth and sky reside.
I've heard the gentle heart
That yearns for places wide.
I've felt the breath that mists the air
With clouds that mark your course.
No whip or line should damp your pride,
Trammel your soul with force.
Michael Finn

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Started Early, Took My Dog

I'd fully intended to take this book on holiday with me but for one reason or another I'd not managed to get hold of a copy in time. Fortunately, as readers of my blog might already have read, there was a copy on the shelf in the living area of my holiday let, perhaps left behind by a recent visitor. I suppose I was fated to spend my holidays with Kate Atkinson no matter what I did. Fate and synchronicity aren't strangers to Kate's writing either, not least this fourth outing for retired private detective Jackson Brodie. It's another deliciously enjoyable read from this ever dependable author. This one seems even more personal to me than ever. How does she do that? It's like she writes books just for me. Dipping back to the 70s, that golden time of my childhood, here the dark era of the serial killer infested Yorkshire, and back to the now and the consequences of decisions made over three decades later, Kate weaving a web of complexity with characters and plot-lines that slowly converge. My favourite poet, Emily Dickinson, gets more than just the title; she crops up throughout both quoted and thematically. Even Jackson seems to be tracking me north to Whitby, dogging my tracks to my holiday escape. And driving home, south through Yorkshire I'm almost keeping an eye out for a Saab in the rear view mirror, a light-up Virgin Mary blinking on the dashboard and further behind dogging him - that silver Avensis. Maybe he's hampered by the detours too. We pass Byland Abbey, clearly visible from the road. Surely that should hold him up for a while. Jackson loves his abbeys. Sadness, regret, fatalism - they're all still here but tempered by humour and lastly by hope. It's probably fitting that Emily Dickinson gets the last word.

'Hope' is the thing with feathers -

That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -

And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm -

I've heard it in the chillest land -
And on the strangest Sea -
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb - of Me.
Emily Dickinson

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Collected Ghost Stories

I often take Montague on holiday with me. He doesn't take up much room and he doesn't eat all the Baby Bells. I'm talking about Montague Rhodes James - my favourite writer of ghost stories. This time Montague is telling me the stories that didn't get printed in his four haunting anthologies. I prefer the individual publications to the doorstop collection here. It's pretty evident why these six stories didn't make it into the original publications.
  1. The Uncommon Prayer-Book
  2. A Neighbour's Landmark
  3. Rats
  4. The Experiment
  5. The Malice of Inanimate Objects
  6. A Vignette
They are a little rough around the edges, lacking the gloss of a story that an author has done tinkering with. There are still chilling moments to be had but there are no classics present unfortunately. Also included are several excerpts from prefaces by James that were published in his collections and other ghost story anthologies. They are very honest descriptions and opinions on the writing process and the qualities James valued in the creation of stories of this genre. He also talks about that drawer that all writers possess that houses the unfinished writings, or unused ideas. It's all invaluable stuff for writers interested in developing a style that might be influenced by James and others of his degree of adeptness.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

The Sir Nigel Gresley

On our last full day in North Yorkshire we visited Grosmont which along with the steam railway station is also the location of the North Eastern Locomotive Preservation Group and their engine shed. We were lucky to see the Sir Nigel Gresley, a restored Gresley A4 Pacific, named after its designer. It's the same type of train as the Mallard, the holder of the official world speed record for steam locomotives at 125.88 mph. To get round the back of the engine shed you have to make your way through a long tunnel.On the way back to the station one of the other locomotives steamed past us.
We watched more trains steaming in and out of the station until it started raining and we made our way back to Palmers over the North Yorkshire Moors.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Return to places well known

We also revisited our old stomping ground at Sandsend. Harry loves the beach here; the smell of the sea always perks him up. He's been coming here since he was a pup. Debbie thinks the smells trigger memories for him. The ritual of chips and fish from the Magpie in Whitby serves just as well to perk up the human members of our party.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Runswick legends

North Yorkshire is alive with folklore, myths and legends but Palmers didn't seem at all spooky, considering its age, remote location and nights blacker than the raven wings of midnight (ta Mr Poe). I tried my usual best to embrace the night side, taking along another collection of ghost stories by M. R. James to read at the witching hour; a helpful barn owl providing the blood curdling screams of lost souls somewhere beyond the garden walls, but it was no use. Some places just don't cooperate. The rumble of night flying planes and stray headlights on the windows remained stubbornly unsupernatural.
We took Harry out to Runswick Bay which has its fair share of its own folklore. The village here, having been a fishing village for well over half a millennium, has lots of fishing related superstition. It's been written that children used to light fires on the cliff during stormy weather, dancing and singing to influence the wind:
“Souther Wind, souther,
And Blow father home to mother.”
Did they really sacrifice cats when the fisherman returned home safe? Were fisherman really so superstitious they'd stay at home if they saw a woman before casting off... or heard talk of pigs? Apparently so.
There are stories of a hob (a goblin) who used to live in the caves at the southern end of the bay. This hob was supposedly a benevolent creature who could cure coughs. When the whooping cough struck their children, mothers would take them to the caves and cry out:
“Hob – hole Hob!
My bairn’s getten’t kink-cough:
Tak’t off! Tak’t off!"
I probably should have taken Debbie out there to see if he could help her with her cough. I wonder what his rates are like? Other stories tell of smugglers who would employ an owl to call out a warning as he perched on the inn sign. Smuggling did happen here as the caves were a useful place to hide out or store the goods.
In 1664 the entire village slid into the sea, the only building remaining was the house that belonged to the man whose wake occupied the villagers during the disaster. I can well believe how it could have happened too as the bay is so steep it seems to try to tip you all the way to the brine.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Port Mulgrave: Palmers

We returned to North Yorkshire again this autumn, not to Sandsend this time but to Port Mulgrave, a few miles up the coast in the parish of Hinderwell. The building we rented is part of a collection of buildings called Rosedale Cottages. Many of the buildings in the area were erected to serve the miners working to extract iron ore. One is converted from an old stable block and another was the old servant's quarters but the building we moved into was built in 1857 for the then mine and port owner Sir Charles Palmer. It's set in a half acre of grounds and was recently restored five years ago.
The first thing we noticed as we drove though Sandsend and then on to Palmers was how the trees had already shed their leaves in the wind from the North Sea. It seemed like we had moved the calendar along a month during the three hour drive north.
Harry led the charge into our new home for the week, his nails tip-tapping on the wood floors. I selected the room with the lowest bed and tried the bedside lamps. One wasn't working and the other blew its bulb when I flicked the switch. Intending to read my books in the dead of night I retrieved another lamp from one of the other bedrooms. I'd meant to bring the new Kate Atkinson book, Started Early, Took My Dog, but for one reason or another had not managed to get a copy. Fortunately a previous visitor had left a copy in the bookcase in the main living area. I pounced on that with some relish and relocated it next to my transient lamp. What a great stroke of luck to start the holiday with.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

The Parkers Arms

One of my most favourite parts of Lancashire is the Forest of Bowland. It's an area filled with high fells and sweeping views over large valleys and woodland. If you've been there you'll know that it is well deserving of its AONB designation (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty).
I keep thinking every week that this is going to be the last bit of sunshine warm enough to sit out without coats before the chill winds of winter force us to wrap up in layers and layers. So when the sun was still hanging on for one day more I was quick to get somewhere nice to enjoy it. This week it was at a tiny village in Bowland called Newton. It has a fabulous friendly pub called The Parkers Arms, with top quality nosh and plenty of places to sit out and enjoy the scenery. They've won all sorts of awards which are as well deserved as Bowland is of its AONB status. We had a very tasty lunch, though I managed to drop my change on the floor again which had the bar guy nearly on hands and knees trying to retrieve it for me - turned out it was only 20p.

Friday, 8 October 2010

Dockland refections

The somewhat murky waters of Preston Docks.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

The Hound of the Baskervilles

The key to producing a good adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles in any media is for the producers to understand that perhaps the most important character in the story is not Sherlock Holmes, or Doctor Watson; it's the moor and the atmosphere it generates in all its aspects, whether it be the shadow filled night or the stark brightness of the day. Ian Edginton's adaptation of the famous story into the medium of graphic novel is very faithful to the Conan Doyle original, but without the bulk of Doctor Watson's emotive text the realization of the moor falls to the artistic talents of the artist I.N.J. Culbard. Edginton makes the most of the early scenes in London, understandably as this is the part of the story, barring the conclusion, that features Holmes the most. Culbard's style uses what on the surface look quite simple caricatures but somehow he brings them alive with expressiveness. Each character is quite distinctive.He is also very creative in the use of available light. If Edginton relishes some of the more famous lines, Culbard who has a century of imagery from all the other mediums to draw inspiration from, doesn't disappoint.
"Mr Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound."
It's a very commendable and collectible effort. Edginton and Culbard work well together and readers who enjoyed their other work such as A study in Scarlet previously reviewed on Badelynge here, should have a pleasant time with this book. Also included are a teaser for A Study in Scarlet and early character and cover designs for those interested in the creative process.