Wednesday 31 March 2010

Elektra – baddest comic book grrl ever? (Guest post by M.G. Harris)

M.G. Harris, friend of The Book Zone (I hope she doesn't mind me saying that) and author of the Joshua Files series, has just embarked on a blog tour themed loosely around the title of her latest book in the series, Zero Moment. The first stop in the tour was her own blog where she wrote a post entitled Zany Orange Puffles and social networking sites for children and I am the second stop, with the title beginning with the letter E (each stop on the tour will start with a different letter from the words Zero Moment.... gettit?). You can find out details of the rest of her stops on the tour here.

Some time ago I conducted an interview with M.G. for The Book Zone where she mentioned her passion for graphic novels, and this stop on her blog tour is named after one of her favourite characters. So without further ado, it's over to M.G. who is going to wax lyrical about:

Elektra – baddest comic book grrl ever?

My fourth year of university, I shared a house with a couple who started a theatre company when they left Uni, including a guy called Trev. We shared a few interests. Trev was usually more thorough in his interests than I, which was appropriate given his full-time engagement with the arts. Comics and graphic novels was one of these areas of overlap. “What’s your favourite comic book ever?” I asked him. He thought for about three seconds and replied “Elektra Assassin”.

I knew of Elektra from the Daredevil comic books. Daredevil shared the spot with Batman as my favourite comic book character. Elektra Natchios was the exotic Greek girl of blind, gorgeous-yet-tormented Matt Murdock’s college days, the girl who had broken his heart and then turned to the dark side – a villainous group of ninja assassins known as The Hand.

When Elektra returned to Matt’s life, she was his enemy.

With Trev’s recommendation, I went out and bought ‘Elektra Assassin’ – newly released as a compilation of the original 8 books.

What I read elevated not just the Daredevil storyverse but comic-book storytelling to the next level.

Alan Moore’s Watchmen, which appeared around the same time (1986), was making some noise. With its multi-layered structure and sexual and political themes, Watchmen seemed to be taking over from Frank Miller’s ‘Dark Knight Returns’ as the hottest strand in the new graphic novels.

Meanwhile Frank Miller was collaborating with one of the most innovative artists in the business – Bill Sienkiewicz. I was collecting his new series, a baffling 4-parter called ‘Stray Toasters’, which I frankly struggled to follow. But it was ART! So I jumped at the chance to enjoy Sienkiewicz’s avant garde style wrapped around a story I could really get into. A story from Elektra’s past! Because as any Daredevil fan knows, Elektra is dead…

A Bill Sienkiewicz comic looked unlike anyone else’s at that time. They were watercolours, with hints of collage. It made for dramatic, impressionistic, sometimes dreamy art which struck the perfect note for this new, disturbing tale of Elektra.

In ‘Elektra Assassin’, Elektra is a beautiful, damaged creature. No longer part of The Hand, she is a working as a lowly paid assassin, finishing off some unfinished revenge in a fictional, corrupt South American country. She’s driven almost insane by visions of an Antichrist-type figure – The Beast. Dirty politics involving US black-operations combine with a supernatural strand involving the forces around The Beast and his secret identity. Elektra’s witchy ninja skillz never looked more believable as she develops a psychic link with the Beast, with a comatose young woman and most fiercely with the S.H.I.E.L.D agent sent to capture her – a tough-guy named Garrett.

Elektra is a genius creation of Frank Miller’s – sexy, volatile, damaged and driven. But Garrett emerges as our main narrator and a pretty darn interesting character himself. Blown to pieces by Elektra, he is put together again by S.H.I.E.L.D – part man, part cyborg. His mental link to Elektra becomes overpowering and turns into an all-consuming devotion. Eventually the two tackle The Beast by themselves – and he turns out to be none-other than apparent nice guy, a Kennedy-esque Presidential candidate, Ken Wind.

There is so much to admire about this graphic novel. The art, naturally, with shades of manga innocence contrasting with vicious violence (Elektra beaming with joy in her mother’s pregnant belly, just before her mother is slaughtered). The sly, cynical humour of Garrett’s unrequited lust. The complex narrative is challenging yet elicits a vague sense of confusion which means the reader, like Garrett, is never entirely sure what is going on. The political satire - very much of its time – left wing anger at the interventionist foreign politics of the US combined with right-wing cynicism about the true nature of the well-groomed, East Coast liberal left.

In the end though, the ambiguity of Elektra’s character is what makes this story a stand-out for me. Seen through Garrett’s eyes most of the time, she is anything from a seductress, a ninja witch, a murderer, right through to vulnerable and aching to find peace and love. My favourite drawing of all is the last one of Chapter Six, in which Garrett and Elektra are kitting up their weapons for an onslaught, sitting on a bed in their motel room. And Garrett mutters through his cigarette, “You know honey…we never talk…”



And what a perfect way to bring Graphic Novel Month to an close. Huge thanks to M.G. and all the other contributors who so kindly volunteered to take part throughout March.

Tuesday 30 March 2010

Coming up in April - Horror Theme Month

Regular visitors to The Book Zone will know that I have been having a graphic novel theme running throughout March. Graphic novels are not something I have a great deal of experience with and it hasn't always been easy reviewing them - I have definitely been working outside of my comfort zone this month. The month has been made incredibly rewarding as a result of the assistance I have received from a number of people whose experiences in this area far outweigh my own and I want to say a big thank you to all of them for their contributions (and still M.G Harris' to come on 31st March).

April sees the start of a new themed month, this time Horror. There are so many great new horror books being published for kids and young adults at the moment that I thought why wait until Halloween? So, coming up in April you can expect the following, in no particular order: 

Reviews of: 

Skulduggery Pleasant: Dark Days by Derek Landy
Blood Ninja by Nick Lake
The Thin Executioner by Darren Shan
The Changeling series by Steve Feasey
The Scream Street series by Tommy Donbavand
The Curse of Snakes by Christopher Fowler 

Interviews (or something similar) with: 

Sam Enthoven
Steve Feasey
William Hussey
Nick Lake (author of Blood Ninja) (hopefully)
Jon Mayhew (author of Mortlock) (hopefully)

Book giveaways for the following: 

Signed copies of Witchfinder by William Hussey
Copies of Mortlock by Jon Mayhew

Copies of Blood Ninja by Nick Lake

and much, much more so please watch this space. 

(please note that planned content is subject to change, etc, etc) 

I have also signed up to take part in a 24-hour Read-A-Thon. Sounds like my kind of challenge! You can find out more about it here and of course I will be blogging about it whilst I take part. Will I dare read horror right the way through the night?

Monday 29 March 2010

*** Rainbow Orchid Contest Result

The draw has just taken place and the lucky winner of the Rainbow Orchid contest is:

Bill Purser from Towcester

Well done and thank you to everyone who entered. I will now endeavour to contact the winner through email. Please reply within 48 hours or I will draw another name out of the hat. Many thanks to Garen Ewing for providing this fabulous prize.

(Note: all names were drawn randomly using a nifty little freeware programme called The Hat)

Sunday 28 March 2010

Review: Defoe 1666 by Pat Mills & Leigh Gallagher

London, 1668. It is two years since the city was devestated by the Great Fire, the inferno caused by a comet passing over the capital. But from the ashes rose the undead, hungry for the flesh of the living. Protecting the populace are zombie hunters like Titus Defoe, a former soldier who now makes it his mission to purge the ghouls.

First off... this book is typical of the sort of graphic novel that sadly most teachers and school librarians wouldn't touch with a barge pole, for fear of being hauled before the Headteacher as a result of parental accusations of filling their precious darling children's minds with violent images. A pity, because this book is bloody marvellous, and just the sort of thing that is guaranteed to get boys interested in reading.

As I said in an earlier post during this my graphic novel themed month, I once had a five year love affair with 2000AD Monthly. This ended as I started teaching, but I had already begun to become a little distracted by the amount of colour that was taking over this glorious publication. For me, part of the magic of 2000AD was the way its artists could portray so much with just black and white and as more and more colour crept in this magic, for me at least, began to fade. I don't think I have bought a copy since then, so imagine my delight when, trawling through blogs and various other sites in search of a little information about 1666, the plague and the Great Fire and I stumbled across this little beauty -  a relatively recent 2000AD story, drawn in black and white and now available as a graphic novel (for want of a better term). A few clicks on Amazon and a copy was winging its way to my door and wow..... just what had I been missing out on?!

As the synopsis above suggests, we have a slight re-imagining of history going on here. The Great Fire was not started in Thomas Farriner's modest bakery in Pudding Lane, but instead was caused by a mighty comet. In the aftermath of the fire, the citizens of London were faced with a far more deadly threat - the corpses littering the burnt out streets started coming back to life. Yup..... zombie time! What a great concept. The book is named after its main character Titus Defoe, once a roundhead fighting in Cromwell's army, but now he leads the fight against the undead as the King's Zombie Hunter General of England. He is aided in this fight by a motley crew of 'soldiers', each with their own reasons for fighting, all equipped with various weapons created by none other than Isaac Newton, Robert Hooke and even Leonardo da Vinci. Forget your Victorian era - this is steampunk long befre Queen Victoria came to the throne! They even ride around in a steam-powered vehicle known as the Papin Steam Chariot - "'...self-loading cannons. Tripod puckle machine gun: round bullets for christians, square bullets for zombies. More armour than a da Vinci horseless or a verbiest, and greater acceleration. We call it 'The Reek Reckoner'". Brilliant!    

Steampunk is pretty popular at the moment. Zombies too, and Pat Mills has managed to meld the two together prefectly just as Cherie Priest did in her wonderful Boneshaker. This is a non-stop action story written by a master of the craft who has clearly had a great deal of fun in creating this. He has obviously researched the era well, as there are many references to real-life people and the post-plague society they lived in, albeit with a steampunk and "we're waging a war against zombies" twist to it. I don't know how Pat Mills came to be teamed up with artist Leigh Gallagher for this strip but the comic gods were obviously looking kindly on someone that day and I feel that Defoe deserves to be added to the canon of 2000AD greats, up there with the likes of Strontium Dog, Rogue Trooper and Slaine. The stunning images throughout this book are incredibly intricate and rich with detail - so much so that this story would be ruined in colour, it simply doesn't need it and I hope no-one ever decides that it does. I strongy recommend you head over to Leigh Gallagher's blog to find out more about his work -this man is a genius!

I believe this volume covers the first two Defoe stories that appeared in 2000AD (1666 and Brethren of the Night), and that there has since been another story printed in the comic called (deliciously) Queen of the Zombies and a fourth one is planned for the future. If the idea of a comic strip full of the undead being torn apart by steampunk weapons wielded by a ruthless band of zombie hunters appeals to you then you really must go out and buy this now. If on the other hand if you are a school librarian then maybe best to think twice before spending public money as unfortunately there may be a few parents (and traditionalist teachers) out there who might feel the need to log a complaint with the Chair of Governors. (all images in this post taken from Leigh Gallagher's blog)

Saturday 27 March 2010

Review: Campfire Graphic Novels

It is always helpful when a publisher sends you a nice pile of shiny new graphic novels just when the blog you run is having a graphic novel themed month, so it was with much great delight that I cam home from work last week to find that the nice people at Frances Lincoln had sent me a number of books from the Campfire collection.

Campfire began publishing in Delhi, India in 2008 and this is what they say about themselves on their website:

It is night-time in the forest. The sky is black, studded with countless stars. A campfire is crackling, and the storytelling has begun. Stories about love and wisdom, conflict and power, dreams and identity, courage and adventure, survival against all odds, and hope against all hope – they have all come to the fore in a stream of words, gestures, song and dance. The warm, cheerful radiance of the campfire has awoken the storyteller in all those present. Even the trees and the earth and the animals of the forest seem to have fallen silent, captivated, bewitched.

Inspired by this enduring relationship between a campfire and the stories it evokes, we began publishing in 2008, under the Campfire imprint, with the vision of creating graphic novels of the finest quality to entertain and educate our readers. Our writers, editors, artists and colourists share a deep passion for good stories and the art of storytelling, so our books are well researched, beautifully illustrated and wonderfully written to create a most enjoyable reading experience.

A quick glance at the Campfire catalogue shows a host of classic titles from literature and mythology that will be available by the end of the year. Although there is some intention to release a number of original stories, it is this list of classics that will draw in a lot of readers, especially if the quality of the few I have read is anything to go by. In addition there will also be a number of biographies published in the collection, including Harry Houdini and Wright Brothers.

There has been a great deal of research into graphic novels and literacy in boys carried out in recent years, and any modern-thinking english teacher or librarian will tell you that graphic novels are a great way to encourage reluctant boy readers to pick up a book and stick with it. However, there is still some degree of stigma attached to their use in schools, with some traditionalists seeing graphic novels as childish, dumbing down or in some cases too violent. The violence concern is perhaps a valid one, as some graphic novels are particularly er.... 'graphic' in places and careful selection, especially by schools, can be paramount. Learning and Teaching Scotland have produced a great source of information and ideas on this subject which can be found at this website.

These Campfire books would make a perfect addition to any school library. The graphics are stunning throughout all six of the titles I have read. These books are illustrated by some incredibly talented artists, none of whose names will be familiar to the majority of people living outside of theor native India. The language in the classic titles has been simplified in order to give them greater appeal to 21st Century youngsters, but traditionalists will be glad to hear that enough of the original feeling of the stories has been retained - certainly no dumbing down with these books. However, I have to stress that these books are better for capable readers as they tend to have more text than many of the graphic novels that appeal to less able readers. That's not to say that these struggling readers won't be able to enjoy them with the assistance of a parent or teacher.

Four of the six titles I was sent are shown in the image at the top of this post. My favourite of these is the biography of Harry Houdini. He is possibly one of the most famous men from the 20th Century, yet he is someone I knew very little about. His story is brought to life for young readers in a way that no other medium could. Cel Walsh, the author, tells the great escape artist's story with great charm, focusing not just on the exciting elements of his career but also his determination to be a success. The subject matter is well chosen - this is the kind of story that could inspire many a 10 year old boy.

Another favourite was Kim, Rudyard Kipling's classic story of adventure, intrigue and derring-do, all set against a backdrop of India under the British Raj. I have never read Kipling's novel but I have seen the 1950 film starring Errol Flynn and Dean Stockwell many times so I have a a fairly Hollwood-ised concept of the story. Again, Campfire have selected their author and artist well and this book delivers Kipling's story in an exciting, dynamic way - I have now added the original Kim novel to my list of books I must read. And this is the magic of using graphic novels like this to encourage boys to read; hopefuly many will be inspired by the quality of the classic story and at some point in the future rise to the challenge of reading the original novel.

There are a large number of classics retold in the graphic novel format available to buy and more due out from other publishers throughout the coming year. However, I have not read many of these so I am not able to compare the quality of these with others. Except that is for The Hound of the Baskervilles. I am a huge Sherlock Holmes fan and found the Campfire retelling of this story to be a little cliched, with Holmes being portrayed wearing his deerstalker and Sir Henry is given a chiseled jawline as the stereotypical american gentleman. For a much more rewarding version of the story then you really should try the graphic novel by Ians Edginton and Culbard - the graphics in this version are simply stunning and far more in keeping with how I imagined them when I read Conan Doyle's original story many years ago. Edginton and Culbard have also released an equally enjoyable graphic novel version of A Study in Scarlet - I had intended to review them this month as part of my graphic novel theme but I don't own them and the copies I read are currently booked out from the local library to someone else and it is a while since I read them. Both books are well worth buying, as this review in the Guardian will attest. I believe their next Holmes production is The Sign of the Four (one of my favourite Holmes stories) - you can follow the progress of this at Ian Culbard's blog - Strange Planet Stories. There is also plenty of information about these and many other great graphic novels, including the Manga Shakespeare series, at the publisher's website     

Campfire already have seven titles available to buy in the UK, with five more coming out in April and a planned total of thirty-four by the end of 2010. We will certainly be buying a number of these for the school library. 

Friday 26 March 2010

Review: The Eleventh Plague by Darren Craske

Picking up where The Equivoque Principle left off, The Eleventh Plague sees Cornelius Quaint embark on his most perilous adventure yet. Bidding an emotional farewell to Dr Marvello’s Travelling Circus, Quaint leaves for Egypt with only fortune-teller Madame Destine by his side. Once in the land of the pyramids they must do battle with desert thieves, unearth long-buried secrets and attempt to foil the villainous Hades Consortium's plans to poison the River Nile. With a whole new cast of characters this is a ripping Victorian adventure story featuring Cornelius Quaint - part Sherlock Holmes, part Indiana Jones, part Harry Houdini.

The Eleventh Plague is the second book in a series of books featuring conjuror and all-round adventurer Cornelius Quaint. In The Equivoque Principle Cornelius found himself drawn into an evil organisation's dastardly plot to poison London's water supply. Although the story started off as a quest to clear the name of a friend accused of murder that first book was not a traditional mystery story but more of an adventures story set in Victorian London. I really enjoyed The Equivoque Principle and so I was really chuffed when Darren Craske asked if I wanted a copy of the sequel to review.

The Equivoque Principle garnered a number of negative reviews, and a little unfairly so in my opinion. Some reviewers criticised it heavily for not portraying an accurate enough picture of its Victorian settings. I can understand why some readers may have been a little disappointed as fans of historical mystery and adventure stories have been spoiled with choice over recent years due to the huge number of outstanding books in this genre that have been released. Mr Craske's answer to these critics can be found on his blog, and I hope he doesn't object to me printing excerpts from it here:

"Due to its plot and setting, EQUIVOQUE got grouped with other books in the Victorian detective thriller genre, whether they might be Glass Books of the Dream Eaters, the Erast Fandorin books, or the Lucifer Box books. That’s fine. Being labelled like that helps the retailers and publishers categorise the book, and so making it easier to market and promote. But I never intended to write Victorian fiction. I intended to write a story which happened to be set in the Victorian era, and although you might think they’re one and the same, to me as the originator of the story, they are not."

Anyway... onto The Eleventh Plague. This story takes Cornelius away from London within the first few chapters, as he sets out in an attempt to again foil the plans of the Hades Consortium. Having discovered that this evil league now plan to kill millions by poisoning the Nile and the fertile land bordering it he sets sail for Egypt, leaving the grime of Victorian London behind him. This time there is no troupe of circus performers to aid him, only his lifelong friend and confidant, the clairvoyant Madame Destine. Fans of The Equivoque Principle will not long mourn the absence of the colourful characters from that book as Mr Craske provides us with a host of new combatants. The villains in this sequel are particularly ruthless, but as in all of the classic hierarchical villainous organisations they also fear their superiors, never knowing if the smallest of failures may lead to them sharing a similar fate to that intended for their enemies. The author also uses this book to further develop the characters of Cornelius and Madame Destine, this time in isloation from each other as they spend most of the story apart.

Cornelius Quaint, although a heroic force for good, is also deeply flawed. He is arrogant and often bad-tempered, leaving his fellow adventurers to question his motives on a number of occasions. He also has a habit of drawing those he loves into the most life-threatening of situations. However, this does lend itself well to the adventurous nature of the story, providing the reader with a non-stop thrilling ride laced with cliffhangers aplenty. Unfortunately though I was left with the feeling that there may just be one or two cliffhangers too many. Mr Craske relies very much on the concept set up in the first book that Quaint is a conjuror and as such can pretty much get out of any situation. Chance plays a huge part in this as well, almost bordering on deus ex machina in places; some readers may not look favourably on this, yet it is a storytelling technique typical of the Victorian Penny Dreadfuls that may have partly inspired the first book in this series.

Like the first book in this series from Darren Craske I found The Eleventh Plague to be a hugely enjoyable adventure romp in the tradition of the Boys' Own stories that will appeal to older boys ready to move on to more adult material. It is published by The Friday Project, an imprint of HarperCollins, and is available in stores right now. The next book in the series, entitled The Lazarus Curse, promises us Chinese warlords, scurrilous villains, courageous outlaws, ancient prophecies and more boisterous comedy. More secrets of the past come back to shake the foundations of everything that Cornelius Quaint holds dear to him...... and I, for one, am really looking forward to reading it when it is eventually published, although I may have to wait until 2011 for this.

Thursday 25 March 2010

** Guest Post: Requiem by Pat Mills and Olivier Ledroit

Regular readers of this blog will know that Liz of My Favourite Books has written several guest posts for me in the last few months. Well, not to feel left out, it is now her husband Mark's turn to write about one of his favourite graphic novels.

The first thing that grabbed me about Requiem was the premise- Heinrich, who becomes the titular Requiem, awakes in the chaos of hell, reborn as a vampire for the sins he committed in life. Shaken by this realisation and the macabre splendour of his new reality, he stumbles across Otto, rescuing him from a gang of ghouls.

He’s taken under Otto’s proverbial wing in the dripping aftermath and begins his education and transformation into Requiem, Vampire Knight. But there’s a sliver of Heinrich that survives the brutal transformation, and gives his character the edge- the story is, amidst the unashamedly bloody violence and infernal intrigue, a quest for redemption, spiced with the subtle dark humour that fans have come to expect of Pat Mills.

Pat has certainly earned his epithet of ‘Grandfather of British Comics’ – from Charley’s War to Dredd and Slaine, his body of work is prodigious and wide ranging. Yet Requiem is bold and intriguing, exploring a fresh new perspective on Hell, purgatory, redemption and the Vampire mythos.

Olivier Ledroit’s art is sumptuous, a visual smorgasbord of Gothic delights, the likes of which seem to be all too few and far between in recent years, and the amount of detail lavished on it goes some way to justifying the gaps between the publication of the issues. But quite honestly, it’s worth the cover price by itself. It’s the perfect vehicle for a tale of vengeance, despair and redemption.

The two collections I read collected the first four of the eight issues to date, although there have rumours of a further four. If you’re looking for something a bit darker, a bit bloodier and a bit sexier, then you’re looking for Requiem.


The problem with asking others to write about their favourite graphic novels, a book 'genre' that I am certainly no expert on, is that I keep on finding out about more books that I feel I should have read. As a result of this my Amazon wishlist is growing longer and longer. Cheers Mark for another great contribution from the house of My Favourite Books.

Wednesday 24 March 2010

Tintin and Me (or should that be Tintin et moi?)

I recently posted an interview that graphic novel author and fellow Tintin fan Garen Ewing kindly did for my blog. In this interview he mentions that The Black Island is his favourite in the Tintin series. Coincidentally, The Black Island is the first Tintin book I can remember reading as a child, and it remains my favourite to this day. I can picture the bookshelves it was kept in and the school classroom those bookshelves were in, and a quick calculation would put me at either seven or eight years old at the time. I also remember how desperately I then searched through the rest of the books on those shelves, and the school's meagre library, looking for more of these fantastic comic books. I managed to find Cigars of the Pharaoh and The Secret of the Unicorn, though sadly not Red Rackham's Treasure, the second in this two-part story.

It is amazing how that one comment by Garen brought all of these memories flooding back, and I guess that is one of the reasons why the Tintin books mean so much to me - I can associate so much of my childhood years with them. When I was a kid, things were tight in our household and going to jumble sales with mum were occasional Saturday activities. I remember how excited I was one day, walking out of one of these events with a somewhat battered hardback edition of a Tintin book with a big red and white space rocket on the front, not realising until I got home that the book's title was Objectif Lune and there was me not understanding a word of french. It didn't stop me from trying to follow the story using only the pictures though. By the time I did start studying french at school I had managed to get my hands on an english version of the book, and the other one languished for years unread on a book shelf. Sadly I think it eventually went the way of a lot of things - back to a jumble sale or charity shop (along with a few toys that might be worth quite a lot these days).

At the time I did not realise how much my mind was being opened to issues that were not even hinted at by the other books I was reading at the time such as Enid Blyton and the Three Investigators books. These did not have plots relating to drug smuggling in the way that Cigars of the Pharoah and The Blue Lotus do; neither do they touch on political issues such as the way the US Government treated native Americans over land-rights, as seen in Tintin in America. Admittedly, Hergé had his own political views and his earlier books are in many ways a product of the society in which he had been brought up up - Tintin In The Congo especially has been criticised by many for being racist, but this tells us even more about the colonial attitudes in Belgium at the time. Hergé's writing these issues into his stories encouraged my hungry mind to find out more about these topics and many more. My interest in world geography was also fed tasty morsels through the many exotic locations in which the stories were set. Hergé did not travel to the majority of these, but in a desire for authenticity he became an obsessive collector of photographs from newspapers and publications such as National Geographic. A number of years ago, following a visit to see the exhibition of Hergé's work at the Belgian Comic Strip Center in Brussels my wife bought the wonderful Tintin - A Complete Companion by Michael Farr. This book is an essential read for any Tintin fan, and there are many examples of the actual news photos that Hergé used to aid him in drawing his strips.

Since starting to teach Design Technology my collection of Tintin books has come in handy for another reason as they also have quite a lot to teach us about the time when they were drawn, and more specifically design. There is a wonderful scene in The Calculus Affair (page 13 to be precise) where a large crowd has gathered outside the gates of Marlinspike. There is a carnival atmosphere depicted in this one particular panel, and I have often used it with students as an exercise in the differences in design between now and then (The Calculus Affair was originally written in the mid-1950s). A prize goes to the group of students that can come up with the most differences in both the designs of the time and society in general, just from that one comic strip drawing. Looking beyond the fantastic stories, these strips can tell us a great deal about the times in which they were written. Again, Herge's quest for authenticity pays off - they are rich in historically accurate images of all kinds of modes of transport, products, interiors and architecture and are a great way of promoting discussion about these everyday subjects. I do this with sixth formers, but parents could do this with children of any age.

Tintin has always been popular but it is likely that this popularity could soar to an all-time high next year when Steven Spielberg finally releases his big budget version of The Secret of the Unicorn. I can't help but feel excited, especially when I look at the cast (Andy Serkis as Captain Haddock and Simon Pegg and Nick Frost as Thompson and Thomson), however like all long-term Tintin fans I am also a little concerned that some of the magic may be lost. It won't stop me queuing up to see it on release day though, and it will certainly not stop me from enjoying these books for the rest of my life. Thank you Georges Remi for giving me a lifetime of thoroughly enjoyable reading.

Tuesday 23 March 2010

*** Contest: WIN a signed/sketched copy of The Rainbow Orchid by Garen Ewing

On Friday I posted an interview that Garen Ewing, author of The Rainbow Orchid, did for The Book Zone. Garen then very kindly offered to provide a signed and sketched copy of The Rainbow Orchid to one lucky reader of this blog. 

In order to win a copy of this book all you have to do is email me at bookzone4boys(at)gmail(dot)com, put Rainbow Orchid contest as the subject, include your name in the email and answer this one simple question:

What is Garen's favourite Tintin book? (hint: check out the interview)

The first name drawn at random after the closing date will win a copy of this gorgeous book. Deadline for your emails is 8pm Monday 29th March. This contest is open worldwide thanks to the generosity of Mr Ewing who will send out a personalised signed copy of the book to the winner, including a sketch of one of the characters. This is a fantastic prize - you can read my review of the book here. Garen's own website is also well worth a visit.

Terms and conditions

Contest open to entrants worldwide.
Mr Ewing will not be held responsible for items lost in the mail.
I hold the right to end a contest before its original deadline without any prior notice.
I hold the right to disqualify any entry as I see fit.

I will contact winning entrants for their postal address following the close of the competition. Winners have 48 hours to reply. Failure to do so in this time will result in another winner being randomly selected.

Monday 22 March 2010

*** MeZolith Contest Result

The draw has just taken place and the lucky winner of the MeZolith contest is:


Well done and thank you to everyone who entered. I will now endeavour to contact the winner through Twitter. Please reply with details of postal address within 48 hours or I will draw another name out of the hat. Many thanks to the kind people at Random House for providing the prize.

(Note: all names were drawn randomly using a nifty little freeware programme called The Hat)

Sunday 21 March 2010

Review: Mission Survival: Tracks of the Tiger by Bear Grylls

Volcano eruption! Beck and his friend are on a relaxing holiday in Sumatra, visiting orang-utan sanctuaries and hanging out by the pool. Except that when they spend the afternoon out in the jungle, things take an unexpected turn, and a volcano eruption leaves them stranded and alone. Beck must use all his skills to survive the dangers of the jungles and swamps of Sumatra - can he get them to safety alive?

The man with the super-cool name, Bear Grylls, is back with this, his fourth instalment in the Mission Survival series and yet again he has produced an exciting adventure story that will have great appeal to many boy readers. This time Beck and his friend Peter are holidaying on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, an island with a long string of volcanoes that lie on the Pacific's so-called Ring of Fire. Of course, if you have read any of Mr Grylls' books before you will already be able to guess exactly what is going to happen.

Yup - no prizes on offer for predicting that Beck and Peter will become stranded miles from civilization as a result of a volcano eruption, and using the extensive survival skills and knowledge imparted by instructor they will attempt to make their way to safety. The last time the two boys were stranded they were in the Sahara Desert with snakes, scorpions and the merciless sun to contend with. This time there are still snakes, but also included in the equation are crocodiles, a tiger, a cyanide-secreting millipede and bacteria that could quickly cause even minor injuries to become gangrenous.

Bear Grylls' Mission Survival books are all pretty formulaic, and rarely ever particularly deep, although there is a nice environmental subtext running through this story concerning the problems caused by illegal logging in the rain forest. However the majority of 8+ boys are not looking for deep and meaningful, they just want page after page of easy-to-follow action, with characters they can easily relate to. Throw in a bucketful of survival skills that will make them sound cool in front of their mates and these books are a guaranteed hit with this age group (did you know your wee can be used to dissolve the spines of a sea urchin, should you ever be unlucky enough to step on one?). These books are a great introduction to the action/adventure genre before progressing onto the more complicated plots and themes offered by the likes of Robert Muchamore.

Tracks of the Tiger can be read as a stand alone story, although it does occasionally reference events from other books in the series. It is published by Red Fox and is available in stores right now, and my thanks go to Random House for sending me a copy. If you like these books then I also strongly recommend the Alpha Force series by Chris Ryan, also published by Red Fox.

Friday 19 March 2010

*** Interview with Garen Ewing (author of The Rainbow Orchid)

Some time ago I reviewed The Rainbow Orchid, the first book in what I hope will become a long series featuring the Adventures of Julius Chancer. As part of my Graphic Novel Month Garen very kindly offered to be interviewed for the blog. But his generosity does not stop there, for he has also said he will provide a sketched and signed copy of volume one of The Rainbow Orchid for a book giveaway contest which I will be running next week, so watch this space.

How would you describe The Rainbow Orchid to a potential reader?

It's a classic adventure story set in the late 1920s, with a story informed by the likes of Jules Verne and H. Rider Haggard, and a graphic style in the tradition of Hergé and Edgar P. Jacobs, though with a particularly British outlook. The plot concerns the quest for a mythical orchid, last mentioned by the ancient Greek botanist Theophrastus, which leads the story's hero, one Julius Chancer, into the lost valleys of the Hindu Kush, hotly pursued by the cold-hearted yet exoptable Evelyn Crow, intent on preventing him at any cost.

The Rainbow Orchid is set in the 1920s – how did you go about researching the book?

I was already fairly well immersed in the era thanks to my interest in silent film, and the decade is really the first of the 'modern age', when world-wide travel took off, so is quite recognisable to us today in many ways, yet it still has a foot in the Edwardian or even Victorian age, which I love. There have been some wonderful books that have helped me, for instance Alan Jenkins' The Twenties, which I got for £4 in a Brighton junk shop, plus a number of books on the fashions of the day. The Indian side of things has been a little more tricky, but again, it's second-hand books that often come to the rescue. P. S. A. Berridge's Couplings to the Khyber, for instance, has been great for little details on the North Western Railway of the Indus Valley, or some of the old educational books showing 'our empire', such as the Pictures of Many Lands series published by A&C Black in the early twenties. Sometimes you have to call in the experts, for instance when I needed some text translating into Ancient Greek. And I don't know where I'd be without some of the more obscure corners of the internet!

There are three volumes planned for The Rainbow Orchid, the second due out later this year. Can you give us any hints about where the story will take Julius and his friends next?

Volume one is mainly set in England, moving to France towards the end of the book. In volume two we're in India, travelling up the Indus Valley and into mountains of Chitral. And in volume three our intrepid adventurers are lead further north into the unknown. In India they encounter an elephant with a mind of its own, an exploding Fokker F2, an ancient ruined city, a crazed Afghan wielding a khyber knife, and a snow leopard. I'm not sure I can say much about volume three without giving too many secrets away. Perhaps I'll just mention there's an incident with a whirlpool...

Different authors create their strips in different ways. How did The Rainbow Orchid evolve?

I'd just completed a strip adaptation of Shakespeare's The Tempest, and next I wanted to create something with my own characters whom I could use again and again if I wanted. It was a toss-up between a science-fiction tale or a lost-world tale, and the latter won the day. To begin with a few elements came together from earlier story ideas – for instance, the Indian location came from an old scribbled note about Victorian vampire hunters on the sub-continent. I also wanted to make a comic that would be okay for kids to read – at the time there was an over-saturation of ultra-violent, gritty and dark comics, so-called 'mature readers' material that was actually mostly very immature.

The actual creation of the strip follows a fairly simple process. First it is plotted in note form, to which I gradually add more detail as various ideas come to the boil in my head. Then I'll break down the plot into pages, and then I'll script the story, page by page, doodling little thumbnail sketches as I go along to help with layout and point of view. Next I might do larger roughs on A4 and I'll scan them in and get some of the lettering down. After that it's on to the drawing – pencils first, then inks (using a dip pen and india ink), and then I scan the pages into the computer for colouring and lettering. The dialogue will be re-written and re-shaped several times along the way.

During March I have been spotlighting the first three books from The DFC Library on this blog. How did you become involved in The DFC comic and are there any future plans for your DFC strip Charlie Jefferson and the Tomb of Nazaleod ?

I basically got involved in The DFC after they saw The Rainbow Orchid online and decided to contact me. At first I worked with Philip Pullman on his story, but this soon moved into the more capable hands of John Aggs for more of a manga feel, and I was offered space in the comic to write and draw my own tale. At the moment I have no interest in doing anything with Charlie Jefferson – I like the story but feel as though it may need re-working a little and I can't forsee having any time to do that in the near future. I'm more fond of another idea I came up with, an interdimensional time-travelling adventure that was to appear much later in the comic's run. As it happened, neither story made an appearance as the comic folded. Serves me right for taking so long!

You are obviously a fan of the likes of Herge’s Tintin and Edgar P Jacobs’ Blake and Mortimer. What is it about these works that you like so much?

I was brought up on Asterix and Tintin and that lovely European album format is highly evocative for me. When I realised I didn't want to pursue a career as a work-for-hire artist in comics, just because comics are such hard work and I'd be putting all that effort in for someone else's vision, I decided to do a comic purely for my own pleasure. I wanted to include all the aspects of comic storytelling that I was attracted to, and those Franco-Belgian adventure albums were top of the list. I love the absorbing narrative style that results from the simple bande dessinée format, it has a classic cinematic feel to it. And the graphic clarity of the line and flat colours are also very appealing. It's quite a discipline to keep within what can be a fairly rigid format, but it forces you to concentrate on plot and story much more.

Apart from these are there any other big influences on your work?

Adventure films of the 1930s are a big influence, such as King Kong, She and Lost Horizon. And keeping with cinema, I greatly admire the storytelling style of Akira Kurosawa, especially the way his characters shape the plot, rather than being subject to it – I've not quite mastered that, but feel very happy when I get little touches of it in. David Lean and Charlie Chaplin are other creators whose work I find motivating.

What comics did you read when you were younger?

I've already mentioned Asterix and Tintin, which dominated my childhood, and have stayed with me into adulthood too. I read a spread of the British humour weeklies and also Oor Wullie, introduced to me by my Scottish grandmother. At about age 7 or 8 I got seriously into war comics, especially Battle and the masterful Charley's War. A couple of years later it was 2000AD, and then for a short while super-hero comics – until I discovered Warrior and Alan Moore.

Do you have any favourite graphic novels?

To pick out some particular books, I'd say my favourite Asterix book is possibly Asterix and the Roman Agent or Asterix and Cleopatra, and my favourite Tintin is usually The Black Island. I really like Nausicaa by Hayao Miyazaki and Dororo and Black Jack by Osamu Tezuka. Yves Chaland's Freddy Lombard stories (especially The Will of Godfrey Bouillon and F.52) and Edgar Jacob's The Yellow Mark would be desert island books, as would Trondheim and friends' Dungeon series. There's so many great comics to choose from... Charley's War, Luther Arkwright, The Left Bank Gang, The League of Extraordinary Gentleman... oh, From Hell is one of my absolute favourites. I should stop, I could keep going!

Can you recommend any other graphic novels that you think will have boy-appeal?

I think I'd especially pick out the Dungeon series. It's a little 'European' in places, so would probably suit older boys more, 12 and up, I'd say. I think Fantagraphics will be translating Tardi's Adele Blanc-Sec adventures soon, and those are terrific too – Adele And The Beast and The Demon of the Eiffel Tower have been available in English before, wonderful stuff. If you like science-fiction I'd heartily recommend Leo's Aldebarran from Cinebook, and also Roger Leloup's marvellous Yoko Tsuno – I used to spend ages hunting out the few out-of-print English translations of those, and now Cinebook are making them available again. For slightly younger readers, you can't go wrong with Astro Boy – at any age, in fact.

Before we bring this interview to an end, a very important question - Batman or Spiderman or ........?

These days I'm not so into superheroes – I think most of the modern stuff is a bit ridiculous! But I was always a DC comics reader, I could never get on with Marvel for some reason, so it would have to be Batman. My favourite series was The New Teen Titans, and I still have my collection of those, plus a complete run of the 1960s and early-70s Teen Titans with their stunning Nick Cardy covers, which I collected later. Actually, Marv Wolfman and George Perez are bringing out a new New Teen Titans book later this year, Games, and it's on my Amazon wishlist, just for old time's sake!

Is there anything else you would like to say to readers of this blog?

I think I read in Dave Shelton's interview that he's doing some kind of all-day breakfast – so let's go over to his place and carry on talking about how marvellous comics are!

Huge thanks to Garen for providing such detailed answers to my questions, and for making my Amazon wishlist double in length. And don't forget - next week there will be a contest on the blog to win that fantastic signed and sketched copy of The Rainbow Orchid.

Thursday 18 March 2010

News: Crawlers Widget

I received an email today from the lovely Kelly at Random House giving me details of the great new widget for Sam Enthoven's Crawlers which Liz from My Favourite Books guest reviewed for Bookzone back in January. Crawlers is due to be published on 1st April and to celebrate I am going to be posting a fantastic interview that Sam has done for me on that day. In fact, April is going to be a horror themed month on The Bookzone as there are so many new horror books coming out at the moment that I decided I couldn't wait until Halloween. Watch this space for more information, coming next week.

Wednesday 17 March 2010

2000AD changed my life

So far this month, as part of my Graphic Novel theme, I have had great articles from author A.G. Taylor and fellow bloggers Liz of My Favourite Books and Adele of Unbound. I guess it is only fair that I write a piece about how comics and graphic novels have played a part in my life.

Like many boys growing up in the 1970s I was a Beano fan. I bought it every week without fail (in fact we may even have had it delivered with the newspaper). I joined the Dennis the Menace fan club (even though it meant cutting a small rectangular application form out of my precious comic), and once in receipt of my membership card and badges I regularly greeted my friends with the password D.I.N.G. in order to hear the D.O.N.G. reply (even now I will not divulge what these two words stand for).

And then, in 1977 along came Star Wars. That's all it was known as in those days - nobody I knew even mentioned the "A New Hope" subtitle in those days. Then on 8th February 1978 Marvel UK released the Star Wars comic and I was hooked. Money was tight in our family (by this time I had a younger brother and two younger sisters) so we could only afford a small number of the Star Wars figures, and hardly any of the vehicles, but at 10p a copy I was allowed to have my weekly Star Wars comic. I loved this comic - it took me beyond the story of A New Hope and created many more exciting adventures for my space heroes. Unlike The Beano, I refused to have this delivered, for fear that it would get damaged by the newspaper boy, so I would religiously walk into the newsagent oppposite school week after week to hand over my 10p for each next edition. Obviously, as a child and not a collector they were well read and therefore didn't stay in pristine condition so even though I still have them today I would doubt they are much good to a collector..... even if I did want to sell them (which will never happen).

Without unpacking them I can't remember exactly how long I bought it for, but I reckon it was about three years, and then in 1982 along came 'the next big thing' to grab my attention - the re-launch of Eagle. Unlike other comics, the Eagle was a mixture of drawn comic strips alongside photo stories, similar in look to those found in girly comics of the time, but certainly not similar in content. At the time these photostories were something a little different but looking back now (and yes, I do still have my Eagle collection) they have dated badly, and my favourite three stories are the same as they were then, and all traditional drawn strips: The Tower King, The Fifth Horseman and The House of Daemon.

My absolute favourite was The Tower King - a solar-powered satellite malfunctions, thus bathing the planet in a form of radiation that makes the production of electricy impossible. I guess like some form of constant EMP. Set in a very unfamiliar London, the story follows the adventures of Mike Tempest, the Tower King of the title, as he acts as leader to a group of Londoners in their Tower of London sanctaury. At the age of 11 I had little understanding of the Cold War or nuclear bombs so this was my first taste of a post-apocalyptic storyline..... and I loved it. It had warlords fighting for control of the city, a cult that worshipped human body parts, mutants living in the Underground and a train converted into a bad-ass battle wagon by a group known as Wreckers. This story rocked and led me to hunting out more of this type of story, namely Jerry Ahern's Survivalist series.

Like many comics of this type, eventually the quality of the stories gradually declined, and with it my interest in reading comics in general - I became far more obsessed with 'normal' books, although I would still regularly read my beloved Tintin and Asterix books. None of my friends read comics, I was the oldest child in my family so I had no older sibling to influence me and looking back I know I missed out on a great deal. No Marvel. No DC. Nothing. But this all changed in 1989 when I discovered 2000AD. I was in Sixth Form at the time and a close friend had recently been raving about this comic his older brother had brought back from university. This friend also happened to sit on the Common Room committee, and one of his first actions was to get 2000AD Monthly added to the list of subscriptions - a welcome change from The Economist!!! And I even remember the very first issue I read (pictured). The list of writers and artists who have contributed to 2000AD over the years now reads like a Who's Who of the comic world, including the likes of Alan Moore, Bryan Talbot, Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison.

2000AD was brutal compared to any of the comics I had read before this. The comic is most noted for its Judge Dredd stories featuring the titular character, one of a team of tough, unforgiving lawmen in the huge Mega-City One, a city so big that it stretched up most of the East Coast of a post-apocalyptic USA and had a population of over 400 million. In these stories people died horribly violent deaths, criminals were vicious, reality TV programmes saw people dying live on TV, and being hugely obese became a 'sport'. Consider my mind totally blown!!!!

Much as I loved the Judge Dredd stories, it was one of his fellow Judges that had me captivated. Call me a sad loser geek but I fell in love with Judge Anderson. And who wouldn't? Anderson brought not only beauty to the stories, but also humour and sensitivity (referred to as personality defects by her fellow Judges) whereas the only emotion Joe Dredd semed to show was anger, as he obsessively enforced his beloved Law. Anderson also had the toughest villains to defeat - is there any villain more deadly then Death (or in this case Judge Death?).

In the last few years 2000AD have started reissuing many of their classic stories in mighty 300+ page volumes. Anderson: Psi Division is one of their more recent releases and I treated myself to it as an early Christmas present last year. These stories have aged very well, and although only printed in black and white, the quality of the graphics is outstanding. This is not always the case with these reprinted volumes, as in the early days of 2000AD the graphics were sometimes simplistic (by today's standards at least). Some reviewers have been a little critical of a number of these volumes, stating that the graphics are poor, and that these volumes will only appeal on a nostalgic level. I would beg to differ - yes, the illustrations are not what we would expect to see in a comic today, but the stories often more than make up for this. These stories have everything a comic-loving boy could ask for: exciting characters that have been given depth through many stories; loads of action; sarcastic humour; and lots and lots of violence!

My other two favourite regular features in 2000AD were Rogue Trooper and Strontium Dog. The first volume of Rogue Trooper stories in this series of reprint albums has only just been released and I do not yet own a copy so I cannot comment on the quality of the graphics, although I remember them to be pretty damn good at the time. Rogue Trooper is a genetically modified soldier, with blue skin and whose equipment has the personalities of his dead comrades embedded as bio-chips. Set on Nu-Earth, a constant war is being fought between the Northers and the Southers, using a vast array of deadly chemical and biological weaponds which have poisoned the planet for good. Due to his engineered state, Rogue is immue to pretty much all of these poisons - he really is the ultimate eilite soldier. 

The art work for the Strontium Dog series has not been as successful at meeting the test of time in my opinion. The graphics in these reissued volumes may disappoint young people today who have been bombarded with high quality graphic novels and web-comics in full colour. The stories themselves get better as the series progresses and the characters are developed further and story arcs are created. If you intend to buy any of these, and you have never read 2000AD before, then I would recommend you start with the Judge Anderson and Rogue Trooper volumes; die-hard fan boys may shout me down for not trying to 'sell' the Judge Dredd volumes but there are so many of these I wouldn't know where to start recommending. If you are a fan, please add a comment to this post and guide new readers in the right direction.

I may have stopped buying 2000AD Monthly after I left university and teaching took over my life, but those stories still have a place in my heart, and I am determined to try to build up a collection of these new volumes as they are issued, although looking on Amazon I already have a lot of catching up to do. Some of the stories and characters from 2000AD that others adore do not hold the same level of appeal for me (for example, Halo Jones and Ace Trucking) but if your local library stocks volumes of these then they may prove to be your thing. Go out and find one of these volumes - it may just kick off your very own love affair with the magic of 2000AD.

Tuesday 16 March 2010

*** Contest: WIN a copy of MeZolith by Haggarty & Brockbank

It really pains me to do this as this book is so stunning, but the kind people at Random House sent me this book to give away on my blog, so give it away I must. If you have not yet seen my review of this beautiful book then you can read it here. I will make it easy for you though. All you have to do is add a comment to this post including your name and either your Twitter username or your email address, and follow me on Twitter as well. See... told you it would be easy.

The first name drawn at random after the closing date will win a copy of this gorgeous book. Deadline for your emails is 8pm Monday 22nd March. Apologies to international readers but this contest is for UK entrants only (but please watch this space as in April I will go global with a contest).

Terms and conditions

Contest open to UK entrants only.
I will not be held responsible for items lost in the mail.
I hold the right to end a contest before its original deadline without any prior notice.
I hold the right to disqualify any entry as I see fit.
I will contact winning entrants for their postal address following the close of the competition. Winners have 48 hours to reply. Failure to do so in this time will result in another winner being randomly selected.