Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, with colours by Elizabeth Breitweiser, The Fade Out
– Act One (Image 2015)
– Act Two(Image 2015)
I’ve no sooner decided that superhero comics bore me than the universe, mediated through the generosity of my sons, sends me an apparently endless stream of comics in other genres: investigative journalism, space opera, fairytale epic, domestic comedy, and now Hollywood noir.
It’s 1948. Our narrator, Charlie Parrish, is a Hollywood writer. Traumatised by his experience in World War Two he can’t write a thing, but he keeps his job by secretly taking dictation from his friend Gil, who has been blacklisted by the House Unamerican Activities Committee and so can’t get any work in his own name.
A beautiful woman is murdered in the first couple of pages, and the crime scene is altered to make it look like suicide. Charlie sets out to investigate and uncovers as much corruption, secretiveness and deranged viciousness as Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade could ever have wished for. He also gets beaten up quite a bit and gets involved with the beautiful woman who has replaced the murder victim in the film they’re all makng. He and Gil have a difficult relationship, not helped by Gil’s alcohol intake and his tendency to want to speak truth to power without regard for the consequences. Some real characters appear: Clark Gable knows Charlie from his war days, and Dashiell (‘Sam’) Hammett gives advice on how to flush out a murderer.
The plot is still thickening at the end of Act Two. Trails have been laid that may lead to interesting places – for example, will we be given the details of Charlie’s war experiences? I can’t find any information about how many more Acts are to come. Act Three is due out next month, and then who knows?
Brubaker and Phillips have been a team for more than 16 years, and the work feels seamless. Elizabeth Breitweiser’s colouring deserves a mention for its wonderfully evocative moodiness. The shadowy details of Hollywood behind the scenes may be a little hard for my ageing eyes to make out when I’m reading at night, but it’s worth the effort. Here’s a page I’ve lifted from the Image website:
The books, each a compilation of four original comics, are beautifully done. There’s none of the generational lossiness or iffy registration that bedevils comics from a couple of decades back, and the four original covers reproduced up the back of each book are stunning.
There isn’t just one Australian story. Even as a child I had my doubts about grand unifying versions of what it is to be Australian. Even though my family were white and English-speaking, and enjoyed meat pies and Vegemite as much as anyone, we lived in coastal north Queensland, where Dorothea Mackellar’s ‘land of sweeping plains’ might as well have been on another planet. The much talked-about monoculture of Australia before the 1950s may have been a reality in Sydney, but my grandfather, a magistrate in Queensland in the 30s and 40s, learned Italian in order to deal with the people who appeared before him and my sugar-farmer father played poker with a Greek and a Korean, and placed bets with a Chinese SP bookie.
David Malouf hails from Brisbane, which we in Innisfail referred to as ‘Down South’ or even ‘The Big Smoke’, but the essays and occasional writings collected in A First Place provide eloquent solace to my inner tropical child. This is from ‘A First Place’, a lecture from 1984:
We have tended, when thinking as ‘Australians’, to turn away from difference, even to assume that difference does not exist, and fix our attention on what is common to us; to assume that some general quality of Australianness exists, a national identity that derives from our history in the place and from the place itself. But Australians have had different histories. The states have produces very different social forms, different political forms as well, and so far as landscape and climate are concerned, Australia is not one place
Following his own advice Malouf writes beautifully in that lecture and throughout the book about his home city of Brisbane, about Queensland architecture, both domestic and public, about his culturally diverse family (‘My Multicultural Life’, also written in 1984, and ‘As Happy as This’ written for a collection of family memoirs a decade later, are joys to read), about the Bicentenary, Anzac Day, the Republican movement. He is always urbane, humane, nuanced, always drawing on a deep and broad knowledge of Western art and literature.
In 1988 he wrote a piece on the Bicentenary for the Age, ‘Putting Ourselves on the Map’. Like many of us, he was uneasy at the fanfare and pomp, but he was able to get past bald political catch-cries, writing that
this celebration of a great event goes against the grain with me because it goes against the grain of our real experience as Australians. Anniversaries are not what this particular enterprise is about. The anniversaries of the real events that made us, the millions of small ones – axe blows, blows with the pick and crowbar, childbirths, first cries, the squeak of chalk across a blackboard – do not need celebrating, or are celebrated already, by repetition each day. This particular event [the arrival of the ‘First Fleet’] is too ambiguous – and its repetition in fancy dress is ridiculous. It is too blackened with sorrow for some of us … and with shame for the rest: too loaded with despair, courage, the slow triumph of surviving and creating, for its re-enactment to be any more than a tawdry farce.
The longest piece in the book at 110 pages is ‘A Spirit of Play’, which comprises Malouf’s 1998 Boyer Lectures, a masterly meditation on ‘The Making of Australian Consciousness’. In these essays Malouf brings a poet’s sensibility to a subject we’re used to hearing about from journalistsor politicians. He draws on deep knowledge of history, poetry, architecture, to tell a story that is at once his own and persuasively ours.
It’s interesting to think about who that ‘ours’ refers to: it shifts around, sometimes seeming to exclude, for example, Aboriginal people, or Communists, or committed homophobes, but these exclusions aren’t rigid. Roughly speaking, ‘we’ are people who participate in mainstream Australian culture. What Malouf has to say about an audience is relevant:
An audience comes together of its own volition, unlike a rally, for example, where there is always some element of compulsion, if only a moral one of commitment or duty. An audience simply appears, as the 700 000 or so people do who turn out each year for the gay Mardi Gras procession in Sydney. They have no reason for being there other than interest, curiosity, pleasure, and they are an audience, not simply a crowd; an audience that has been created and shaped by the society it draws from, and in which the faculty of watching, listening and judging has been to an extraordinary degree sharpened.
He has more to say about that particular audience, but I think it’s fair to say that his general notion of an audience relates in some way to the ‘us’ he talks about in these essays: ‘we’ are the people who of our own volition do our watching, listening and judging in this society, and also our creating, living and relating to one another. Both the people who wrapped themselves in the flag at Cronulla ten years ago (nearly a decade after these lectures were given) and the people attacked by them are part of ‘us’, though each might not be part of some accounts of who ‘we’ are. Malouf certainly doesn’t deny the existence of brutality and narrowness in our history: his account of the 1950s as on the one hand ‘comfortable, secure, cosy’ and on the other mean-spirited, defensive, embattled ‘against life itself’ is brilliant, and then followed up by his compassionate account of the series of blows that closed down the open-hearted confidence of the start of the century – which I will leave you to read. (It turns out the original lectures are still online at the ABC’s website. The description of the 50s is in the fifth lecture, ‘The Orphan in the Pacific‘.)
There’s a lot more. These essays were written over three decades for vastly different readers and audiences. They build on each other, occasionally almost contradict each other, rarely outright repeat each other. They don’t demand that the reader agree with them, but ask us to engage thoughtfully, and often to have another look at received ways of seeing the world. Taken together, they are a beautiful example of what Malouf calls ‘the real work of culture’:
This business of making accessible the richness of the world we are in, of bringing density to ordinary, day-to-day living in a place, is the real work of culture. It is a matter for the most part of enriching our consciousness – in both senses of that word: increasing our awareness of what exists around us, making it register on our senses in the most vivid way, but also of taking all that into our consciousness and of giving it a second life there so that we possess the world we inhabit imaginatively as well as in fact.
As a bookish child in north Queensland, I felt the absence of that work, perhaps not acutely but as a dragging background ache. Seeing cane-cutters on stage in The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll when I was nine was a revelation, though even then the North was a long way from the real, felt action of the play. David Malouf’s essays are a wonderful gift to that child, who is still here, hoping to have density brought to his life in that place.
I read A First Place in August last year. I think I’ve delayed blogging about it because I didn’t want to be finished with it. It’s been sitting on my desk, like a talisman. It’s been good to go back to it to write this. I will go back to it again.
It’s all very well reading stuff online, but for my money you can’t beat the feel of a dead-tree book in your hand. Likewise, I enjoy putting my verses up on the blog, but it’s not the same as having them in an actual book. So in December last year, for the third time I collected verses written during the previous 12 months and got a book together thanks to lulu.com, again with a cover by the Emerging Artist, this time one of her fabulous ceramics. It’s now available from Lulu and Amazon.
Apart from pure vanity, my main motive for this and previous self-publishing ventures is to make a small gift to give friends the end of the year. If you’re a friend who hasn’t got a copy, then it’s an oversight on my part. Tell me in the comments or by email and I’ll send you one.
I’ve written about earlier volumes of Fableshere, here and here. If I say that these five volumes, borrowed from a son, give us more of the same, that is not a negative comment. The story, which unfolded as a series of monthly comics, came to an end last July with No 150. These five collections bring us up to No 69.
For synopses you can go to Wikipedia. I just want to reflect here that though Bill Willingham may, as he says, have decided to work with fairy tale characters because they are out of copyright, that’s not as simple as it sounds. Lots of characters that are out of copyright have completely disappeared from the cultural memory: fairytale characters come with histories.
There’s wit in making snoopy little Goldilocks grow up to be an adventurous spy, for example. Likewise, Hansel makes sense as a fanatical witch-killer and Prince Charming as a feckless womaniser.
More broadly, the identity of the Adversary – the powerful character who aims to dominate or destroy the all the Fables (as fairy tale characters are called here) – as revealed in Book 6 plays beautifully with our inherited lore. Or when Sinbad the Sailor turns up in Book 7 as an emissary from fairytale Baghdad, we are well prepared for his vizier to turnout to be a bit on the wicked side, and we’re not surprised when the survival of the universe is threatened by an all-powerful d’jinn.
The overall arc of these five volumes is something you don’t expect from the ‘fractured fairytale’ genre: an epic battle is brewing between the forces of good and evil. Bigby Wolf has more in common with Achilles or Arjuna than with the Grimms’ Big Bad Wolf. And it’s not too much of a stretch to see Jack (of candlestick and beanstalk fame) as a wily Odysseus. Not that epics and fairy tales have to be kept separate. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the Iliad and the Odyssey are built from a whole storehouse of received folk stories, the early books of the Bible have a strong folk content (the J and E strands, rather than the P and D), and the Mahabharata (as Cheryl D mentioned in a comment on this blog recently) hastremendous popular appeal now, and almost certainly did from its beginnings.
The intimacy / domesticity of fairy tales is still there: several romances are brewing as surely as the war. Bigby Wolf and Snow White marry at last, and Bigby resolves some big issues with his father and siblings in Book 8. There’s a sweetly comic romance in Book 9 between a wooden soldier and his wooden woodcarver. They have heard about kissing:
‘Basically we open our mouths and touch them together.’
‘We can do that.’
‘How long do we stay like this?’
‘I’m not sure. At some point it’s supposed to feel good.’
‘Maybe I didn’t write down the instructions correctly.’
But sweet as this romance is, we don’t forget that its outcome has a strategic importance in the overall conflict.
In Book 10 this combination of the domestic fairy tale and the epic is most clear. The Good Prince is a single narrative arc that takes up most of the book. It beautifully melds the story of a prince who was turned into a frog with harrowing of hell / raising of dead armies / return of the king stories. Its conclusion is a great point to take a rest in one’s progress through the massive work.
Fables is often compared, with some justice, to Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. It’s not as serious as the Gaiman work: Gaiman’s work features the Endless, eternal beings who are his own reinvented pantheon. Fables is not about gods but non-human beings at the fairy level (goblins, shapeshifters, giants, d’jinns, sentient animals) and humans who deal with them (witches, wizards, the enchanted). Even in the episodes of carnage, there is a fairy lightness to it, the stakes are less than cosmic. It’s consistently funny and exciting and inventive, it challenges us to think about the meanings of fairy tales, and I’m looking forward to the next10 or so volumes, but it makes no claim to explore the meaning of life.
Our weekend was chockers with fabulous art. On Saturday we visited the Carriageworks for El-Anatsui exhibition with not only his breathtaking tapestries made from discarded wine bottle caps and wire, but also some older works: ceramics, wood carvings, drawings. Then into town for one part of the Destination Sydney exhibitions – Margaret Preston, Grace Cossington Smith and Cressida Campbell at the S H Erwin. Today we went in late morning to the MCA for the incredibly busy work of Grayson Perry, and then an excellent exhibition of work from Tiwi artists. And there were Lloyd Rees’s extraordinary landscape drawings from the 1930s at the Sydney Museum on the way home.
But the biggest thrill happened in the street. I’ve passed Jenny Holzer’s I Stay many times but never stopped to look at it. It consists of text rolling up a couple of slanting pillars outside an office block in the CBD. It turns out that the text is excerpts from a large number of Aboriginal source – historical documents, poems, essays, etc. Only a few words are visible at any one time and the sources aren’t identified (unless, as a plaque explains you go to Jenny Holzer’s website http://www.istaybyjennyholzer.com/). The big revelation today was that if you stand and read the text for a couple of minutes, not only do you absorb the content of the fragment that happens to pass along the column at that time (in our case it was some thing about the colour of water), but when you look away, the rest of the world looks shaky and insubstantial – the buildings around you, all the solid realities of post settlement Sydney – seem to waver like mirages. The word that comes to mind is unsettling.
I expect my readers are generally familiar with the notion of divine inspiration: God, or a god, breathes life into a mere human’s writing. Sometimes a writer even claims to literally take dictation from a spirit being. The great Indian epic the Mahabharata happened the other way around. It was written down by the elephant god Ganesh, taking four-handed dictation at speed from the more-or-less human Vyasadeva. Ganesh is traditionally shown with one broken tusk because when a nib of one of his pens broke Ganesh snapped off part of a tusk and dipped it in ink to keep up with Vyasa’s stream of words.
Since that mythic event there have been many translations of the Mahabharata, some of them into English. It’s roughly a hundred years since Upendrakishore Ray Chowdury published his Chheleder Mahabharat, a version for Bengali children. Only now has this pint-sized version found its way into English, thanks to the labours of children’s writer and blogger Swapna Dutta. It would be a challenging read for most children in my part of the world – no illustrations and a lot of unfamiliar concepts – but those who rise to the challenge will be well rewarded, as I was by Kingsley’s Heroes.
The book tells of a longlasting feud between two noble families, the Pandavas and the Kauravas, which culminates in an epic battle that leaves millions of corpses piled on the ground. Within that framework is an extraordinarily rich compendium of tales – of magic, nobility, craftiness, romance and treachery, of words which, once uttered, bind the speaker in unexpected ways. Some of them are familiar to me from my time editing a children’s magazine. Others are so archetypal that I feel I ought to know them (and am pleased that now I do!). For example, when the five Pandava brothers return home from an adventure where one of them has won the hand of a beautiful woman, the bridegroom-to-be calls out to their mother, ‘Come and see the beautiful thing I have found.’ From inside the house, their mother replies, ‘Make sure you share it with your brothers.’ In the world of the Mahabharata these words are binding, and the brothers must find a way for all five of them to marry her. (They do, with happy results.)
Familiar names inhabit the pages, notably Arjuna,the great warrior, and Krishna, here Arjuna’s charioteer. There are many others, like the women Kunti and Draupadi (the bride of all five Pandavas), who ought to be better known.
Of course, this version is no substitute for the thing itself. Among the incidents considered not suitable for children, for example is the conversation between Krishna and Arjuna when the latter has misgivings about going into battle and slaying an awful lot of people. This conversation is passed over in a sentence here:
Krishna’s words were long enough to fill up an entire book that came to be known as the Bhagavad-Gita which you should read for yourself when you are older.
The Bhagavad-Gita is 700 verses long, and according to Wikipedia ‘presents a synthesis of the Brahmanical concept of Dharma,theistic bhakti, the yogic ideals of moksha through jnana, bhakti, karma, and Raja Yoga … and Samkhya philosophy’. And there are other bits where our narrator tells us that someone explained the meaning of life but doesn’t burden us with the content. I imagine that both my relief at not having to read the philosophy right then in the middle of the action, and my curiosity about what Krishna said are exactly what Upendrakishore Ray Chowdury hoped to rouse in his young readers.
Given that the lengthy philosophising is omitted, is there anything for the reader besides superhero murderousness and charming folktales?
Well, yes. There’s a lot here to grab the imagination and engage the moral intelligence, not to mention stirring curiosity about the possible historical events that lie behind the tale. Ii imagine every reader will find something different here. For me, possibly the most moving thing was the way, even though at the surface level there seems to be a massive celebration of violence, there is also a tremendous sense that the warriors are trapped, that many of them are fighting against their will, obliged by codes of honour and obligations of loyalty to fight and kill close relatives, whom they love dearly. The famous World War One episode of the Christmas Truce, where soldiers played and sang together for a day before going back to killing each other, could have come from these pages.
Don’t take my word for it. I was given my copy by Hachette India, but you can buy one for about $20 here.
Each December we – that is, me and the Emerging Artist formerly known as the Art Student – compile a list of our favourite books and films of the year. We’ve been caught this year with minimal internet coverage (and maximal sun, sand, beach, bush and rain, especially rain) so we’re running a bit late.
Three movies made both our top five lists:
Testament of Youth(directed by James Kent), from Vera Brittain’s memoir, screenplay by Juliette Towhidi: A World War One film in the year when idealising Gallipoli was big in the headlines, it doesn’t focus on the battlefield but on the effects of the war on the combatants and their families and loved ones. It makes a powerful pacifist argument.
Meet the Patels(Geeta Pavel, Ravi Patel 2014): We saw this at the Sydney Film Festival. It’s unlikely to get a theatrical release, but it’s a very funny documentary about match-making among first generation Americans of Indian heritage. It’s really about intergenerational relationships. The EA says it’s a must-see for every parent.
He Named Me Malala (Davis Guggenheim 2015): Another documentary, this one could be seen as hagiographic, but Malala Yousafzai is a remarkable young woman. I loved the way she spoke with the absolutism of teenagehood from a position of influence to tell the president of Nigeria to do his job and ensure the safety of the girls abducted by Boko Haram.
The Emerging Artist’s other two:
Selma (Ava DuVernay 2015): A flawed movie, but it conveyed the experience of ordinary people taking part in Civil Rights marches. The leadership of the march across the bridge was particularly interesting: how to think strategically, resisting the push to be seen to take ‘decisive action’. The filmmakers weren’t given permission to use Martin Luther King Jr’s actual speeches, but the ones written for the film caught his style brilliantly.
The Dressmaker(Jocelyn Moorhouse 2015): The humour, the flamboyance, the over-the-topness of it. Kate Winslett was marvellous. So was Hugo Weaving. In fact, there were no weak performances.
My other two:
Ex Machina (Alex Garland 2015): The thing that stays in my mind is the image of the artificially intelligent creations – a fabulous effect where we see the cogs and wheels whirring away inside what is otherwise a human head. The story worked very well too.
Far from Men (David Oelhoffen 2014): Apart from enjoying the easy irony that there were only men in most of the film (should it have been called Far from Other Men?), I was transfixed by this slow, beautiful film of a pied noir (Algeria-born white Frenchman) escorting an Arab prisoner through the austerely photogenic Atlas Mountains.
The EA’s top five books:
The EA’s reading year was bookended by titles that brought home the harshness of the oppression of gay men and lesbians, even in times and places where one might think it was comparatively mild. Damon Galgut’s Arctic Summer deals with novelist E M Forster’s agonising life in the closet, and the part of Magda Szubanski’s memoir, Reckoning, that tells the story of her coming out is genuinely harrowing.
But those books are in addition to her actual top five. Here are those, with her comments:
Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: This is a bracing book that everyone needs to read. We all know about climate change in a general way, and we know that powerful vested interests fight attempts to respond effectively. Naomi Klein gives detail and challenges us not to look away.
Jean Michel Guenassia, The Incorrigible Optimists Club: A novel about Soviet bloc refugees in Paris at the time of the Algerian War of Independence, this includes a coming of age story.
Biff Ward, In My Mother’s Hands: Excellent memoir of a 50s childhood. Buff Ward’s father was prominent left wing historian Russel Ward, so the domestic story includes elements of red-baiting. But the real power of the story is in her mother’s intensifying irrationality and the family’s attempts to deal with it.
Russell Shorto, Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City: The birth of liberalism without the US-style individualism. This is not a travel book. It’s very accessible, thoroughly researched history that compelled at least one person to read big chunks aloud to her partner. The history of Europe looks different after reading this .
Vivien Johnson, Streets of Papunya: Vivien Johnson has been involved with the Western Desert artists for decades. An earlier book told the story of the great Papunya Tula artists. This book tells the story of Papunya itself, especially after many of those artists left. Art is still being made there, by a new generation, mostly women.
My top five books:
I read at least 12 books in 2015 that did what you always hope a book will do: delighted, excited or enlightened me, changed the way I felt and/or thought about the world. I whittled the list down to five by selecting only books that touched my life in explicit ways. Here they are i order of reading:
John Cornwell, The Dark Box (2014): A history of the rite of Confession in the Catholic Church. The confessional was a big part of my childhood. I’ve dined out on a story of going to confession with Brisbane’s Archbishop Duhig when I was about thirteen. He asked in a booming voice that I was sure could be heard by everyone in the cathedral outside, ‘Would these sins of impurity have been alone or with others?’ Cornwall’s book felt like a very personal unpicking of that moment and the whole cloth it was spun from.
Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric (2014). What can I say? I’m white. In laying out the way a word or phrase between friends or strangers can disrupt day-to-day life, so that the ugly history of racism makes itself painfully present, and linking those moments to the public humiliations of Serena Williams and the violent deaths of so many young African-American men, the book is a tremendously generous gift. It and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me share this generosity of spirit.
David Malouf, A First Place (2015): I haven’t blogged yet about this collection of David Malouf’s essays. It feels personal to me because David lectured me at university, but also because he is a Queenslander, and these essays explore what that means. Even though he is from what we in north Queensland used to call ‘Down South’, these essays fill a void I felt as a child – I was a big reader, but the world I read about in books only ever reflected the physical world I lived in as an exotic place.
Stan Grant, Talking to My Country (2016): I was privileged to read this ahead of publication. Stan Grant is a distinguished Australian TV journalist. This book, part memoir, part essay, gives a vivid account of growing up Aboriginal. It includes the most powerful account of a ‘mental breakdown’ I have ever read, not as a medicalised episode of ‘depression’, but as the result of generations of pain inflicted by colonisation refusing to stay at bay.
Jennifer Maiden, The Fox Petition (2015): I love this book in all sorts of ways. I love the way the image of the fox recurs – a literal fox, a fox as in Japanese folk lore, Whig politician Charles Fox. I love the chatty voice, and Jennifer Maiden’s trademark linebreaks after the first word of a sentence. I love the argumentativeness. I love the playful, almost silly, resuscitation of the distinguished dead to confront those who claim to be inspired by them. I love the way Jennifer Maiden makes poetry from the television news the way some poets do from flowers.
And now, on to 2016! I’m already about eight books behind in my blogging.
A brilliant Polish movie starring Bartosz Belienia as a young man released from juvenile detention who through a combination of desire and accident finds himself acting as parish priest in a village, and winning the respect of the parishioners. It turns out he's a Christ figure, though no resurrection in sight.